The Future of Liberal Religion

People who want spiritual inspiration and instruction will find it. It’s getting easier and easier to find, in fact – and is available through more and more forms. That's a good thing. That trend, however, is apt to overlook the value, the significance and depth of meaning that comes from working together for a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world with the same people with whom you worship. It overlooks the roll of community self-governance, of tribal connection that takes in your whole family and develops connections of care among the members.

Congregational faith community continues, as it always has, to offer spiritual inspiration and guidance. It does so in a way that is very different from what you can get at Disney World, or the movies, or a mindfulness class, or a spiritual director – as insightful, energizing, and helpful as some of those are. Congregational faith community finds synergistic power in linking spiritual awareness and learning with self-governance, a vitalized identity, co-belongingness of family members, connections of friendship and care, and sharing together in the work of transforming our world. When people say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” I fear they are forgetting – or never knew, or never felt – that synergistic power. We're seeing more and more people who just don't see self-governance (things like going to committee meetings) as worth the hassle – who see the dark side of tribalism (distrust of The Other), more clearly than the enriching and empowering possibilities of communities of radical hospitality – who figure they can just as well do their social justice work through organizations that have no connection to their spirituality.

Nothing in principle guarantees that the "nones" – those whose religion is “none” -- won't keep expanding until they encompass just about everybody. I don’t know if congregational faith community will survive one hundred years from now.

Our country and our world might or might not be on the verge of a Great Turning away from individualism toward community orientation. Along with Rev. Clarke and Rev. Brammer, I do like to hope it is. If it is, that new awakening of communal-mindedness might or might not manifest in and through congregations.

In Europe, Catholic and Protestant church attendance has fallen far below US levels – and they have no Unitarian Universalism – just a scattered handful of small congregations of American expatriot UUs. Insofar as Europeans have a version of faith community, it is through spiritually imbued participation in civic organizations which do, overall, encourage communal-mindedness. If the US is headed that direction – if that turns out to be a feature of what the Great Turning ends up looking like – then congregational faith community, in which Unitarian Universalism is grounded, will pass from the Earth. We are, as you have no doubt noticed, already graying, and have been for some time.

There is, however, another possibility.

Survival of liberal religious congregations will mean that we change some ways we do church. Younger people have to see committee meetings and bylaws and budgets as worth it before they can eventually grow to see them as deeply enriching spiritual practices. And for them to see it as worth it means doing church in a way that’s more attractive for them.

Do you have grandchildren? (I don’t have any grandkids myself yet. I’d like to. I have two children in their 30s – I don’t know what the hold up is.) I invite you to skip a generation and think not about your kids, but about your grandkids – the actual ones you have or the imagined ones you might later have. What will they want in their spiritual life? What will draw them into congregational faith community?

I have no idea what kind of music my not-yet-born grandchildren will be into – but whatever it is, we can be reasonably confident that I will hate it. I won’t understand it. I won’t see how anybody could be spiritually moved by that crap. But if, in my dotage, those grandchildren have grown into young adults sitting next to me in worship as we listen to that music – their music – I won’t care. (I hope that I will be willing to work at learning to appreciate their music, but I might just not be able to.)

And who knows what other changes in our worship form or congregational way of doing things our grandchildren might prefer? We’ll have to give them the authority to decide. Suppose we started saying no one over 30 can be on our worship committee? And then we have to keep showing up, whatever god-awful travesties they come up with – because – and this is truly what spiritual growth is all about understanding – it’s not about you.

It’s not about you getting the sort of church service you want. It was at first. When you first visited a UU congregation, there needed to be something that really worked for you or you wouldn't have come back. But you did come back – and many of you have been coming back for a number of years. And now, maybe, you've grown, deepened, matured from the experiences you've had in your congregation. You’re ready to see that it doesn’t have to be about what you like anymore. It’s about serving others – with our time and our talent and our treasure – because young adults don’t typically have the disposable income by themselves to keep a church afloat.

Let me confess that contemplating the profoundly different church of the future is probably even scarier for me than it is for you. I've been to youth cons, and I've seen the way they do worship there. They have beautiful and moving services...that aren't minister-led. If that's the direction congregational worship needs to move in, then we ministers will have either a radically re-defined place or none at all. As a minister who loves the discipline and practice of weekly preaching -- and who enjoys a comfortable lifestyle doing what I love -- I admit that such a vision of the future evokes from me feelings of grief, loss, and fear. "Change," as they say, is spelled L-O-S-S. But I know that if it's not about you, it's certainly not about me either. I, too, have grown and matured from the experiences I've had in UU congregations, and I'm ready to let go of what I happen to like if that's not what moves, nourishes, and guides the generation after next.

By serving the generation after next – helping to keep congregational faith community going even when it becomes a very different place from the one we knew – we’ll help those grandkids have a place where they, too, can eventually learn that serving others is what it’s all about. And 100 years from now, liberal religious congregational faith community will be booming and thriving.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "One Hundred Years from Now"
Part 1: Spirituality Boom
Part 2: Only in Congregations


Only in Congregations

Everywhere we turn, we are liable to find people offering heart, meaning, connection – in a word, spirituality – from kinder, gentler doctors, to our movies, to our theme parks.

If you step inside a yoga class, you will get all stretched out, and, very probably, also get a dose of spiritual teaching. I started going to a yoga class on Thursday mornings, and last Thursday’s class began with the teacher mentioning the niyama of the week. She's been mentioning one niyama at the beginning of our sessions, and this week we were up to the fifth niyama, called ishvara pranidhana, which, she told us, means "surrender to a higher power." We proceeded to stretch and pose and occasionally grunt in what maybe actually was an especially divine way, and at the end of the hour, we lay still while she led us on a guided meditation. This is a yoga class! At the Y!

Mindfulness is suddenly on every one’s lips. I mentioned mindfulness based stress reduction, which is a specific application of the widespread general phenomenon. When I began meditating and going to meditation classes 14 years ago, if you’d told me that in a little more than a decade, a Time magazine cover story would be “The Mindful Revolution” and a sitting US Congressman would publish a book called A Mindful Nation all about the benefits of mindfulness meditation in schools, health care, prisons, and various social institutions – and that mindfulness meditation is indeed being practiced in some of all those places – I’d have thought you were crazy. Western psychology and Eastern religion merge in recommending this practice that reduces stress, relieves various ailments, increases productivity – and is a spiritual practice. The times have a-changed.

Along with this astounding trend of infusion of spiritual awareness in various places, is also a trend of plummeting church attendance and religious identification. One-fifth of the US public – and a third of adults under 30 – are now religiously unaffiliated. Well, who needs church when you can get spiritual teachings and inspiration with much higher production values at the movies or at Disney World? (We ministers do what we can, but our special effects budget is otherwise known as flowers and candles.)

One hundred years from now, people will continue to want spiritual growth and deepening. And they’ll get it a lot of ways that have nothing to do with traditional congregations. If they want guidance along their path of spiritual growth, maybe they’ll sign up for a class – in basically the way they sign up for a yoga class. A skillful minister who can offer a worship experience may find herself or himself joining the staff at a yoga studio, where “spiritual reflections with singing and music” becomes one of the studio’s many offerings -- once a week, in between the "Vipassana Meditation" class and the "Intermediate Hatha Yoga" class. (The irony is that it wasn’t that long ago that yoga classes were typically borrowing space in churches.)

Or perhaps ministers would become pastoral counselors or spiritual directors, and spend most of the day seeing clients one-on-one. Maybe they would offer group sessions once a week, and the group sessions might include singing a song or two and, say, a 20-minute talk by the counselor on a significant spiritual issue.

Maybe all these noncongregational ways of getting religion will continue to grow, and congregations will continue to whither. One hundred years from now, we might not have congregations. If we don’t have congregations, then we don’t have Unitarian Universalism. We might still have all the good ideas, the practices, and habits our congregations seek to cultivate – the US might grow out of its individualism and into a communitarian, “we,” ethic -- and that would be great -- but no one would think to call it Unitarian Universalism or feel a need to claim that identity.

