Hope 4

I see that our police culture often turns closed. Columnist David Brooks wrote that
“a self-supporting and insular police culture develops: In this culture no one understands police work except fellow officers; the training in the academy is useless; to do the job you've got to bend the rules and understand the law of the jungle; the world is divided into two sorts of people -- cops and a-holes.” (New York Times, 2014 Dec 8)
I think I understand what would cause that culture to develop: it’s a protective strategy in a really tough and dangerous job. It’s a culture in which there’s not much joy, peace, or love -- not a happy place for the officers to be in. I think I understand why the stresses and horrors they regularly deal with would cause them to “emotionally armor up” and develop, as Brooks describes,
“a cynical, dehumanizing and hard-edge sense of humor that was an attempt to insulate themselves from the pain of seeing a dead child or the extinguished life of a young girl they arrived too late to save.”
If we don’t find a different way of policing, it’s inevitable that some officers will act out their frustrations, stress and fear in the direction of whatever group it seems easiest to blame.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. Chris Magnus took over as chief of the Richmond, California police department in 2006. He changed the department from one that focused on "impact teams" of officers who roamed rough neighborhoods looking to make arrests to one that required all officers to adopt a "community policing" model, which emphasizes relationship building. Magnus, who is white, draws on and depends on broad community support. He seems committed to combatting racist tendencies. In fact, I learned about Magnus when I saw a picture of him, in uniform, standing on a street corner holding a sign that said “#BlackLivesMatter.”

Magnus’ community policing approach is credited with driving down crime in a notoriously tough city. The Richmond police department hasn’t lost an officer or killed a citizen since 2007. As one Richmond police officer said:
"We had generations of families raised to hate and fear the Richmond police, and a lot of that was the result of our style of policing in the past. It took us a long time to turn that around, and we're seeing the fruits of that now. There is a mutual respect now, and some mutual compassion."' (Contra Costa Times, 2014 Sep 6)
There are better ways, but the self-supporting insular culture that persists in so many of our police departments -- however understandable the development of that culture may be – will have a hard time changing on its own. These things take public pressure.

The compassionate thing, it seems to me, toward both our officers and the people they serve, is to be a part of that public pressure for a different approach to policing. Joining the public outcry is, for me, an act of open hope since I don’t know what the path ahead looks like.
I just know that whatever happens, it needs to emerge from relationship-building between police departments and communities.

A number of the people on the Millions March on Sat Dec 13 were expressing a more closed hope. There was anger and blame and judgment of police officers as inherently racist and oppressive. I understand that reaction, too -- though I don’t share it. And maybe you reacted against that judgment and blame by wanting to have no part of any demonstration in which some participants were like that. If so, I understand your reaction, too – though I don’t share it.

I believe our place is standing in solidarity with those who have felt the brunt of systems imposing power-over – and understanding why compassion for their oppressors might be difficult for them. I believe our place is standing on the side of love. Our place is standing for hope – an open hope grounded in embracing reality just as it is and flowing from compassion and understanding for all sides.

Walking a path of open hope surrounded by reactivity and blame on all sides is not an easy thing. It’s just the necessary thing. I know we can.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Hope."
Previous: Part 3
Beginning: Part 1 (No Hope?)


Our Holiday

Historians have no idea what time of year Yeshua (Jesus) was actually born. The early Christian church celebrated his birthday in April at first, and then in June for a while, before settling on a strategy of co-opting yule and winter solstice. The first December Christmas wasn't celebrated until around 380 CE. Then, for about the next 14 and a half centuries, Christmas was a reverent and austere occasion -- far from the celebratory and commercial bonanza it is today. In the US, prior to 1850, Christmas celebration was
"culturally and legally suppressed and thus, virtually non-existent. The Puritan community found no Scriptural justification for celebrating Christmas, and associated such celebrations with paganism and idolatry." (Wikipedia)
All that began to change around the middle of the 19th century, when a radical transformation of Christmas began.

Unitarians were at the forefront in most of the transforming. Christmas! It’s OUR holiday.

What do you mean?

Unitarians made this season what it is. Consider: what does Christmas mean?

It means the mass of Christ, the celebration of the birth of a Palestinian prophet named Yeshua, or Jesus.

But what exactly does that mean?

Well, one thing it means is that we put a tree indoors, and we decorate it.

Right! It was a practice in Germany, brought to the United States in the early 1800s by the Unitarian minister Reverend Charles Follen.

Christmas means dashing through the snow, one-horse open sleighs. It means bells that jingle, and it means laughing, all the way.

