Hope Amid Despair

The call to neighborliness is the promise we have made to mystery.

I am not entirely clear on what that means – even though it’s my own sentence. Still I felt when I first wrote it and feel still that it is somehow pointing to something that matters. And it gets clearer as I hold that sentence before me and lean into it, and live into it.

The call to neighborliness is the promise we have made to mystery.

I think that is the call that we – we who constitute Community Unitarian Universalist – answer and aspire to answer. It’s what we do in our being here, in our participation in congregational life: we answer the call to neighborliness and live into the promise we have made to mystery.

Today’s topic, “Hope Amid Despair” – is the culmination of a scattered three-part series that began last December with “Reality Amid Ideology.” I started that sermon with this sentence to which I now return: the call to neighborliness is the promise we have made to mystery. We Unitarians Universalists are a part of a covenantal tradition – a tradition of covenant with something that is more powerful than you or I, something mysterious that calls us to our better selves, something that we all sometimes stray from, but that ever-beckons us back to a truer path -- something that defines us as a people.

We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person – every being, I’d say. We covenant to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. The interdependence of existence, and inherent worth and dignity, are powerful. There is a quality of mystery and awe there. How could this be, this total interdependence, this inalienability from concern and respect? That’s why I say we’ve made a promise to mystery: because our covenant commits us to principles ultimately inexplicable.

We sometimes fall away from our covenantal promise – and we do so in the same way the Ancient Israelites did. We fail to care for the vulnerable.

Love of God and love of neighbor are the same thing. Jesus was explicit on that point, and before him, Jeremiah said it. They are the same thing. Love of God and care for the vulnerable are synonyms. Care, kindness, and compassion are, for us, rooted, after all, in a promise to uphold everyone’s worth and dignity because, mysteriously, it’s inherent – and a promise to respect the web of existence because, mysteriously, we’re an interdependent part of it.

This promise we made to mystery calls us to neighborliness. The call to neighborliness prompts us to make a promise to mystery. I don’t know which came first because it seems to me they emerge together, or, rather, they are the same thing.

A month ago, in part 2, “Grief Amid Denial,” I mentioned four things that we are losing that are good to be losing. US military hegemony is waning – which is a good thing because military dominance inevitably turns the possessor into the global bully.

Second, US economic dominance is waning – which is a good thing because economic dominance was never sustainable, or fair to the rest of the world.

Third, the ethnically northern-European have lost the capacity to maintain “our kind of America” – which is a good thing because that kind of America depended on subjugation, exclusion, and exploitation of other ethnicities.

Fourth, the old-line Protestant churches are waning – which is a good thing because religious institutions that saw no need to distinguish between Bible-thumping and flag-waving were never conducive to real spiritual flourishing.

These four, in various ways, constituted the support structure for the American way of life. Without them, the fabric of American life is coming unraveled – which it needed to do, but that doesn’t make it easy.

We’re in a tough spot. We don’t know how to weave a new fabric. We are, in Matthew Arnold’s phrase, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.”

Those most benefited by the old order are most likely to be in denial about these changes, most likely to believe that there’s not really any problem that can’t be straightforwardly corrected. There’s clinging to the notion that these things that are waning can be shored up and America can be made
"great again."

Change is always going to be spelled L-O-S-S for some, and to get past being in denial requires the practices and rituals of grieving – preparing us to move on. So as reality is antidote for ideology, grief is the antidote for denial. Yet grief can slide into despair, so today, part 3, we look at hope amid despair. Our reliance, abroad, on military and economic might and, at home, on privileging persons of northern-European descent and faith institutions of old-line Protestantism in turn rested on fossil fuels and Enlightenment rationality.

Fossil fuels are not sustainable – both because they will run out eventually and because burning them overheats the planet. Enlightenment rationality gives us the wonders of science, but emphasizes control and “a vigorous individualism that has trivialized the common good.” Sensing that these have about reached their limit stirs up anxiety, and the anxiety manifests in exacerbation of what was worst. Greed has been a problematic current of America from its beginning. Anxiety heightens it.

We commit ourselves ever more ruthlessly to self-serving wealth, and those who have it are most able to amass more, so “wealth and control flows upward to the few on the basis of the cheap labor of the many.” Spiraling income inequality results.

Privatism is a related problematic current in American history. Anxiety exacerbates it. The notion that there are common goods that we can collectively realize, and that the form of our collective action is called government grows increasingly quaint. When we privatize everything from schools to prisons to health care should be privatized then the wealthy get health care and education but no one gets the benefits we would all receive when more of our neighbors are educated and healthy.

Which means that prisons are run for profit rather than based on a serious attempt to balance the needs of public safety and the public good of rehabilitating convicts into productive workers, and are thus subject to reform as we learn more about how to effect the optimal balance.

Privatism renders neighborhood “an unfortunate inconvenience rather than an indispensable arrangement for viable human life” (Brueggemann 116). The proliferation of “survival shows” on television and film reflects and dramatically performs this “privatism in which everything is raw competition.” The fantasies that become popular at any given time are metaphors for how reality feels, and the US today has come to feel, to many of us, like “The Hunger Games.”

Violence has long been problem in American culture. Anxiety prompts more of it. The dominance of the gun lobby has represented our readiness for violence in protection of privatized greed. Privatism leads finally to “every one for their self” in a competition in which it behooves us to be armed. In our anxiety about loss of the old way of life, we react in ways that make us less connected, more isolated, less secure, and thus more anxious.

How do we break out of this vicious circle? We are not ready yet for a blueprint, a program, an agenda. We cannot properly assess proposals until we have done the work of imagination.

We suffer, as I mentioned in the first installment, from a failure of imagination, and exercising and strengthening our imaginations is the first task. Before we turn to the policy-makers we need first to turn to the poets and prophets – or else the policies will have no coherence.

We must “dream of possibilities for peace and justice with lesser measures of U.S. hegemony” – in place of the military force of empire.

We must “dream of a lowered standard of living among us, but with a genuine neighborliness in which all share” – in place of the economy of empire.

We must “dream of a new cultural pluralism in which the marker is not nation, race, ethnic origin, but the capacity for neighborliness” – in place of privileging European descent.

We must “dream of a religious [pluralism] in which particular faith is deeply held in the presence of other deeply held faiths” – in place of our historic centering of old-line Protestantism.

We are not ready for details, for we have not yet coalesced around a dream. Recall that Martin Luther King’s dream was articulated in several of his addresses leading up its most famous expression in Washington DC in August 1963. Only after that dream exercised the imaginations of a significant number of people could we then follow with policy: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the fair housing act of 1968.

Hope amid despair was exemplified by Alaxchiia Ahu – also known as Plenty Coups – who lived from 1848 to 1932 in the Montana area. He was the principal chief of the Mountain Crows of the Crow nation. He saw that his people could not win against white encroachment and settlement.
Under his leadership the Crow acquiesced. Unlike the neighboring Cheyenne and Sioux, they did not opt for the noble destruction of going down fighting.

Alaxchiaa Ahu (Plenty Coups), 1908
It was a time of despair. The buffalo went away – slaughtered by whites intent on undermining the livelihood of the indigenous people. “The hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again. There was little singing anywhere,” he reported.
“The Crow experienced this as death of established social roles, of standards of excellence, and of personal identities. It is for good reason that the nation lost its sense of life, meaning, and energy….The Crow entered a time when everything familiar and reliable ceased and they were required [as Plenty Coups said,] ‘to live a life that I do not understand.’”
Plenty Coups had experienced a vision when he was young, and this vision – received, processed, and interpreted by the tribal elders – was the cornerstone of his leadership of his people. Under that vision and leadership, the Crow people came to understand:
“All our traditional way of life is coming to an end. We must do what we can to open our imaginations up to a radically different set of future possibilities. In the face of the discontinuity that is upon us, we must preserve some integrity across that discontinuity."
There is reason to hope for a dignified passage across this abyss because there is still, even in the midst of all loss and grief, a basic goodness to the universe.

And: we shall get the good back, though at the moment we have no more than a glimmer of what that might mean.

Plenty Coups was “committed to the bare idea that something good will emerge.” The old way of life was passing and would pass away entirely, yet somehow “traditional tribal values, customs, and memories” would find a future flourishing in the new context, whatever it would turn out to be.
There are possibilities of hope that transcends our limited capacity to understand them.

Thus the Crow resigned themselves neither to despair nor to the suicide of resistance, but embraced, instead, the only hope available. It was a hope that required adapting – learning what could be learned of the new reality in preparation for an unforeseeable future.

Plenty Coups famously urged his people:
"Education is your greatest weapon. With education you are the white man's equal, without education you are his victim and so shall remain all of your lives."
Through many trips to Washington DC to represent his people, Plenty Coups kept the Crow on their original land while many other tribes were relocated to reservations distant from their homeland.

For us today, says theologian Walter Brueggemann,
“the prophetic task is not blueprint or program or even advocacy. It is the elusiveness of possibility out beyond evidence, an act of imagination that authorizes the listening assembly to imagine even out beyond the ken of the speaker.” (127)
The name for imagining beyond evidence is: faith.
“Walking by sight is likely a return to the old ways that have failed. Walking by faith is to seek a world other than the one from we are being swiftly ejected.” (128)
The crucial step in this walk is turning from the narrative of empire to the narrative of neighborhood. From the standpoint of empire, with its market economy, neighborliness appears as miraculous.

What, people caring about each other when they aren’t paid too? That’s spooky supernatural stuff!

