Transcendence in Unitarian Universalism

What is "transcendence" in Unitarian Universalism? Through what developments does it come to us, and how is it still alive for us?

In Christian theology, God is both immanent (manifested and present in the material world) and transcendent (outside of and independent of the material world). These theologians, in their way, were wrestling with something real in human experience. Every situation we encounter is immanent (the objective and matter-of-fact descriptions of just what is there, filtering out our tendency to judge and evaluate) and transcendent (full of hidden possibilities for what it may become; manifesting and exemplifying the one-ness or integral whole of all; a window into wonder and mystery).

In Unitarian history, the Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century was a reaction against the dry intellectual abstractions of early Unitarian preaching. (This intellectualism was itself a reaction against the hyperemotionalism of the “First Great Awakening” [1730-1743] and, especially, the “Second Great Awakening,” [late 1700s to mid-1800s] – periods when large and highly emotive religious revival gatherings swept the colonies/young nation.) The transcendentalists, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson, himself a Unitarian minister until leaving the ministry in 1832, sought a more heartfelt and less intellectualized religious expression. Emerson’s 1838 Harvard Divinity School Address shocked his audience with radical claims that: moral intuition was more reliable than religious doctrine; all humans have a divine nature; belief in the historical miracles of Jesus is unnecessary; and scripture must not be used to deny us our firsthand revelations of every day miracles. “Historical Christianity,” Emerson said, “dwells with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe.”

In his Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, Emerson would refer to the “icehouse of Unitarianism” (1842), and “corpse-cold Unitarianism” (1846). He sought a more poetic, less reason-bound, truth, and invited us to imagine/perceive an underlying unity which transcended duality or plurality. He called this an “over-soul” and described it as “that great nature in which we rest . . . within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart.”

Transcendentalism emphasizes lived experience, the here and now, the natural world – that is, the immanent – but it emphasizes the transcendent qualities of this immanent reality. For Transcendentalism, the immanent is the transcendent.

Unitarian Universalism continues to this day to develop in the interplay between what might be called the truths of reason and the truths of poetry. We explore truths of reason in the insights of the natural and social sciences (both empirical findings and large-scale theories). We explore truths of poetry when we speak of oneness, all-embracing unity, and when we share words to evoke the mystery, awe, and wonder that is ultimately ineffable.


Savor the World and Save the World

When Job is presented with the wonder and awe of creation, he steps into a place that transcends his suffering. This doesn't make the suffering go away. It's still there. It's just not all-consuming anymore.

I saw that phenomenon at work in my time immersed in predominantly African American contexts. For four years, I was a professor at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Later, I spent one of my years as a divinity school student at Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, North Carolina. Both Fisk and Shaw are HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and both continue to have student bodies that are entirely or almost entirely African American. In both those settings I had repeated exposure to Black Church worship and culture. One of the things I often heard, especially at the divinity school, like a mantra of affirmation and hope, was: “God is good all the time; all the time, God is good.”

These were people that were not oblivious to, nor in denial about the very real pain, suffering, injustice, and oppression in life. For most of them, they or their families had directly seen and felt the worst effects of prejudice and bigotry. They were not retreating into escapism from that reality, nor were they complacent about the need for the very hard ongoing work for social justice. When they greeted each other, and me, with a bounce in their step, a broad smile on their face, and an outstretched hand if not two outstretched arms, and the buoyant words, “God is good all the time; all the time, God is good,” they were expressing a deep sense of the joy of possibility in the very midst of the pain and oppression of which they were so keenly aware.

Transcendence is contact with the wider context of our lives. It is the felt sense, more than words can say, that the tragedy and unfairness and pain exists always within a wider context deeply affirmable, a context of wonder and of joy. From this kind of acceptance comes equanimity but not complacency. And without the calm, abiding equanimity to leaven the energy of anger that so often arises when working for social justice, activists burn out. Repeatedly reconnecting with the vast beauty of life and the world does not make questions about fairness go away. It just lets us see everything that’s wrong, that we are working to fix, against a context of deep, deep goodness.

This universe is not mechanically moral. Mountains and rivers and the great wide Earth, the sun and the moon and the stars – they don’t care what we think we deserve. The legal model of rights and faults simply does not apply to the grand scale of all of nature. Job's starting point is inadequate. Transcendent awareness helps our suffering weigh less heavily upon us. It prepares us to do what we can for fairness and social justice, and let go of attachment to results.

The liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez emphasizes social justice, emphasizes solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the ones that Jesus called, “the least of these.” Gutierrez is a theologian of deep commitment to advocacy for social justice. At the same time, Gutierrez writes,
“emphasis on the practice of justice and on solidarity with the poor must never become an obsession and prevent our seeing that this commitment reveals its value and ultimate meaning only within the vast and mysterious horizon of God's gratuitous love” (On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent 96).
Gutierrez is speaking Christian, and what he’s talking about is transcendence – for when we experience the wonder of creation deeply and personally, it feels like an awesome gratuitous love. It feels like what poet Annie Dillard called, "a universal love which has never broken faith with us and never will." (Dillard's words were affirmed often by Rev. Bill Sinkford during his Presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association -- for example: HERE.)

To put the point a little differently: E.B. White once said:
"If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day." (New York Times, 1969 Jul 11)
We cannot get too caught up in saving the world and neglect to savor it, neglect to experience the wonder of being alive. Also: we cannot get too caught up in savoring the world and neglect the work of building a more fair and just world. This is not about "balance" - as in, so much time spent experiencing awe, and so much time spent in compassionate service to others - as if they were entirely distinct activities. Instead, it's about the saving work being encompassed and surrounded and embedded within a background of constant savoring.

Let awe -- an awe such as Job experienced when he heard the voice of God speak from a whirlwind -- be always with you. Walk each moment in awe of the glory of lungs that breathe and a heart that beats. As you do so, turn toward service.

Let every single moment be a moment of simultaneously savoring and saving. If we lose that savoring, if we aren't connected with wonder, if our saving work is joyless, then the world no longer has anything to be saved for.

God's speech to Job reminds us of that which transcends our blaming, judging, self-blaming, self-judging mind: the vast system of goats and deer and ostriches and stars and cosmos. We must strive for justice, yes – and we must also understand that our efforts to construct a just order take place within a much grander natural order that is ours to love and savor and stand in awe of – beauty and harshness, triumph and pain, and all.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Job and Transcendence"
Part 1: "Mechanically Moral Universe?"
Part 2: "Why Does Job Suffer?"


Why Does Job Suffer?

The Book of Job.

When you think of Job, your first thought is probably about a man subjected to a test to see if his faith stands up. Job has been a blameless and upright man. The Satan suggests that Job is good only because Job's life has been so easy. Let’s give him some hardship and see how his faith and goodness stand up. Job, however, passes the test, remains virtuous despite hardship, and so, in the last chapter, Job’s virtue is rewarded and he gets health, wealth, and a family back.

If that’s your summary of the book of Job, then you’re looking only at the first two chapters, and the last chapter. The book of Job has 42 chapters, and most people only remember the first two and the last one. What about the 39 chapters in between?

The outside frame – the little bit at the beginning and the little bit at the end, give us an image of a mechanically moral universe. Virtue is rewarded (eventually) and wickedness punished. Goodness in, reward out; evil in, punishment out.

If you look inside the Book of Job – in between the first two chapters and the last chapter – if you look at those middle 39 chapters – you find that the notion of a mechanically moral universe is explored and ultimately debunked.

Let’s look at what happens in the middle 93 percent of the story. Job has three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, who come visit him. The three sit with him in silence, at first.
“They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:13)
At length, Eliphaz ventures to speak.
“Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” (Job 4:7)
Then Bildad, then Zophar – all in the same vein.

