2020-06-18

Just Love



OUR TIMES -- See minister's column, HERE

HOMILY 1

Oh, my, y’all – as we say down South. 2020 – the year that means perfect vision – 20/20 – has seen one thing after another that we never saw before and didn’t see coming. Global pandemic. Growing recession and unemployment. Three weeks and counting of protests – world-wide protests – sparked by the George Floyd murder. This last week – well, as one headline put it – it was a bad week to be a racist statue. Confederate Civil War figures were smashed, beheaded, pulled down. In Belgium, they’re removing statues of King Leopold, the 19th-century king who was particularly cruel in colonizing Africa. In New Zealand, protestors removed a statue of John Hamilton, the 19th-century British Naval commander who was merciless in his attacks on the island’s indigenous people.

NASCAR banned the confederate flag. NASCAR! I don’t know how many of you are fans, but the confederate flag has been so common at NASCAR races as to be practically the sport’s unofficial logo.

General Petraeus has called for renaming Forts Bragg, Benning, and Lee because they were confederate traitors. And the Senate Armed Services committee, controlled by Republicans, has said the renaming must happen within three years.

The National Football League reversed its stance on players kneeling during the national anthem. HBO pulled Gone with the Wind until they could provide a historical context framing. And the TV show “Cops” – which carefully selects footage to cast police in the most heroic possible light – after 31 years on the air was cancelled.

All in barely more than a week. Wow. These are symbolic moves, but they were passionately resisted up until the last couple weeks.

With all that going on in our world, I ask us today to reflect about sex. No, not because I thought we could all use a break from pandemics like Covid-19 and racism. Reality doesn’t take breaks. And uplifting spiritual growth does not come from escapism, it comes from more deeply connecting to reality, in all of its tragedy and its beauty. (So I hope you’ll plan to be part of our next event about the 1619 Project, and will participate in demonstrations for police reform. And zoom in at 1:30 today for the conversation Tracy will be leading about talking with children and youth about racial justice. We are liable to learn some things about how to talk to ourselves, too.)

Today’s topic is not to give us a break, but to emphasize that the work of justice is one. Our private relationships and our public relationships foster each other. In both cases, it’s about treating people in ways that respect and honor them to facilitate their flourishing and our own. This requires understanding, and it requires compassion, and those are skills that Unitarian Universalist congregations exist to help develop.

Whether the issue is hate or the issue is love, the need is justice -- respecting and honoring personhood; flourishing by helping each other flourish; liberation from domination. It’s all one.

Reconceiving marriage on a less patriarchal model has been a part of the work of liberation. Marriage once was understood as a set of five tightly-linked features:
  • creation of a household of two adults;
  • sexual exclusivity to within that household;
  • production of babies;
  • raising of the children; and
  • perpetuation of the parents’ genetic lines.
That was the package deal. Being married implied all five of those things -- most of the time. If, every once in a while, an infertile man or woman got married, or a couple past child-bearing age, that was OK. As long as that was the exception to the rule, the basic model (that those five went together), remained intact.

The sexual ethic, then, was to support the package deal, to uphold the idea that any one of those five parts ought to imply all of the other four as well. Thus, the ethic included such principles as no premarital sex, and no sex outside of the sort of relationship that looked like the kind that procreates.

Over the course of my lifetime, those previously inextricable features of marriage came apart -- and with that dissolution the old sexual ethic has faded. The arrival of reliable birth control meant that otherwise fertile opposite-sex couples could, as they chose, form a household together without producing or raising babies. The rise in out-of-wedlock births and single parent families has meant producing and raising children without two adults making a household together. You can have marriage without sex, and sex without marriage (which has always been fairly common but in recent decades has lost much of the stigma it used to have). You can have sex without babies, and babies without sex – the former through the aforementioned miracles of birth control, and the latter through the miracles of surrogate motherhood, artificial insemination, and adoption. You can propagate your genes without raising the children, and raise children without propagating your genes.

The package deal has come undone. And with it, the sexual ethic that supported that package deal no longer compels. Sexuality is nonetheless a powerful force that can bring us into our wholeness -- or break us into little pieces. As much as ever, we need a way to say what’s OK and what isn’t, when it comes to romance, and sex, and coupling.

Our bodies are themselves unique vehicles of potential liberation and fulfillment. They are integral parts of our identity. When our bodies love, the first awakening of love may not be a matter of choice. It comes upon us unbidden. We “fall into” love. Yet love can be directed by choice. Even in the beginning, we can influence our loves by, as Sister Margaret Farley writes:
“choosing to pay attention to certain realities or not, putting ourselves in a position to discover lovableness..., choosing to believe (even if we do not yet 'see,'...) in the value of persons or of anything in creation.... We can identify with our loves and freely ratify them....We can also repudiate, or defer, some of our loves by choosing not to identify with them.” (Farley)
Where there is choice, there is space for ethical reflection.

Justice means equal respect. Yet the concrete meaning of respect must be tailored to cultural differences and to individual differences. Just love – love that is not unjust – is a social concern, and sometimes a highly contentious social concern, as we saw in Supreme Court nominations in 1991 and 2018. We all have a role to play in creating a favorable social context for personal integrity, freedom, flourishing – and thus for individuals to choose just and true love and commitment.

PRAYER

Sacred friend and guide, invaluable projection of our individual and collective imagination and moral aspiration, avatar of our better selves:
You are with us whenever we invoke you, and with others whenever we hold them in our compassion. Our vision sees you there, a companion in the streets, in police stations, on curbsides, at take-out restaurants, in hospital waiting rooms, in public health offices conducting contact tracing phone calls, in hallways of governments, standing beside the sprayers of tear gas and the shooters of rubber bullets and the wielders of billy clubs, and standing with those receiving tear gas, rubber bullets, and billy clubs.

Be with us as our minds take in the words of the times: “police reform,” “migrant worker,” “essential workers,” “health equity,” “social distancing,” “multisystem inflammatory syndrome,” “data control,” “I can’t breathe,” “spiritual bypassing,” “voter suppression,” “caught on film.” Yet let us not forget the older, enduring words: “hunger,” “poverty,” “deserted,” “overrun,” “marginalized.”

Be with the people who have taken to the streets all over the world to protest. Be with those veteran activists who have been devoting their lives to justice since long before there were cell phones and viral videos. Be with those who have committed to the Black Lives Matter movement since its inception 8 years ago. Be with the thousands of newcomers who have just now, finally, decided that Black Lives do matter. We pray for the ending of institutional racism here and in all places. Help us to lean out new windows to hear sounds in other communities.

Be with the people of Brazil and its public health care system and epidemiologic surveillance that has pushed back against the president and ministers who sought to suppress and minimize the data on COVID-19. Be with the people of Hong Kong, and help their freedoms endure: of expression, publication, information, assembly, religion, and association. Be with the Indian Samaritans organization in New Delhi, delivering food coupons to the neediest families. Be with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, dismantling white supremacy and advancing human rights around the globe.

Give us courage to do what is difficult. Make us unafraid to give tenderly, and strong enough to love mightily. Soften our touch, blend our voices, clarify our minds, fire our hearts for the task at hand, and make our juices flow for justice. When we are the healers, then will we be healed. Blessed be, and Amen.

HOMILY 2

These are the six norms that Sister Margaret Farley offers for love based in justice:
  • do no unjust harm, 
  • free consent, 
  • mutuality, 
  • equality, 
  • commitment, 
  • fruitfulness.
One: Do No Unjust Harm

Harm can take many forms:
“physical, psychological, spiritual, relational. It can also take the form of failure to support, to assist, to care for, to honor.”
In love and its sexual expression, we are uniquely tender and vulnerable -- so acute attention to the risks of harm is called for. Sexual expression is highly variable, and just because something is repulsive to you or me doesn’t make it wrong. Pain may be a part of sexual expression, and for some folks it may be particularly central. Bodily damage may part of that. Sexuality-related cosmetic surgeries also constitute bodily damage. So we can’t simply say, "Do No Harm." What we can say is do no unjust harm. That’s the overall guideline, the overall ethic, the first rule. The other points are for clarifying what "unjust" is.