The Bible offers us some stories dealing with empire, for its texts were largely composed under imperial oppression: the Babylonian Empire, the Roman Empire. And so the subversive stories of neighborliness in the Bible do appear as miracles. For instance, the story of the loaves and fishes. As I read that story, there was a miracle there. Nothing supernatural about it, though. It was the miracle of neighborliness.
“Jesus talks a great deal about the kingdom of God -- and what he means by that is a public life reorganized toward neighborliness.” (Brueggemann)
Neighbors gather, community and abundance happen.

That’s the kingdom – the kin-dom -- of god Jesus was talking about: public life reorganized toward neighborliness. A crowd of people in the grip of scarcity thinking had gathered to hear Jesus teach. They had secreted away for their own use food for themselves. Under the influence of this remarkable teacher, they began to open up, began to sense the intrinsic abundance of the life they breathed, and the universe in which they swam.
From that sense of boundless provision welled up a gladness to share of this plenty of which they were suddenly so acutely aware. From the bottoms of bags and folds of clothes came forth food to share.

What happened in the loaves and fishes story? Neighborliness happened. Just as neighborliness happened in the story of Elisha and the widow’s oil. She has one jar of oil, from which she is able to fill many vessels with oil – enough so that the sale of that oil will pay her debts and provide enough for her and her children to live on. Where did all that oil come from?

I imagine it came from Elisha himself organizing the neighbors to help out a widow in need.
“Unlike the economy of empire where all flows to the top, the economy of this narrative features miracles of abundance that are unexpectedly and inscrutably given among the lowly.”
Thus neighbors come forth with life-sustaining gifts for a resourceless widow who was about to be devoured by predatory economic arrangement.

Of course, we need the market economy, but we need that sphere to be A sphere of human interaction, not THE sole or dominant sphere.

Of course, we need Enlightenment rationality and the scientific method. But science is about control: prediction and thereby control. The kind of explanations that are scientific are explanations we can use to predict – and hence to control. And that’s been very helpful for developing ways to care for each other – medicine, food production and distribution. But again, that needs to be A sphere, and not so dominant a one.

Our spirits yearn to not merely control our world, but to befriend it. A world that we control – or that we are trying to, or imagining we could, control – is a world in which we ourselves never quite belong – never love or are loved, but can only covet.

The call to neighborliness – the promise we have made to mystery – that is our hope. Your presence here to be with each other, to make the unmarketable abundance of community, is the embodiment of that hope. With the wider culture around us sliding toward despair and desperation, all we need to see hope right now is to look our congregation's building on a Sunday morning.


Whose Jesus?

Rev. Naomi King
I served our congregation in Gainesville, Florida for seven years before leaving there to put myself at your disposal. One of my neighbor colleague ministers in Florida at that time was the Rev. Naomi King. At state clergy gatherings where I had a chance to talk with and get to know Naomi and attend some worship services that she led for us, I discovered she is at least as creative as her father. Rev. King’s father’s name, you see, is Stephen. For those who like their theology traditional and settled, the daughter is also scarier than the father. She gave a presentation once and just the title would make the blood run cold if you’re the sort of person who believes the faith of our fathers is not to be meddled with. It was titled, “The Queer Pirate Jesus Wheels into Port.”

With that as my introduction, Happy Easter, everyone! It’s the most significant day on the Christian calendar. Early Christians met to celebrate on Sunday, rather than the Jewish sabbath of Saturday, because their savior was resurrected on Sunday. We gather here on Sunday, every Sunday, in continuation of that tradition. And today is THE Sunday – the Sunday that is that reason all the other Sundays are celebrated.

Some of us are Christians, and many of us who don’t call ourselves that now were raised in a Christian tradition. And all of us are shaped by the influences of Christianity throughout culture. The understanding we have of Jesus is important, whether we are Christian, Jewish, atheist, or however we might identify our faith. So on this Sunday of Sundays, let us ask again: Who shall we say Jesus is? Who, and whose, is Jesus?

I didn’t see Naomi’s presentation – I only know her title: "Queer Pirate Jesus Wheels into Port." Provoked by that title, another minister, Rev. Thom Belote, and I have reflected on the idea. I’ll be utilizing some of what I learned from Rev. Belote (HERE), along with my own thoughts.

If the resurrection is about renewal, and if renewal is about getting a different perspective on things, what different perspectives on Jesus might we consider? Consider this – you may have known about this, but you might not. In the deaf Christian community there is fierce debate about whether Jesus knew sign language. Until I learned this, it was not a question that had ever occurred to me. But, then, I’m not deaf – yet. For a deaf Christian, I can see how this would be important. From their point of view, they need to know if this man – this man that their faith tells them is God – was able to communicate with people like them. For a deaf person, it’s the question of whether God is accessible to them. And that matters.

Forensic anthropologists' reconstruction of a
typical 1st-century adult male Palestinian Jew.
Likewise it matters, as feminists have been pointed out, that God is presented as male. And it matters that Europeans have been depicting a Nordic looking Jesus for hundreds of years. Whose Jesus is it?

As for Jesus’ sexuality, official doctrine is that he didn’t have any. Authors such as Nikos Kazantzakis in “The Last Temptation of Christ” and Dan Brown in “The Da Vinci Code” have imagined a sexually active heterosexual Jesus. Others imagine that he might have been gay. There’s not much evidence either way on that question, but there is that curious case of the naked young man in the Gospel of Mark. In Chapter 14, as the Roman soldiers are arresting Jesus, we read:
“All of them deserted him and fled. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.”
So there was a scantily-clad young man hanging out around Jesus and his followers. Speculation about what he was doing there can only be an exercise of our imagination – fan fiction, perhaps -- not history. (Still, imagination is essential in theology. If we aren't pushing the edge, we're not only humorless, but a faith is losing freshness. For "cyborg pirate ninja Jesus" see HERE.)

Still, Carter Heyward, of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, speaks of the queerness of Jesus. She says:
"The term 'queer' as I am using it, let me be clear, is not simply a code-word for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and other ways of being at odds with dominant gender culture. 'Queer' is not simply a reversal of a negative epithet so often hurled against LGBT folks in homophobic culture. 'Queer' is not simply a synonym for being 'odd,' 'unusual,' or 'out-there.' Queerness is public solidarity in the struggle for sexual and gender justice and of irrepressibly making connections to other struggles for justice, compassion, and reconciliation. [Episcopal Divinity School] is, by the grace of God, a Queer seminary."
Such “solidarity in the struggle for sexual and gender justice” is found in the way the Jesus of scripture breaks gender rules and gender roles. He befriends prostitutes, lepers, and other outcasts, challenges traditional family values, and ignores his family of origin in favor of those who became his "siblings" by loving God and neighbor. He makes a new family of allies – an experience all too common among LGBTQ folk who have been rejected from their families of origin.

Jesus’ ministry embodies radical acceptance. African-American Christians connect Jesus’ own scourging and crucifixion with their people who have been the victims of whipping and lynching. And LGBTQ Christians view the Passion as a hate crime. Was not Matthew Shepard crucified?

Queer Christian art has adapted traditional iconography such as the Stations of the Cross and the Passion narrative to address LGBTQ suffering. In so doing, these artists enlarge the way we all see God. A Jesus that is accessible across a greater range of diversity is a prompt to us all to recognize the image of God in ourselves and in others.

Jesus’ ministry and teachings were subversive of the order that privileged some. (Were I here to add “at the expense of others,” then I would be merely redundant, for privilege by its nature is inherently unequal. When a good or a benefit is equally and universally provided or protected, we call it a right.)

Jesus’ continual theme throughout his teaching is this concept usually translated as “Kingdom of God.” I will often use “Kin-dom of God,” as better capturing the realm of concern and respect for all that I think Jesus had in mind. The original Greek – which isn’t really original, since Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Greek, but, as the language in which the gospels were written, is as original as is available to us – is basileia tou theou.

Theologians seeking to avoid the connotations of English translations, speak of the basileia – the siblinghood of radical acceptance that is Jesus’ predominant theme. Theologian Robert Goss, for instance, writes of:
"the basileia, the reign of God which signified the political transformation of his society into a radically egalitarian, new age, where sexual, religious, and political distinctions would be irrelevant. Jesus acted out his basileia message by standing with the oppressed and outcasts of society and by forming a society of equals." (Elizabeth Stuart describing the work of Robert Goss, as quoted by Terence Weldon, HERE)
For Goss, the resurrection represents God’s endorsement and confirmation of Jesus’ basileia message. The resurrection tells us that not only Jesus, but God, is on the side of the oppressed. This is what Goss means when he says that at Easter, Jesus became the “queer Christ.” Goss is making no comment on Jesus’ sexuality. Rather, he’s starting with the standard claim that the resurrection turned Jesus into Christ because the resurrection signaled the special status of Jesus as the messenger of, the bringer of, the embodiment of, salvation. And then he’s adding that, in particular, the resurrection turned Jesus into queer Christ because the salvation that Jesus represented lay in what Jesus taught: namely, a basileia of respect and acceptance for queer people, and for all people. The resurrection reveals God’s orientation toward the excluded.

Thus Goss calls the resurrection God’s “coming out” as queer – queer in Carter Heyward’s sense of queerness as “public solidarity in the struggle for sexual and gender justice and of irrepressibly making connections to other struggles for justice, compassion, and reconciliation.” Jesus’ call for radical equality continues to resonate wherever there is inequality of concern or respect.