"You must have done something wrong, Job," they say. "God, the universe, wouldn’t punish you if you didn’t deserve it."
“We are moved by the three silent friends, but the moment they begin to speak they disappoint.” (Elie Wiesel)
When they speak, they give these speeches insisting that the universe is mechanically moral. They say, "Well, Job, you must have done something bad. You’re being punished for something." Faced with standing for and with “their beaten and defeated friend” -- or adhering to their own concepts of a mechanically moral universe -- “They made the wrong choice.” (Elie Wiesel 225)

“Why do I suffer?” cries Job. After Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar have offered their trite moral simplifications, Job is still left crying, "Why do I suffer?"

Finally, God Godself appears in a whirlwind to answer the charge that Job’s suffering is unfair and without basis. It’s not clear, however, that what God proceeds to say can be accurately called an “answer.” God unleashes four chapters of rhetorical questions that invoke the wonders and grandeur of creation. Here’s a sampling from chapters 38 and 39.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?... Or who shut in the sea,... made the clouds its garment... Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place... Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?... Has the rain a father, or who has begotten the drops of dew?... Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades or loose the cords of Orion?... Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?...Do you give the horse its might?... Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?”
Does this answer Job’s question? Does this explain why Job suffers? No. It does not. What it does is confront Job with the transcendent wonder of his world. In that confrontation with transcendence, Job’s complaint is stilled. Job says,
"I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . . therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:3, 6)
Humbled and speechless, Job abandons his plea, for he grasps that the mystery of the cosmos is so much deeper than principles of justice. Job’s expectation that the universe is a moral agent that should be accountable for its unfairness is countered at last by seeing it, instead, in its transcendent wonder.

Perhaps Job was comforted by seeing his afflictions as small in the grand scale of things. Perhaps he was affirmed and succored by feeling his calls on behalf of justice placed within a context of the fullness of a life within such beauty and majesty.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Job and Transcendence"
Part 1: "Mechanically Moral Universe?"
Part 3: "Savor the World and Save the World"


Mechanically Moral Univese?

I signed up with Disaster Chaplaincy Services this month, so when I finish their training, I’ll be on call to be part of the spiritual care response in the New York area whenever there’s a disaster. Four days ago, on Wednesday, I was down in the city for an eight-hour orientation for disaster chaplaincy. The example scenarios and issues reminded me of how strong the human inclination is to believe in what we might call a mechanically moral universe. The mechanically moral universe theory sees the universe as a giant reward and punishment machine. You feed in virtue, you get reward back. You feed in vice, you get punishment back.

Humans have a deeply ingrained tendency to implicitly assume that’s the way the Universe works. Goodness is rewarded and evil is punished. So it disturbs us when bad things happen to good people. In disasters, people find their world turned upside down very suddenly, and this makes no sense. They are likely to say, "How could this happen? How did I deserve this?"

When people are in a crisis is not the time to engage them on the merits of their theory of the universe’s moral enforcement system. In a crisis, all that can be done is be present to their confusion and anguish. It’s when we’re not in a crisis that we can prepare ourselves with conceptual and emotional resources we’ll need when that time comes.

And it’s not easy.

Corollary to the idea that the universe as a whole monitors and issues rewards and punishment is the idea that inanimate objects are susceptible to our rewards and punishments. Our brains are just built to see moral agency everywhere! The other day, I was opening a package of something – raisins, I think it was, and was having a little difficulty. I jerked at it and got it open. And then I introspected: What just happened here? There was just a little more force than a purely practical assessment warranted. There was also just a touch of punitive intent. Where did that come from? There was a little part of me that was like, “I’ll show you, raisin package!” I just had to laugh at myself.

Our brains are built primed to treat anything as a moral agent. The universe punishes us to get us to act right, and we punish things, thinking (at some level) to get them to act right. That’s not logical. With self-awareness, you can notice it in yourself, laugh, and move on. Without self-awareness, you can stay mired in that blaming or self-blaming mood for . . . some time. And the mood can become a habit.

That’s why I want to talk about transcendence today. Transcendence is our theme for May, coming up. Experiences of transcendence – experiences of the awe and beauty and wonder of things – are the antidote for that irrational impulse to punish, or to imagine you are being punished for something. When you think that things aren’t going well – when you bemoan life’s unfairness, when you’re saying “Why me?” – when you’re perplexed by why bad things happen to good people – you’ve forgotten about the awe, the wonder of creation. Transcendence is also the antidote for feelings of entitlement, and the sense, when things are going well, that you are merely getting the rewards you deserve for being the virtuous person you are.

The wonder of creation transcends our blaming, judging mind and also our self-congratulations. This is where religion and science meet. The scientist Carl Sagan, near the end of his life, wrote in The Pale Blue Dot:
“In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?' Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”
Yes, Carl, and Unitarian Universalism is such a religion: stressing the magnificence of the universe to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe.

I think Carl Sagan is right that attention to the magnificence of creation – the magnificence of the universe – prepares us to tap reverence and awe. And modern science does reveal magnificence.

But religion has always included attending to the magnificence of creation, preparing us for transcendent experience.

In the next post, we'll look at the Book of Job as an example of attending to the magnificence of creation.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Job and Transcendence"
Part 2: "Why Does Job Suffer?"
Part 3: "Savor the World and Save the World"


This Week's Prayer

Dear Source of Hope,

We pause to collectively acknowledge the world’s sadness, which is our own -- and to face straightforwardly what is real. As we would be a people of love and compassion, let us open ourselves to take in the pain, and respond with kindness and care.

Our hearts go out today to Nepal where a massive 7.8 earthquake has collapsed homes, temples, triggered avalanches, and killed some 1,500 people.

Our hearts go out to Yemen, where fighting between Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition wreaks death and havoc and a humanitarian crisis.

Our hearts go out to Armenian people everywhere, as they observed this week the 100th anniversary of April 24,1915, when leaders and intellectuals of the Armenian communities in Ottoman Turkey were rounded up and massacred, marking the beginning of the Armenian genocide that would last eight years and kill more than 1.5 million Armenians.

Our hearts go out to Chile, where eruptions of the Calbuci volcano threaten farms and water supply with ash fallout.

Our hearts go out to the people of our country’s western states as wildfire season begins and drought conditions multiply many times the risk to lives, homes, and local economies.

Our hearts go out to Ethiopia, which is mourning with joint Christian and Muslim prayers, for the 30 or so Ethiopian Christians believed to have been killed on an ISIL videotape released last Sunday.

Our hearts go out to Baltimore, where a history of aggressive, sometimes brutal, police behavior oppresses particularly the African American community -- and particularly to the friends and family of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, dead with severe spinal cord injury while in police custody.

Our hearts go out to the intentional and unintentional victims of US drone strikes.

Our hearts go out with new hope to Hercules and Leo, two chimpanzees held at a research lab in Stony Brook. This week they became the first nonhumans in history to be covered by a writ of habeas corpus, allowing their detention to be challenged.

Remembering, then, all the love that we have ever known, may we show it back to this, our bruised and hurting world.


Give Up Saving the World

“Maybe we could give up saving the world and start to live savingly on it.”
-Wendell Berry
Sustainability requires slowing down the pace of life, freeing up the time to do more self-provisioning. Here are some things that would take more of that precious time we have so little of: our own cooking, a little gardening, maybe some canning, taking the time to hang clothes on the line instead of using the dryer.

We’d really have to re-allocate our time away from marketplace-work to be able to do this kind of self-provisioning. People report that do-it-yourself activity is highly satisfying: they learn new skills, and it’s an outlet for creativity. And it reduces our ecological footprint. Sometimes these newfound skills and passions lead to start-up businesses that are small, local, and green. Or they lead to trading and sharing through local networks that strengthen community ties and social capital – which enhances well-being and security.

Working less, having less money, means buying fewer new products, and what you do buy you’ll want to be durable, longer-lasting, and repairable.