There are five features of congregational life that none of these other vehicles for delivering inspiration or cultivating spiritual maturation have. Are these worth preserving? Some of them you might feel ambivalent about. Certainly, our culture has been growing increasingly ambivalent about them, and that’s why the religiously unaffiliated numbers have been growing as they have. I’m ambivalent myself about some of them, taken by themselves. But all combined, they indicate a way of life that I would be sorry to see go.

1. Self-governance. Involvement with committees; democratic participation in, and approval of, the budget process; worrying about policies, procedures, bylaws; creating and leading programs. While some find such activities dreadful, there need to be spiritual communities run by the seekers themselves. I understand -- as do most UUs today -- that the activities of self-governance form an inseparable and integral part of our path of growth and deepening.

2. Tribal identity. Here, too, some would be glad to see this gone. Indeed, we UUs ourselves are often frustrated with the level of tribalism in the religious scene today. Nevetheless, UUs today derive deep satisfactions from being members of the UU tribe, and that would be mostly lost without congregations. While some yoga students eventually come to have a sense of themselves as yogis, that's generally pretty thin soup as identities go. And people going for counseling generally derive even less sense of identity from the particular school or methodology their counselor was trained in. “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Client” is not likely to become a significant part of anyone's proudly proclaimed identity.

3. Family membership. Adults and their children share in congregational life. The concept of family involvement in a faith institution -- belonging together as a family rather than as separate individuals -- is an integral feature of congregational life.

4. Caring for each other. Call it shared pastoral ministry: the love and care that congregation members show to other members – building friendships in church, visiting each other for social occasions and when one of us is sick. That sort of thing isn’t always entirely absent from, say, a close-knit, long-time yoga class, or a group-counseling group, but it definitely recedes into comparative insignificance without congregations.

5. Social justice action as a faith community. As with self-governance, most UUs today understand that working with fellow congregants on justice projects is an essential part of our spiritual path.

These five features of congregational life all have unhealthy, insular, cult-ish forms -- which contributes to the turn-off that increasing numbers of people find the prospect of congregational membership to be. Yet these five, in healthy versions, are deeply enriching and, I would say, are essential parts of the good life -- and the "spiritual but not religious" trend misses out on them.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "One Hundred Years from Now"
Part 1: Spirituality Boom
Part 3: The Future of Liberal Religion


Spirituality Boom

The five Unitarian Universalist ministers that serve congregations in Westchester County all embarked on a pulpit rotation on Sun Mar 29.
  • I went from White Plains up to Mohegan Lake.
  • Mohegan Lake's minister, Rev. Karen Brammer, went down to Hastings-on-Hudson.
  • The Hastings minister, Rev. Peggy Clarke, went up to Croton-on-Hudson.
  • The Croton minister, Rev. Sarah Lenzi, is due to give birth to twins soon, so she was not in any church on that Sunday morning, but I understand that she nevertheless wrote a sermon which was read in the morning service in Mt. Kisco.
  • The Mt. Kisco minister, Rev. Michael Tino, filled my pulpit back in White Plains.
We decided that we would all address the same general topic: One hundred years from now, where is Unitarian Universalism?

Rev. Brammer spoke about a hoped-for shift from individualism toward community orientation. We’re going to need that in the new climate-changed world that’s coming – and Unitarian Universalists today are planting some promising seeds for the fruit we will need in that future time. Rev. Clarke has also been thinking about the big shift we’ll all need to make. She notices that every 500 years or so a revolution in human thought occurs. We create new ways of being. She senses that we are now on the verge of another Great Turning. And, along lines similar to Rev. Brammer, she sees that the modern turn to the “I” has run its course and it’s time for us to live into a “We” – and UUs can help our nation do this. I haven’t heard what direction Rev. Tino or Rev. Lenzi took.

I found myself reflecting on what exactly is it that our congregations do – and how will we adapt to changing needs.

One of those changes is that the stuff we used to get only in church – spiritual experience and spiritual understanding – is now being provided in various ways through lots of other channels. In particular, UU congregations have offered that experience and understanding without a lot of dogma. There are lots of ways today to get spirituality without dogma. Disney World, for example.

Some years ago, Rev. Christine Robinson – who serves our Congregation in Albuquerque, New Mexico – described a trip to Disney World with her then-teenage son, who prevailed upon her to try the "Journey to Mars” ride. She writes:
“With some anxiety, I strapped myself in to my little cockpit and watched instructions flash in my little window. And then, with much rattle and roar, we were off. It was only 2 gs, but it was impressive. My little window flashed instructions during take off and then switched to an outside view of Mars, which was getting rapidly bigger. There was the inevitable volley of asteroids to dodge, and then, it was time to turn around to land. In my little window, I saw the red planet edge off, and then the vast darkness, and then I saw Earth rise in space, my beautiful, precious home. My son was right. It was totally worth it....I’ve been to Mars, and I have looked back to see my home from space, and I was touched to the core of my being. I know that the Spirit blows where it will, but I hadn’t expected to have a religious experience at Disney World, and it was abundantly clear that it was no accident that I’d had it. They put that little iconic picture of Earth in my window on purpose, and they hoped that it would do just what it did.” (Robinson, "Imagineering Soul," The 2008 Berry Street Essay)
Disney offers spiritual experiences – more or less on purpose. That’s not so much what they did when they started Disneyland in 1955 or Disney World in 1971. We have seen a cultural shift toward all manner of sectors of society recognizing the importance of and seeking to provide something meaningful, something with heart...a spiritual experience. The times they have a-changed.

One manifestation of this shift is an increased willingness to simply notice that emotions matter. Medical schools, for instance, now notice this. They didn’t used to. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel went to Harvard medical school in the early 1970s. During his first two years, he writes,
“I was painfully and repeatedly reprimanded for a peculiar interest of mine: spending time learning about my patients’ life stories and inquiring about their feelings during patient interviews.”
Siegel’s supervisor told him,
“You know these questions you are asking about the patients’ feelings, about their lives? This is the work of social workers, not doctors. If you want to ask about those things, why don’t you just become a social worker? If you want to be a real doctor, you need to stick to the physical.”
“The medical system of that time was focused almost exclusively on data and disease.” Times have changed.
“Medical School has changed, and many programs today give at least some attention to notions such as empathy and stress reduction in student physicians and the importance of seeing the patient as a person.”
It used to be mostly pastors that were pastoral – nowadays much of the healthcare field is at least somewhat pastoral.

Many hospitals now offer pain management with something developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR is Zen – stripped of some of the formal religious trappings, but not of its spiritual content. As a Zen practitioner myself, I think this is great. It’s also fascinating to me how spiritual practices and messages have become so mainstream in supposedly secular culture.

The environmental movement has come to be a spiritual one. University of Florida professor Bron Taylor labels “green religion” the view “that environmentally friendly behavior is a religious obligation.” Beyond green religion is what he calls dark green religion. For dark green religion, it’s not merely that we have a religious obligation to protect ecosystems, reduce consumption, and in general be responsible stewards of our environment. Rather, in dark green spirituality, nature itself is sacred, has intrinsic value, and is due reverent care – not simply because it is God’s creation and God tells us to, but because nature tells us to, and nature has that authority based on being sacred in itself. Dark green spirituality shows up in movies like "Avatar" and – Disney again -- "Pocahantas," and "The Lion King." Taylor predicts that
“eventually [traditional] religions are likely to be supplanted by naturalistic forms of nature spirituality.”
* * *
This is Part 1 of 3 of "One Hundred Years from Now"
Part 2: Only in Congregations
Part 3: The Future of Liberal Religion


The Shadow's Gift

Brokenness comes in the form of terrible personal crisis. In the "Broken Open" series (starts HERE), I shared some stories about that. Brokenness also comes in the form of a generalized, ongoing sense of what’s wrong with me? If personal crisis might be called “acute brokenness,” there’s also “chronic brokenness” which is an abiding or recurrent feeling of not being whole.