So where does the pirate bit come in? Hold on to your chair, mateys. On this point, Rev. Thom Belote, engaged in a very different project, made a discovery. Rev. Belote was trying to get inside the mind of Thomas Jefferson, because Jefferson had some rather Unitarian ideas about Jesus and authored the first laws guaranteeing religious freedom in the U.S. Belote read hundreds of pages of laws that Jefferson wrote for the State of Virginia. One discovery he made was that the punishment for piracy in the State of Virginia was significantly harsher than the punishment for the equivalent of highway robbery. This was baffling. Why would this be?

He explains:
“The basic answer is that highway robbery exists within a closed system; pirates live outside of the system and threaten the entire system. Highway robbery is a form of illegal commerce, but it reinforces the validity of commerce. Piracy is an attack on not only the material goods that are plundered, but it is also an attack on the idea of property. If a mechanic quotes you an exorbitant price to fix your car, you would accuse the mechanic of highway robbery, not of piracy.”
Yes, pirates are thieves and criminals. Specifically, they are thieves and criminals who function outside of the dominant social and economic system.

Kester Brewin, a British Christian blogger offers this analysis:
“What pirates do, as a rule, is emerge from the underbelly of a ‘stuck’ orthodoxy and, by way of actions that are initially perceived as heretical, reinvigorate that practice. And this is what Jesus did. He saw a religion blocked – a temple which had access restricted by merchants and priests. And he set about plundering the booty in the temple, and setting it free for all to enjoy. This was the heresy of Jesus Christ.”
Jesus upends and plunders the social system when he says that in order to follow him you must first sell everything you have and give the money away to the poor, when he overturns the tables and drives the moneychangers out of the temple (which leads directly to his execution), and when he overturns the law by pronouncing that the “Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) In parable after parable, Jesus’ teachings ransack accepted economic principles.

As Christians identify themselves with a symbol of death – the cross – so, too, pirates identify themselves with a symbol of death, the skull and cross-bones. In both cases, the symbol proclaims fearlessness of death. Pirates and Christians both claim a radical power beyond the powers and principalities that pretend to rule the world. By renouncing life, the pirate and the Christian claim life.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul describes the early Christian church. His words might also describe a band of pirates:
“Honor and dishonor, praise and blame, alike are our lot: we are the impostors who speak the truth. We are unknown and yet are well known. Dying we still live on;
disciplined by suffering, we are not done to death; in our sorrows we have always cause for joy; poor ourselves, we bring wealth to many; penniless, we own the world.”
Pirates have a certain attraction that no other criminals have. Children on Halloween don’t dress up as arsonists, aggravated assaulters, or tax evaders – but every year a number of them will dress up as pirates.

I think we romanticize pirates because they represent subversion of the usual order of privilege and inequality. While other thieves and crooks pretend to be normal law-abiding folk, the pirates are out there openly under a flag of their own, the jolly roger. They capture our imaginations with a vision of a life liberated for the sort of inequalities that pervade mass society, and that weigh down the spirits of everyone, whether you’re on the top or the bottom of that inequality.

It’s not that pirate ships were utopian models of egalitarian sharing – but they did represent small face-to-face community, where everyone knew everyone else, and where they were out from under the sort of inequalities and frustrations perpetuated by invisible and faceless bureaucrats.

In recent times, the Somalian pirates were certainly problematic. The international community united to take steps to effectively end that problem – and we absolutely had to do that. But at the same time, let us remember the bigger picture.

Let us remember the 1801 to 1805 war against the Barbary States undertaken by the Jefferson administration to suppress the Barbary Pirates who were interfering with the crucial trade interests of the young nation. It was the first but not the last time the United States would go to war against a part of the Islamic world to protect our financial interests. Let us remember the conditions to which the Somalian pirates were responding. Western powers came to Africa, enslaved the people, established colonies, stole the natural resources, divided Africa into oddly shaped nations without any understanding of or regard for local history, and overthrew politicians that Africans elected when the Western powers didn’t like them. Who should be lecturing whom on respect for property? Or even on respect for life?

Jesus was a subject of an empire militarily and economically oppressing the conquered people of Israel. Jesus’ actions and teaching reverse the economic and political worldview of Rome. When Jesus upsets the moneychangers' tables outside the temple, he's upsetting not just tables, but a religio-economic worldview that protects privilege. So, yeah, it’s not so big a stretch to compare him to a pirate.

On this fine Easter morning, the stone of the tomb is rolled back, and the tomb is empty – because the queer pirate Jesus is wheeling into port somewhere else. I don’t know if Naomi talked about the significance of wheeling into port, and Thom Belote’s reflections don’t go into that. Wheeling into port, to my mind, suggests two things. It has a feeling of bringing it home – coming from “out there” and into our hearts with the message of basileia – of beloved community of radical acceptance.

More darkly, though, I reflect that pirates don’t come into established ports unless they have been captured and are being brought in to be locked up and executed – as, indeed, Jesus was. Yet even from the gallows – or the cross – they inspire imaginations to dream of what liberation might look like.

Other theologians and writers have developed the idea a disabled Jesus, an immigrant Jesus, a woman Jesus, a transgender Jesus. When all of us imagine a Jesus that is accessible to each of us – not narrowly cast as a Nordic-featured straight (or asexual) white able-bodied citizen of the empire – then possibilities of liberation open up to us all. When we all see the image of God in each of us, we see it better in ourselves as well.

Yes, these are imaginative exercises, but the gospels were imaginative exercises from the beginning. Theology IS imagination. Our imaginations empower us, and our imaginations make empathy and compassion possible. The basileia is an imaginative exercise – and one of tremendous power. The basileia is for all of us – everyone needs to see it embodied in someone that looks like them. We all also need to see it embodied in someone different from ourselves.

When Rev. Thom Belote explored Naomi King’s ideas of queer pirate Jesus, he concluded by musing that perhaps his next sermon might be: “The Transgender Cowboy Buddha Skips to the Market.”

Happy Easter and may we all be risen.


Charge to the Minister

On Sun Apr 7, I was at Fourth Universalist Society (160 Central Park West, Manhattan) for the ordination of Leonisa Ardizzone, with whom I had a mentoring relationship during 2016-17, while she was a student at Union Theological Seminary. She is a long-time Buddhist practitioner and led a Buddhist Meditation group at Fourth Universalist for a number of years. I was asked to give the "Charge to the Minister," and here's what I said.

[Holding up copy of Order of Service] It says here I’m supposed to charge the minister. Wait. Is there a minister here? Where? Who is a minister?

Some 15 years ago, the Zen master Ruben Habito and I were sitting face-to-face, cross-legged on the floor, about 3 feet apart – just the two of us in a smallish room. It was a formal zen interview called dokusan, and Ruben was my zen teacher. At the end of this particular interview, I asked him a question I'd been meaning to ask: "Are you enlightened?"

“Who? Who’s enlightened? Where?” he said, looking around the room that only had the two of us in it. Then he rang a little bell, and I bowed and departed.

In that spirit I now ask: Who? Who’s a minister? You? You?

To continue in the vein of Buddhist references: according to legend, Siddhartha Gautama sat down beneath a pippala tree beside a river determined to see his true nature. All through the night he sat. As day was dawning, he glanced up and saw the morning star, which triggered an experience of awakening. That was the moment Siddhartha became the Buddha, and the words that came to him to say (aloud, apparently – to no one and yet to everyone) were these:
“Behold, all beings are enlightened exactly as they are.”
His enlightenment was the clear realization that all beings are enlightened. Similarly, then, I say: your ministry is realized in grasping that everyone is a minister. There’s nothing special about it.

When my spouse LoraKim Joyner was preparing to be ordained in Raleigh, North Carolina in 2002, she selected a musical piece she asked the choir to sing in the service: “Circle of Life” from the musical The Lion King. One of the choir members quipped: “From The Lion King? Are you sure you don’t want, ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’?”

But, of course, it’s just the opposite. One actively pursues a vocation as minister – which is to say, pursues clarity of insight that all beings are ministers – because one just can’t wait to NOT be king.

The ego insistently weaves its story of how you are the center of the universe – the sovereign of all you survey. Maintaining that story is wearisome and dreary work, but it’s no easy thing to stop. On the one hand is a yearning to live in a bigger world than the constricted realm of self-interests. On the other hand, there’s no idea how to get there.

Some of us here made a stab in the dark and enrolled in divinity school. Others of us here have taken other paths, made other stabs in the dark at abdicating the tedious throne and de-centering the ego. Leonisa and the rest of us here today in black robes thought maybe divinity school, Clinical Pastoral Education, a ministerial internship, and all the other preparations and trainings for professional ministry would show us how to get past our ego defense mechanisms and live in the truth that all beings are enlightened ministers. Others of us here followed other paths, or, perhaps, are just beginning to grow tired of the kingly illusions of our own significance, or maybe aren’t tired of it.

Still, all of us are ministers, whether we know it or not. Some of us have been trying hard to know it and never forget it.

Today, it so happens that Leonisa is the one whose name is on the order of service, the one upon whom our hands were laid in the "Laying on of Hands." But in ordaining her, we ordained and re-ordained ourselves. The hopes and anxieties of all life poured through our hands and into her – and into each other – into every one of us. They are pouring into us always, and, when we aren’t preoccupied with our self-interests, then we know that they are.

I am here to charge the minister. We have identified who "the minister" is: everyone, all of us -- represented for purposes of this ceremony in the person of Leonisa. Now to the charge.

Let’s see. [Fetching jumper cables] Red to positive, right?

On the positive: Do remember that you are never alone -- that enlightened ministers surround you always, including all sentient beings.