Two: Free Consent

Justice requires autonomy, and without free consent, there is no autonomy. Consent seems such an obvious principle that it’s remarkable how much the emphasis on consent has grown in recent years. And it’s worth remembering that there has been resistance. It wasn’t that long ago that a fraternity group gathered outside the Women’s Center at Yale University to chant, “No means yes.”

Seduction or manipulation of persons who have limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power violates free consent. But seduction is complicated. It’s certainly not wrong to try to make yourself attractive to a prospective mate. It’s not wrong to lower the lights, put candles on the table, and Barry White on the stereo.

Promise-keeping and truth-telling are aspects of honoring free consent, since betrayal and deception limit the free choice of the other person. If promise-keeping and truth-telling are honored -- and neither party has "limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power" -- then I'd say we're in the realm of wholesome courtship rather than ethically problematic seduction.

If alcohol is going to be involved, then the consent should be clear at some point before inebriation, but whether ethics requires it to be clear before the first glass of wine starts to get a bit fuzzy. Certainly, the clearer the consent, and the more clear-minded the judgment of both parties when they consent, the better.

Moreover, we may be of partly divided mind when it comes to romance. Part of you may be ready to jump in, while part of you is not so sure. Yes, you’re the boss of your body, as Tracy’s Time for All Ages emphasized – but this boss is sometimes a divided internal parliament. So I think the "consent" requirement needs some help from the further guidelines like mutuality, equality, and commitment.

Three: Mutuality

Ethical sexual expression involves mutual participation. What we’re talking about here are the old ideas of “the male as active and the female as passive, the woman as receptacle and the man as fulfiller.” That’s a violation of the mutuality principle. True relationship entails a context recognizing each partner’s activity and each partner’s receptivity -- each partner’s giving and each partner's receiving.

Mutuality need not be perfected, but it does need to be present in some degree. “Two liberties meet, two bodies meet, two hearts come together” – and if they aren’t both putting heart and self into the encounter – if either partner is overwhelmingly passive, hardly participating, it isn’t mutual.

Four: Equality

Just love means that the partners bring roughly equal levels of power and autonomy to the relationship. Inequalities of power may come from differences in social and economic status, or differences in age and maturity. Teachers and their students have an inherent power inequality, as do counselors and their clients, ministers and their parishioners.

It’s not that all such inequalities should be wiped out. The inequality of teacher and student or counselor and client can be very helpful. But it does rule out romantic relationship.

The principle of equality also “rules out treating a partner as property, a commodity, or an element in market exchange.” There are a number of reasons one may favor legalization of prostitution. But making it legal doesn’t make it ethical.

Ethical sexuality may include all manner of role-playing, but if a partner is an actual element in a market exchange, that’s not playing a role. It’s an inherent inequality. Any overlap of the sphere of paying people for goods and services and the sphere of sexual relationship is unethical. On this point, I’m rather more categorical than Sister Farley is. I think any time those spheres blur together, our flourishing is compromised.

The ethical onus falls primarily on the party with greater power: the teacher more than the student, the counselor more than the client, the minister more than the parishioner, and the person paying for sex more than the person paid. The side with less power should also avoid such entanglements as they are able, but, having less power, they are apt to be less able.

Equality, like mutuality, is rarely perfect. The ethical concern is that the power be balanced enough “for each to appreciate the uniqueness and difference of the other, and for each to respect one another as ends in themselves” (Farley) – and not a means only.

Five: Commitment.

Brief encounters are not ruled out. It’s not that all one-night stands are necessarily unethical. The important consideration is that they be entered into with an openness to the possibility that the encounter may lead to long-term relationship. If there is zero prospect of leading to long-term committed relationship, the brief sexual encounter is ethically suspect. As Sister Margaret Farley writes:
“Sexuality is of such importance in human life that it needs to be nurtured, sustained, as well as disciplined, channeled, controlled.... Brief encounters...cannot mediate the kind of union -- of knowing and being known, loving and being loved -- for which human relationality offers the potential.” (Farley)
The rhetoric of commitment can get overblown, and it’s worth remembering that “particular forms of commitment are themselves only means, not ends.” Nevertheless, as Sister Farley reflects:
“Given all the caution learned from contemporary experience, we may still hope that our freedom is sufficiently powerful to gather up our love and give it a future; that thereby our sexual desire can be nurtured into a tenderness that has not forgotten passion. We may still believe that to try to use our freedom in this way is to be faithful to the love that arises in us or even the yearning that rises from us.”
Six, fruitfulness.

The ethical sexual relationship bears fruit. Traditionally, this has meant procreation. The procreation imperative, however, expressed a deeper underlying principle of fruitfulness.

The relationship must not close in on itself. The sexual encounter occurs behind closed doors, but not in a social vacuum. Making babies is one way to be fruitful, one way for the relationship to contribute to ongoing sustaining and building of the human community. There are other ways.
Raising adopted children is certainly fruitful, where the parents’ sexual relationship is an integral part of the loving household that makes for healthy child-rearing. Even without children in the picture at all, a romantic relationship may be fruitful.

Love brings new life to those who love, and that new life is to be brought outward to the nourishing of other relationships. A relationship of just love strengthens the partners, and encourages them in their work in the world. Thus is love fruitful and for the good of all.

Finally, we should note that sexual ethics isn’t just ethics for people in sexual relationships to follow. Sexual ethics also includes obligations that everyone in a society bears to affirm for its members as sexual beings. There are claims of respect that all of us are called to honor – respect for the many forms that human sexuality may take:
“single or married, gay or straight, bisexual or ambiguously gendered, old or young, abled or challenged in the ordinary forms of sexual expression, they have claims to respect from . . . the wider society.”
The ethic of Just Love requires not only that we bring certain principles to our own romantic and intimate relationships, but that we participate in making a society that honors and respects romantic and intimate relationships.

The principles of justice do not stop at the bedroom door. In fact, they go through that door in both directions: entering to inform the sexual encounter, and, strengthened and affirmed there, exiting to inform all our relations.

Justice, as Cornel West said, is what love looks like in public. Recognizing, however, that love can take corrupted forms – can be manipulative, domineering, and abusive -- we need to add that love must look like justice in private.

May it be so. Amen.

2020-06-07

Vision



OUR TIMES – see HERE

HOMILY 1

What is vision, anyway? There’s that famous verse in Proverbs – or, anyway, the first part is famous.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”
The first part is well known and often cited: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” The second part about keeping the law is less often mentioned. The implication is that having vision is synonymous with keeping the law. That’s weird! Unpacking this Proverb will, I think, make it seem less weird.

As beautiful, quotable, and familiar as the language of the King James Version is, I rely mostly on the New Revised Standard Version, which renders Proverbs 29:18 as:
“Where there is no prophecy the people cast off restraint. But happy are those that keep the law.”
Both translations indicate that keeping the law is conducive to happiness. But “vision” is now “prophecy,” and “perish” is now “cast off restraint.” The Hebrew word translated as “perish” or “cast off restraint” means to loosen; by implication, to expose, dismiss, to ignore (advice or instruction). Staying alive entails keeping ourselves together.

The Hebrew word translated as “vision” or “prophecy” refers to the revelation or prophecy of God’s will. The prophets were the seers who saw God’s will – hence “vision” for the perception of divine purpose. In this light, the New Living Translation’s interpretation makes sense:
"When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild. But whoever obeys the law is joyful."
The New International Version is:
“Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint. But blessed is the one who heeds wisdom’s instruction."
So what do we have? We’ve seen that what goes by the name of vision is also known as prophecy, divine guidance, revelation. It’s what makes us able to keep the law, which is to say, heed wisdom’s instruction.