Can this be done? Do we even really want to try, I wonder? Can you imagine for yourself maybe a few baby steps toward a simpler and freer and less consumptive life? We could live with less work and stress and consumption and stuff – and thus have more time for family, friends, community, and rewarding labor of crafts or garden or do-it-yourself activity. This would be good for us, and good for our planet.

The threat of climate change is real, and it is pretty scary. Plenitude and simplicity are about living in a sense of grace and abundance, not in fear. So let me conclude with some reflections on environmentalism and fear. Environmental advocacy typically depends a lot on playing the fear card. There is another way.

Environmentalism Without Fear

For starters, let us openly acknowledge that doomsday scenarios have a terrible track record. In 1967, a bestseller by William and Paul Paddock was titled Famine 1975. It was full of detailed scientific data and reasoning. Population was booming; agriculture was static. There were going to be massive famines in about eight more years, said the Paddocks.

The next year, 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, similarly predicted huge die-offs from outstripping our food supplies. 65 million Americans will die of starvation between 1980 and 1989, Ehrlich predicted, and by 1999 the US population will have declined to 22.6 million.

In 1970, Harvard biologist George Wald predicted that
“civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing [humanity].”
Also in 1970, Life magazine reported that:
“By 1985, air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half.” (1970 Jan 30, p. 22)
The truth is we don’t know what’s coming, or when. Long-term predictions are always mostly wrong.
“The End of Something—history, the novel, Christianity, the human race, the world—has long been an irresistible subject. Many of the things predicted to end have so far continued, evidently to the embarrassment of none of the predictors.” (Wendell Berry, Yes magazine, posted 2015 Mar 23)
When it comes to being an environmentalist without purveying fear, Wendell Berry is a helpful guide. He points out:
“All we can do to prepare rightly for tomorrow is do the right thing today.... If using less energy would be a good idea for the future, that is because it is a good idea.”
Berry points out that
“the difference between ‘prediction’ and ‘provision’ is crucial.”
Prediction we are lousy at. But provision we can do. For instance, we plant at the appropriate time, not “because we have predicted a bountiful harvest.” Rather, we do so because the past teaches us that it might be. The past teaches that our odds are improved by a diversity of food crops – precisely because we can’t predict which ones will do well.

Provision involves principles that prediction does not. For instance: never waste or permanently destroy anything of value. To destroy for the sake of greater good tomorrow is to place faith in predictions, which always ultimately miss something important.
“Maybe we could give up saving the world and start to live savingly on it.”
Do the right thing today. Engage nonanxiously in the careful, caring tasks of provisioning. Remember the wisdom Jesus, in the Matthew gospel, taught:
“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matt 6:34, NRSV)
At the end of his 1977 prose-poem, "Healing," Wendell Berry gives a glimpse of the life of simplicity and plenitude. It is not one of great leisure. It is one in which the work is unhurried and unworried, grounded and grounding.
“The teachings of unsuspected teachers belong to the task, and are its hope.
The love and the work of friends and lovers belong to the task, and are its health.
Rest and rejoicing belong to the task, and are its grace.
Let tomorrow come tomorrow. Not by your will is the house carried through the night.
Order is only the possibility of rest.” (What Are People For? p. 13 -- excerpted, Singing the Living Tradition, #697) 
Could you take a few baby steps toward a life of simple plenitude? What would those steps be for you?

What would those steps be?

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "The Call of Simplicity"
Part 1: "Are You Temporally Impoverished?"
Part 2: "Simplicity for You, For the Earth"


Simplicity For You, For the Earth

For You

Most of us have complicated lives. E-mails, phone calls, working long hours. Carrying the kids to music lessons, soccer practice, play dates or scouts – church. It’s a fast culture and just trying to match the velocity of others makes life hectic.

Consider how much we work. In a report last August, Gallup found:
“Adults employed full time in the U.S. report working an average of 47 hours per week, almost a full workday longer than what a standard five-day, 9-to-5 schedule entails.” (Gallup, 2014 Aug)
And if you’re answering work emails even when you’re at home, you’re really working more than that.

Do you sometimes feel like a short-order cook at the lunch rush? It’s fine to rev up every once in a while, but constant rushing is stressful. “Risk & Insurance” reported earlier this year:
“In a trend that shows no sign of reversing, American workers are reporting higher levels of stress.” (Risk & Insurance, 2015 Jan.)
Stress weakens the immune system. It wears down your mood. When we’re living in a rush, we worry more, find more things to get irritated about. We don’t think so clearly, and we make worse decisions.

Is there a way to simplify, slow down? The hectic pace of modern life is driving us nuts. We are the most stressed people in history. And since stress can trigger depression, it’s no coincidence that we’re the most depressed people in history.

So many of us have somehow gotten sucked into a bad trade: we traded in our time for a little more income, when in fact, having more time and less income is more conducive to happiness and well-being. As Juliet Schor writes:
“Evidence that longer hours of work are associated with lower happiness is accumulating, as is the more general point that how people spend their time is strongly related to well-being. In a series of studies, the psychologists Tim Kasser and Kennon Sheldon found that being time-affluent is positively associated with well-being, even controlling for income. In some of their studies, time trumped material goods in importance. Kasser and Kirk Brown found that working hours are negatively correlated with life satisfaction.”
Economist Richard Layard found that across the globe, the average happiness score of a country stops rising when its per capita income reaches $26,000 in today’s dollars.

I had to laugh when I read about a study finding that three activities most likely to elicit a bad mood are: the morning commute to work, being at work, and the evening commute from work.

In the quest for more, what we got was more stress, more clutter, more stuff in our lives. We’ve created a booming storage industry just to stow it all. In the quest for more, so many Americans got less: less time and less enjoyment of life.

Plenitude is about a life attuned to the abundance of grace from simply being alive. Duane Elgin, the author of Voluntary Simplicity, first published back in 1980, wrote:
“To live voluntarily means encountering life more consciously. To live more simply is to encounter life more directly.”
And that’s what Thoreau was on about. He went to woods in order to simplify, simplify – and thereby in order to encounter life more consciously and more directly.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
As Thoreau also wrote in Walden:
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
Can we march to a more measured drummer? Is there a way to do that? We’d be happier, less stressed. And some of the work we stop doing can be given to some one else who needs a job.

For the Earth

The call to simplicity is for our own sakes. The call to simplicity is also for the sake of our planet. Longer hours increase your environmental impact
“both because of more production and because time-stressed households have higher-impact lifestyles.” (Schor)
Time-stressed households don’t cook as often. On average, they rely more on pre-prepared packaged food, and eat at restaurants.
  • Ready-made packaged foods involve a lot more CO2 production than foods you prepare yourself.
  • And restaurants? One study found that an hour of restaurant eating uses 11 kilowatt-hours of energy, while an hour of eating at home (including all travel for food purchasing, gas or electricity for cooking, and so forth) uses only 7.4.That means, eating out uses just shy of 50 percent more energy than eating at home.
We need to slow down. And the planet needs us to slow down.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "The Call to Simplicity"
Part 1: "Are You Temporally Impoverished?"
Part 3: "Give Up Saving the World"


Are You Temporally Impoverished?

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau, one of our transcendentalist and Unitarian forebears, wrote about the call to simplicity:
“Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion."
* * *

How are you doing?

Remember when the usual answer to that question was, “fine”? What may now be the more common answer is: “busy.” It’s a very popular thing to say. For one thing, it’s often true. For another thing, it has the benefit of making us seem virtuous, or at least decent. Decent people, according to general expectation, keep themselves occupied. Moreover, saying “busy” has the further advantage that it might deter whoever you’re talking to from asking you to do something more.

We guard our time, because we have so little of it.

Juliet Schor’s 2010 book Plenitude – along with Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 book Walden -- have been inspirations to me. Throughout Walden, Thoreau is constantly seeking to simplify his lifestyle: he patches his clothes rather than buy new ones, he minimizes his consumer activity, and relies on leisure time and on himself for everything. He asks us:
“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed at such desperate enterprises?”
Yet for the last century and a half, the problem Thoreau identified has grown steadily worse.