Do remember that you won’t always remember this. Repeating the words – these or any other -- grows empty. In the quiet silence the observing mind discovers the knowledge afresh – and it must be constantly made fresh. Be the good dog, and sit. Every day.

When you sit, the whole world sits with you. And when you don’t sit – well, there are still some of us sitting with you anyway – with you, for you, as you. See your teacher regularly.

For all of you on a path to recognize yourself for the enlightened minister that you are, I charge you to be diligent at your spiritual practice, whatever yours may be.

Thus do I charge Leonisa. Thus do I charge you all.

On the negative – for the charge will not transmit unless the negative terminal is also connected: You have demons. You know the ones – the insecurities and addictions that you went to divinity school to run away from – those. They are with you still, as you’ve probably noticed. No need to run away. They are part of you. Seek not to exile any part of yourself, for that is not the path of wholeness.

Demons are there to tell you important truths. But remember, demons are poets following Emily Dickinson’s dictum to "tell the truth but tell it slant." Take care of your demons and listen to them, but what they say is not to be believed literally. They speak in metaphor. If one of them tells you, for instance, that you’re worthless, don’t believe it literally. But do listen. It’s a metaphor for something that might need attending to. You will need help interpreting your more cryptic demons. See your teacher regularly.

Thus do I charge Leonisa. Thus do I charge us all.

So! Terminals connected? I think we’re ready. Start her up!



Humility. I approach this topic with a feeling that a sermon on humility can’t be given. Words about humility can’t be worth saying, for as soon as I think I know something about the topic, I thereby prove that I don’t have it. As the saying goes, the minute you think you’ve got humility, you’ve lost it.

I might believe that humility is a virtue, and I might actively seek to cultivate it. But if I believe for a minute my efforts are doing some good, in that minute, whatever good they’ve done is wiped away. Even if you don’t say anything and modestly keep it all to yourself, the ego is working away inside to figure out some way to hijack whatever you do and turn it into a self-glorifying story.

There’s a cartoon of a young zen monk sitting cross-legged and talking to his cat. He’s saying: “You know, these Zen practices are definitely a short path to ego loss. Almost right away my illusion of self began to fade. Soon I will be the most advanced novice in the monastery.”

It’s true. The ego might be an illusion, but it’s a darn persistent one. You might see through that illusion and recognize that the spinning bundle of energies called “you” is no more distinct than a small whirlpool in a river is distinct from the water of the river – but in the next moment you’re congratulating yourself for this insight. The ego finds a way to turn even egolessness into reinforcement of itself.

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
Thus Martin Luther wrote, “true humility, therefore never knows that it is humble…for if it knew this, it would turn proud from contemplation of so fine a virtue.” And St. Teresa of Avila said humility is hidden from the one who possesses it.

There’s the story of a group of clergy that would gather in one of their sanctuaries to engage together in a practice of humility. They would gather round the altar and wail toward the rafters, “I am nobody, I am nothing.” They were overheard on a few of these occasions by the janitor sweeping in the hall. One day he decided to try it himself. He slipped into the empty sanctuary, stood by the altar, gazed toward the ceiling, and cried out, “I am nobody, I am nothing.” Two of the clergy happened to be walking by and looked in. “Oh,” said the one to the other, “look who thinks he’s a nobody.”

Thus we are apt to co-opt ourselves, make our own humility into aggrandizement. Arguably many of the virtues are this way. Humility may offer the clearest case, but it might also be that the one who says she is courageous, isn’t. The one who proclaims his patience, will turn out to not be very patient. Beware of someone who makes a point of insisting how honest they are. It’s when we think we are wise that we are most like to be foolish. So maybe it isn’t just humility that is hidden from the one who possesses it. Perhaps courage, patience, honesty, wisdom, and many other virtues are aspirations we are better off never supposing we have attained.

Maybe. Still. Though there is something suspect about dwelling too much on any positive quality, just saying “I have a high level of humility” has a flavor of self-contradiction that saying “I have a high level of compassion” does not.

So what I think most of us do is come at it from the other side: by examining ourselves for signs of vanity or arrogance. These – if we aren’t too narcissistic or sociopathic -- we trim back – either as a matter of expedience, sincere contrition, or just growing weary of being full of ourselves – and as to whether, through this process, we approach humility, we don’t ask ourselves that.

David Hume (1711-1776)
Moreover, one might suspect that humility is not really a virtue at all. How is abasing ourselves – refusing a healthy self-esteem – a good thing? Baruch Spinoza in the 17th-century warned against “thinking too meanly of oneself.” David Hume in the 18th century had strong doubts about the whole set of qualities that he called “monkish virtues” – “celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, [and] solitude.” He said they tended to “stupefy the understanding and harden the heart; obscure the fancy, and sour the temper.” He went on to say they
“serve no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment.”
Thus Frank Lloyd Wright quipped:
“Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.”
Indeed, humility has an unfortunate history of being urged upon those abused or treated unjustly. The downtrodden and oppressed have for too long been told to humbly submit to what is wrong. In the hands of those at the top of the social hierarchy, recommendations of humility are a tool for shoring up hierarchy lest it crumble from the weight of its injustices. That’s an abstract way to say it, but to African Americans, historically, the consequences of being perceived as uppity have been anything but abstract. The blows and degradations dealt to women told to humbly submit to abusive relationships are anything but abstract. So contemporary philosopher Stephen Hare argued that humility is “at best a saving grace for the mediocre and at worst an excuse for passivity towards human wrongs.”

Properly understood, however, humility, like many other virtues, is a middle way between extremes. Vanity and arrogance are at one extreme, and denial of one's own worth and dignity would be at the other.

In Medieval times, the interest in avoiding vanity and arrogance, and in magnifying the glory of God by putting ourselves down, led to extremes of self-abasement. Thomas Aquinas said that humility involved “self-abasement to the lowest place.” It was a time when self-flagellation counted as a spiritual practice, as did meditations upon how wretched, vile, and corrupt one was. No wonder that Spinoza and Hume, as the Western world turned from its Medieval period to modernity, helped articulate the emerging new sensibility by criticizing the Medieval conception of humility.

Whether one’s energies go into thinking about how great one is or into thinking about how lowly and worthless one is, the energies are nevertheless fixated on the self. Self-abasement and self-aggrandizement have in common a preoccupation with self.

Humility, properly conceived, however, is a decentering of the self – not a putting down, but a shifting of focus away from. Thus, as C.S. Lewis noted, "humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less."

The word “humility” comes to us from the Latin “humilis” meaning "lowly, humble," literally "on the ground.” It’s related to “humus,” originally meaning "earth." While the Medievals emphasized the lowliness of the Earth, and thought of it as vile and corrupt, we might, instead, draw a different moral from this etymology. Humility is being well-grounded. It is rooted in that ground from which all life comes -- rather than being an uprooted bubble of self-preoccupation.

The Latin "humus" has evolved from a general reference to earth to a more specific meaning. Humus today means the organic component of soil, formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material by soil microorganisms and essential to the fertility of the earth. How lovely! Humility, then, is being fertile, supporting life growing from you and through you.

When, recognizing that a self-centered life is barren and sterile, we give ourselves over to nourishing growth and life around us, then we are people of humility.

When we take in the resources available to us, the influences and teachings that fall upon us like leaves; and when we practice at the skills and arts of compassion, thus decomposing those resources and learnings into organic matter -- sustenance for others -- then we are people of humility.

When we become thus the ground of flourishing for the whole interrelated ecosystem around us, then we are people of humility.

This humility is not helped by denying that we have worth and value. What we have learned since the Medievals is that the Earth may be low, but it is not vile, wretched, or corrupt. Nor does the earth bother with denying its value. It doesn’t bother with affirming its value either. It just takes in everything, and offers back everything.

Shifting the metaphor from earth to water: like water, all things flow. Flowing water is a necessity of life. The body’s need is not so much to have water as for water to be continually flowing through it. (Letting it out is as necessary as taking it in!) We are as drops of water, here to participate in the flow of existence, wholeheartedly, with all our being.

I don’t believe we are here to make our indelible mark. That’s just ego talking. Saxon White Kessinger uses water to make this point:
Sometime when you’re feeling important;
Sometime when your ego’s in bloom
Sometime when you take it for granted
You’re the best qualified in the room,

Sometime when you feel that your going
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions
And see how they humble your soul;

Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining
Is a measure of how you’ll be missed.

You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop and you’ll find that in no time
It looks quite the same as before.
We aren't here to make our mark or be remembered, but simply to add our portion to the flow of the world.

It took the whole universe to make you. It took the big bang, and the Hubble constant, which I don’t really understand, and the speed of light being what it is. It took gravity -- which is so weird! Why should gravitational attraction exist -- proportional to the mass of the objects and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them? But it does, and gravitational attraction pulled hydrogen atoms together into stars, which forged the heavier elements included in the formation of our planet. And that's just the beginning of what it took to make you.

It took carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen coming together into certain proteins with a shape that, like a mold, made copies of itself from surrounding material, which grew into cells, which variegated into all the life forms we have.

It took sunlight and soil, the water cycle of rain, and the chance encounter of your parents’ first meeting, and their parents’, and the million chance encounters of two million of your ancestors. It took a lot of sex to make you!

And, sadly, not all of it was what we would call consensual – and the accumulated generations of wounding from that reality is also a part of what made you.

It took millennia of plagues, famines, war, conquest, enslavement and genocide to make the modern world that made you.

It also took occasional acts of kindness and love.
It took spiritual insights and scientific insights.
It took explorers and poets,
judges and codifiers of laws,
artists and musicians,
and countless generations of lives devoted to the tending of home and children.
It took 4,000 years of schools and teachers.