We have our shadow side, the part of who we are that we don’t like. We have tried to push it away, bury it, ignore it, repress it, kill it – project it upon others. Wholeness comes from embracing our shadow.

The first thing to notice is that the gift and the shadow enable each other.

We could say that if your gift is diplomatic skill, the shadow is that you don’t speak your mind. Or if your gift is that you’re open and speak your mind, blurting, even if nonjudgmentally, the shadow is that you are sometimes inappropriate or give offense. If your gift is the wisdom of experience, the shadow may be an absence of youthful enthusiasm. Or if youthful enthusiasm is the gift, then there’s a lack of long-experienced wisdom.

There are many positive qualities a human being can have, but no single person can have all of them because some of them contradict. Whatever your gift to the world is, that gift is made possible by not having certain other gifts.

Lately such books as Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking and Marti Olsen Laney’s, The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World have described the gifts of introversion. Extroversion is also a gift. No single person can be both introvert and extrovert. Certainly, each can learn to sometimes step into the mode of the other, but it isn’t what comes naturally. Introverts can, as LoraKim occasionally reminds me, choose to speak up, contribute -- chat. And extroverts can, as I occasionally remind LoraKim, remember that not everything has to be processed out loud.

Second example: Some people are more likely to trust information that is in the present, tangible, and concrete: They distrust hunches, and prefer to look for details and facts. For them, the meaning is in the data. Other people trust inference and are less dependent upon the senses. For them, the meaning is in the underlying theory and principles which are manifested in the data. It’s a gift to be oriented toward the big picture, the principles and theory at work – and the shadow that comes with that gift is a tendency to be less connected to the concrete reality on the ground. It’s also a gift to be attentive to facts and details – and the shadow is sometimes missing the forest for the trees.

Third example: Some people have a natural preference for approaching decision-making from a more detached standpoint, measuring the decision by what seems reasonable, logical, causal, consistent, and matching a given set of rules. Others prefer to approach decision-making by associating or empathizing with the situation, looking at it 'from the inside,' oriented toward finding the greatest harmony, consensus and fit among the people involved. Each of those preferences is a gift -- and each comes with the shadow tendency to overlook the need for the opposite approach.

Final example: Some people like to get decisions made and to have matters settled. Others are more comfortable keeping decisions open, staying flexible. Each tendency has advantages and each tendency has the shadow that it lacks the advantage of the other.

Sometimes we just need to remind ourselves: It’s OK to be who you are. You don’t have to beat yourself up because you have the shadow that comes with your gift. There are advantages to being tall and advantages to being short. You can’t have both. Yet sometimes we catch ourselves, in essence, wishing that we were both tall and short. If you didn’t have the shadow, you wouldn’t have the gift that comes with it, so relax. It’s OK to be the unique person that you are.

If you could really become the person that your inner critic seems to want you to become, we would lose so much. We would lose the gifts of who you are. Please remember that. Because when you beat up on yourself, you’re beating up on a friend of mine, and I kinda wish you wouldn’t do that.

When your inner critic starts in on you, talk back. Say, “OK, I appreciate that you’re trying to protect me, Inner critic. You want me to be competent and respected and liked. Thank you for your concern. And I realize that you are visiting with me today because some new challenge has arisen, or an old challenge has reasserted itself. And we didn’t want this particular challenge right now, so we’re wishing we had somehow headed it off. OK, let’s just be with that and look at that. If we had headed it off – if we had done something different or been a different kind of person – what would have been the cost? The full cost?”

Then you and that inner critic can have a reasonable conversation.

Suppose, for example, you forgot your anniversary, and now you’re in trouble. OK, so what would it have taken to have remembered and what would be the cost? Maybe it’s fairly simple – you can tell the calendar on your computer or smartphone to give you reminders both a day in advance and the morning of. In any case, it’s worth looking at why you forgot. The resources of your attention were somewhere else. You were focused on that. And focus is a gift – its shadow is that you’re not paying attention to other things.

If you weren’t so focused on that other thing, what would be the cost? Be honest with yourself. Given who you are, would that cost be worth it? Maybe so, maybe not.

Or suppose, for example, you find yourself in trouble for the opposite reason -- you weren’t focused on something your inner critic thinks you should have been focused on. You were paying attention to home, family, kids -- and at work you were tending to relationships, process, and clearing out your email inbox, but weren’t focused on just that one project which is now overdue. Well, OK. Look honestly: what would have been the cost of that focus? What would have gotten neglected if you had paid more attention to that project? What would have been the cost of the extra stress, of lost sleep, of exhausting yourself, of not taking care of yourself?

Once you’re honest about those costs, then you can decide whether they’re worth it – and if they aren’t, then what?

There’s always a reason for what you did and didn’t do – and the reason is NOT, “because you’re a stupidhead.”

You have gifts. You have shadows. And I hope that you see that the shadow isn’t some unnecessary mistake, some brokenness of your nature that could be fixed. The shadow is the absolutely necessary condition of your gift. The brokenness comes from trying to deny the shadow, from trying to be both tall and short. Wholeness becomes possible when we embrace our shadow and become the unique person that we are.


Pain's Surprising Lesson

The recovery community has a number wise and insightful sayings, including this one:
"Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional"
You might run into this saying as a quote attributed to Buddha because it has a certain Buddhist feel to it. The idea is that our aversion to the pain causes more suffering than the actual pain does. When we embrace all of life, even the hard parts, suffering doesn't consume us. When we accept reality, we don't suffer from the mismatch with what we think it should be.

3. Yehuda's Story

Rabbi Yehudah Fine was in a head-on collision. He writes:
“I vividly remember lying in the local emergency room before being helicoptered to a big medical center. I wasn’t a pretty picture. Firemen had pried me out of the car with the Jaws of Life. Blood covered my face, teeth, and lips, the result of the impact with the air bag that saved my life. A torn pants leg revealed a smeared mixture of dirt and blood oozing out of a deep gash in my knee. The force of the collision had rammed my femur out of its socket. My pelvis was shattered into nine pieces. I was broken in half. I had not yet received any painkillers and was suffering mind-bending pain. I prayed to pass out,... Before I was flown to the medical center, the emergency room doctor told me that they could not transport me until they repositioned my femur bone. I gritted my teeth and said, ‘Doc, isn’t the pain going to kill me? What if it doesn’t go right back in?’

He simply said, ‘For your survival, I have to get it back in right now.’ Without warning, the doctor jumped on my gurney, grabbed my leg, and shoved it toward what was left of my pelvis. The pain slammed into me so hard that I screamed in horror. The femur didn’t go back in.

Between crying and moaning, I whimpered, ‘Doc, I thought you’d give me painkillers before doing something like that.’

The doctor looked at me in astonishment. ‘You haven’t been given any pain medication?’ They quickly shot me up with Valium and Demerol and repeated the procedure. This time my leg went back in with a loud pop.

At that moment, although I was angry at the doctor’s insensitivity, I was also grateful for his fearless skill in taking the first step toward putting my back together. I took his hand and said, ‘I want you to know how grateful I am for your skill and courage. But damn it don’t ever do that to another patient.”

Right there, in that emergency room, I decided that I would give thanks to every person who attended my broken body. I was going to honor every act of kindness with words from my heart.... In the ensuing weeks I was totally helpless and in excruciating pain.... I often heard the voice of despair. It would whisper that the pain was too much, that I couldn’t and wouldn’t go on. And so I made up my mind to listen to other whispers.... The secret was not to fight the pain but to embrace it. Once I did that I started finding my strength.... The Talmud points out that, just as we bless the good, so too should we bless the bad. I always found that a profound concept.