OK. That’s the song “Jingle Bells,” by the James Pierpont. James Pierpont was a Unitarian.

Christmas means lots of other music, too. Like "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a Unitarian.

“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”

By Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, a Unitarian minister.

"Watchman Tell Us of the Night"

By John Bowring, a Unitarian.

"Do You Hear What I Hear?"

By Noel Regney, a Unitarian.

“Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

By Johnny Marks.

Let me guess – a Unitarian.

Actually, no, he was Jewish. I’m not saying we wrote ALL the Christmas songs.

Besides the songs, Christmas means Old Ebenezeer Scrooge’s heart opens up to compassion and joy.

Indeed it does – at least, that’s what it has meant for much of the world ever since 1843. That’s the year when a Unitarian named Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. In Dickens' tale, Scrooge confronts his past, when as a young man, his need for money, security and status caused him to lose his fiancee. He is shown the present reality of joy in gatherings of families, whether they are poor like Bob Cratchit's or relatively well off like Scrooge's nephew Fred. Then he is brought to an awareness of his own impending death. Scrooge had pushed the fact that life is temporary out of his mind. In pushing away death, he had pushed away life. Dickens' novella received immediate popular and critical acclaim, and almost as immediately shifted the way that Victorians celebrated Christmas. Over the next years, Dickens received hundreds of letters from complete strangers "writing all manner of letters about their homes and hearths, and how the Carol is read aloud there, and kept on a little shelf by itself." A Christmas Carol was regarded as a new gospel. Critics noted that the book was, in their experience, unique in that it actually made readers behave better. A Christmas Carol remains the most widely read-aloud book in the English-speaking world. It is theatrically performed in hundreds of venues around the country every year. It has been made into numerous movie versions. Other popular Christmas tales such as It's a Wonderful Life and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are but re-workings of Charles Dickens' Unitarian gospel. “According to historian Ronald Hutton, the current state of observance of Christmas is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by A Christmas Carol." The Christmas gospel of generosity, gratitude, and the joy of family gathering is fundamentally Unitarian.

Christmas also means a focus on ending war and violence. “Peace on Earth, to all goodwill.” That’s in the Gospel of Luke. You’re not going to tell me Luke was a Unitarian, are you?

No, not Luke. But let me tell you about one of the songs we mentioned before: “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” In 1849, just six years after Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, a Unitarian minister, Edmund Hamilton Sears, wrote the words to "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear." With the war in Europe and the US war with Mexico weighing on his mind, Rev. Sears wrote a carol that urges us to hear the angels sing of peace on earth, to all goodwill. The Gospel of Luke tells of angels proclaiming Peace on Earth -- but for most of the history of Christendom, that has been taken as referring to a private, personal peace. Few imagined that peace on earth actually meant we should stop killing each other. Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, however, called us to task for not heeding the angels’ call to peace. "Beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong, and man at war with man hears not the love song which they bring," he decried. His lyrics raised objections from a number of Christian conservatives of the time. Many people said, contemptuously, that Sears’ hymn was just the sort of thing you would expect of a Unitarian. Yes, it is. If Christmas season today is a time when our hopes turn to ending war and truly bringing peace on earth, it is because a Unitarian minister wrote a song inviting us to imagine the day, "when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing."

This really is our holiday.

From the Christmas tree, to the jingling bells, to the Scrooge story, to the message of peace on earth, Unitarians made Christmas what it is today.


This Week's Prayer

Christmas: the anniversary that we, by convention, celebrate -- of the time when, according to legend, God became flesh and was simultaneously human and divine.

Like those shepherds in the field in the story of the first Nowell who looked up and saw a bright light in the east, our eyes, too, are cast to the east, looking for a star.

We look east, where there is fighting, unrest, and political manipulation in Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, the West Bank, Israel, Afghanistan, Somalia, and tragic violence in Pakistan and Nigeria.
We look also to Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island -- and Brooklyn -- wherever violence erupts between police officers and citizens.
We look to Lima, Peru, where the Climate Change conference did little, but might have paved the way for something more.
We look to Cuba, where a new period of relations with the US now begins.

Our eyes scan all around the horizon for signs of hope -- for the rising of some kind of star.

We pray that love can, indeed, somehow become flesh and dwell among us.

We perceive that the divinity of humankind is the humanity of God, that everyone who serves love is the child of God, and everyone who bears love is the parent of God.
We celebrate the discovery of such fact in the garment of legend for God is not greater than life, and life is not less than God.

In this season, in these times, then, let every cradle be visited by the three good monarchs: Faith, Hope, and Love. Then Christmas will be with us always, every birth the birth of God among humankind, every child a Christ child, every song a song of angels.