It took all of that to make you. It took the whole universe, and what it made is unique and precious. Your particular combination of skills and talents; knowledge, memories, and insights; quirks and preferences; habits and hopes – the sound of your voice -- that way you move your hand -- the things that make you laugh -- the things that make you cry -- your face. They have never existed before all together in one person, and never will again.

And here you are to bring all of who you are to this world we share. Not in order to leave your mark. The world is marked up enough.

Not in order to be remembered. Even the most famous names in history are to us abstractions, just names and a few deeds or words. The fullness of your personhood is held in the consciousness of those who know you now. None of them hold all of it; they each hold a part. So when you are gone, the collective memory of you diminishes with the subsequent passing of each person who knew you – until nothing is left but the dry abstractions in records. Whether those records are few or voluminous; widely noted, pored over, and celebrated, or scarcely glanced at -- either way the dynamic fullness of your personhood cannot be revived to be known again. Even if your name is remembered, your name is not you. All of us, including you, will be, in every important sense, forgotten.

Moreover, what desiccated details of our lives future generations may judge worth retelling is not our concern. That is a part of their project of crafting the story of who they are and how they came to be, and we must leave that project to them.

Yet here you are now in your wonderful and precious uniqueness – here to be forgotten but here now. You're here to add your love to the onward flow of all things; to transfer forward the nutrients that made you, filtering out some of the toxins you’ve also absorbed. You’re here to add your creative new ideas, your reiteration of favorite old ideas, your soaring dreams, and your careworn anxieties to the ongoing regenerating and evolving of life.

If words about humility help us keep this in mind, then perhaps they are worth saying.


The Uses of Anger -- and the Manipulations

Do you get angry? How do you know when you’re angry? Do you decide to be angry? If you do, isn’t that a little calculating? And if you don’t decide to be angry, who does? If it isn’t you who decides to be angry, the who is it, really, who is angry?

Do you think about questions like these? Do you decide to think about them?

Back to anger. How do you feel about your own anger? Is it embarrassing? Do you wish you had less of it – that, however it arises or wherever it comes from, it would visit you less often?

Anger comes to visit us uninvited. Unless we’re stage-acting, it’s uninvited. Yes, we can decide to suppress it or not. And we can decide what to do with it if we don’t suppress it. Overall, we can decide to adopt practices to cultivate character traits that over time will make a visit from anger less, or more, likely. But we don’t decide in the moment whether anger will come knocking.

There’s a wiring built into us for getting angry, and there’s a correlating wiring built into us for when someone around us is angry – it grabs our attention. Whether they are angry AT you or angry FOR you (on your behalf), or expressing anger at a third party, it’s hard to focus on anything else when someone around you is angry. There are good reasons for both of those wirings: getting angry and paying attention to others’ anger. They have positive jobs to do. But they can be manipulated.

The spiritual task, as ever, is to grow closer to the better angels of our nature -- to appreciate the grace of anger when it is a grace -- and to have the wisdom to see through manipulations and be liberated from them. For that spiritual task, I hope this morning to offer some understandings that will help.

* * *
Greenfield, MA, 1917
Back in 1977 – 42 years ago -- psychology professor James Averill mailed a questionnaire to every resident of Greenfield, Massachusetts, population 18,000. It was a questionnaire about anger. It asked, for instance: “Try to recall the number of times you became annoyed and/or angry during the past week.” And: “Describe the most angry of these experiences.”

The 14-page questionnaire asked about phases of anger, was there shouting, were punches thrown, was there a desire for vengeance, and afterward did you feel “triumphant, confident, and dominant,” or “ashamed, embarrassed, and guilty”? It asked about being the target of someone else’s anger, how did that feel, did it catch you by surprise, how did you react or respond?

In the late 70s, the prevailing feeling among psychologists, as it had been for at least a generation, was that anger was a base and instinctual vestige of our savage past that no longer served any useful purpose. Mature people and mature societies didn’t need anger. If anger did make an appearance, it was an embarrassment – a problem to be solved. Averill, however, suspected that anger was both more common and more useful than his colleagues generally assumed. So he set out to ask ordinary Americans – in an ordinary town, like Greenfield, Massachusetts – people who get upset at co-workers, who yell during rush hour.

Averill expected most people would throw the survey in the trash. He expected that most people would say they only infrequently lost their temper. He expected they would say they felt embarrassed afterwards. He expected they would say that their anger only made things worse. He was wrong on all four.

He was flooded with responses – the highest response rate for a mailed questionnaire he’d ever seen. People were delighted at the chance to tell someone what made them mad. Some of them attached thank you notes.

One woman described her fury when her husband bought a new car and drove it to his mistress’s house so she could admire the purchase. She wasn’t so mad about the mistress – she’d had suspicions for years – and frankly, she felt that any other woman willing to take her husband could have him. But how dare he show the car to her first?

Others were more mundane: arguments over taking out the trash, snappish tones at dinner. Overall, Averill found: “Most people report becoming mildly to moderately angry anywhere from several times a day to several times a week.” Angry episodes were usually short and restrained conversations. They rarely became blowout fights.

People didn’t feel embarrassed about anger but were pleased to talk about the indignities that provoked them. Moreover, anger did not make things worse. When an angry teenager shouted about his curfew, his parents agreed to modifications—as long as the teen promised to improve his grades.

Anger is a way of impressing upon others that there’s something here that needs to be worked out – and it orients them to then actually work it out rather than ignoring the issue or letting it slide. Anger gets our attention – as the producers of reality TV know. In our family and our community relationships, that can be a good thing. Averill found that,
“In the vast majority of cases, expressing anger resulted in all parties becoming more willing to listen, more inclined to speak honestly, more accommodating of each other’s complaints. People reported that they tended to be much happier after yelling at an offending party. They felt relieved, more optimistic about the future, more energized.... More than two-thirds of the recipients of anger ‘said they came to realize their own faults,’ Averill wrote. Their ‘relationship with the angry person was reportedly strengthened more often than it was weakened, and the targets more often gained rather than lost respect for the angry person.’”
And the enraged wife with the unfaithful husband who bought a new car? Even in that case, her anger “led to a productive conversation: he could keep the mistress as long as she was out of sight and as long as the wife always took priority.”

Subsequent studies have found that
“we’re more likely to perceive people who express anger as competent, powerful, and the kinds of leaders who will overcome challenges.... We’re often more creative when we’re angry.”
That’s good news about anger at the level of our relationships. It gets our attention so that issues can be addressed that need to be addressed to repair and sustain relationships.

There’s also good news about anger at the social level. When anger morphs into moral outrage, it drives movements for social change. Peter Starobin asks,
“Where would America be without its anger? Perhaps still under Colonial rule, if those rowdy upstarts had never tossed British tea into Boston Harbor. Perhaps still mired in a slave-based economy, if not for the prodding of yes, vitriolic abolitionists.” (Atlantic, 2004 Jan/Feb)
Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Cesar Chavez channeled moral outrage about injustice and oppression into positive change. More recently, there’s the anger and outrage of the Black Lives Matter movement and the #MeToo movement.

W. Va. Teachers, 2018
In fact, we are in the midst of a upsurge of socially directed anger that writers began noticing at least 15 years ago and which shows no sign of cresting. It’s been less than a year and half since women, mostly, blew a Harvey-sized hole in the news cycle. (As of Sun Feb 24:) It was a year and 10 days ago that the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School led to the righteous anger of Parkland, Florida teenagers that got the nation’s attention on gun violence when it seemed that nothing, no matter the scale of the tragedy, ever would. It was a year and two days ago that the teacher strike in West Virginia began – which has been followed by strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Colorado – in Los Angeles, and in Virginia – and there may be more to come. These strikes are driven by moral outrage from years of neglect of teachers and the schools they serve.

Anger is powerful, and not just for men. Last fall, Rebecca Traister’s book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, was much discussed for its case that women are ready to express the anger they have long suppressed, and this can propel a “potentially revolutionary movement.” And a brand new book by Brittany Cooper – released four days ago – is titled Eloquent Rage.
“I’m not really into self-help books, so I don’t have one of those catchy three-step plans for changing the world. What I have is anger. Rage, actually. And that’s the place where more women should begin – with the things that make us angry.” (Brittany Cooper, Eloquent Rage)
For this sentiment, the Dixie Chicks provide the anthem: “Not Ready to Make Nice”
“I'm not ready to make nice,
I'm not ready to back down,
I'm still mad as hell,...
Can't bring myself to do what it is
You think I should.”

So there’s two things that anger does – two positive functions of anger: signal a need for, and bring attention to, relationship repair; and, when it morphs into moral outrage, drive movements for social change.

The anger response – and our response to anger from others – is part of our wiring today because these responses were helpfully adaptive for our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived in small bands where everyone could know everyone else. Anger gets our attention – makes us notice. That’s what it needs to do, so we can address the issue. But television shows manipulate that wiring not so we can repair a relationship, but just to increase their ratings.

It started over 30 years ago on Geraldo Rivera’s daytime talk show. When he invited white supremacists and black and Jewish activists, a brawl broke out, Geraldo’s nose was broken – and the ratings were great. Daytime shout-fests began making their way onto cable news in 1996 – the year that both Fox News and MSNBC got started. On one station Bill O’Reilly and later Sean Hannity, and on another station, Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow, found ratings success by playing on their viewers’ discontent. Hearing one’s own indignations given voice by a bombastic host proved even more irresistible than watching people shout at each other. These commentators aren’t organizing marches, demonstrations, campaigns, boycotts, sit-ins, or strikes. They just want you to keep tuning in. It’s all about viewership.