I’d put it this way: “vision” is, indeed, about seeing. It’s about seeing who we truly are. When we don’t know who we are, we are undefined, and scattered. That’s how I read “casting off restraint,” “running wild.” It’s the dissolute, dissipated life of not being true to ourselves: jumping from persona to persona without the anchor of a core vision of who we are. That’s no kind of life. It is, indeed, to perish.

By contrast, to keep the law, as I read it, is to keep your own law: to be true to the vision of yourself. It is to heed wisdom’s instruction, recognizing that the best wisdom is in yourself. I’ve been talking a lot in the last couple months about vow – asking, “what is your great vow?” Our vow is the vision we have of the life we want to lead. It’s not a goal to get to – it’s the way we want to travel. It’s not about any particular results, it’s just about orienting yourself in a particular direction, and going.

I’m not saying “the journey’s more important than the destination.” I’m saying the journey IS the destination. There’s nowhere to get to except the going.

Our vow is our vision for ourselves. To have vision is to see everything we do in the light of our vow.

In the business world, in the organizational world, you need to accomplish things. So there’s a need to articulate just what you’re out to accomplish, and make plans to get there. But there are a lot of different goals your organization could be pursuing, so the challenge arises: how to decide which goals? Most organizations have multiple goals, so the question is which ones to make the highest priority.
And for organizations, that’s where vision comes in. A well-crafted vision that isn’t just written down in some exercise and then forgotten -- a vision statement that is taken to heart and paid attention to -- provides real guidance in deciding which goals are the highest priority.
It provides inspiration in pursuit of those goals. So in the organizational world, vision is about accomplishing things.
And that’s great. I’m not against accomplishing things. Organizations are for accomplishing things. Whether the organization is a Mom and Pop Bakery, or Google, or Walmart, or a sports team, or a nonprofit like the Equal Justice Initiative, or Greenpeace, or a political party, the organization exists to accomplish stuff. Achieve results.

The Black Lives Matter movement is not an organization. It’s an amorphous movement without formal leadership, where informal leaders emerge and recede without any sort of organization chart of who reports to whom. But even a movement is about accomplishing things. And it needs a vision, which, in this case, is right there in the name of the movement. Black lives matter. That’s the vision: a world in which black people are not systematically treated as if their lives don’t matter. From that basic vision, various individuals and organizations may opt to be guided by that vision in to form particular goals that contribute toward the vision.

Accomplishing things is important. Accomplishing housing for people is a definite good – and that has not been fully accomplished yet.
Accomplishing a system that keeps so many millions fed and clothed – a system that produces enough food that no one need ever be hungry, even if we don’t get it distributed to everyone – is a really good thing. Shakespeare’s plays, Michelangelo’s art, Beethoven’s symphonies, Newton’s Laws, Salk’s vaccine, Pythagorus’ theorem, and Eiffel’s Tower are achievements that profoundly alter and enrich human life. Accomplishment of libraries, and universities, and hospitals, and museums is important. Accomplishment of our system of ongoing scientific research with peer review is no small thing. Accomplishment of a free and independent press is a big deal, as is the accomplishment of an independent judiciary – given that for most of human history we had neither a free press nor an independent judiciary. All those accomplishments have required vision that directed purposive effort toward accomplishing.

And all those accomplishments, wonderful as they are, are not enough. We still need to accomplish the end of poverty, the end of domestic violence, the end of rape, of misogyny, of patriarchy. Achieving the end of war, the end of police brutality, the end of white supremacy remains to be done. The accomplishment of peace and justice remains to be done. Achieving equality of concern and respect for all of God’s children remains to be done. The accomplishment of environmental sustainability and conservation of species and habitats remains to be done.
Those are vitally important. In some of those cases, we won’t survive as a species if we don’t proximately accomplish them. In other cases, if we can’t proximately accomplish them, maybe we shouldn’t survive as a species. Accomplishing these things will take clarity of vision and steadfast commitment by a lot of people to that vision. We have, all of us, absolutely crucial work to do to get things done. We have journeys where getting to the destination is very much the point, and is very much needed.

And.

Life is also more than accomplishing things. In the widest context, in the spiritual context, in the ultimate context, we do not work for the sake of what we hope that work will accomplish. We work simply to manifest who we are, regardless of whether the hoped-for results happen or don’t.

Vision works at both of those levels. Vision works at the level of directing us toward accomplishment, clarifying and inspiring our aims. Vision also works at the level of just being, clarifying and inspiring our inherent blessedness.

The first is the level of never enough: there is always more to accomplish, always the next thing that needs our efforts. The other is the level of never not enough. Who you are, what you are, is always precisely and perfectly sufficient. Please have the vision to see that.

PRAYER

Dear Jeremiah, archetype of our imagination,
We turn to you in prayer, you, dear Prophet Jeremiah, who, in 6th-century BCE Jerusalem, grieved for your people.
You wrote:
‘My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?”
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?
So why has the healing of my dear people not come about?’
As you then wished plaintively for a balm, so today and here, do we.
We crave healing, an end to the desperate pain we are feeling.
People of more than 75 cities in the United States are marching, demonstrating against the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbrey, and far too many others at the hands of the police.
Others are demonstrating in solidarity in London, Dublin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Paris, Milan, Berlin, Perth, Auckland, Rio de Janeiro, Toronto, among other cities.
We need a balm of Love and Peace, to heal our wound of racism.
We need to be made whole.
The worldwide Covid-19 pandemic continues.
Statistics are not reliable, but such as we have indicate that the worldwide deaths per week peaked in mid-April, then fell steadily through the end of May until weekly deaths were almost down to half of the peak week.
In this first week of June, however, deaths are up again – 10 percent more than the week before, worldwide.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Jeremiah, you experienced a divine command to gird up your loins, stand up, and tell them everything commanded.
So be with us, prophetic icon and archetype.
May we likewise be unafraid.
May we likewise stand up, in body or in spirit, for what is right.
May we likewise speak what Justice commands.
For there is no balm in Gilead unless and until we are that balm.
There is no physician but we ourselves.
When we are the healers, then will we be healed.
Be with us, spirit of Jeremiah.
Blessed be, and Amen.

HOMILY 2

Iyanla Vanzant said:
"If you don’t have a vision, you’re going to be stuck in what you know. And the only thing you know is what you’ve already seen.”
So. Think about that. To have vision – to see – is the only way to see what you haven’t seen. Vision, like the Lord, works in mysterious ways. Sometimes a vision of one thing leads us to a place of something else – different from what has been and also different from you had envisioned. Through imagination we may be led to the unimagined.

Sometimes what’s called for is completely unrealistic vision.
You might look at that unrealistic vision, and your rational mind says, “No, that’s not gonna happen.” But there’s a benefit, sometimes, in turning off rational mind for a little while. Enter the field of play. Hop on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood Trolley and take a trip to the land of make-believe.

When you get back, you may be in a position to say: OK, that vision is not going to happen. But thinking about it lets me see what I really love about that completely unrealistic vision – what I really value. And clarifying what we love and value can then go into making a vision that maybe, kinda, really could happen. You might like an example. And I have one.