Juliet Schor’s book adds 21st-century empirical studies to Thoreau’s 19th-century insights. The data tell us – if data we needed -- that US culture generally has not taken Thoreau to heart. She writes:
“Millions of Americans have lost control over the basic rhythm of their daily lives.
They work too much, eat too quickly, socialize too little, drive and sit in traffic for too many hours, don’t get enough sleep, and feel harried too much of the time.
The details of time scarcity are different across socioeconomic groups, but as a culture we have a shared experience of temporal impoverishment.”
Temporal impoverishment: we are time poor. We don't have enough of it.

What can you do about this? I’m not talking about going to live in a hut by a pond by yourself – although, if you can manage it, for a year or so, as Thoreau did, with occasional visits and trips to town, it does sound like a wonderful exercise. I’m just asking: Is it possible to slow down, simplify, de-clutter, go ahead and drop some of those balls we’re juggling and not pick them up? Is that possible? I don’t know. We’re New Yorkers. We're like, “Stop doing stuff? What’s he talking about? Stupidest thing I ever heard.”

You know your life. Is having less stuff and doing less stuff even a remote option? I don’t know. What I’d like to do is invite us to think about that.

Thoreau thought that the way to simplify, slow down, live a more authentic and present life, was to get away from modern conveniences – which, for him would have been things like steam engines, sewing machines, combine harvesters, and telegraph machines. Instead, we have persistently followed a different path: more and more devices and "conveniences." It seemed so logical. Creation of labor saving devices will save us from labor. By definition, right? And if we are saved from labor, then we have more leisure. Also, by definition, right?

Yet here we are with our microwave ovens, ice-making refrigerators, washers, dryers, and dishwashers, home computers, cell phones, interstate highways and jet airplane travel, central heating and air conditioning. And somehow we are busier than ever.

In some ways you could say our devices liberated us. In some ways you could say they enslaved us.

Robotics and automation do more and more of our manufacturing for us – and, indeed, more and more of our farming. Restaurants and prepared packaged food items do more and more of our cooking for us. And somehow we are busier than ever.

Freed from what we used to do, the labor force shifted away from industry and agriculture and into the service sector. We work frenetically in order to pay for all these conveniences and each other’s services.

Our lives are complicated. Would it be possible to simplify?

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "The Call to Simplicity"
Part 2: "Simplicity For You; For the Earth"
Part 3: "Give Up Saving the World"


This Week's Prayer

Thank you, Earth.
Thank you for air.
The sunshine:
Morning rising beauty of hope,
Evening setting grace of gratitude.
My brain processes the light that comes from the sky as blue –
I’m not clear on why
Or how a bunch of neurons does that.
And chlorophyll is green because, I don’t know.
I just know the blue sky and the green grass and trees
Are home.
I don’t know why blood is red, either,
The vivid aliveness motion inside me, and us.
Or why flower blossoms are so variously, brightly colored.
Thank you, Earth,
For ants, worms, beetles, spiders, jellyfish, squid.
Thank you for fish: shiny, darting;
And reptiles: gopher tortoises, bright little lizards, dark green gators.
Thank you for birds, and the unignorability of the fact of flying.
Because they are, and I am they, I, too, fly.
Thank you for other mammals: foxes and alpacas
and manatees and rabbits:
The things with hair and milk-making bodies.
All the funny, weird animals – the different ways that life can be.
I imagine living on a space station,
The view, so deep the black, and vast starfields,
Filling me with infinity every day.
It takes ground to be grounded.
I was made to be among your colors and life and limited horizons, Earth,
Even when it is dangerous.
Even when it is too hot, too cold, too rainy, too dry,
I was made for you, Earth.
All the millions of species, each was made for you
Out of dirt and water and sunlight.
Did you make snakes able to be thankful?
Have blue jays gratitude? Lobsters?
Maybe they are always grateful – and what they aren’t able to be is not thankful.
This is a wonder to me, who am sometimes ungrateful and who other times,
Like today, am
sky-blue thank you and leaf-green thank you and blood-red thank you
And lavender and fuchsia and goldenrod thank you.
Grateful feels good,
Dear Earth,
And you offer so much for which.
Sometimes I forget.
Then I remember again.


Transformation of Self and World

Transformation. That’s our theme of the month for April at Community Unitarian Church: Transformation.

These themes that we explore, in our worship and in our Journey Groups, all interrelate. Transformation is ultimately what we are always about. As I said last week and expect to say again: I don’t think people choose to enter congregational life to stay the same. We’re here to transform. Not to deny who we are, but to become who we are, to realize our most authentic selves. Every theme we explore is in service to our transformation. This month we take a look at transformation itself.

The actress Nia Peeples put it well. She said:
“Life is a moving, breathing thing. We have to be willing to constantly evolve. Perfection is constant transformation.”
Perfection is constant transformation.

The idea of perfection with which we are constantly bombarded -- the consumerist model that presents perfection as just one more product or service purchase away – actually makes us less satisfied. The “work, buy, work more, buy more” cycle pulls us away from our true nature and our unique gifts. The consumerist model presents perfection to us as a destination at which to arrive. Alternatively, suggests Nia, perfection is actually “something we move through one moment at time, allowing us to discover it again and again.”

It’s not somewhere else, it’s always right here. It’s not in some special experience you need to buy a ticket for. It’s right there in every ordinary moment. Perfection is constant transformation. And transformation is what we are here for.

Look at our mission. We need to keep coming back to our mission – keep coming back to what we’re here for. We’re here to:
nurture each other in our spiritual journeys; foster compassion and understanding within and beyond our community; and engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.
Prior to the mission there’s the fact that we are a religious congregation, and we’re to do what religious organizations generally are for. We’re here as a congregation:
  • To have collective worship and celebration.
  • To provide a certain kind of education to our children, to our youth, and to adults.
  • To care for each other.
  • And to engage collectively with the world on behalf of peace, justice, and basic needs for all.
We’re here to do those four things. And everything else we do – maintain a building and grounds, and a website and a newsletter, establish and follow bylaws and policies, hire a staff and call a minister, elect a board – all of that is what we do only because that’s what allows us out our reason for being, it’s what enables us to have
  • Worship & celebration
  • Education
  • Relations of caring for each other
  • And collective action for peace, justice, and basic needs.
With our mission statement, we then go one step further. With our mission, we say that what we’re here for, the reason we have worship, education, relations of care, and action in the world, is: to nurture each other in our spiritual journeys, foster compassion and understanding within and beyond our community; and engage in service to transform ourselves and our world. Nurture, foster, serve. That’s what we’re here for.

And to go still one more step further, to sum it all up in a single word: transform. The reason that we nurture spiritual development, that we foster compassion and understanding, that we engage in service is to transform. The third part of our mission explicitly says so – “engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.” But of course nurturing spirituality and fostering compassion and understanding is also in order transform ourselves and our world.

There are other ways than congregational life to nurture your spirituality. There are books and videos and spiritual counselors and yoga and meditation classes. You can journal on your own and you can study the great wisdom literature of the world’s traditions on your own or in various classes – and I hope that you do. Congregational life allows a crucial further channel for the learning and the practice that nurtures that development.

There are also other ways than congregational life to engage in the work of peace, justice, and basic needs for all. You can engage in volunteer service and political action through a variety of organizations that have nothing to do with this congregation. And I hope that you do.

But only in a faith congregation are those two things brought together. In congregational life, nurturing your spirit and helping heal our world come together. You can be active down at the soup kitchen, active in organizations advocating for peace or justice or the environment, and you won’t hear much there about nurturing your spiritual development. You go to classes and counselors that focus on your spiritual development, and you won’t hear anything about working for justice, social action. The unique power of congregational life is this integration. It’s why I’m here. So that the work we do for spiritual development doesn’t stop at the door, but carries over into service and justice work outside. So that the work we do for service and justice outside can be deliberately, intentionally, and explicitly be brought back to spiritual development.