But it is only now that I really understand how important it is to surrender to all of life’s blessings – the ‘good’ and the ‘bad.’... From the beginning I tried to accept that where I was, was exactly where I was meant to be. This freed my mind up to pursue my healing. It opened new doors to the spiritual realms, new doors to contemplation and meditation. There is a deep connection between brokenness and Spirit.... I may have been dealt a broken body and heart, but I also can tell you I have had more love and compassion poured over me, through me, and around me than I ever knew existed....

Sadly, we live in a world where we are so afraid of suffering’s teachings that we organize our lives around anesthetizing the messages of our anxiety and pain.... When you are caught up in one of those chain-saw massacre cycles of life, you come face-to-face with some important questions: What really matters to me in life? What precisely do I need to learn, change, and transform within myself? From whom or what will I take my direction and motivation?...

My daily practice now is to continually clean the chambers of my heart – to give and receive love, to stay present to myself and to others, to no longer flee, or worry, or procrastinate.... When crisis exploded in my life, the best in me was born. I found out what I was really capable of. I discovered who I really am.”
That’s Yehuda’s story. He took to heart pain's surprising lesson.

What Yehuda's and Glen's and Judi's stories – and so many others -- show us is how, as James Baldwin said,
“We are capable of bearing a great burden once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”
* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Broken Open"
Click for other parts:
Part 1: Seeing the Blessing in a Crisis
Part 2: The Miracle of Becoming
Part 3: The Wisdom of No Control


This Week's Prayer

Source of love, justice, truth, hope, and beauty, aspiration and inspiration for all people everywhere,

We would be whole.

Let us not hide from unpleasant reality, for we would be whole. Pain and sorrow, hatred and prejudice, violence and war, the brokenness of relationships personal, national, and global: these are with us.

Today we notice particularly Hungary, Greece, India, Israel, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sierra Leone, and here in the US. Darkness and the winds of hopelessness threaten the flickering candle of truth and justice.

Let also the shining light not be hidden from us, for we would be whole.

The light of service and life shone in the rescue of Baby Lilly in Utah, found after fourteen hours in a wrecked automobile in the river, alive in spite of the death of her mother;

The light of courage and justice shone in the daring of Rima Karaki, a TV presenter in Lebanon, in ending an interview with Islamist Sheikh, Hani Sibai, after he spoke to her disrespectfully and demeaningly;

The light of justice and peace shone in the condemnation by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights of the murders of albino citizens in Malawi, Tanzania;

The light of hope for both our planet and for refugees shone in Oxfam’s work to develop a green toilet which uses urine to generate electricity, so it can be used in refugee camps to provide both sanitation and light.

The light of hospitality and human kindness shone in Brazil’s act of opening its doors to nearly 2,000 refugees of the war in Syria.

The light of righteous wrath shone in the swift and definitive actions of the President of the University of Oklahoma, David Boren, in response to ugly fraternity racism.

May our own lights shine among these lights as lights of hope and love, peace and justice.


Engaging Jennifer

My claims: Every being has inherent worth and dignity. Not every being has equal claim to our resources of care.

The principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person does not mean that I am obligated to expend as much of my time and resources of care on my neighbors as on my family. (I do, in fact, take seriously our fourth source’s call “to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves,” but this doesn’t mean I generally spend as much time with them as I do with my family.)

Likewise, the worth and dignity of every being does not require equal distribution of my resources of care to each individual being. Dustmites have inherent worth and dignity, but I am not obligated to expend as much of my resources of care protecting individual dustmites as on pigs, cows, dogs, cats, chimps, dolphins, and blue and gold macaws.

In her post, “A Way Forward for Animal Advocates Who Would Campaign for a New UU Principle” (2014 Oct 28 - CLICK HERE), Jennifer Greene expresses doubts about Principle the inherent worth and dignity of every being.

“As Wrong”

Part of Jennifer's position presents in terms of a dispute about “as wrong.”
“Do I believe it's as wrong to kill an ant, as a human? No, I believe it's far more wrong to kill a human than an ant.”
And she mentions, by way of contrast, Norm Phelps, who, “maintains that it's as wrong to kill an insect as a human.”

But disagreements about what is “as wrong” as what shed no light on the issue. “As wrong” is unnecessary – it doesn’t help the case for the principle of worth/dignity of every being. And “as wrong” is hopelessly ambiguous. When someone says "A is as wrong as B," they might mean
"The punishment for A should be the same as the punishment for B."
Or they might mean,
"A and B call for similar voicings of denunciation -- in the same way that we denounce stealing a candy bar as firmly as we denounce stealing a car -- though of course the punishments should differ, and the resources of law enforcement to prevent them should differ."
Or they might mean,
"It is true that A is wrong, and it is just as much true that B is wrong -- in the way that "$1 is money" is just as much true as "$10 is money.' Though $10 is certainly not equal to $1, the truth of the two statements is equal."
In the end, this "as wrong" talk should be regarded as merely a rhetorical flourish. We can affirm that all beings have worth and dignity without needing to advance any claims about equality of wrongness.


Jennifer helpfully mentions Mylan Engel’s distinction between “equal” and “mere” (or “nonzero”) considerability. “Equal considerability,” (EC) defended by Peter Singer and Tom Regan, says “we owe humans and sentient nonhumans exactly the same degree of moral consideration.” “Mere considerability” says “animals deserve some moral consideration, although not as much consideration as that owed to humans.” Mylan Engel, Jennifer, and I all agree that, as Jennifer puts it,
“it's not necessary to hold EC, in order to make an argument from consistency for the wrongness of even the most entrenched form of animal exploitation (i.e., the use of animals for food).”
While “inherent worth and dignity of every being” does not imply EC, notions of equality have sometimes entered the conversation. Jennifer references Mark Causey’s “Inherent Worth” (2014 Feb 20 -- CLICK HERE). Here’s Mark’s relevant paragraph:
“One of the most common objections I hear when presenting or talking about the First Principle Project is the objection that replacing the word ‘person’ with the word ‘being’ now means that we are all the same. ‘Does that mean that a tapeworm or a cockroach has exactly the same inherent value as a human being?!’ What I believe has happened here is that the objector has subconsciously inserted the word ‘equal’ into the formulation of the revised principle. What we are saying is that we are ‘called to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all beings.’ What the objector is hearing is that we are ‘called to affirm and promote the equal inherent worth and dignity of all beings.’ If every being has equal inherent worth, does that mean I can no longer swat a mosquito? But the First Principle project is not proposing to insert the word ‘equal’ into the principle. It is quite natural for us to hear the word ‘equal’ here because it is implied (although not explicitly stated) in the current wording of the principle. What we hear in the current first principle is that all persons, regardless of race, sex, ability, identification, etc., have equal worth and dignity. We are so used to fighting for the principle of equality amongst humans, as we should, that we automatically transfer this notion to the proposed changed wording including all beings.”
It’s true that the progress of morality among humans has been tied up with conceptions of “equality.” The language that emerged in Europe’s feudal period asserted that the landed classes were “betters” and “superiors.” Dismantling the lingering assumptions of that time were helped by insisting, “we’re all equal.” The work of ending discrimination continues to have a great need to invoke “equal protection of the law.” Whatever equality has meant – as a value and an ideal for human-human relations and for human institutions -- it has never meant that we expected anyone to devote the resources of their care just the same to everyone. We have always understood that people will be more devoted to their friends and family than to others. Equality has never meant the complete obliteration of loyalty.

So if people are, as Mark suggests, “subconsciously insert[ing] the word ‘equal’ into the formulation of the revised principle,” the problem isn’t that they are assuming the same kind of equality among animals that the current first principle now indicates among humans. Rather, the problem is that people may be – bizarrely -- inserting into the formulation of the revised principle a much stronger notion of equality than any kind of equality we affirm among humans.