Here is a completely unrealistic vision. It ain’t gonna happen. But I find it very appealing. And by reflecting on what’s so appealing about this, we get some direction for maybe what we really could do. This vision is expressed in a poem by Junauda Petrus-Nasah.
Could we please give the police departments to the grandmothers?
Give them the salaries and the pensions and the city vehicles, but make them a fleet of vintage corvettes, jaguars and cadillacs, with white leather interior.
Diamond in the back, sunroof top and digging the scene with the gangsta lean.
Let the cars be badass!
You would hear the old school jams like Patti Labelle, Anita Baker and Al Green.
You would hear Sweet Honey in the Rock harmonizing on “We who believe in freedom will not rest” bumping out the speakers.
And they got the booming system.
If you up to mischief, they will pick you up swiftly in their sweet ride and look at you until you catch shame and look down at your lap.
She asks you if you are hungry and you say “yes” and of course you are.
She got a crown of dreadlocks and on the dashboard you see brown faces like yours, shea buttered and loved up.
And there are no precincts.
Just love temples, that got spaces to meditate and eat delicious food.
Mangoes, blueberries, nectarines, cornbread, peas and rice, fried plantain, fufu, yams, greens, okra, pecan pie, salad and lemonade.
Things that make your mouth water and soul arrive.
All the hungry bellies know warmth, all the children expect love.
The grandmas help you with homework, practice yoga with you and teach you how to make jamabalaya and coconut cake.
From scratch.
When you’re sleepy she will start humming and rub your back while you drift off.
A song that she used to have the record of when she was your age.
She remembers how it felt like to be you and be young and not know the world that good.
Grandma is a sacred child herself, who just circled the sun enough times into the ripeness of her cronehood.
She wants your life to be sweeter.
When you are wildin’ out because your heart is broke or you don’t have what you need the grandmas take your hand and lead you to their gardens.
You can lay down amongst the flowers.
Her grasses, roses, dahlias, irises, lilies, collards, kale, eggplants, blackberries.
She wants you know that you are safe and protected, universal limitless, sacred, sensual, divine and free.
Grandma is the original warrior, wild since birth, comfortable in loving fiercely.
She has fought so that you don’t have to, not in the same ways at least.
So give the police departments to the grandmas, they are fearless, classy and actualized.
Blossomed from love.
They wear what they want and say what they please.
Believe that.
There wouldn’t be noise citations when the grandmas ride through our streets, blasting Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Alice Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, KRS-One.
All that good music.
The kids gonna hula hoop to it and sell her lemonade made from heirloom pink lemons and maple syrup.
The car is solar powered and carbon footprint-less, the grandmas designed the technology themselves.
At night they park the cars in a circle so all can sit in them with the sun roofs down, and look at the stars, talk about astrological signs, what to plant tomorrow based on the moon’s mood and help you memorize Audre Lorde and James Baldwin quotes.
She always looks you in the eye and acknowledges the light in you with no hesitation or fear.
And grandma loves you fiercely forever.
She sees the pain in our bravado, the confusion in our anger, the depth behind our coldness.
Grandma know what oppression has done to our souls and is gonna change it one love temple at a time.
She has no fear.
So, what’s appealing about that? Proverbs told us that when we run wild, we aren’t going to be happy. Our flourishing depends on having some guidance. “Whoever obeys the law is joyful” – says the New Living Translation.

OK, that’s a human need, especially for our younger folk, but not just for younger folk: to have some guidance. I’m 61-years-old, and I have a relationship with a person I call my teacher. Teachers need teachers too. Our flourishing at all ages depends on having some guidance – some laws we obey.

And police were kinda, sorta supposed to help us meet that need, ideally. I mean, I know the historical analysis that reveals just how much US police forces for hundreds of years have been essentially the private guards at the white palace – protecting their employers from the inconveniences of that nonwhites might otherwise impose. I speak of what historical analysis reveals because that is my experience of coming to know this. I recognize for minority communities in this country, the broad sunlight at noon on a clear day requires no revealing or analysis to see. It doesn’t need any uncovering because, for them, it was never covered. But even without that function as the protectors of white supremacy, our increasingly militarized police, occupying our streets with armored personnel carriers, flashbang grenades, grenade launchers, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and tear gas have been moving further and further away from helpful guides to obedience of helpful laws.

Junauda Petrus-Nasah’s vision raises the question: can we look for more supportive ways to guide all of us to being productive, responsible, flourishing people? Can we? It’s a good question.

Amen.

2020-06-05

Presence in the Midst of Crisis

 

OUR TIMES segment -- HERE

PART 1

I want to talk about presence – being present for each other in an attentive way. Our presence is a fundamental offering. A person aligned with their purpose, who has integrity and wholeness, creates a presence that ripples out through the world. It reassures and empowers others. It changes the world.

Henry Nouwen, in his 1974 book, Out of Solitude, wrote:
“When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
I want to talk about presence in the midst of crisis. This last week has been a tough one. Let’s just be present to that for a few minutes.

The global death toll from Covid-19 is confirmed at over 370,000, and over 28% of those deaths were in the U.S., which passed 100,000 deaths this week. We have lost parents and children, siblings, co-workers, close friends, beloved spouses. We are awash in grief, and deprived of the memorial services that afford us a chance to process our grief within a context of family and people who simply come to pay their respects – people barely known to the principal mourners who nevertheless provide the gift of their presence.

Apart from the death toll, the unemployed now number more than 40 million – 40 million claims for jobless benefits have been filed in the last 10 weeks. It’s an unemployment rate of 14 percent – the highest since the Great Depression.

Then came the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by Minneapolis police officers, and the incident between a dog-walker and a bird-watcher in Central Park that vividly informed us that America’s racism problem, for one, has not been dampened by the Coronavirus. Indeed, as the lawyer for George Floyd’s family said in a statement: “The pain that the black community feels over this murder and what it reflects about the treatment of black people in America is raw and is spilling out onto streets across America.” Meanwhile, white supremacists are also taking to the streets, vandalizing and looting apparently with the aim of black protestors being blamed for it.

In past crises, the commander-in-chief became the mourner-in-chief, giving to the country empathetic presence. Instead, our president is waging war against Twitter, floating baseless theories that Joe Scarborough killed a former staff member two decades ago, and suggesting that looters be shot. The opposite of present, after all, isn’t exactly absent – the more precise opposite of present is: distracted.

It’s been a difficult week. And it comes at the end of a pretty rough 10 weeks. In perspective, bad weeks are normal in human history. We have not seen the like in our lifetime, but in the broad sweep of millennia, political dysfunction has been cropping up since there was politics. Plagues and pandemics have been periodically striking since before the Common Era. Unrest and uncertainty have been more common in human history than peace and prosperity.

Still, it’s a difficult adjustment for many of us. Many people, cut off from the social circulation to which they are accustomed, are feeling the effects – often feeling numb. “Sleepwalking through my life,” they might say. I read one account of a person who said, “I feel like I have two modes: barely functioning and boiling angry.” Another said, “I’ve lost faith in myself. I don’t know if I can actually justify taking up space and resources. My purpose is disintegrating.”

Depression is way up. Before the pandemic, the rough estimate for how many people met the criteria for a diagnosis of depression was roughly about 5 to 7 percent. Now, Robert Klitzman, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, estimates 50 percent of the U.S. population is experiencing depressive symptoms. Half of us.

“Experiencing depressive symptoms” is not the same thing as meeting the criteria for a diagnosis of depression. Still, people – maybe you -- are taking this hard: the isolation, the stasis – and often significant medical stress, financial stress, or both. If you defined yourself by your work and that work disappears, or knew who you were through particular modes of interaction with others and that interaction is gone, a basic sense of self might be lost.

There’s a risk that feelings of numbness, powerlessness, and hopelessness may be considered normal – that this is just what life is. It isn’t – it doesn’t have to be.

We need social responses to relieve the medical and financial stresses, and, yes, let’s all participate in the processes for that: vote, write to your representatives, march, contribute if you can to causes. Beyond that, the alternative to pandemic dysphoria begins – well, it begins by determining whether medical help is called for. Google “am I depressed?” Talk to your primary care physician about whether you should see a mental health professional.

With or without medical assistance, the road to presence begins with presence to yourself. If you’re feeling numb, feel the numbness – which might sound paradoxical, but investigate it: where does the numbness seem to originate from, are there any particular parts of your body that feel different. At the end of every day, jot down when during the day did you feel most numb and least numb. And while you’re there with pen in hand, write down some gratitudes – that’s always good practice. Pay attention to what’s up with you.