The best slogan that our denominational headquarters has ever come up with for advertising Unitarian Universalism was seven words: "Nurture your spirit, help heal our world." Yes. I think that’s as good as it gets in expressing what Unitarian Universalism is all about in seven words or less. Nurture your spirit, help heal our world. Great. And whenever I get more than seven words, I want to point out that what congregational life allows is that those aren’t two things, but one thing.

We nurture our spirit BY helping to heal our world. And we help heal our world BY nurturing our spirit.

As long as nurturing spirit and healing world are two separate things, you can go off and do them through various noncongregational channels. To live them as one thing, we need to do it as a congregation.

Engaging in service is an essential part of our spiritual development. Activism does not inherently do that. The pitfall of activism is that it’s so easy to get angry – angry at the people who we see as perpetuating the injustice and the violence. The energy of anger has a legitimate place, I believe, but if anger is all there is, then despair and burn-out will follow.

Direct service to the needy also does not inherently facilitate spiritual development. It can be condescending. I can hand out blankets to the homeless on a freezing night thinking all the while of how superior I am – my own charity a further proof of my superiority.

Together, as a faith community, if we’re realizing what our congregational organization makes possible, we gently help each other cultivate humility. We help each other shift our activism from fighting against evil to working for love, remembering that "a positive future cannot emerge from the mind of anger and despair.” Through our work on our spiritual development we can let go of attachment to outcome, understanding that to the extent that we are attached to the results of our work, we rise and fall with our successes and failures. There is always a larger wisdom at work than our own opinions, and, as Gandhi said, "the victory is in the doing," not the results.

The reason for transforming our world is that it transforms us. It connects us with a wider world, it grows our hearts. Expanding our circle of care and concern, embodying that in our service and our activism, increases our own peace and joy. Moreover, the work will teach us things. For example, getting outside our bubble, teaming up with other congregations, predominantly Hispanic, or African American or Moslem or lower income puts us in touch with those we might not otherwise ever have a conversation with. Being a part of Westchester United, sharing the work, standing shoulder to shoulder for justice on the issues that we do agree on, empowers us and them. This is about personal transformation. Our ability to create social transformation is linked with our willingness to go through personal transformation in the process. We cannot expect the world to change if we‘re not willing to. The reason for transforming our world is that it transforms us.

And the reason for transforming ourselves is that it transforms our world. The more peaceful and loving we are, the more our lives inherently contribute to a peaceful and loving world, and the more ready we are to offer our time and resources to help heal our world. We have always been a people who said we must live our faith.

Through the centuries, the ideas and the work of Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists has influenced US culture and politics. As the morning dawned on Sun Apr 12, it found Community Unitarian Church ready – as ready it would ever be likely to get – to begin forming Social Justice Teams. Any effective social justice team will address their issue in five ways.
  1. Service: Direct assistance to those in need.
  2. Education: Classes and collective study of the complexities of a social issue. We have to know what we're taking about.
  3. Organizing: Forming coalitions with other UU congregations, with other faith institutions, and with secular organizations is crucial both for our own learning and transformation and for maximizing our effectiveness in the world.
  4. Advocacy: Lobbying, letter-writing, and anything else that brings our voice to our elected officials, or to others who change and make policy. We cannot advocate for or against a particular candidate or party – but we can and must advocate for policies that are more just, better promote peace, and better meet basic needs.
  5. Witness: Using the media; publicizing the issue and our efforts. Press coverage when we can get it. Occasional advertising. Getting out the word is a part of the justice work.
Based on the conversations at our February 8 Congregational Conversation, and the "dot voting" we did on March 15, our Social Justice Planning Committee has discerned that we are interested in possibly as many as nine social justice teams. The advantage of more teams over only one or two is that it will allow more of us to choose a team on an issue we already have passion for. The world needs your passion. It will allow more of us the opportunity for the tranformative work of leadership in one of these teams.

Each team will need a leadership core of five -- and ready supporters of possibly many more. Doing the math, that means that forming all nine teams will require 45 leaders.

The ultimate vision is that every member will be active on one of our social justice teams. Every member. And as many visitors and friends as feel ready and able. That's the vision. In the end, as always, it is your conscience and the reality of your life situation as you judge it, that must determine what you can do. It's up to you -- we are Unitarian Universalists; it could not be otherwise. And when we adopted our mission 15 months ago with a 96 percent approval, we were saying that engaging in service to transform ourselves and our world was one of the things we are here for -- all of us.

To realize that mission takes all of us. As Lauralyn Bellamy urges in words in our hymnal, "If here you have found love, give some back to a bruised and hurting world." The time for that is...now.


This Week's Prayer

Dear Power of Love,

Be with us that we may be creators of a new world. Let there be love, and let it shine from our hearts, from the words of our mouths, and from the work of our hands.

We rejoice in the shining light of renewed hope for more peaceful relations with Iran.

We see a new light in US-Cuba relations.

The human quest for knowledge is unstoppable, and it bears continual new fruit. For example, this week the large hadron collider in Europe came back online after being shutdown for upgrades for over two years. Research to unlock the elemental mysteries of the universe resumes.

We see light from our President’s administration announcing its support for a ban on conversion therapy for “correcting” sexual orientation.

The spread of light is slow, yet we do see its signs in many places. There remain so many dark corners where the light of love and understanding is so terribly needed.

We were stunned yet again this week by a white police officer’s murderous callousness. Officer Slager shot 50-year-old Walter Scott eight times in the back. Let there be light to let us all see there is systemic racial bigotry. Let us all understand, whether or not we built it, we live in it – and it is the moral obligation of those most empowered, those most benefited, to be most active in stopping it.

We grieve the violence in ISIS areas, in Yemen, in Kenya, in Pakistan.

We grieve the loss of four neighbors -- found dead from carbon monoxide in a home in Queens.

And we remember, with both gratitude and sadness, the haunting voice of Billie Holiday. The inspirational, and troubled jazz singer who died at 44 would have turned 100 this week.

Dear power of love, be with us, that we may sing a truer song and be creators of a brighter, kinder world.


Free Religion and Free Speech

When does "free exercise of religion" constitute a license to discriminate? When does the public's interest in reducing discrimination justify curtailing religious freedom? To think this through, consider these 10 hypothetical cases.

Case #1: Plaintiffs claim employment discrimination, that they were not hired because they eat beef. Defendant, the owner of the factory, acknowledges his company's explicit policy is not to hire beef eaters. Defendant, a lifelong Hindu whose commitment to his faith is sincere and energetic, claims that being required to hire beef eaters is 'forced speech' since hiring them would be approving of what they do -- and approving of beef eating would be a violation of his faith.

Case #2: Just like case #1, except that Defendant is a Hindu landlord refusing to rent housing to beef eaters on the grounds that this would be approving of actions of which his religion requires disapproval.

My answer: In both cases, Plaintiff is right. Hiring someone does NOT, in fact, imply approval of their personal, off-the-job, behavior, nor does renting to someone imply approval of what they do, so it isn't forced speech. (Employers may choose to limit what foods are offered in the company cafeteria, but if any employees are allowed to "brown bag" their lunches, then beef items in the lunch may be prohibited only if they can be shown to be disruptive in the workplace -- not on grounds of 'forced speech' approving them.) Moreover, the state has a compelling interest in constraining employment discrimination and housing discrimination. This interest outweighs all other considerations in these cases. (Obiter dicta: Plaintiffs should visit some CAFOs [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] to be aware of the horrible conditions the beef industry imposes upon sentient beings. They should also also read up on the tremendous water, land, and resource use the beef industry requires and the massive output of greenhouse gases from that industry.)