Jennifer then says,
“But not everyone shares Mark's view. To others, ‘inherent worth and dignity of every being’ does imply equality.”
If there are, indeed, “others” who think this way, then let us endeavor to disabuse of them of their obvious mistake. I have already indicated the basic strategy: Almost certainly these “others” do not imagine that the inherent worth and dignity of every person requires equal energy of care to every person. So they cannot reasonably imagine that total equality of energy of care suddenly appears when we expand the circle of some care from “every person” to “every being.”

Speaking of Expanding the Circle…

Jennifer cites Rev. Karen Brammer’s post (2014 Oct 11 -- CLICK HERE). Karen says:
"I have difficulty increasing the reach of the first principle to non-human individuals when we have so much more intentional human bridge-building to do."
When we expand the circle of our care – expand the circle of those to whom we extend some care – it never damages those who were already in the circle. I don’t spend as much of my resources of care on my neighbors as on my family, but I nevertheless care about my neighbor. Doing so doesn’t harm my care of my family – in fact, I am better able to be present and loving to my family when I’m a generally kind person to my neighbors. Caring about, and building bridges of connection to people of a different human culture don’t harm my own culture, but strengthen it. In similar manner, caring about animals doesn’t detract from caring about people. Just the opposite. Whenever we expand the circle of care, the total “regime of care” is strengthened.

LoraKim Joyner’s post (2014 Dec 4 -- CLICK HERE) explained in some detail how helping nonhuman animals helps humans. Empathy and concern for nonhumans expands our capacity for empathy and concern for humans too. Karen’s concern for human bridge-building would rationally lead her toward, rather than away from, care for nonhuman animals.

The Prescriptive/Descriptive Thing

I made some of the above points to Jennifer in comments on Facebook. She said,
It is certainly a fact that we spend our time and resources of care more on certain individuals than on others. But when it comes to humans, we don't accept that as an argument against the idea of our "equal worth." "Equal worth" and "equality" are usually understood to be prescriptive, as opposed to descriptive. We say that humans are equal under the law—and the current first principle is widely understood to be a declaration of this egalitarian view. So I am worried that you are citing the descriptive fact of unequal allocation of time and resources of care (i.e., how things are), as if to disprove that which is prescriptive—i.e., how we think things should be, or the legal protections we agree should be applied to kin and strangers alike.
I replied by asking how she navigates the prescriptive/descriptive thing when it comes to humans -- while at the same time spending more resources of care on her own family. Whatever it is that is prescriptive about our notions of equality of all humans, it does not interfere with our sense that it is perfectly right and just to devote more of one's resources of care on one's own family than on one's neighbors. Jennifer replied,
"Well, I think we try to do that by building fairness and equality into our laws (in recognition of our instincts for things like preferential treatment and revenge)."
At issue here is, what difference does affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every being really make? What does it ask us to do differently? The answer is: we don't know. And it's just fine that we don't know. In the mid-1980s, when UUs adopted our principles, including the first one, we didn't know where affirming the inherent worth and dignity would take us -- but it was worthwhile to make that affirmation and see.

It's important that we start with description. The human rights community has broad consensus that the thing to say is the descriptive assertion, "people have rights" -- not "people should have rights." We assert a description of the moral landscape as the first move. Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, affirmed that all are created equal, endowed with inalienable rights. That was a moral description. Thirteen years later came the Constitution, where we sketched one of the many possible ways we might have understood ourselves as accommodating the moral reality. The Declaration inspired the Constitution, but didn't dictate any of it.

And that's the function of a descriptive moral principle -- to inspire. Out of that inspiration we may eventually come to agreement on some prescriptions. If, as Jennifer suggests, our present first principle leads us to try to build fairness and equality into our laws, that is just one of many directions we might have gone to accommodate the reality that all persons have inherent worth and dignity. That moral truth itself stipulates nothing about fairness or equality. (That's the 2nd principle -- and there's a reason these are two different principles rather than one.)

The new, revised first principle would tell us to simply notice. In and of itself, all it prescribes is: notice that all beings have worth and dignity. "All beings have inherent worth and dignity," is a moral truth, not a moral rule. The question will arise (as we hope it will), OK, what do I do about this truth once I've noticed it? The fact calls for some response, but in itself dictates no particular response. I think it will probably tend to encourage a greater conscientiousness and mindfulness in all our relations -- but different people will go different ways with it. When a community of people commits to observe (notice) a moral reality, as time goes by, particular action ideas begin to get popular support. Animal cruelty laws might be strengthened -- and slowly expanded to more species. Or more efforts to preserve habitats may emerge. Consumer choices might gradually shift -- not because the revised first principle will tell people to shift them, but as a natural (and naturally highly variable) result of noticing -- having in mind the moral truth that all beings have worth and dignity. Some people might merely say a little prayer for the dustmites before turning on the air purifier that will kill many of them -- even that is at least a start. Some kind of start is better than none.

However we respond, collectively recognizing the truth that all beings have inherent worth and dignity helps shift us toward life, connection, and greater joy in all we do -- whatever we do.

* * *
This post has been cross-posted at the "Worth and Dignity of Every Being" blog, where additional comments have also been posted. CLICK HERE.

The Wisdom of No Control

The illusion of control is powerful. It effects us in specific incidents -- like throwing the dice a little softer if we need a low number and a little harder if we need a high number (studies confirm that we do this!)

Stage 1: Confident Fixer
The illusion of control also permeates our basic assumptions and understandings of life.

As long as things keep going more-or-less our way, we'll never have cause to doubt that we're doing the right thing and are captains of our own fate. The illusion of control sets us up for a lot of pain when reality inevitably breaks through.

2. Glen's Story

Glen and Connie lost their college-age son, Eric, in a tragic accident. Glen, a highly-successful professional, writes:
“My delusions of control were destroyed on the day Eric died. My family fell apart. None of us knew we had been living life on the surface of a bubble until it popped. [Our daughter] Katie, who had been a talented and happy sophomore in high school, found it impossible to go back to life-as-usual....Connie, who had always been active in school, church, and community, stayed close to home.

Stage 2: Trouble
My greatest agony was in having no ability to ‘fix’ the despair of my family....Before Eric’s death I had suffered relatively little of life’s losses. I had thought I was in control of my life; now I knew I most certainly was not.

I looked around at others now – those who were living the way we had before – and I knew that they too, in their own time, in their own way, would have to learn what we were learning. We tried to learn it from the books. They helped. But we learned that the lessons of grief, like music or medicine or art or parenting or marriage must be lived to be fully understood. And so began our journey through the ‘awful grace of God.’…

Stage 3: Clinging to Past Strategies
Eric’s death pitched us headlong off our daily plane of existence into the darkness to be wrecked upon the rocks. For weeks and months, we roiled and thrashed in pain, submerged in agony, not sensing the light or knowing in what direction to turn....This place of hopelessness and fear is real, not a cute little allegory. Some people never leave that place and are broken on the rocks. Some people stop fighting and slip into the depths.

We came to understand that, although we do not have control, we do have choice....We can choose darkness, fear, addiction, and despair. We can choose light, hope, meaning, and joy....My daily mantra is, ‘Surrender and relax into the mystery.’

Stage 4: Dark night of the Fixer
Before Eric’s death my concept of reality had been that I was responsible for everything that happened, past, present, and future. But afterwards, I recognized that this could not be true. Even though I had dedicated my entire life to securing my family’s well-being, I had been unable to do so. And so, I dedicated myself now to having faith in life, no matter what happened....

Stage 5...maybe
Six months after Eric’s death, after twenty-three years with the company and following long discussions with my family, I quit my job. [About a year later] I accepted a vice president’s position with a small nonprofit fifteen miles from my home. It is a meaningful job, and I have a real passion for the company’s mission. It is so delightful to look forward to Monday morning after so many years of dreading the arrival of a new week of work....

Eric is always near. We see him in nature: birds, butterflies, rainbows, and sunsets. But mostly we feel him.