The opposite of presence is distraction, and to cultivate presence, notice when you escape into self-distraction: “Organizing an already well-organized sock drawer, baking bread you don’t even want, or endlessly scrolling through Instagram” (Hamblin, Atlantic). While preferable to staying in bed all day, those are ways we distract ourselves. Exercise is great, but if your response to global pandemic is that you’re going to work out really hard, then exercise itself can be escapist distraction.

Attentive presence to ourselves can be hard. It helps us be able to give presence to ourselves if we have a friend or family member who can give us that gift of presence. And sometimes it helps us be present to ourselves if we practice by being present to others. The friend who cares, as Nouwen wrote, is present – undistractedly there: sharing silence in the midst of despair or confusion; sharing company in grief; tolerating not knowing, not fixing; facing together the reality of powerlessness.

What we most need from one another is simply presence. There’s a lot we can’t fix it – and we, as individuals, don’t need to. What we can do is be there – for our lives, for our families, for our friends, for anyone we have occasion with whom to spend a few minutes: whether through a screen, or through masks, or naked face to naked face.

As Nouwen’s “Out of Solitude” went on to explain:
“When we start being too impressed by the results of our work, we slowly come to the erroneous conviction that life is one large scoreboard where someone is listing the points to measure our worth. And before we are fully aware of it, we have sold our soul to the many grade-givers. That means we are not only in the world, but also of the world. Then we become what the world makes us. We are intelligent because someone gives us a high grade. We are helpful because someone says thanks. We are likable because someone likes us. And we are important because someone considers us indispensable. In short, we are worthwhile because we have successes. And the more we allow our accomplishments — the results of our actions — to become the criteria of our self-esteem, the more we are going to walk on our mental and spiritual toes, never sure if we will be able to live up to the expectations which we created by our last successes. In many people’s lives, there is a nearly diabolic chain in which their anxieties grow according to their successes. This dark power has driven many of the greatest artists into self-destruction.”
But when we are present to someone else – just undistractedly there – our presence, our attention to them without judgment or advice affirms as only such presence can affirm: it’s not about the scoreboard.

You don’t have to do anything except do you. It doesn’t matter what your successes have been. It doesn’t matter what your failures have been. Someone who is present for you is not there for the sake of “better.” They’re not there to help you do better, or be better, or get better. They’re not there to take your pain away, but to share it.

PRAYER

Dear Source of our Energies and Efforts,
We have been self-protective when we could have been more vulnerable and open. This is not sin. It’s just that we aren’t always as skillful as we could be at judging when self-protection is warranted. And we almost always err on the side of being guarded.

May we be more present, more self-revealing, more open to new experience, more tender more often.

May we trust a little more.

May we be less often reactive and more often curious.

May we be less often demanding and more often grateful.

May we be less often afraid, and when fear arises, may we manage it skillfully, neither suppressing nor indulging.

And may we attend to the call of justice.

As we hear news of political turmoil and broken promises in Hong Kong, as we hear of racist incidents in Central Park and police killing in Minnesota, may we have prophetic words to speak truth to those who abuse their power wherever they are found, and words of comfort for those who suffer from racism or political oppression.

As our world continues to wrestle with the political, medical, economic, and cultural implications of the COVID-19 pandemic – as the U.S. death toll surpassed 100,000 -- may we speak to one another in ways that are respectful of the needs of those around us.

May we turn away from an inward focus, and see the ways we affect other people.

May we thus orient toward justice, and encourage those around us to orient toward justice, and may the company we keep be company that encourages and supports orientation toward justice.

May we embody love, and may we thereby transform our world.

We do not seek a world without conflict, but one in which the most violent conflicts are becoming ever less and less violent. May we be a part of making that so.

Amen.

PART 2

The 1979 film, Being There, illustrates the power of – being there. Peter Sellers plays Chance, an illiterate gardener who has spent his whole life on an estate, learning about and then tending to the gardens. He’s never left the property. Other than gardening, he watches a lot of television.

When estate owner dies, Chance has to move out. Chance wanders aimlessly in the city, Washington DC, and happens to be struck by a chauffeured car owned by elderly business mogul Ben Rand. When he tells them he is “Chance the gardener,” he is misheard as saying "Chauncey Gardiner."
They take Chance back to their home to recover. Since Chance has been allowed to take clothes from the attic of his erstwhile benefactor, he is wearing expensive tailored clothes from the 1920s and 1930s.

Ben Rand takes "Chauncey" for an upper-class, highly-educated businessman who has fallen on hard times. Rand admires him, finding him direct, wise and insightful. He tells him, “You know Chauncey, there’s something about you. You don’t play games with words to protect yourself.”

Rand is an advisor to the President of the United States, whom he introduces to "Chauncey." In the course of the conversation, the president asks Chance if he thinks “we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives.”

Chance says, “as long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well, in the garden.”

The President says: “In the garden.”

Chance says: “Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.”

Ben Rand interjects: “I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we're upset by the seasons of our economy.”

And President says: “Well, Mr. Gardner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I've heard in a very, very long time. I admire your good, solid sense. That's precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill.”

Subsequently, the President gives a speech in which he quotes “Chauncey Gardiner.” Chance rises to national prominence, attends important dinners, appears on a television talk show during which his detailed advice about what a serious gardener should do is misunderstood as his opinion on what would be his presidential policy. By the end of the film, we see political operatives discussing who their party’s next nominee for president should be, and they’re agreeing on Chauncey Gardiner.

The movie is a comedy, and it’s a spoof of the cluelessness of business moguls, politicians, and the media. Chance, albeit inadvertently, dupes them all, and I don’t think real people in those positions would be quite so easily duped. But one thing about Chance: he’s not very bright, but he is present. He’s not distracted by calculations about advancing his own agenda because he doesn’t have an agenda. He’s just there. And the film shows us how attractive that is.

We hunger for another person’s simple presence. People who don’t get that very much – such as people in positions of power who only ever encounter other people who are trying to get something from them or just be close to a center of power – may especially feel that need. I’ve had days when I would have loved to spend an hour with Chance the Gardener. I wouldn’t take him to be a sagacious oracle, but I’d have appreciated the balm of his presence and maybe getting out of my own head to think about what makes plants healthy and grow.

Being there -- presence -- is a form of love, and it’s respect – respect for the other’s humanity, for their animality, for their being, which Chance exhibits intuitively, unreflexively, without conscious intention to do so. Presence respects, but it does not approve, for approval would turn the encounter back into a scoreboard matter. Nor is disapproval relevant.

If we have learned to be present to ourselves – to hold in nonjudgmental awareness all the voices and feelings that arise in ourselves – then we can be present to others, for others just are ourselves in a slightly modified form. Others are ourselves – including the aspects of others that we don’t like. There is no evil in any heart that isn’t also, in some measure, in mine. Because there is no evil in any one that isn’t also, in some measure, in me, I can bring presence to people who have done awful things. Nouwen explains:
“To care means first of all to empty our own cup and to allow the other to come close to us. It means to take away the many barriers which prevent us from entering into communion with the other. When we dare to care, then we discover that nothing human is foreign to us, but that all the hatred and love, cruelty and compassion, fear and joy can be found in our own hearts. When we dare to care, we have to confess that when others kill, I could have killed too.
When others torture, I could have done the same. When others heal, I could have healed too. And when others give life, I could have done the same. Then we experience that we can be present to the soldier who kills, to the guard who pesters, to the young man who plays as if life has no end, and to the old man who stopped playing out of fear for death. Through this participation we can open our hearts to each other and form a new community.”
Attentive, undistracted presence is a grace – a gift that we don’t earn or deserve.

It’s a kind of miracle, which the film Being There indicates in its final scene where Chance strolls across a pond, walking on water. Nouwen references this miracle-working power when he writes:
“Those who really can receive bread from a stranger and smile in gratitude, can feed many without even realizing it. Those who can sit in silence with their fellow man not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears in grief, and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart, can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship, the fellowship of the broken.”
In the midst of crisis, may we receive and give this miraculous gift.