Case #3: Plaintiff Elaine sues Defendant Soup Nazi for unfair denial of service. (See Seinfeld, "The Soup Nazi," originally aired 1995 Nov.)

My answer: Defendant is right. Restauranteurs are allowed to establish their own procedures, and Elaine's denial of service is not based on her membership in a protected class.

Case #4: Plaintiff is a Yemeni national who sought to acquire a cake for a Houthi support party at his home. He claims unfair denial of service from Defendant, a baker. Defendant is Jewish and refused to make a cake with the requested words, "Death to Israel," on it.

My answer: Defendant is right. Bakers don't have to put words on cakes that they disagree with or find offensive. That really would be "forced speech."

Case #5: Defendant, a baker, is arrested for tax evasion. Baker made a cake to order from a customer who wanted the words on the cake to say, "Stop paying taxes. I don't pay mine." Zealous IRS attorneys argue that the baker, in choosing to write these words on the cake, has thereby expressed them -- and admitted to tax evasion.

My answer: Defendant is right. While bakers may refuse to make a cake with a message of which they disapprove, if they do choose to make the cake, they cannot be presumed by the law to have personally endorsed the sentiment (unless the sentiment constitutes hate speech -- see case #6)

Case #6: Defendant, a baker, has produced a cake at the request of a customer, a "Grand Titan" of a local KKK chapter. Customer requested, and the baker produced, a cake with the words "Get out of town, [racial slur]." Defendant agreed to produce the cake knowing the purpose to which it would be put. The cake was then presented in a mock "housewarming" to Plaintiff, an African American who was a new resident in what had previously been an all-white neighborhood. Plaintiff claims the cake is hate speech, and is suing both the individuals who brought the cake and the baker.

My answer: Plaintiff is right. "In law, hate speech is any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group" (Wikipedia). Defendant knowingly participated in speech that disparages or intimidates a protected group

Case #7: Plaintiff, another Yemeni national seeking to acquire a cake for a different Houthi support party at his home, sues for denial of service. Plaintiff went to another Jewish baker to ask for a cake. Unlike case #4, however, Plaintiff did not ask for any words at all on the cake. Plaintiff mentioned what the cake was for, and Defendant then refused to make the cake. Defendant claims that his skill and artistry are distinctive -- that his cakes are instantly recognizable upon sight as being his because of his unique stylings. Moreover, Defendant notes, his cakes come in boxes and rest upon platters that clearly identify the bakery from which they originate. Defendant does not want his product associated with Houthi support.

My answer: Plaintiff is right. Bakers may decline to write requested messages on their products, but the presence of the product itself does not speak support for the context in which that product is used. Bakers may decline to endorse an idea, but may not discriminate in the sale of their services against people who may have that idea.

Case #8: Plaintiff is a same-sex couple seeking the officiating services of a Baptist minister to officiate at their wedding. Defendant is the Baptist minister who refuses to perform the wedding because he disapproves of same-sex marriage.

My answer: Defendant is right. The minister officiating at a wedding is endorsing the wedding. (Bakers and florists who provide accouterments for the wedding are not.) The minister may not be compelled to give an endorsement s/he does not want to give.

Case #9: Plaintiff is a same-sex couple seeking to get married at a nondenominational "wedding chapel" on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Defendant, the proprietor of the wedding chapel, denies service on the grounds that he does not approve of same-sex weddings. The wedding chapel neither performs nor hosts any religious services other than weddings.

My answer: Plaintiff is right in part, and Defendant is right in part. The key distinction between case #9 and case #8 is that the wedding chapel is, in fact, not a religious institution. It is simply a business -- its business happens to be doing weddings. As such, these wedding chapels may not discriminate. However, the proprietor himself is not required to officiate (for the same reason that Baptist minister in case #8 cannot be compelled to officiate). If the couple provides their own officiant (which, in Nevada, may be any notary public who has also obtained a Certificate of Authority to Solemnize Marriages, or any minister, religious official, or military chaplain), the space and other services of the wedding chapel may not be denied.

Case #10: Plaintiff is a same-sex couple wanting to rent the sanctuary of Defendant, a Baptist church, for holding their wedding. Defendant regularly and frequently rents its sanctuary to the general public. It also advertises on its website the rental availability of its sanctuary for weddings. The church, however, denies Plaintiff's rental application on the grounds that church by-laws prohibit use of the church's space for same-sex weddings. The church's by-laws, in fact, forbid the rental of its building, in whole or in part, to groups, organizations, or individuals whose evident purpose in using the space is inconsistent with the church's mission. The by-laws then list "promoting or fostering socialism, atheism, or homosexuality" as examples of purposes inconsistent with the church's mission.

My answer: Defendant is right. Unlike the Vegas wedding chapel, this is an actual religious institution, and this exercise of its religious freedom to adhere to the principles in which it believes is within its rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.


Proprieters of restaurants or bakeries enjoy a number of rights. They may deny service to unruly customers, or to any customer that doesn't follow a set procedure for ordering. They may decline to produce messages they don't like -- or they may choose to produce such messages, as long as the message isn't hate speech, without bearing responsibility for the opinion expressed.

They may not, however, deny service on the the basis that service signals approval when, in fact, the service does not signal approval. Does hiring a person indicate approval of the person's particular or general non-work-related habits? No. Does renting housing to a person indicate approval of the person's particular or general habits? No. Does producing and selling a cake (with no message on it, or with only a generic message like "Congratulations") indicate approval of the context in which it will be displayed or eaten? No.

Does officiating at a wedding signal the endorsement of that wedding by the individual officiant? Yes. This is true whether the officiant is ordained clergy whose officiating is primarily a matter of carrying out religious duties, or a notary public whose officiating is primarily a business. Thus these agents, entirely at their own discretion, may decline to provide officiating services as they choose.

Does providing space for a wedding indicate endorsement of that wedding? If the provider is a business, it does not. Such businesses must provide the service of their space fairly and without discrimination. If, however, the space in question is owned by a religious community whose home includes that space, that community is allowed to choose not to provide its space for weddings of which they disapprove.

* * *
Disclaimer: All cases are, as far as the author knows, hypothetical. Opinions expressed are the author's and may not be construed as legal advice.


Easter Is Not About What You Think

I love this cartoon! Because I am a minister, I laughed and laughed. And then I began to notice a really good point here: You can't act out substitutionary atonement! It's an unlivable theology.

What is "substitutionary atonement"? It's the account of Easter that, somewhere along the line, you probably learned. It goes roughly like this:
The Easter story tells us that Jesus' suffering on the cross is redemptive. He suffered and died that we might have life (i.e., he substituted for us in order to atone for us). Real love manifests as complete submission and self-sacrifice. God required of Jesus -- and may sometimes require of us -- passive acceptance of violence.
That's a very common interpretation of the Easter story. I don't think this is really the message of that story. In charades, as in life, you need to show something -- be active. Easter is about transformation, not passivity; self-realization, not self-sacrifice.

I don’t believe people come to church to stay the same. I don’t think that anyone joins a faith community and enters into congregational life as a conservative strategy for maintaining their status quo. If we wanted to stay the same, we could just stay home – just stay in that . . . tomb.

The Easter message is to be risen, to be resurrected, to be transformed. A congregation must be about facilitating and bearing witness to one another’s personal transformations. A congregation must be about transforming its members, transforming itself, and transforming the world around it.

I don’t believe you’re here to stay the same. But I don’t see you as here to deny who you are, either. The transformation is not about rejecting yourself. It’s about becoming more fully who you are.

The point is expressed in our third principle: acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. Our covenant is to accept one another – to take each other exactly as we are, for each of us is complete, beautiful, and perfect, lacking nothing, requiring no change. And: our covenant is to encourage change, spiritual growth. For perfection is not static. Your ongoing growth and change is a part of your perfection. Accept ourselves and each other exactly the way we are – and at the same time transform.