Then came social media. Social media sometimes does organize movements: Black Lives Matter and MeToo started as hashtags.The 2017 Women’s March originated and was organized on Facebook. At the same time, our wiring makes anger feel good when it gets a response, and on social media the reward of likes, shares, and retweets encourages us to a continual flow of angry posts. The wiring we have for repairing important relationships is hijacked into rewarding us for “likes” from strangers – and is manipulated for TV ratings.

Our anger impulse can also be manipulated in other ways. After James Averill’s questionnaire in 1977, a raft of publications and studies began to appear investigating anger. And businesses were reading them to figure out how to profit. Most striking is the case of a debt-collection agency that trained its callers in strategic use of anger.
“Even when the debtors on the other end of the line sounded friendly, the collectors were trained to pretend they were angry at them.... Callers needed to hear a ‘hostile tone,’ something that said, ‘I want the payment today!’”
This might prompt conciliatory assurances, or it might prompt the debtor to start screaming back, in which case the caller would then
“become soothing and accommodating.... The idea was, once you get them angry and aroused, you [then] deliver catharsis, a sense of relief. That’s going to make them more likely to pay up.”
The caller would affect a sympathetic tone:
“Look, I know you’ve got a problem. I hope nothing I did set you off, because neither of us is going to benefit if we don’t resolve this thing. It was incredibly effective.... People would be so charged up from getting mad and then so relieved you weren’t blaming them anymore, and so they’d agree to nearly anything.”
That’s exactly how anger needs to work in addressing and repairing relationships – and it is here manipulated where there is no relationship.
Nor are bill collectors alone. Businesses schools have courses in how to display and intentionally provoke anger in negotiations and in dealing with a certain kind of customer.

* * *
The Unitarian Universalist conception of the religious and spiritual quest, as I’ve noted before, places connection at the center. Anger is a part of how we connect. People who are angry want to be heard. They’ll usually say they want something done, but first – and what often turns out to be sufficient – is they want to be heard. Anger is pretty effective at getting attention so they can be heard. If you show them a sympathetic hearing, reflecting back what they’re saying, the anger dissipates.

Sometimes they begin thinking about whether they were being unreasonable. Saying “be reasonable,” rarely helps – but demonstratively understanding what they are angry about will often shift them into a concern to appear reasonable. They see they don’t need to push their point. They can now open up to consider other points. That’s the dynamic that the bill collectors were manipulating and exploiting.

It can also be used in positive ways. A few years ago, some Israeli social scientists conducted an experiment disguised as an advertising campaign. They created a campaign of online ads, brochures, and billboards targeted at the Giv’at Shmuel suburb of Tel Aviv. This was a heavily religious, hardline right-wing, anti-Palestinian area. These were angry people. It seemed unlikely that anything could persuade them to shift in the direction of favoring a freeze on construction of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank.

Instead of trying to make the case that the Giv’at Shmuel residents were wrong, the ad campaign told them they were right. The ads intimated that a perpetual war with Israel’s neighbors was a good thing. They extolled the virtues of fighting for fighting’s sake. They showed iconic photos of Israeli war heroes with text that said,
“Without [war] we wouldn’t have had heroes. For the heroes, we probably need the conflict.”
The online ad had audio from Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries.”
“Another ad featured footage of a soldier with a machine gun petting a kitten and an infantryman helping an old man cross the street.”
‘What a Wonderful World’ played in the background. Its tagline read,
“Without [war] we would never be moral. For morality, we probably need the conflict.”
The ads exaggerated actual attitudes only in that the ads made explicit what was implicit in the attitudes. The study determined that over six weeks nearly all the suburb’s 25,000 residents saw the ads. They found that,
“The percentage of right-leaning residents who said that Arabs were solely responsible for Israel’s past wars decreased by 23 percent. The number of conservatives who said Israel should be more aggressive toward Palestinians fell by 17 percent.
Incredibly, even though the advertisements never mentioned settlements, 78 percent more people said that Israel should consider freezing construction in the West Bank and Gaza. (Residents in nearby towns who hadn’t seen the ads were surveyed as a control; they showed no such evolution in their views over the same period.)”
An L.A. Times piece explained how this worked:
"The idea is to exaggerate a person's core belief in such a way that it leads the believer to see his or her stance as irrational. For example, imagine if a friend with a two-pack-a-day habit said to you, 'All those studies that say smoking causes cancer don't prove anything.' Using the paradoxical thinking technique, you might respond, 'Totally! Lung cancer obviously has nothing to do with smoking.' That statement would probably sound extreme and illogical, even to your friend, and it might cause her to wonder if her own statement sounded kind of extreme too. In turn, she might reevaluate how she thinks about smoking and its relationship to lung cancer — at least a little." (Deborah Netburn, "How to Counter People with Extreme Views: Try Agreeing with Them," LA Times, 2016 Oct 14)
When your position is heard, you don’t have to keep pushing for it. When the implications of your position are brought out – not in a way that seems intended to challenge you, but in apparent sympathy with those implications – it holds up a mirror that lets you see yourself.

Just as with the bill collectors, it’s a kind of conciliation to the anger, which then makes the angry person more agreeable. What both cases illustrate is that when people are assured that they have been sympathetically heard, they step into a different space. They give themselves the freedom to think again about their own position.

We want to build connections. It’s hard to remember that we can’t change other people’s minds – they can only change their own minds. The most we can do is give them some space in which they might re-think – and we do that by hearing them – slowing down, taking time to demonstrate in detail the understanding we have for them and what they’re saying.

And be aware that opinion writers, news channels, salesfolk, and businesses in various ways have a monetary interest in your anger. You get to decide whether to give it to them.

* * *


What Do You Want to Want?

Part 1.

So. Desire. But WHICH desires?

Have you noticed how many of the seven deadly sins are desires? Lust, gluttony, greed. Envy is a comparative desire: comparing myself to others, I desire as good or better than what they have. Vanity is a sort of reversal of envy: it’s conviction that others must envy me -- rooted in the desire that they do so. And anger – that’s what you feel when a desire is thwarted. That’s six of the seven deadly sins that are malfunctions or excesses of desire.

Pope Gregory I in the 6th century delineated these seven deadly sins. Calling them sins probably only encourages judgment, self-judgment, and repression -- which millennia of Christendom’s experience show don’t work all that well. “The Return of the Repressed” might be the title of a very fat history of Western Civilization. Still, Pope Gregory was right that greed, lust, gluttony – and envy, vanity, and anger – can be problems for us and those around us.

On the other hand, desirelessness is also problematic. The one deadly sin not yet mentioned is sloth – which is the sin of desirelessness.
Without any desires, we have no motivation and are sunk in sloth.

Desire can take us to soaring heights of passionate intensity that makes life delicious and glorious. Desire for inner peace and equanimity can take us to contemplative practices that cultivate compassion, gentleness, and wise insight. So it’s not a question of desire or don’t desire – it’s a question of which desires are worth throwing yourself into with abandon – and which ones warrant a little disciplined, well, if not self-denial, then re-direction of the energies.

There's a passage from Walden in which Henry David Thoreau said:
“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 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.”
As I bob along on the current of Thoreau’s paean to the glory of giving yourself over to desire, I find I abruptly run aground at the word, “Spartan-like.” The famously austere and disciplined Spartans represent pretty much the exact opposite of hedonist indulgence. Clearly, Thoreau did not equate a life of desire with a life of gratifying every impulse.

The thing is, we are, each of us, a hodge-podge of conflicting desires. Some of them are the joy of life. Some of them make us miserable. So what do we do? First, notice what these things are, desires, how they come to us, how they arise without our having chosen them. The main desires that drive your life, for better or for worse, weren’t ones you picked. If we were to personify Desire, we’d say our desires picked us, we didn’t pick them.

Part 2. (Part 2 duplicates the first part of "Creature Comforts" -- HERE. Readers who have already read "Creature Comforts" may wish to skip to part 3.)

I was intrigued to learn that the word desire comes from the Latin de sidere. “Sidere” is the root of “sidereal,” meaning “of or relating to the stars.” The suggestion is that our desires are “written in the stars.” We are fated to desire what we desire. Desire is the name of something we don’t choose, that isn’t rationally determined, and that it’s our fate to have.

We call it “freedom” when you can do what you like, but we overlook that you haven’t decided what you like. Brian Magee writes:
“If I am ordering a meal in a restaurant, I may be free to choose whatever I like from among the alternatives on the menu. But I am not free to choose what I like shall be. I cannot say to myself: 'Up to this point in my life I have always detested spinach, but just for today I am going to like it.' What I am in the mood for, and what I like or detest, are not at my command.”
Philosopher William Irvine was struck by the case of Thomas Merton. In his college years, Merton was a hard drinker who ran with a fast crowd and fathered a child out of wedlock. Merton would later describe his young adult self as
“an extremely unpleasant sort of person – vain, self-centered, dissolute, weak, irresolute, undisciplined, sensual, obscene, and proud. . . . a mess.”
Then, out of the blue, Merton felt a desire to convert to Catholicism. He took instruction, got baptized, and became a Catholic. Shortly thereafter, he got another spontaneous desire: to become a priest. He tried the Franciscans for a while. And then a third desire: to be a Trappist monk. He didn’t know where the desire came from, but there it was: powerful, irresistible, clear.