BENEDICTION

From Rainer Maria Rilke:
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

2020-05-15

There is No Try



Three weeks ago, I preached, “What’s Your Great Vow?” Last week, I preached, “Transforming Your Inner Critic.” Today, I want to bring those two sermons together.

In “What is Your Great Vow?” I asked, What is the mission of your life? I talked about noticing what your sources of vow were. You have inherited vows – a sense of purpose you got from parents or other particularly influential people as you were growing up. You have reactive vows – some experience of hurt or injustice that made an impression on you as worth working to stop or mitigate. You have inspired vows – heros, or people you look up to, who inspired you to be like them in some way. I asked you to reflect on those sources of vow, and out of that reflection discern your Great Vow, and email it to me for inclusion in a Shrine of Vows.

Our CUUC Shrine of Vows is currently electronic [HERE], but eventually we will have a physical display. Let me update you on the vows that CUUC members have sent in so far:
  • I vow to live with compassion and integrity.
  • I vow to make the time to care for myself, to be kind to all others, and to protect the planet.
  • I vow to push forward in love.
  • I vow to live soulfully, and to give back.
  • I vow to give of myself through caring, nonjudgmental listening, my empathy and sympathy, my friendship to all those who are struggling in life with things like sickness, death, relationships, or daily life for an immigrant.
  • I vow to give everyone the care I give to my family, to hold my beliefs lightly and change them as circumstances change.
  • I vow to be present in loving awareness.
  • I vow to be mindful of both self care and care for others.
  • I vow to arrive fresh, to arrive in love, to endear; to companion, to befriend, to love, to notice, to bear witness, to live until I die -- and die, and die, and die until I live.
  • I vow to love and to learn.
  • I vow to accept all beings as my teachers
  • I vow to recognize, cultivate and nurture community.
  • I vow to see the magic in everything.
  • I vow to care.
  • I vow to age gracefully, with compassion, frugality, and joy.
  • I vow to pursue education, not let others squelch my talents, be free of emotional instability, and support fairness and equality.
  • I vow to be selflessly loyal to my family, be open minded, no matter how challenging, and learn to be happy with less.
  • I vow to be in the light.
  • I vow to bring love with me wherever I go.
  • I vow to create peace wherever I can.
  • I vow to fight for justice, never give up, be strong, help the weak, be honest and respectful, be supportive of and nice to people and respect each and every one of them, work hard, live with integrity, and see and enjoy the beauty of the world.
Those are some GREAT vows! I’m inspired just reading those vows, and just knowing that we are a community of people who have pointed themselves in those directions. To those of you who sent in those vows, thank you so much – both for orienting your life that way, and for sharing your vow. And if you haven’t sent me your Great Vow yet, please do. Email it to me and I’ll add it to our CUUC Shrine of Vows.

Then last week, I talked about the Inner Critic. I said that a person consists of many internal voices, and that a healthy psyche is like a healthy democracy: every voice gets heard, and no voice dominates. Louis XIV of France supposedly said “L’etat c’est moi” – I am France. For France, becoming democratic meant no single person, or any group smaller than all French citizens, could claim to BE France. Likewise, for you to be a healthy democracy of internal voices, no single voice, or cabal of voices, can claim to BE you. But the Inner Critic can be so dominant that people may think the Inner Critic is just them, rather than one of their many voices. I talked about some ways to differentiate from the Inner Critic so you can hear what it says, and tend to its needs even as you know that what it’s saying is not the whole truth.

Now to bring the two sermons together. The Great Vow can be a tool for managing your Inner Critic, and managing your Inner Critic can help you be oriented toward your vow. Without a Vow, the Inner Critic can pull you this way and that with whatever way it happens to notice at the moment that you aren’t all things to all people.

With my vow before me, I can, for instance, say to my Critic,
“Sam (it’s helpful to give your inner critic a name), thank you for reminding me that I dropped out of piano lessons in high school, but no, I am not going to make up for that now, because realistically, that’s not the best way to move along the path of my vow. Making the world more beautiful with really skillful music is something I can, fortunately leave to Adam – and other musicians. Making a few moments maybe a little more fun with some slapdash guitar strumming – that I will do. Much more than that just doesn’t need to be in the cards."
So a clear vow can help narrow down the Critic’s range of things to carp about.

On the other hand, if you don’t also directly transform your relationship with your Critic, it will latch on to that vow and give you hell for all your failures to live up to it. Consider, for example, how the Inner Critic loves self-help books. Start reading up on spirituality and personal growth, and before long, your Critic will be telling you:
  • You’re not authentic.
  • You didn’t say that from your essential being.
  • You need to be more open.
  • You’re not real enough.
  • Your auric field is not clear.
  • Your energies are off.
  • You’re not in touch with your feelings, your sexuality, your body, your spirituality, your higher mind, or your core.
A vow is a wonderful thing – but we need to make sure we’re not just giving your Inner Critic one more crow bar with which to bludgeon you.

If you vowed to be a bearer of love wherever you go, that’s beautiful! The last thing you need is a voice inside that’s telling you several times a day, “Well, that wasn’t very loving.”

The way to have a Great Vow, while also not being harangued by your Inner Critic for failing to live up to is: Don’t try. Really. No more trying. Just like Yoda says: “Do. Or Do not. There is no try.” Don’t try. Simply do.

All our lives we’ve been taught to try. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” we heard over and over. “You only fail if you stop trying,” we were told. Michael Jordan is widely quoted for saying, “I can accept failure. Everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”

I’m not saying there aren’t some things that are worth energy, time, and effort. I’m saying there’s a difference between effort and trying.
It might be subtle. From the outside, it may not be discernible. But there’s a difference.

Suppose you are pushing on an enormous boulder. If you say, “I am trying to move this boulder,” and it doesn’t move, you failed. If you say, “I am putting in effort toward the moving of this boulder,” you’ve succeeded at doing that whether the boulder moves or not.

That’s an important difference. It’s the difference between seeing life as entirely about outcomes and seeing that it’s the doing that matters regardless of the outcome.

Your vow is not about outcomes. It’s about orientation. It’s about pointing your life in a certain direction – and then just seeing where that takes you. With a Great Vow, there’s never a point at which you say, well, that’s done. Mission accomplished. You’ve pointed yourself in a direction: whether it’s “I vow to speak my truth,” or “I vow to embody true compassion,” or whatever your vow is. And then you just see where that takes you. Maybe some days it didn’t seem like you were very compassionate, but you just keep yourself pointed in that direction.

It’s like flying an airplane through thick clouds, very limited visibility, and you have no instruments except a compass. Your vow is your compass. It keeps you pointed: East, say. There’s no question of ever arriving at East. Your Critic might want to say you should be getting there faster, but there’s nowhere to get to. There’s just being headed that way. Moreover, you have no speedometer (on the path of vow, there's no such thing as a speedometer), so there’s no way to know how fast you’re going East.

Do. Or do not. There is no try.

* * *

Happy Mother’s Day to all our Moms. When it comes to trying and not trying, I know that so many mothers have tried so hard to be good mothers. British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott advocates for the good enough mother. He urges being neither neglectful nor smothering. He noticed that babies and children benefit when, as he put it, their mothers fail them in manageable ways. So, Moms, you don’t need to try. Good enough is actually best.