At work in this process is the interplay between what is shared and what is unique to you. We share values, expressed in our principles, and encourage each other in living up to them. At the same time, becoming who you are is not simply a matter of getting better at exemplifying the values we share. It’s recognizing and living into the truth that only you see – as, in the Gospel of John, Mary, in her aloneness, comes to recognize Jesus.

This is no easy thing, becoming who you are. But why isn't it easy? Why should it be hard? Nurtured by learned and shared values, supported by the love of family, friends, community, should not becoming who we are be a flourishing as natural and abundant as the flowers in spring?

It’s hard because we carry shame. We are afraid. We have, in various ways and in varying degrees, been silenced from the full expression of who we are.

Make the courageous choice to break the silence, tell your truth, rise up out of shame. Bear witness to the stories of others as they seek to break silence imposed by perhaps greater fear and shame. This finally is where the Easter story takes us. The death from which we may rise, from which we can help others rise, is specifically an entombment in fear and shame.

Crucifixion was designed to inflict optimal physical pain, dragged out over many hours. The executioners sometimes even gave wine mixed with morphine to the victim, not to ease his suffering, but to keep him from passing out from pain so as to have to endure it longer. More than that, crucifixion was designed to humiliate. The person was stripped naked – lifted up to public view, gasping, fully exposed, utterly powerless. At the moment of death, his bowels would loosen, for all to see. It was violence, displayed as extremely as the Roman imagination could conceive, designed to instill fear, and to make anyone associated with the victim feel ashamed of themselves.
“Crucifixion was used against the underclasses and slaves and was regarded as so shameful that even victims’ families would not speak of it. It functioned to fragment communities, tearing the fabric of even the strongest bonds of connection and commitment.” (Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire 50)
For some of Jesus’ followers, it worked.
“Many of them abandoned Jesus and scattered after the crucifixion. They simply couldn’t connect this kind of humiliation with glory, divinity, and triumph.” (Ron Rolheiser, "The Humiliation of Crucifixion")
In their fear and their shame, they fell silent about the promise of a new social order, a Kindom of God.

Others, though – women, at first – broke silence. They broke silence first to simply lament what had happened. Giving voice to our lamentation begins to reclaim our own dignity and worthiness in the face of our loss. They broke silence to remember, to say a name, against all the shaming, fear, and humiliation that would bury it in silence. They broke silence to begin to tell stories that represented that the hope found in this man lived on. They broke silence to transcend fear and affirm community, to overcome violence by sustaining hope. They transformed humiliation into the strength of connection and in so doing resurrected life from death.

Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker write:
"The Passion narratives broke silence about the shame and fear that crucifixion instilled. To lament was to claim powers that crucifixion was designed to destroy: dignity, courage, love, creativity, and truth-telling. In telling his story, his community remembered his name and claimed the death-defying power of saying his name aloud....The Passion stories brought testimony before a higher court of appeals than the bogus trial of Jesus they indict. The purpose of such writing is assuredly not to valorize victims, to praise their suffering as redemptive, to reveal ‘true love’ as submission and self-sacrifice, or to say that God requires the passive acceptance of violence. Such interpretations mistakenly answer the abusive use of power with an abnegation of power. The story of Jesus’ crucifixion, in marked contrast, asserted that the answer to abusive power is the courageous and decisive employment of the powers of life – to do deeds in Jesus’ name....To break silence whenever violence is used to shame, instill fear, fragment human community, or suppress those who advocate for justice is life-giving. Just as Jesus, in John’s Gospel, stood before Pilate and said, ‘you have no power over me,’ the Passion narratives defied the power of crucifixion to silence Jesus’ movement. In doing so, they placed before his movement the choice to tell the truth and live by ethical grace. They said life is found in surviving the worst a community can imagine, in lamenting the consequences of imperialism, and in holding fast to the core goodness of this world, blessed by divine justice and abundant life." (51-53)
Against all violence to body or to spirit, against all fear and shame endured by us and by others, against all the protective strategies we ourselves devise to be safe, there is rising to accept and affirm and speak who we are. There is yet the possibility of transformation into who we are, unobscured by fear or shame. There is yet the possibility of justice, an end to violence, a new social order, a Kindom of God. Here is a livable theology, a teaching that we can act out. Here is the message and the hope of Easter.

* * *
This is part 2 of 2 of "Easter and Transformation"
Part 1: How to Realize the Kindom of God


How to Realize the Kindom of God

In Zen circles, an oft-retold parable relates that two monks, each from different monasteries, happen to each be out on a pilgrimage. They encounter each other along the road, headed in the same direction for a while. They walk along together, telling about their home monasteries. “The master at my monastery,” says the first monk, “levitates in seated meditation. He can write in the air with his brush and th characters appear on paper a hundred yards away.”

“That's nice,” says the other monk.

“What can the master at your monastery do?” asks the first.

“My master,” says the second monk, “eats when he is hungry, and sleeps when he is tired.”

Zen people love that story. The point of it is: you don’t need magic tricks. The trick of life is to be present to your situation, and respond appropriately.

The Unitarians, going back to Faustus Socinus, in Poland in the late 1500s, distinguished our faith tradition as the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation. Socinus’ version of Christianity emphasized Jesus’ teachings and the moral example of Jesus life. The first Unitarians were Christians who emphasized Jesus’ life, not his death.

A couple hundred years later, Unitarians in New England in the early 1800s began describing themselves with the phrase, "the religion of Jesus, rather than the religion about Jesus." It’s not the magic trick of resurrection that is the important matter. It is the presence Jesus had, and his genius for apt response to situations. By 1841, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker was saying that none of the miracles attributed to Jesus had any importance.

We are the people who put Jesus’ life not his death at the center. But Easter is all about his death. The roots of Unitarianism are in the religion of Jesus – that is, the religion that he himself taught and practiced – rather than religion about Jesus. But Easter is about the period when Jesus was beyond doing any teaching. It’s a story about him.

Of course, Easter is a springtime celebration. The resurrection is the resurrection of life after the death of winter. We celebrate new life and new growth (sometimes in new places).

Resurrection is a general metaphor for spring. Beyond that, the four gospel stories each provide us with a different story, which we can read as parables. Different numbers of women, different numbers of young men in white or angels, different encounters between Jesus and his followers. They were written by different authors at different times, to different audiences, for different purposes.

Mark’s parable is about encountering fear. Three women approach the tomb. When they see the stone rolled back, they are nervous. Is this some kind of trap?
“As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.” (16:5)
Is he secret police? Is he a Roman agent?
“But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.’” (16:6)
These words do not reassure the three women. They turn and flee from this creepy guy.
“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (16:8)
Mark’s gospel represents the continuing fear of political repression faced by Jesus’ followers.

John’s parable, is about discerning our true nature and true place. Mary goes in solitude to see the empty tomb. No one is there. She returns from the tomb; speaks to some trusted others. Some of them went back with her to the tomb again, but then left her alone there, crying. Then she turns around, and there’s the truth, right in front her, but she still doesn’t get it. She thinks it’s the gardener. But it is the truth, and it calls her name -- and in that moment she realizes it, realizes herself.

Matthew’s parable is about the courage to live into your truth in the face of enemies who oppose it. Some of Jerusalem's rulers catch wind of the news that Jesus' body has gone missing. They concoct a story, which they bribe the guards to affirm, that some of Jesus' followers came in the middle of the night and took the body away. People will tell you that there is no new life, no new truth for you to discover. “There is no transformation, no greater wholeness,” they will say. But Mary knew better – and so do we, in our hearts.

Luke’s parable is not about our enemies but our friends. Mary goes to speak to the apostles about this frightening yet promising new reality she has discovered.
“These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (24:11)
Liberation? Wholeness? It is an idle tale, our friends may think. But the truth of your life is not for your enemies to define, nor is it determined by your friends.