Hope 3

Embracing reality just as it is doesn’t mean we don’t work for change. Indeed, as we practice loving what is, we become more engaged with that reality in ways that can lead to our own and our world’s transformation. You might think that if I love what is, then I’ll be complacent. The opposite is true. Complacency is a symptom of disengagement, and love pulls us toward engagement.

Millions March NYC protesting police violence on Sat Dec 13
(Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
Embracing reality awakens compassion. Those areas where we don’t fully accept exactly what is -- either through clinging to something we see as possibly slipping away or through aversion to something we see possibly coming we don’t want -- are called attachments. Attachments are our retreats from reality, and embracing reality naturally entails a compassionate response.

To illustrate this, let me ask you to recall a time when you weren’t compassionate -- a time when you missed an opportunity to be kind and caring. Ask yourself, why did that happen? Bringing compassion and understanding to yourself, look at what was going on in you that at that moment blocked your compassion.

What I think you’ll find, if you examine that, is that some kind of attachment was at work: something you had you were afraid of losing, something you didn’t want you were afraid of getting. Maybe you simply thought you didn’t have time -- which is a way of saying you were attached to your pre-existing plan for how your time was about to be spent.

We never let go entirely of our attachments. At best, we learn to hold them more lightly. When we do that -- when we loosen-up, a bit, the vice-like grip we habitually have on our attachments -- we are more open to the inexorable yet unpredictable flow of change: things passing from us and new things arising. We more readily adapt to whatever circumstances bring. And we’re more ready to respond in compassion -- because we aren’t clinging so hard to any reason not to. When you love what is, you’re more ready to care for it -- while at the same time more flexible about what the outcome of your caring might look like.

If working for change means having a very specific, detailed picture of what you want, then that’s not loving what is – it’s rejecting what is in favor of this other thing that you want in place of reality. Working for change doesn’t have to be that kind of attachment to a certain outcome. Working for change might instead be an open engagement that isn’t sure exactly what the outcome will be but works creatively with the situation to uncover possibly-surprising ways that needs can be better met. That kind of transformative engagement is the manifestation of loving what is.

Let’s call it closed hope when it’s an attachment to a specific outcome, when there’s demand energy, when center-stage is occupied by upset, blame, and judgment, about reality as it is. Closed hope is a desire for change without accepting what is.

Call it open hope when it’s open-ended, reality-affirming, creatively transformative engagement for change that better meets needs without pre-commitments to any particular strategy for how that should happen. Open hope is engagement for change while at the same time letting go of attachment to results and fully embracing, loving, things just as they are. If you can imagine such engagement -- work and commitment yet without desires, motivated ultimately by the impulse not to make things different but to express your true self in the world, trusting that simply manifesting your authentic caring self will be transformative in unpredictable ways beyond your control -- then you have imagined open hope.

Walking the path of open hope for our society, open hope for justice, sometimes means walking with others whose hopes are more closed.

For example.

On Sat Dec 13, I was at the Millions March NYC in protest of police brutality – along with, the New York Times reported (CLICK HERE), about 25,000 others, including (the New York Times did not report), a couple dozen or so Unitarian Universalists, many of us in our yellow "Standing on the Side of Love" shirts. Myself and four others from Community Unitarian Church marched. I think I understand why some UUs might have wanted no part of it: the predominant mood was demand, blame, judgment, nonacceptance. For me, though, loving what is – this dear planet and all its beautiful people trying so hard in such diverse ways to bring flourishing to their lives – called me to care for their well-being in this way: to stand, without blaming, in solidarity with the oppressed, though they, in their oppression, do cast angry blame; to stand for understanding and accountability without having a demand for a specific strategy or outcome; to stand engaged and ready to engage with an open-ended process of healing, connection, and care; to stand for reconciliation in the midst of the injured who, for now, think only of retribution. I stand with that anger because it is a phase, it will ultimately transcend itself, but right now the force of its energy is needed.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "Hope"
Next: Part 4
Previous: Part 2
Beginning:Part 1 (No Hope?)


Hope 2

Why is hope so important? Is there something to it beyond wishful thinking, living in the future instead of the present, and being in denial about reality? Let's explore these questions.

Serenity Prayer canvas print by Michael Keck: CLICK HERE
Last post mentioned that colostomy patients who knew the procedure wasn't reversible fared better because they were better able to adapt to their reality and get on with their lives. You may be thinking: OK, that’s when you can’t do anything about it. But what about when you really can do something about your situation, but it’s hard, and you’re tempted to give up? Isn’t that where we need to invoke hope and say, “Don’t give up hope”?