Trying backfires. Hal and Sidra Stone, in their book, “Embracing Your Inner Critic” observe:
“It is like saying to someone, ‘Stand in the corner and do not think of an elephant!’ Try as you may, you will think of an elephant, and the harder you try, the harder it will be to get the elephant out of your head. Try to be loving all the time, and you will be engorged with negativity. Try always to keep your mind clear while meditating, and you will be invaded by thoughts and fantasies. Try always to be loving to your children, and you will be invaded periodically by negative feelings that will assault you” (53).
So let your vow be gentle with you. It’s a gentle pointing of you in a particular direction. If you push yourself in that direction, it just backfires. Just keep bumbling happily along, being exactly who you are, not one bit more or less, with your vow – which you identified by discerning who you are – simply orienting you, a soft reminder of your purpose. Your vow is not the taskmaster’s shove – against which you would only push back. Your vow is the vague echo in the direction of your own joy. Writing it down was like giving a great shout, so as to hear the guidance of that echo – in the direction of your own joy.

Poet Charles Bukowski has something to say to us here. Bukowski died in 1994 at the age of 74. A prolific writer of thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories, and six novels, his work addresses the ordinary lives of poor Americans, the act of writing, alcohol, relationships with women, and the drudgery of work. He once told Life Magazine:
"We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our education system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us."
I mention Bukowski because his motto was “Don’t try.” In fact, it’s carved on his tombstone: “Don’t try.” It’s his philosophy of art and life – a prolific career of millions of words boiled down to just two: Don’t try.

In a letter Bukowski wrote to a friend in 1963, Bukowski relates that someone once asked him, "What do you do? How do you write, create?" Bukowski replied
"You don’t try. That’s very important: ‘not’ to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it.”
You wait, Bukowski is saying. And there’s also a sense of watching, of attention. In other words, you orient yourself toward something – like orienting yourself toward your vow – and then you pay attention and watch what happens.

You can’t make it happen – don’t try. Just point yourself in a particular direction and watch and wait. Life is not for muscling our way through.

Some years after Bukowski’s death, Linda Bukowski, the poet's wife, explained:
“Yeah, I get so many different ideas from people that don't understand what that means. Well, "Don't Try? Just be a slacker? lay back?" And I'm no! Don't try, do. Because if you're spending your time trying something, you're not doing it..."DON'T TRY."
Toward the end of my graduate student career, I was no longer trying to make myself into something, no longer muscling my way through Kant or John Dewey or Donald Davidson. Reading certain books and writing papers became just something I did – rather than an outcome I was trying for. Right about that time, the University said, “OK, you’re done. Here’s your terminal degree. Move along now.”

Then I was out in the world of trying – the world that people puzzlingly call “the real world,” though it always felt a lot less real to me. Then I TRIED being a professor for a while. Then I TRIED being a minister – until, finally, it became something I do rather than something I was trying. It was a gradual shift. It’s not like one day, boom, all the trying just fell away. Even now, under enough stress, I think the trying would come back – and the Inner Critic would come with it.

In fact, trying and being under the influence of the Inner Critic are the same thing. Trying is the name for what one does when attempting to appease the Critic.

If vacations aren’t just a pleasant thing to do, but an absolute necessity because if you don’t get a break from your day-to-day the you’ll crack, you could be trying too hard.

If the stress and anxiety of everyday life is driving you to medication – including the self-medication of alcohol or overeating – you could be trying too hard. If you’re only doing what you think you should do, and not what you want to do, you could be trying too hard.

If you’re having a difficult time distinguishing your Inner Critic from yourself, you are trying too hard. Ultimately, trying at all – instead of simply doing – is trying too hard.

In the story Tracy shared with us [Ashley Spires, The Most Magnificent Thing], the girl sure was trying to make a most magnificent thing. How do we know she was trying rather than just doing? It isn’t because she is unsatisfied with the first product and tosses it aside – or because she tosses aside the first several products. The doing of any creative work almost always includes abandoning the early products, scratching through much of the first draft – if not most of it – if not all of it. No, that’s not how we know she’s trying rather than doing.

We know she’s trying rather than just doing because she gets mad. She’s muscling it – smashing pieces into shape, jamming parts together, pummeling the little bits in. And her Inner Critic completely takes over as she explodes, “I’m no good at this.”

There’s no anger in just doing. No fear, no anxiety. No heavy sighing.

When Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is getting his Jedi training from Yoda, he learns to use the force to levitate a rock. Then Luke’s X-Wing starfighter sinks into a bog.



Luke: “Oh, no. We’ll never get it out now.”
Yoda: “Do you hear nothing that I say?”
Luke: “Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.”
Yoda: “No! No different.”
Luke sighs, “All right, I’ll give it a try.”
And that’s when Yoda says, “No. Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

There’s no sighing in just doing. There is a wholehearted commitment – but it isn’t commitment to any particular result. Just a commitment to the doing – and a waiting and watching to see what the result might turn out to be.

The other film that I referenced in the description for today’s service is The Karate Kid (1984). Mr. Miyagi is about to start Daniel’s karate instruction.



He says, “So. Ready?”
Daniel says, “Yeah, I guess so.”
Mr. Miyagi draws a breath and says, “Daniel-san, must talk. Walk on road. Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later – sqwk – get squish, just like grape. Here karate same thing. Either you karate do ‘yes,’ or karate do ‘no.’ You karate do ‘guess so.’ Sqwk. Just like grape. Understand?”

Just doing does involve whole-hearted commitment to the just doing. But it isn’t commitment to, say, winning the tournament. Spoiler-alert – if it’s possible to spoil a movie that came out 36 years ago – Daniel does win the tournament, but that’s just Hollywood. “The victory is the doing,” as Mohandas Gandhi said -- regardless of what happens at the tournament.

The problem is, trying not to try is just one more form of trying. Just like not being free of your Inner Critic is one more thing your Inner Critic will criticize you for. Just let your vow point you in your intended direction, and cultivate the spirit of waiting and watching – attending. Make what room you can for grace, and let grace take over from there -- understanding that you can’t rush it. Grace, as they say, keeps to no schedule – but it’s always right on time.

Be it so. Amen.

POSTSCRIPT

When I was thinking about today's message, "don't try," and remembered the two movie clips referenced above, I misremembered them both. In The Empire Strikes Back, I thought I remembered that Luke had been really trying hard -- muscling it, so to speak. When Yoda repeated the instructions -- like, "use the force, Luke" -- Luke exclaimed (in my mis-memory) in exasperation, "I'm TRYING to do that!" In this context, when Yoda says, "Do. Or do not. There is no try," he'd be suggesting that Luke relax a bit and not try so hard.

In the same way, I also misremembered the context of Mr. Miyagi's line -- "Karate do 'yes,' or karate do 'no'." I thought Daniel had been trying too hard and gotten frustrated. In such a context, Mr. Miyagi would be meaning, "Just do your karate -- or don't. Don't get frustrated over results. Just do, and never mind the results."

In both cases, however, when I located and watched the clips, I discovered that the context was the opposite of what I had thought I remembered. Luke and Daniel weren't trying too hard. Rather, they were insufficiently committed to the practice they had supposedly come to learn. When Luke sighs, "All right, I'll give it a try," he's not whole-heartedly giving himself to the enterprise at hand. Nor is Daniel when he says, "Yeah, I guess so."

Both points -- the point I had misremembered the clips as making, and the point the clips actually make -- are true. "Don't try" prescribes a middle path: neither, on the one hand, trying too hard, nor, on the other hand, "trying" as an excuse for half-hearted doing. "Don't try" steers between attachment to results (which is what is happening when we are trying too hard) and lackadaisical practice.

Some of us are more likely to err on the side of trying too hard. This is where the work of recognizing and differentiating from the Inner Critic is especially important. The Critic has teamed up with the Pusher to make us into over-earnest, stressed strivers. "Try! Try!" is the Critic's cry, and the more you heed your Critic, the stronger your Critic becomes. The Critic is never satisfied.

Some of us are more likely to err on the side of low commitment. This is where the work of articulating and committing to your vow comes in.

And very often we err in both directions at once: as when we strive after results instead of simply committing our lives to our vow -- our promise to keep up a certain kind of practice whether the expected results materialize on the expected schedule or not.