We are, each of us, Spiritual Warriors. We are awake, and nothing can break our circle. Nothing will ever be the same again.”
That’s Glen’s story. Through horrific loss, he learned the wisdom of no control and found peace.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Broken Open"
Click for other parts:
Part 1: Seeing the Blessing in a Crisis
Part 2: The Miracle of Becoming
Part 4: Pain's Surprising Lesson


The Miracle of Becoming

There’s a saying – another suggestive hint, which is all that words can be:
“For knowledge, add. For wisdom, subtract.”
The growing up process was all about gaining knowledge – learning how to get along in this world, how to negotiate the physical and social terrain so that we’d get our needs met and be safe. The arc of our becoming was measured by the progress of our knowledge, and we thus arrived at adulthood with a lot of knowledge, which is to say, a lot of strategies.

Our shining light, however, gets covered over by all those strategies -- until the strategies fail, and fail so utterly that our heart is torn open. When that happens, the arc of becoming then requires shucking off some of those strategies, forgetting some of that hard-earned knowledge, opening up to what’s present without quite such a need to subject everything to one or another of our preset strategies. If we can do that, if we can subtract the carefully learned categories of knowledge upon which our previous life had depended, we arrive finally at wisdom.

Let me just tell you some stories – three stories (one today and two more in subsequent posts). These are excerpts and abstracts of stories you can read at greater length and detail in Elizabeth Lesser’s book, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow.

1. Judi's Story

Richard and Judi’s second child, Marion, was born brain damaged and with life-threatening epilepsy. Shortly afterward, Judi awoke to a numbness in her leg and overall exhaustion. It would turn out to be MS. Judi
“went through periods when she raged against the world, when it seemed as if terror, like an evil guest, had moved in and taken over her home and family.”
After a number of years, Judi looked back and spoke of
“the miracle of who each one of us became by not shrinking back from the challenges.”
She wrote:
“We still process stray pieces of shrapnel that work their way to the surface from time to time....Our trials have taught us lessons that have made the rest of our lives all the more precious. The first lesson is as old as the hills: ‘This, too, shall pass.’ Everything passes and changes and turns into something you would never have imagined, if you will only let it. I have learned how suffering only increases when I demand of life that ‘this should not be happening to me.’

That is the second lesson – not to dwell on whether or not something should be happening to me. In the process of grappling with the fact that I had a debilitating illness for the rest of my life – and that my daughter would struggle with her situation for her whole life too – I realized that my only hope was to give up the life that had been, in order to make room for the life that is. I call it my ‘choiceless choice.’ Making that choice, over and over again – to accept what is, and to release what was – has become the major focusing agent for my spiritual work.

My spiritual practice deepened because my life and my child’s life depended on it. When I say ‘spiritual’ I don’t mean a practice that is in any way separate from the rest of my life. I mean an emotional, intellectual, and physical process that is ruthlessly real and adventurous and full of death-defying risks. I mean a process that is patient, surrendered, and openly embracing of what is before me every day when I wake up in the morning to my changing body, and when I help my daughter deal with hers....

And so I went deeper... until my illness naturally became my teacher. As I learned to hold my disease in the light of truth and heightened awareness, I experienced a new outpouring of self-love and the love of God....

I surrendered my MS and Marion’s condition and all of my losses and fear and blame and guilt to the flames of what is. And in the ashes of what had been, I began to dig up my soul....I began to notice how so much of what we do each day is really a way of avoiding the deep and quiet voice of the soul....Today I value every nuance of despair and every trill of joy, as I was never able to before.

I still lose my way and take day trips down the side streets of anxiety over money, personal conflicts, my children, or my health, but mostly I am content with the unfolding skein of my life threads.

I have already met some of the worst fears I could conjure up and am a kinder, humbler, more patient, and I hope more loving woman as a result....In fact, it is the acceptance of death that has finally allowed me to choose life.”
That’s Judi’s story. It shows the miracle of who she became by not shrinking back, by not retreating protectively, by breaking open.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Broken Open."
Click for other parts:
Part 1: Seeing the Blessing in a Crisis
Part 3: The Wisdom of No Control
Part 4: Pain's Surprising Lesson


Seeing the Blessing in a Crisis

About half-way through President Obama’s speech in Selma on Sat Mar 7 (see below), he quoted James Baldwin.
“We are capable of bearing a great burden once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”
Our theme for March is Brokenness. And while I’m going to talk today about personal and individual crises, and how they bring us to arrive where reality is, it bears remembering on this 50th anniversary of the Selma marches that brokenness is also relevant on the national scale, and that our national crisis 50 years ago cracked us open so that more light could get in. As a nation, we still have more breaking open to do.

As individuals, we do too. It takes a crisis to break through the shell of habits and assumptions that we live within. Not that you’d ever want a personal crisis – in fact it can’t be a genuine personal crisis unless you really, really don’t want it. And there’s no guarantee that personal crisis will break you open. People respond differently when hit by a stroke, a terrible accident, a divorce, loss of a job, death of a spouse or of a child.

In the face of such full-scale and personal catastrophe, some people “lose their spirit, and never fully recover.”

Others become “more bitter, more reactive, more cynical....They protect themselves fiercely from any kind of change, until they are living a half life, safe yet stunted.” Still others, however, work through the grief, the pain, the loss, and come at last to discover “a clearer sense of purpose and a new passion in life.” They “turn their misfortune into insight,” and “their grief into joy.”

All of us have been cracked in ways that, at the time, we didn’t want. And none of us has broken as much as we’re going to. Illness, pain, separation, loss and death come in time for us all. We’ve all been broken, at least a little, and we were for a time lost. Some of us might be feeling lost today because of a recent loss. Or possibly it wasn’t recent, and lostness has become an enduring reality of your life. Some people stay lost, and my heart goes out to them.

Others build a hard cast around their brokenness, a cast to protect the fracture so it can heal, but then they never take the cast off. They are bitter, reactive, and cynical because that protects them from more hurt. They are safe but brittle, guarded but closed. They are no longer lost, but they avoid being lost in the world by keeping their world small. My heart goes out to them, too.

Then there are the ones who come through and understand in a new way that...

That what? What do they understand?

If words could tell you what they came to understand, then they wouldn’t have had to break -- and break open -- to understand it. Words can only be suggestive hints. What these people understand is that that love is the only law. That every moment aches with beauty. That no one is or could be alien to them. They feel as if wakened from a dream – a dream of being separate somehow. They saw the blessing in their crisis. My heart goes out to them, too – but because it is pulled out by the attractive force of their joy in being.

They see that every second of just being alive is holding “the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.” They move toward a continuous gratitude for all things, every gesture whispers “thank you,” and every individual thing becomes, itself, nothing but gratitude. Like I said: Words can only be suggestive hints.

Thomas Merton wrote:
“There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun....They are not ‘they’ but my own self. There are no strangers! If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed....I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”
That peculiar gift is in all of you. It’s there, I know it, I catch glimpses of it sometimes when I’m with you. It’s there. You don’t have to do anything to produce it. You only have to uncover it. But we don’t know how to uncover it, can’t know how, until we break.

* * *
This is Part 1 of 4 of "Broken Open"
Click for other parts:
Part 2: The Miracle of Becoming
Part 3: The Wisdom of No Control
Part 4: Pain's Surprising Lesson


This Week's Prayer

Dear Faith, in our imaginations personified,

Your body is the commitment we make with the fullness of our beings to whatever rescues us from the ego’s definition of success. That commitment is Faith.

Your heart shows us how to open our hearts to the unknown, responding to uncertainty with embrace rather than fear. Heart opening is Faith.

You, Faith, are all the ways we make meaning of life and experience, and we invite your presence in our lives. Be with us, and make of us instruments of understanding and compassion.

There is much that weighs on our hearts today.

This week Islamic State militants "bulldozed"northern Iraq's Nimrud archaeological site. Thousands have fled the Iraqi city of Tikrit as various regional forces seek to push the militants out. Make of us instruments of understanding and compassion.