You probably know the Serenity Prayer. Written by Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s, it has become especially popular in AA groups:
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
Shall we say, then, that hope is about that courage to change the things we can? That feels like it’s starting to get at why hope is so important.

The crucial part of the serenity prayer would seem to be the wisdom to tell the difference. So how would you rate yourself on your ability to tell the difference between the things you can change and those you can't?

Try this exercise: Get out your journal, or just grab a legal pad, and make a list of everything you can think of that you have neither fully accepted, nor are you actively, intentionally working to carry out a plan to change. List at least 10 things. If you get to 20, stop.

Now look over your list. Go down the 10-20 items, and mark each item with “A” or "C." "A" for "accept" -- meaning you can’t change this, so you’re going to work on accepting it. “C” for "change" -- meaning you think could change it, though it will perhaps take courage.

Do you suppose you have the wisdom to know the difference?

If you were to try this exercise, I think you would probably encounter some difficulty. You would probably begin to notice that the challenges in your lives don’t all fall exactly and neatly into one of these two categories: either needing the serenity to accept or needing the courage to change.

What if the thing that needs our courageous effort to change IS our own capacity to accept? Sometimes hope is about both changing and accepting at the same time.

For example: John Schneider, a trauma psychologist, works with people traumatized by sudden loss, or witnessing a catastrophe – people who saw the twin towers go down, for instance, and are deeply disturbed.
“Perhaps the most important dimension of witnessing [particular moments that jar and uproot],” writes Schneider, “is our ability to hold hope for another. . . . Sometimes people say, ‘I can’t imagine ever recovering from this’ or ‘Do you ever think it will be better?’ or ‘Can I make it?’ To say at such times that we do believe it can be better, though all evidence seems contrary at the moment, is an offer to ‘hold hope.’ Holding hope can be a spiritual covenant we enter with a person. . . . It may not be until later that people feel empowered enough to hold their own hope.”
In the meantime, we carry -- sometimes we embody by a non-anxious presence --
“the belief that within each person, no matter how powerful the truth, given the resources and time provided to deal with that truth, we have the strength and potential to handle it.”
Here we have a situation where the courage to change is the courage to change ourselves so that we can functionally adapt to the traumatic reality we’ve seen and cannot change. Courage to change and serenity to accept are not two different things but in fact the very same thing. The wisdom we need is not the wisdom to know the difference, but the wisdom to know there is no difference. Serenity to accept and courage to change come from the same place.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Let us consider the possibility, in all things, of being oriented toward BOTH acceptance and change at the same time: serene and equanimous acceptance of, and embrace of, reality exactly as it is, while at the same time, transformative engagement with that reality. Those subjects who were told their colostomy was reversible felt more dissatisfaction because people don’t adapt well to situations they think are short-lived. It’s our tendency, when we think a change-we-regard-as-positive is coming to grow impatient for it. But a focus on embracing reality just as it is can help us adapt well to what we’ve got, whether we do or don’t think it’s permanent.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "Hope."
Next: Part 3
Previous: Part 1 (No Hope?)


No Hope?

"Hope" isn't always a good thing. Sometimes "hope" urges wishful thinking when a dose of reality would be more helpful. Hope might consist of dreaming when awakening might be what's called for. Hope directs the mind to an imagined future when attention to the actual present might be more salutary. "Hoping" might be a euphemism for "in denial." Hope is about wanting things to be different; spiritual wisdom is about loving what is.

One study has found that the chronically ill may be happier if they give up hope.
'People who suffer with a chronic disability or illness may be happier if they give up hope that things will ever improve, suggests a small but intriguing study . . . Why? Because people don’t adapt well to situations they think are short lived, they hold out for something better, which can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction. “Hope has a dark side,” says Peter Ubel, MD, one of the study’s authors. “It can make people put off getting on with their lives; in essence, it can get in the way of happiness.” For the study, researchers from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Carnegie Mellon University, followed 45 patients with new colostomies, meaning each patient had his/her colon removed and had to use an external pouch to contain bowel contents. At the time of the procedure, some were told their colostomy was reversible—that they would undergo a second surgery to reconnect their bowels in several months. Other patients were told their colostomy was permanent and that they would never regain normal bowel function. . . . Over the next 6 months, the participants filled out a series of surveys designed to measure their psychological well-being. In the end, those who didn’t hold out any hope for getting their colostomies reversed were happier than those who clung to the hope that they would some day be back to “normal.” About the upbeat group, Ubel says, “We think they were happier because they got on with their lives. They realized the cards they were dealt, and recognized that they had no other choice but to play those cards.”' (Time, 2009 Nov 3 -- CLICK HERE. Slightly more detailed version at U of Michigan site: CLICK HERE.)
I’m into reality, not escaping into wishes. I’m into living in the present, not an imagined future. I’m into nonjudgmentalism, not judging things bad or hoping for a different state of affairs I would judge to be "better."