Four gospels, four different parables, all about a truth, this reality which you are prone to overlook, to mistake for the gardener, but which comes to you when you are alone – this truth that your enemies discredit and your friends find idle – this truth that might even make you persecuted – was personified as a man, Jesus of Nazareth – a teacher, a healer, a prophet within the Jewish tradition, a mystic, and a social radical. He taught a message of transformation – that we have the ability to transform our lives – by loving one another, by loving even our enemies, by living simply and not placing faith in money, material things, status, and power.

Following his model and his teachings is transformative. Jesus lived and taught about a new social order – what he called “the Kingdom of God” – what we might call the Kin-dom of God, or Beloved Community – a society based on love and compassion. People thus transformed become agents of transformation of their communities and of the world, realizing the Kin-dom of God on earth.

This, then, is a Unitarian Universalist Easter message: Our community can be a community of transformation. That's how we realize the Kindom.

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This is part 1 of 2 of "Easter and Transformation"
Part 2: Easter: It's Not About What You Think


This Week's Prayer

The ancient Germanic goddess Ostara, or Eostre, from which we get the name Easter, brings renewal, rebirth from the death of winter. New life, from death. Blessed be.

The Torah tells of the escape of the Israelites from Egypt: a new life of freedom from the soul-death of enslavement. Blessed be.

The Christian Testament tells of a resurrection after crucifixion. New life, from death. Blessed be.

Every day there is news of death, violence, injustice, persecution.

Every day our faith, our hope, our trust in the possibilities of love calls us to live into new life. Life and love are risen.

Our hearts grieve the world’s sadness:
  • The 147 university students killed in Kenya by al-Shabob. 
  • All the victims of violence in the middle East: the battles of the Islamic State, and of Houthi rebels and their allies in Yemen. 
  • The thousands made homeless, with uncertain food, from a monster cyclone in Vanuatu. 
  • The people of Chile, enduring an eighth consecutive year of major drought; 
  • and of California, instituting water restrictions; 
  • and of Bangladesh, where climate change is raising sea levels and making drinking water much saltier; 
  • and of Oklahoma, rattled by earthquakes, probably caused by wells used to bury vast amounts of wastewater from oil and gas exploration deep in the earth near fault zones.
Our hearts grieve all the world’s sadness.

Our hearts celebrate signs of progress for peace and democracy:
  • An Iran nuclear deal could have a lasting positive impact on the Middle East. 
  • Nigeria elected a new president and saw a peaceful transition of power from one political party to another through the ballot box – something extraordinary for that country.
We pray that light and love may indeed arise, and that we may make ourselves into the instruments for a world made whole and all her people one.


Inherent Worth

Who (or what) has inherent worth and dignity? Only humans of my race? Only humans of my gender? Only humans of my nationality? All humans? All primates? All mammals? All vertebrates? All animals? All living things? All things?

Well, yes.

What is “inherent worth” anyway? Inherent worth contrasts with instrumental worth: something with only instrumental worth is valuable only as a means to an end; an entity with inherent worth is an end in itself.

On what grounds, then, can we say any being lacks inherent worth?

Vertebrates, nonhuman as well as human, are subjects of their own lives. They have a biography, not just a biology. They care about their own lives, have the capacity to experience pain and suffering, and can be harmed. Their lives can go better or worse for them. If human pain and suffering counts morally, then so does the pain of other vertebrates, and we should never cause them harm without a sufficient reason.
“The question is not Can they reason?, nor Can they talk?, but Can they suffer?” (Jeremy Bentham)
Because they can suffer, and are subjects of their own lives, we cannot legitimately use then solely as instruments for our own purposes. The world is not a stockpile of resources for human exploitation.

All animals, including humans -- indeed, all lifeforms -- share a common biological ancestor. Advances in our scientific understanding have shown that neither rationality nor intelligence is uniquely human, nor is having language, nor is exhibiting morality. (Besides, as Bentham pointed out, these aren't the pertinent questions anyway.) The work of biologists and ethologists (Marc Bekoff, Jonathan Balcombe, Frans De Waal, and Jane Goodall, among many others), challenges us to expand our understanding of nonhuman animals’ amazing cognitive, emotional, and even moral capacities.

Humans are in some ways more advanced, or at least more complicated, than any other species when it comes to cognitive, linguistic, social, and moral capacities. These differences, however, are not morally relevant. First, they are differences of degree not of kind. Second, every species has its uniqueness. After all, humans cannot echo-locate like dolphins or bats, nor track scents like canines, nor photosynthesize like plants. Different beings aren’t better beings any more than different humans are better humans.

Can we not affirm, then, that “all beings have inherent worth and dignity”? This would not mean all beings have the same value or have equal worth. It simply says that even tapeworms, cockroaches, and dustmites have some worth that is inherent and not instrumental. Indeed, even plants and fungi warrant moral concern, for they, too, are integral parts of the interdependent web of life affirmed in the Unitarian Universalist seventh principle, as well as in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic:
“A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it...it implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”
The world into which we are born is much older, complex, and complete than we are. We are just beginning to understand the complex balance and intricacies of our planet’s ecosystems. We are increasingly realizing that the web of life as a whole has intrinsic, inherent value far beyond merely instrumental worth.

I'm not saying we are never justified in using some beings for our own vital needs. We are within our moral rights to eat carrots, cut down trees to build a house, or use antibiotics to cure an infection. Arne Naess, founder of the Deep Ecology Movement, acknowledges that
“any realistic praxis necessitates some killing, exploitation, and suppression.”
I'm not asking for an unrealistic praxis. We must harm to survive. I'm just urging that, along with our needs for instrumental use of other beings, we also recognize they have inherent worth. Let us expand our circle of moral concern and compassion. Let us celebrate the truth that we are members of the larger life community that has value in its own right. The beings of that community had value before Homo sapiens arrived on the scene, and they still do now.

When our legitimate interests conflict with the interests of other beings, we must make difficult decisions. We face such difficult choices not merely when human interests conflict with other human interests, but also when human interests conflict with nonhuman interests.

When human interests conflict with interests of other beings, factors to be considered include:

1. Sentience (the ability to feel pains and pleasures.) Cows? Yes. Carrots? Probably not.

2. Consciousness (self-awareness). Conscious beings have a sense of self that persists over time and interests in how their lives go. Ten species so far have passed a particular (human-devised) self-awareness test (humans, orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, rhesus macaques, bottlenose dolphins, orcas, elephants, and European magpies), but many others may also have a form of self-awareness.

3. Sociality. Social beings have more complex capacities for relationships and experiences. It means that a harm to a member of the society causes pain to other members. The death of a social being is occasioned by mourning among survivors.

4. The importance of the interest to the being who has it. Vital interests trump non-vital interests. The interests of beings with sentience, consciousness, and sociality count for a lot – but not all their interests are vital. The human interest in eating a cow, when alternatives are readily available, is a preferential taste. That interest would normally be outweighed by the cow’s interest as a sentient and somewhat conscious being.

Recognizing the inherent worth of all beings entails recognizing that the rest of nature has value which does not depend on what use humans can put it to. Spiritually, affirming that principle expands our circles of compassion by opening our hearts and our arms to embrace the more-than-human world in which we live.

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(Appreciation to Mark Causey, whose "Inherent Worth" essay [CLICK HERE] also makes most of these points, and at greater length. In particular, I'm indebted to Mark for the Leopold and Naess quotes and the factors to consider when human interests conflict with interests of other beings. Thanks, Mark!)

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See also other posts by Rev. Meredith Garmon related to animal issues. Click on title:
"Does 'Appeal to Nature' Justify Eating Meat?"
"The Spiritual Path of the First Principle"
"Expanding the Circle" (Sermon posted in 4 parts)
"Instead of Guilt" (Sermon posted in 4 parts)
"On Being Animal"
"Engaging Jennifer"