Since last summer, our immigration and customs enforcement began rapidly expanding detention of asylum-seeking women with children. These are mothers who have been determined to be fleeing credible fears of persecution. Despite a recent court order, thousands continue to be detained without clean drinking water or suitable food or adequate medical care for the sick kids or their mothers. Make of us instruments of understanding and compassion

The Alabama Supreme Court, defying a federal court, ordered probate judges in the state to stop issuing licenses for same-sex marriages. Make of us instruments of understanding and compassion.

As we approached the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, the Justice Department’s investigation of Ferguson, Missouri’s police department found significant and appalling racial bias in both the police force and the court system. Make of us instruments of understanding and compassion.

Be with us, Faith, that we may dedicate ourselves to the practices that liberate us from thrall to success, and that open our hearts to embrace the challenge to love our way through every moment.


Give It Away! Spiritual Practice of Generosity, 4

Giving is a crucial part of your spiritual life, a necessary component of your spiritual growth, and nurturing spirituality and fostering compassion are the mission of Community Unitarian Church. It is our business – it is our mission -- collectively to encourage compassion in each other. It's really good for us to do this.
"Research from the University of British Columbia and Harvard Business School shows that spending money on someone else — as little as $5 a day — can significantly boost your happiness. Students who practiced random acts of kindness were significantly happier than those who were not given this task. In another study, college students were given money and directed to either spend it on themselves or spend it pro-socially (on activities meant to benefit other people). Participants who spent it pro-socially were happier at the end of the day than those who spent it on themselves." (Mark Ewert, The Generosity Path, 2)
Part of your giving goes to charities. Charitable giving is an important spiritual practice. For this part, I particularly want to encourage looking at website called givewell.org. They’ve put thousands of hours into researching which charities are most effective, dollar for dollar, and are underfunded. Right now, three of their top-rated charities include the Against Malaria Foundation, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, and GiveDirectly.
  • For five dollars per mosquito net, we can go a long way to preventing malaria.
  • Schistosomiasis comes from water-born parasites, and it is inexpensive to treat – so even a small donation makes a huge difference in a number of lives.
  • GiveDirectly distributes cash to very poor individuals in Kenya and Uganda. Directly transferring money to poor individuals allows them to purchase that which they believe will help them most. Strong evidence indicates that cash transfers lead recipients to spend more on their basic needs, may allow recipients to make investments with high returns, and results in no large increases in spending on items like alcohol or tobacco.
Those are some good charities to receive a portion of the percentage that you set aside for giving away. Here are some other websites worth a look:

Giving What We Can http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/
80,000 Hours http://80000hours.org/
The Life You Can Save http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/
Effective Animal Activism http://www.effectiveanimalactivism.org/

Peter Singer mentions these websites in his TED talk where he makes the point that helping others is a requirement of an ethical life. Singer addresses the questions: How much of a difference can I make? Am I expected to abandon my career? Isn't charity bureaucratic and ineffective anyway? Isn't it a burden to give up so much?

Give to Your Congregation

Another part of your giving goes to support your congregation and its programs. In springtime many of our congregations are conducting their annual stewardship drive. It's a time for thinking about the meaning and significance your congregation has for you. As you consider what your pledge will be, here, too, please think about percent first, then calculate what dollar amount that comes to. This will probably mean your pledge amount will not be a nice round number. But you’ll know it’s a nice round percent.

For your congregation's thriving, and for your thriving as a part of it, I suggest thinking in the range of three to five percent of adjusted gross income.

Pledging is a part of the meaning of membership, a part of what makes membership meaningful, and part of each member’s spiritual practice and development. Through the practice of generosity, we are connected, made whole, better able to be the people we want to be.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "The Spiritual Practice of Generosity"
Click for other parts:
Part 1: Money Makes Mean?
Part 2: Mo Money Blues
Part 3: One Glove and Ten Percent


One Glove and Ten Percent: Spiritual Practice of Generosity, 3

"You can't think and hit at the same time.
- Yogi Berra

For hitting, as for many action, we must rely on habits, so the formation of the habits we'll need is crucial. For that matter, even when there is time for reflection, the way we think is governed by the feelings and values formed as habit.

Consider the story I’ve heard of a woman getting off a subway train. As she readies for climbing the steps into the cold outside air, she reaches into the pockets of her coat for her gloves. She finds only one glove. The other must have fallen out of her pocket. She turns around and looks back into the subway car, and she can see the seat where she had been sitting, and, sure enough, there’s her other glove on the seat. But now the doors are closing. She won’t have time to get back in and retrieve her glove. The glove she has, she throws into the subway onto the seat next to its mate – just as the doors close.

I love that story. One glove isn’t going to do her much good, but somebody else can have the complete pair. That’s the reflex of a person who has cultivated generosity as a deep habit of being, a habit of the heart. It’s the reasonable thing to do, but if you rely on reason, the train will be long gone before you’ve worked it out. Random acts of kindness and senseless beauty flourish as the fruits of disciplined habit-formation that is not at all random or senseless.
"You know she must have lived a long life of generosity, a life of wild and creative generosity of spirit, to be able to think so quickly, to act so urgently and healthily, to know precisely in that moment what would bless the world right then and there. It happened in an instant, but that was planned giving through and through. Something in her past or everything in her past, prepared her for her gesture -- habits of living and giving practiced and refined her whole life long." (Terry Sweetser)
Think in Percents

As a piece of the happy discipline of generous giving, the piece that has to do with giving away our money, it will help to think in terms of percents. This gift comes from you. It is you, so place it in the context of your overall income. Are you giving away twenty percent? Ten percent? Five percent? Decide the percent first – what percent are you going to give away? Maybe this year it can be a higher percent than last year. Then do the math and figure out what dollar amount that comes to. Don’t start by thinking about a dollar amount. Start by thinking about a percent.

I know, questions arise. Percent of gross income or of net income, or what? I recommend using AGI – adjusted gross income – the line at the bottom of the first page of a 1040 form – where certain vital expenses are subtracted, but itemized or standard deductions are not. Adjusted Gross Income is the benchmark used by researchers into giving rates.

Naturally, you'll want to spend a bit more on ice cream than is shown here.
And what percent do you choose to give? The traditional percentage is 10 – that's the standard ten percent "tithe." The Torah, the central part of the Hebrew Bible, also known as the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), set forth law requiring that a tenth of all produce, flocks, and cattle be given to support the Levites, the priestly class in ancient Israel. The Torah also emphasized assistance to foreigners, orphans and widows, those in need, in addition to the tithe of support for the priestly class. The Christian Testament mentions no specific rules about tithing. Jesus is simply clear that we are obligated to be cheerfully generous to those in need.

The tithing rules in the Torah were based on the religious and social system of ancient Israel and on an agricultural economy. The Torah is not authoritative for us. Even it were, it does not address modern-day questions about what percentage we should give, how much to the church and how much to other charities, or whether to base it on gross income, net income, or wealth. Still, I do find there’s something psychologically significant about 10 percent – just move the decimal over one place, and that’s what you give away. If you’re just starting out with generosity practice, giving away 10 percent is a good start. Those who have been at it longer, or are better established in life can think about higher percentages.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "The Spiritual Practice of Generosity"
Click for other parts:
Part 1: Money Makes Mean?
Part 2: Mo Money Blues
Part 4: Give It Away!