What commonly goes by the name “hope” – hope for a specific result – is nonacceptance. This kind of hope is no more than fear of the world as it is, or the world as we are afraid it may become. "I hope the bill passes," or "I hope I get the promotion" is not substantively different from "I'm afraid of the bill not passing," and "I'm afraid of not getting the promotion."

Debbie Hampton's blog asks: "What if it is the hoping that keeps us from finding peace and happiness?" She spent years
"recovering from a serious brain injury which was the result of a suicide attempt. Immediately after, my sons went to live in a different state with their father, and, without a significant other, I was left alone. Life was very bleak and painful, at first. Over the years that followed, I learned to reframe my thoughts and to see my situation differently."
By neither "dwelling on the negative thoughts," nor "hoping for something different," she writes, "I was able to drastically relieve the suffering and pain."
"Right smack dab in the middle of the muck and mire of life, even at its very worst, it is possible to find happiness and peace because these qualities are in your mind. They exist in your thoughts ABOUT what happens, not in the actual happenings. Happiness is not in hope. It is in your thoughts and actions." (Debbie Hampton, "The Dark Side of Hope" -- CLICK HERE.)
Psychotherapist Karen Krett has written a book, The Dark Side of Hope: A Psychological Investigation and Cultural Commentary. When an adult hopes for the impossible, points out Krett, genuinely useful steps toward getting much of what he or she wants may be ignored. (Krett's article-length reflection on the topic: CLICK HERE.)

Danielle LaPorte blogs, "give up hope." She suggests that we drop the word "hope" from our vocabulary. Instead of saying, for example, "I hope I'll get the job," she asks us to consider one of these alternatives:
“I really want to get the job.” (“Point taken,” says the Universe.)
“I’m praying to get that job.” (Prayer is an action too.)
“I have done all that I can do to get the job.” (Yes! Stand tall.)
“I will either get the job, or I won’t.” (Precisely. Now you can get on with your day.)
“I expect to end up with a job that I love.” (Excellent! Open-ended and affirmative!)
(Source: CLICK HERE)
Concludes the American writer Henry Miller (1891-1980):
“Hope is a bad thing. It means that you are not what you want to be. It means that part of you is dead, if not all of you. It means that you entertain illusions. It's a sort of spiritual clap, I should say.”
And yet.

Here we are in the season of advent (which started four Sundays before Christmas and continues through Christmas Eve). It's a time of expectant waiting and preparation. Traditionally each advent Sunday has a theme. The four themes are hope, peace, joy, and love. Does hope not belong on that list?

Does hope not also belong on that slightly different list in Corinthians: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three”? Peace, joy, love, faith, hope: these are the greatest blessings of life and the greatest virtues we could have. Aren’t they? What do you think?

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Hope"
Next: Part 2


This Week's Prayer

Dear World of abundance and grace,
This season of Advent
May we be free from greed, pride, and anger.
We see the darkness and we long for the light of love, and of justice.
May we shine it more brightly.
Our police use deadly force so often in part because the prevalence of guns creates a context in which many situations appear threatening even if they aren’t.
May we shine a brighter light.
Black males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts.
May we shine a brighter light.
Violence rends hearts and lives all over the world.
We grieve the death of Palestinian cabinet minister, Ziad Abu Ain, in a clash with Israeli troops during a rally on the West Bank.
An estimated 2.4 billion people worldwide live on less than $2 per day, even as the wealth of the wealthy grows.
May we shine a brighter light.
We look into the darkness of these winter nights and ponder how we may burn with a penetrating light of compassion and justice.
Our hearts are heavy with the revelations about the use by of torture by our CIA.
May we shine a brighter light.
Arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators continue in Hong Kong.
May we shine a brighter light.
Many are working to shine that light, and our hopes are with them.
Officials from 158 countries met in Vienna, Austria this week to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons.
In Lima, Peru, diplomats from 196 countries are gathered for talks on climate change, with the possibility of a historic agreement on combating global warming.
The Ebola fighters, named Time magazine’s person of the year, continue their courageous campaign against the disease.
We are shining a brighter light.
May it grow and shine ever farther.