William Irvine recounts Merton’s story, and finds it very disturbing.
“It raises the possibility that we are all just three spontaneous desires away from life in a Trappist Monastery.”
That’s disturbing to Irvine because he hasn’t had those desires. It startles him to realize that he could. We don’t control what desires come: Merton becoming a monk; Siddhartha Gautama leaving behind the palace of pleasure for practices of severe austerity, and eventually leaving those behind for the Middle Way.

Less famous cases of shifting the direction of one’s life are common. Every year, 18-year-olds show up on college campuses intent on a Business degree – and somewhere in the next year or two some of them decide that what they really desire is to study 18th-century French poetry.
Or maybe they show up intending to major in art history and discover that what they really love are the complexities and challenges of the finance industry. Our calling comes to us as a desire to be a certain sort of person, follow a certain path. It’s called “calling” because we don’t choose it. We are called to it, as if by a voice, as if written in the stars in writing that, suddenly or slowly, becomes clear.
Desire emerged in animals because the ones that desired certain things that made surviving and reproducing more likely were naturally selected for.

Evolution made certain things feel good, which is to say, desired. William James pondered the case of chickens who build nests and tend the eggs in them despite never having done so before, never having seen other chickens do that. Squirrels gather and bury nuts, even in their first year when they have no experience of winter and don’t realize food will become scarce. James says the hen tends her eggs because she finds them “utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much sat upon.” It feels good to her to sit on her eggs. It feels bad not to – if she is prevented from sitting on her eggs, she feels anxious. She tends her eggs because she wants to – she has a desire to. She wants to because it feels good to do that and feels bad not do it.

Once we have organisms with the emotions, memory, and cognition required to have pursuable desires – then chains of desire form.
That is, some things feel good just because they are instrumental for getting something else that feels good. I want A for no reason other than that it leads to B, which I want for no reason other than that it leads to C. And then we begin to be organisms who enjoy doing some things where the chain of connection back to something that increased our odds of surviving and reproducing is so long the links become invisible.

Mountain-climber George Mallory, asked in 1923 why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, famously replied, “because it’s there.”
For Mallory, mountains are to be climbed.

When John Kennedy in 1962 declared that “we choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy, but because it is hard” he was appealing to this desire for accomplishment even when disconnected from any purpose for accomplishing it. (As an aside, I have to mention that, in fact, the space program wasn’t so disconnected from perceived threats to survival. It was driven by cold war military objectives of impressing upon the Soviet Union that we had the capacity to deliver Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles to the other side of the globe. It was an intimidation display such as is common throughout the animal kingdom. Still, the idea of doing something just because it’s hard felt good and was inspiring for a lot of Americans.)

Indeed, birds evidently feel some satisfaction in a nest well built even independent of their desire to have a place to sit on eggs. We gather this because some species build multiple nests and end up using only one. Some ornithologists will hazard one of several guesses about why birds do this, but most will just say “we don’t know.” Whatever the reason, it’s evident that those birds desire to build nests. They build them because nests are to be built. They do it not because it is easy but because it is hard.

We are made of desires. We don’t choose them. Advertisers and grifters can easily manipulate them. Even something as fundamental as the desire to live is astonishingly easy to change if you have access to a brain and know where to place the electrodes, as in the case of the woman receiving treatment for Parkinson’s when the electrodes were slightly misplaced. Or, as Leo Tolstoy experienced, we might find the desire for life itself going away for no evident cause.

Part 3.

But if desires can be manipulated – by accident or by design – can we manipulate our own? Can you choose that you’re going to like spinach if you have always detested it? Not on the spur of the moment, no. Over time, though, yes, tastes and desires can be cultivated. There’s a sometimes-delicate-sometimes-rough dance between our fixed biology and what can be cultivated. Some people have more taste receptors on their tongue particularly sensitive to the bitterness in spinach and others don’t. It’ll be harder, but not impossible, for them to train themselves to like it. And why should they?

More significant desires might be worth the effort to cultivate. This requires intentionality and most of the time most of us don’t bring much intentionality to the development of desires – we just let them develop as they will.

So. What do you want? And ultimately more important: What do you want to want?

As we set about to cultivate and weed the garden of our desires, I think we’d get rid of most of the desires for things that we have no control over. Yes, some times it can be fun to desire things we have no control over – cheering for your sports team on TV when you have no way to have any affect on the game’s outcome, for instance. Gambling can be enjoyable – in fact it can be so enjoyable that it becomes a life-ruining addiction. We are wired to enjoy – to crave -- that hit of dopamine that comes will a lucky roll. It can be a fun indulgence if reserved for rare occasions and affordable amounts.

Generally, though, desiring what we have no control over leads to miserable and pointless worry and anxiety. If you think you don’t have this problem, let me remind you that once you have cast your ballot in an election, you have no further control over the outcome. So how late were you up on the night of Tuesday November 8, 2016, and how upset were you about an outcome you couldn’t do anything more about? Pretty late – and pretty upset? Yeah, me, too.

Some desires may be impossible to achieve, and we make ourselves miserable pursuing them, and ashamed of ourselves for not attaining them.
The image of the body we think we ought to have may be unrealistic, for example.

If we are choosing what to want, I think we’d probably make sure not to have any addictions. Addiction can happen not only with drugs, alcohol, gambling, food, or sex but also with shopping, TV shows, or the news – or work (hence the word “workaholic.”) Any activity can take on addictive quality if it gives us a temporary pleasure but hijacks our better judgment so that we find ourselves indulging even when we know the activity is contributing neither to our productivity nor to our overall well-being and happiness.

Which desires would we keep?

There are universal and recurrent needs: food, air, rest and sleep, fun and laughter, meaningful work to do, aesthetic experience, sexual expression, empathy and understanding, affirmation of trust, of respect. These are universal in that everyone wants these, and recurrent in that our desire for them is roughly proportional to how long it’s been since we had some.

We’d probably also like to be the sort of person who is at peace with themselves, compassionate, gentle, and wise. If we aren’t sociopaths or severely narcissistic, we want to love well and have relationships of depth and meaning. We want to be the sort of person who has caring connection to other people, other beings, nature, our neighborhood, town, or city. We want to be the sort of person who can experience joy in our circumstances, whatever they may be. Those are nearly universal – pretty much everybody wants those things, and wants to want them.

What about desires that are unique to you? Your calling or passion – whether it’s creative writing or stock brokering – is something you want and want to want. You didn’t choose your passion, but if you’ve got one, you probably want to it – maybe even amplify it.

I’m not going to talk about how to cultivate desire. You can google “how to cultivate desire” and get lots of good ideas and strategies. But the first step is deciding to bring intentionality to it – deciding to seriously ask yourself, not “what do I want?” but “what do I want to want?”

Most people never undertake to revise the desires written in their stars. The degree to which we can re-write our stars is limited, but we can do some editing. So, before cranking up the google to search for "how to cultivate desire," I suggest making a list of what you want to want. Take a few days to reflect on and add to your list. That’s the essential first step.

This first step is a discernment, not a decision. It's about self-discovery; about taking a deep-dive into interpreting what you can make out of what's written in your stars, teasing out the most important themes of that muddled and often contradictory text.

Second step, hit google for some ideas.

Third step: talk to other people in your life about the changes you’re trying to make. We really need to create networks of accountability for ourselves if we trying to make a change – friends who we promise to regularly report to, and who will ask us about it if we don’t. Without forming this support structure for yourself, your intentions will go the way of the vast majority of New Year’s resolutions.

What do you want to want? If you don’t get clear about that now, you, too, might end up in a Trappist monastery. Or maybe, if you DO get clear about that then you’ll head to a monastery. May it be your best, most thoughtful self that makes that choice.


Grief Amid Denial

Seven weeks ago, on December 23, I preached a sermon, “Reality Amid Ideology.” The ideology at issue was exceptionalism – the sense of being God’s favorite and under a special divine blessing. US exceptionalism goes back to John Winthrop, the Puritan governor in 17th century New England who told his fellow Puritans they were creating “a city set upon a hill.” The Monroe Doctrine articulated in 1823 declared that the Americas were off limits to any further European colonization – effectively ensuring US hegemony over two continents. Theodore Roosevelt’s imperialism acquired the Philippines and reached into Korea, Japan, and China, driven by a sense of uniquely American Manifest Destiny, and the racist conviction that Asian peoples were inferior to what Roosevelt called our Anglo-Saxon, our Teutonic – he even sometimes said Aryan -- civilization.

More recently, the ideology of US exceptionalism is expressed in four ways.

First, as military force. The American empire has displaced the old European empires, and we have been the world’s only superpower. Our military passion is evident in our literal flag-waving, our mania for displaying the US flag, and in the weird emotions we have around our national anthem. (Heaven forbid anyone should kneel during the required worship of our “rocket’s red glare”!)

Second, economic domination. Globalization has meant US domination. US control of natural resources and international markets drove a flourishing US economy and produced an inordinately high standard of living in this country. We have had a sense of "entitlement to the resources and goods of the world for our own benefit.”

Third, racism. Our exceptionalism as a nation has been enmeshed with our sense of national identity as a nation of people of northern European descent. There are reviled “others” – African Americans, rooted in the slave trade; Asian Americans, long regarded as the “yellow peril”; Hispanic Americans regarded as a threat to jobs for “real Americans” -- for a sense of the racial purity of the ruling class is a deep part of our history. I remind you there were anti-miscegenation laws, forbidding interracial marriage, in 16 states up until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck them down.

Fourth, religion. The Protestantism of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants purveyed a “God and country” patriotism over Biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger and embody neighborliness. But 9/11 was a blow to the myth of American exceptionalism – we saw that we are not immune to attacks we liked to think only happened in other countries.