Mo Money Blues: Spiritual Practice of Generosity, 2

Timothy Judge (Notre Dame), Beth Livingston (Cornell), and Charlice Hurst (U of W. Ontario) published a study, "Do Nice Guys -- and Gals -- Really Finish Last?" (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2012 Feb).
“Subjects were asked to assess whether they had a forgiving nature or found fault with others, whether they were trusting, cold, considerate, or cooperative. Then they were given and agreeableness score. Men with the lowest agreeableness earned $42,113 in a given year; those with the highest agreeableness earned $31,259." (Lisa Miller, "The Money-Empathy Gap," New York Magazine, 2012 Jul)
In another study ("The Psychological Consequences of Money," Science, 2006 Nov), researcher Kathleen Vohs merely planted the idea of money in subjects' minds. As the subjects filled out questionnaires, some of them were in a room with Monopoly money present (left over from a prior monopoly game), and some were not.
"Vohs got her result only after the ­subject believed the session was over. Heading for the door, he would bump into a person whose arms were piled ­precariously high with books and office supplies. That person (who worked for Vohs) would drop 27 tiny yellow pencils, like those you get at a mini-golf course. Every subject in the study bent down to pick up the mess. But the money-primed subjects picked up 15 percent fewer pencils than the control group." (Miller)
That’s just from the thought of money planted by having Monopoly money nearby.
Vohs stressed that money-priming did not make her subjects malicious — just uninterested....'I don’t think they mean any harm, but picking up pencils just isn’t their problem.' Over and over, Vohs has found that money can make people anti-social. She primes subjects by seating them near a screen-saver showing currency floating like fish in a tank or asking them to descramble sentences, some of which include words like bill, check, or cash. Then she tests their sensitivity to other people. In her Science article, Vohs showed that money-primed subjects gave less time to a colleague in need of assistance and less money to a hypothetical charity. When asked to pull up a chair so a stranger might join a meeting, money-primed subjects placed the chair at a greater distance from themselves than those in a control group. When asked how they’d prefer to spend their leisure time, money-primed people chose a personal cooking lesson over a ­catered group dinner. Given a choice ­between working collaboratively or alone, they opted to go solo.” (Miller)
There does seem to be a plus side. Thinking about money makes people more oriented to efficiency and productivity – like Bob, the advantaged monopoly player. Money-focus encourages thoughts of self-sufficiency: less willing to help, but also less interested in being helped.

Here's Kathleen Vohs' lecture, "Money Makes People Less Socially Focused":

Research so far hazards no guess as to where the tipping point is after which personality transformation kicks in – and that point is surely highly variable from individual to individual. There is a basic human tendency to protect what we have, and the more we have, the stronger the tendency to put our energy into the having. It requires intentionality to avoid being sucked into that pattern.

Give It Away

A practice of generosity counter-acts that self orientation. Warm-heartedness also reduces blood pressure, anxiety and stress and improves health. You’ve got what you’ve got. Now give it away. Make it into something that connects you to others, that connects you to the world’s suffering. Otherwise, it will be a force of disconnection, tending to makes us less social, less caring. Give it away as a regular practice – weekly if possible.

I never met – and I’d be willing to bet you haven't either – a generous person who was bitter or a bitter person who was generous. That bears remembering. Generosity and bitterness are incompatible.

It’s not entirely clear whether generosity causes reduction in bitterness, or reduction in bitterness causes generosity – just as it isn’t always clear whether wealth causes disagreeableness or disagreeableness facilitates wealth acquisition. Either way, they go together.

Generosity – also known as hospitality, kindnesss, largesse, benevolence, bounteousness, magnanimity, openhandedness, warmheartedness, compassion – life as overflow – enriches our lives. When we live from an awareness of abundance rather than in the grip of the delusion of scarcity, generosity becomes possible.

And generosity grows through practice. To develop in an area requires disciplined commitment. The skilled athletes are not the ones who exercise when they happen to be in the mood for it. The skilled poets or musicians do not just write poetry or rehearse when they feel like it. They show up for daily practice, whether they feel like it or not. Generosity develops in us through a disciplined commitment to develop it as a way of being. “You can’t think and hit at the same time,” said Yogi Berra – meaning that we have to show up for the discipline of training our habit muscles, so that the habit muscles can be our guide when, as in most of what we do in the days of our lives, there isn’t the time or the inclination to think them through very much.

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This is part 2 of 4 of "The Spiritual Practice of Generosity"
Click for other parts:
Part 1: Money Makes Mean?
Part 3: One Glove and Ten Percent,
Part 4: Give It Away!


Money Makes Mean?: Spiritual Practice of Generosity, 1


If you are unusually self-aware, you might have noticed a very slight feeling of tightening or closing at just the mention of the word. Or maybe, if you're that self-aware, you might have transcended the reactivity that's so common. Research suggests that simply having the idea of money planted in mind has a tendency sometimes to reduce inclinations toward generosity. So I’m taking a risk by talking about money. I’m hoping that knowing about human psychology around money will allow us to decide to override the usual reactivity.

The average income in the world is less than $10,000 a year. Perhaps your household is a little above the world average. Our very wealth itself can make us less generous, if we let it – if we don’t intentionally counter-act the effects of wealth through the practice of generosity.

In one study, experimenters enlisted undergraduates to play monopoly, two players at a time, but with different rules. One randomly selected player started the game with $2,000 of monopoly money, got $200 for passing Go each time, and threw two dice for every move – which, you may recall, is the normal way monopoly is played. Let’s call this player Bob. The other player, let’s call him Bill, started with $1,000, got $100 for passing Go each time, and threw one die for every move.
“The students play for 15 minutes under the watchful eye of two video cameras, while down the hall researchers huddle around a computer screen, later recording the subjects’ every facial twitch and hand gesture.”
What happens?

Initially Bob
"reacted to the inequality between him and his opponent with a series of smirks, an acknowledgment, perhaps of the inherent awkwardness of the situation. 'Hey,' his expression seemed to say, 'This is weird and unfair, but whatever.' Soon, though, as he whizzes around the board, purchasing properties and collecting rent, whatever discomfort he feels seems to dissipate....He balloons in size, spreading his limbs toward the far ends of the table. He smacks his playing piece as makes the circuit – smack, smack, smack – ending his turns with a board-shuddering bang!...As the game nears its finish, [Bob] moves his [piece] faster....He’s all efficiency. He refuses to meet [Bill’s] gaze. His expression is stone cold as he takes the loser’s cash."
Another study
“showed through quizzes, online games, questionnaires, in-lab manipulations, and field studies that living high on the socioeconomic ladder can, colloquially speaking, dehumanize people. It can make them less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate than other people.”
In one experiment, wealthier people were more likely to take candy from a bowl of sweets designated for children. If there is such a thing as entitlement culture, it is more often (not always, of course, but more often) the wealthy who feel most entitled. As psychologist Paul Piff concludes,
“While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything, the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, [jerks]....People higher up on the socioeconomic ladder are about three times more likely to cheat than people on the lower rungs.”
The extent to which people with money behave as if the world revolves around them was further illustrated in another study. Paul Piff and this research team
“spent three months hanging out at...a gritty, busy corner with a four-way stop....[They] would stake out the intersection at rush hour, crouching behind a bank of shrubs… and catalog the cars that came by, giving each vehicle a grade from one to five. (Five would be a new-model Mercedes, say, and one would be an old battered Honda....) Then the researchers would observe drivers’ behavior. A third of people who drove grade-five cars, Piff found, rolled into the intersection without first coming to a compete stop....‘Upper-class drivers were the most likely to cut off other vehicles even when controlling for time of day, driver’s perceived sex, and amount of traffic.’"
A similar experiment tested
"drivers’ regard for pedestrians....A researcher would enter a zebra crossing as a car approached it. The results were more staggering....Fully half the grade-five cars cruised right into the crosswalk. ‘It’s like they didn’t even see them,' [said Piff]."

Paul Piff's TED Talk, "Does Money Make You Mean?"

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This is part 1 of 4 of "The Spiritual Practice of Generosity"
Click for other parts:
Part 2: Mo Money Blues,
Part 3: One Glove and Ten Percent,
Part 4: Give It Away!

See also:
Paul Krugman, "Privilege, Pathology and Power," New York Times, 2016 Jan 1.
Maia Szalavitz, "Wealthy Selfies: How Being Rich Increases Narcissism," Time, 2013 Aug 20.