US military hegemony is waning. Every year the war in Afghanistan drags on, the limitations on what military force can accomplish become more and more evident.

US economic dominance is waining. We certainly remain economically powerful, but no longer dominate. Meetings of the G8, for instance, have been cow-towing to US interests less and less – and that was before the 2016 election.

Preferred racial-ethnic singularity is waning. The ethnically northern-European have lost the capacity to maintain “our kind of America.”

And simplistic moral certitudes are waning. The old-line Protestant churches are in institutional free fall in numbers, dollars, and missional energy.

None of the things we’ve lost and are losing were ever good or healthy things to have. Military dominance inevitably turns the possessor into the global bully. Economic dominance was never sustainable. Racism has always been our scourge. And religious institutions that saw no need to distinguish between Bible-thumping and flag-waving were never conducive to real spiritual flourishing.

None of those things were good things to have. But each of them did provide certain delusional comfort to a lot of people. In the face of the loss of those comforts, one can grieve and relinquish – come to accept that the world no longer has what has been lost – or one can go into denial. Many Americans have and are opting for denial.

The attempts to cling to what has been lost manifest in many ways. For instance, we have an essentially racist and certainly classist prison system – in which the number Americans in prison, which had been 196,000 in 1972, exceeded 1.5 million in 2007. We almost octupled our prison population in those 35 years. As a proportion of population, we went from 93 imprisoned per 100,000 population in 1972 to 506 per 100,000 in 2007. (Since 2007 incarceration numbers have been dropping only slightly.)

Twenty-seven states have legislatively adopted stand-your-ground laws since 2005. The gun lobby has become unrestrained. Our government regards torture as a viable procedure. These are the responses of a people that feels threatened. They are attempts violently to shore up old privilege and entitlement and fend off reality.

With the old delusional comforts slipping away, these are attempts want to get them back – to make America “great” again – meaning, push away the mounting evidence that US exceptionalism was always a dangerous delusion.

One may see parallels to this sort of phenomenon in other empires through history, but today we’ll look at the parallel case offered by a city-state: Jerusalem, before, during, and after the Babylonian Captivity. That’s because Jerusalem had prophets – figures such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, et al.

These figures offer us some helpful resources for us in our present situation. In particular, these prophet-poets played an important role of giving public voice to grieving.

In the centuries before the Babylonian Captivity, Jerusalem, too, was in the grip of an ideology of exceptionalism. From the covenant of Abraham, and then the covenant of Moses, the Israelites understood themselves as God’s chosen people. They felt they had a divine guarantee. The oracle Nathan had told David in 2nd Samuel:
“Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”
The assurance is reiterated to Solomon in 1st Kings – that the Temple shall endure:
“The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.”
The ruling elites, sure of their protection, co-opted chosenness into the ideology that kept them in power – and kept oppressed laborers oppressed.
God was on the side of the powerful, and they need not hold themselves accountable to the poor, the widowed, the vulnerable.

The prophets called out the urban elite for their “arrogance, pride, and self-indulgence.” Around the middle of the 700s BCE, Amos and Hosea were active. Then Isaiah and Micah were active until the end of that century. Then there’s a gap of some 70 years before Jeremiah’s 40-year career as a prophet. The texts we have of these prophets provide us with poems indicting the wealthy class for imagining themselves “the center of the universe and not accountable" to anyone for anything. “The elite have manipulated the markets, paid low wages, foreclosed on homes, and managed the economy in their interest to the detriment of others” (Brueggemann). The elite have, in short, said the prophets, failed at both of the two central commandments: love God, and love neighbor.

Then in 597 BCE Babylonian forces deposed Judah’s King Jehoiakim and sent him and his family into exile along with his court and thousands of others. Eleven years later, 586 BCE, in response to uprising among the remaining Israelites, Babylonia’s King Nebuchadnezzar crushed the rebellion, destroyed the temple, and deported thousands more back to slavery in Babylon. Through the period of enslavement far from home, the Hebrew people maintained their national spirit and religious identity. There was a Jewish community led by elders and the first synagogues were established. Then, 48 years after the destruction of the Temple, in 538 BCE, Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylonia and freed the Jews to return home – a people shaken and forever changed by the experience.

Perhaps this calamity was the judgment of God, as the prophets said. “Or perhaps it was the inexorable outcome of policies of abuse and exploitation in which widows, orphans, and immigrants” suffered. Or maybe those two are the same thing: “judgment of God” being another way of saying “inexorable outcome of policies.” Another possibility, not considered by the prophets, was that the destruction and captivity “was simply the consequence of Babylonian expansionism at the expense of a weaker state” (45), and would have happened regardless of Judah’s policies.

Walter Breuggemann writes:
“In any case, the end did come with great force and brutality....But the urban elites clustered around king and temple had not seen it coming. They imagined that their life was so good, so successful, and so guaranteed that it would not be interrupted. The practitioners of the ideology of exceptionalism in Jerusalem – chosen city, chosen king, chosen temple – lived in a state of denial about their coming future. Ideology as false consciousness does that to us. It gives us a constructed, contained view of reality that covers over the facts on the ground and offers us instead a preferred set of facts that reassures and confirms the way we thought and wished the world were. When the ideology is one of assurance issuing in entitlement and privilege, it will not be interrupted by facts of the ground, for such facts are characteristically ‘inconvenient.’ As a consequence, the facts on the ground must be denied in order to sustain a world view of entitlement and privilege.” (46-47)
Even after the first incursion that deposed King Jehoiakim and deported thousands in 597, the denial continued. Jeremiah reports that a competing prophet, one Hananiah, was confidently predicting that within two years all the deported would come back, including the royal family, restored to their rule. “The yoke of [Babylon] cannot last, because this is Jerusalem with all its guarantees.” (56)

Hananiah represents a broad conviction “that a quick return to normalcy would surely happen. Evidence to the contrary did not count.” This conviction “made it impossible to see the reality at hand.” (57)

Denial, rooted in the ideology of exceptionalism, was countered by grief. Rituals of grieving – wakes, funerals, memorial services – allow us to emotionally relinquish what we have lost and face the new reality. The poems of the prophets and of the Psalms from the period of captivity express that grief.

And yes fantasies of violence against those that brought on our grief might be part of that response. Four years ago, an aunt of mine died, in a town outside of Pittsburgh. At the Memorial Service my Uncle, now widowed and anguished, rose to speak. He described what sounded like careless oversights made by medical personnel – oversights he saw as responsible for his beloved’s death. He had some anger about that. He said: “Now you tell me how I’m supposed to feel.” I can well imagine that fantasies of violence probably had come to him – what he momentarily imagined he’d like to do to those medical personnel who killed his spouse.

Our species has deep evolutionary reasons for the way emotions are wired in our brains, for our tendencies to violence, and for why in certain circumstances retribution can strike us as intensely appealing. Grieving – including expressing, articulating our sadness – helps us work through that. There can be no pretending here – no playing nice. Grief ain’t grief if it ain’t real. We need venues where raw feelings can be spoken with raw words.

Psalm 137, composed during the Babylonian captivity, is just such an expression of grief. Its evocative, haunting words have inspired a number of musicians to set them into beautiful songs – songs which usually leave off the last verses. Adam’s centering music this morning included Charles-Valentin Alkan’s musical depiction of Psalm 137.

It’s an instrumental paraphrase, but judging by the tempestuous ending, Alkan did not leave the Psalm’s last verses from his musical depiction.

When the staff this week raised a question about including all of the words of Psalm 137 in the insert in your Order Service, or maybe just leave off that last verse because it’s so disturbing – Adam spoke up including all the verses -- for the sake of the fidelity to the Psalmist and fidelity to the composer whose music depicts all of the Psalm, not just the nice parts. I’m glad he did – because as I have sunk into the experience of these words, and the grief of the people of Zion, how intense a raw that was, and how their feelings needed to be voiced, I see the importance of acknowledging even the impulses that aren’t nice. So that those impulses can then be relinquished. There is no rallying cry here to go and act on those impulses – that would be something very different. The Psalm also tells us that grieving, relinquishing, facing the new reality does not mean forgetting. Indeed, the memorial services that help us let go of our loved ones also help us be committed to remembering them.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
Through grief, we work our way through anger – and through bewilderment. The sheer bewilderment of the people during the captivity is particularly poignant in Lamentations 5, which goes back and forth between the old assurances of forever, then the feeling of abandonment, then the hope for restoration, and then the thought that maybe that just can’t happen. The lament poem concludes:
“But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever,
Your throne endures through the ages.
Why have you forgotten us utterly,
Forsaken us for all time?
Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself,
And let us come back;
Renew our days as of old –
Unless you have utterly rejected us
And are angry with us beyond measure."
Here Israel has moved to candor about its profound loss – a necessary step and a big step away from exceptionalism. “It’s a move made possible by the anticipation and articulation of grief among the prophets” (70) and poets who give voice to the feelings of a people, who are skilled at grief – who “have the skills, courage, and presence to bring any death to speech, so that the community can fully and finally embrace the loss” (63).

These artists of sadness refused any cover-up of loss. “When the cover-up is broken, it becomes possible to breathe again. In denial, one can only hold one’s breath” (71).

The collapse of American illusions has not presented so acute a crisis as captive enslavement in a foreign land – which means many of us will be able to sustain denial for the indefinite future. Grief breaks through denial.

Poems -- like the ones HERE -- help articulate our loss, help us trust in reality. For in grieving our losses we can relinquish our illusions and position ourselves to receive anew.