2020-05-03

Transforming Your Inner Critic



Invocation: HERE
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
Those words of Rabindranath Tagore, and today’s topic of the Inner Critic – the voice inside you that is always telling you what’s wrong with you – and this month’s theme of Joy – somehow combine in thoughts about: Democracy.

Democracy is, as John Dewey said:
“more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.”
When I was a graduate student in philosophy, I adopted Dewey as a special research interest. John Dewey, born 100 years before I was, helped me see democracy as not “simply and solely a form of government”, but a social and personal ideal – a spiritual value, for through democracy, he wrote,
“the incarnation of God in man . . . becomes a living, present thing.”
Thus I have come to see this as the great value of congregational life.

Yes, certainly a congregation facilitates and encourages your spiritual growth, but if you’re determined to pursue spirituality on your own, there are options for doing that. You can read books about spirituality, you can meditate and get a guru or spiritual teacher. You don’t HAVE to have a congregation to develop your spirituality. Congregational life is a particular container – we might say, chalice – for nurturing your spiritual flame, and congregations provide unique features you won’t find on any noncongregational spiritual path.

In particular, congregations are self-governing. Congregations have committees, and rules of procedure, and bylaws. Congregations give you a role in running the place. Meditation classes or sessions with a spiritual therapist don't. I know that the prospect of being on a committee is not a huge selling point these days. Nevertheless, spiritual community that is run by the seekers themselves offers a unique level of richness, meaning, and connection.

For those of us who choose this path, the activities of self-governance form an integral part of our growth and deepening. Through those activities we practice and hone the arts of democracy, and democracy is a really important spiritual practice.

And the skills of democracy – the habits of hearing diverse viewpoints, of weighing other people’s interests and perspectives with our own, of running a meeting and of participating in one so that your voice, and all voices, are sympathetically heard without your voice or any voice dominating – these are the skills of love. This is how equality of concern and respect is realized, how inherent worth and dignity of every person is affirmed and promoted. God becomes incarnate, as Dewey said, in and as democratic bodies -- whether those running a voluntary association or a town.

If spirituality is the meaning our lives have through being part of something bigger than ourselves, then democratic practice is quintessential spiritual practice. Our collective health and wholeness, our communal well-being, is a function of every voice being cared for enough to be heard, all needs and interests taken into consideration – and no voice dominating, overbearing, or becoming dictatorial. In other words: democracy.

In the ideal democracy, which actual democracies sometimes approach, everyone has a seat at the table, and everyone at the table is there to serve the greater good to the best of their capacity to discern it. And that service, as Tagore said, is joy.

I’m talking about democracy because I am one, and you are one – each of us is. Your psyche is an unruly and raucous parliament of voices, each looking out for one of your many and competing interests. Your decisions are products of constantly shifting coalitions of inner voices that are able to, for a time, have the votes to get motions passed.

No single voice is in charge in there. In the 2015 Pixar movie, “Inside Out” – which a number of you watched this week – we see inside 11-year-old Riley’s head as she negotiates life. Joy, anger, disgust, fear, and sadness are the emotional voices that, together, make Riley Riley. There’s no Riley inside of Riley – rather, Riley just IS the product of her inner voices interacting, sometimes one of them rising to prominence and sometimes another. In the same way, there’s no United States IN the United States – rather, the United States just IS the combined product of what all its people do.

Sometimes we may tempted to imagine that there is a little person inside our head taking in all the sensory inputs as if sitting in a theatre watching the movie of our life. This homunculus pulls the levers and pushes the buttons to give motor commands that make us move. When my son John was about seven or eight years old, I happened to mention to him this homunculus theory of mind, and he immediately put his finger on the problem. He asked, “And does this little person in my head have another little person inside his head?”

There isn’t one person in charge in there. You aren’t a monarchy. You’re a democracy. But democracies can get distorted. Certain interests can manage to hold disproportionate power and ignore and suppress certain other voices. The same thing happens to us individually.

At its healthiest, a democratic state or a person, hears all voices and allows none to gain too much power. And that brings me at last to the Inner Critic. One of the voices in the unruly parliament called “you” is the Inner Critic, and yours probably has too much power. It’s a bit of a bully.

Another voice is the Judge – who passes judgment on other people – and that voice can also often contribute to our misery – but even people that have become less judgmental of others may still be taking heat from the Inner Critic’s judgments of themselves.
“In America your Critic is likely to criticize you if you are not special enough or if you are not superior to others. Your Critic does not want you to disappear into the crowd, to be ordinary. Australian Critics take the opposite view...You are not supposed to stand out, to be special, or to do anything that will draw special attention to you.” Inner Critics there “are quite judgmental toward people who stand out too much or who try to be special.” (Hal and Sidra Stone 5)
"You're ugly," says the Inner Critic. "You're stupid." "You're fat." “You’re lazy.” "There's something wrong with you." "You're so weird."

“The Critic can become our ally once we learn to recognize it and to handle it. However, as long as we are unconscious of it, we must constantly appease it” (5).

And you can never satisfy it. The Inner Critic is never satisfied. “No matter how much you listen to it and try to change yourself in the way that it wants it follows you and grows stronger....The harder you try to change yourself, the stronger it gets. Try to please it, and it will grow” (6).

“Like a well-trained CIA agent, the Inner Critic has learned how to infiltrate every portion of your life, checking you out in minute detail for weakness and imperfections. Since its main job is to protect you from being too vulnerable in the world, it must know everything about you that might be open to attack.”

But just as the CIA in a democracy was formed to protect the democracy, it can grow too powerful and adopt an agenda that undermines democracy. The Inner Critic, as your Internal CIA, starts to pursue its own agenda, undermining the democracy of your internal parliament. “The information, which was originally supposed to be for your overall defense and to promote your general well-being, is now being used against you...With the Critic’s original aims and purposes forgotten, it operates secretly and independently of any outside control” (12).

The inner critic kills creativity. Criticism, inner or outer, kills creativity. Adam’s music today features the work of Beethoven, who was a creative genius, but not, Adam reminds us, during the year that Beethoven was studying with Haydn. Haydn’s critical voice brought on a dry spell for Beethoven. Quite possibly, Haydn’s voice internalized into an Inner Critic voice for Beethoven, but fortunately for us, Beethoven was able to differentiate from it. The inner critic is also apt to be a source of low self-esteem, of shame, and can make you depressed.

Maybe it starts with The Pleaser. An infant soon learns that life is better when ze smiles. So the Pleaser is born, making the child smile more frequently than spontaneous uprisings of delight would dictate. This way, the parent will be happy, which makes the infant safe, and the world feels nicer. The Pleaser’s job is to make others happy so that they, in turn, make you happy, and your vulnerability is protected. As the Pleaser expands, it takes on staff, who then function quasi-independently.
The Rule Maker makes up the rules about what kind of person you should be and what kinds of characteristics are acceptable.
The Rule Maker’s job is to notice what is rewarded and what is punished and draw inferences from that about what rules we should live by. Then the Pusher emerges. This is the voice urging us to achieve, to meet goals, get ahead in the world.

Where the Pleaser wants to please particular other people, the Pusher has abstracted particular people into the world in general, and abstracted concrete pleasing into gaining success and recognition from that world. “With a strongly developed Pusher, we are like racing dogs running after an artificial rabbit that we an never catch” (17). The Pusher has specific goals and objectives, and this may spin-off a counter-voice that says, "What about other things? It’s great to master the oboe, but what about being a great athlete? What about the Nobel Prize in physics?" Thus the Perfectionist is born. The Perfectionist quickly learns that you can’t master everything, so it doesn’t want you to do at all what you can’t do well. The Perfectionist cannot abide happily dabbling. For the Perfectionist, “nothing is less important than anything else. It is just as important to play perfectly during a friendly tennis volley as in the final match of a tournament. If something is worth doing, it is worth doing perfectly.”

The Inner Critic teams up with each of these voices to criticize you for not making others happy, for not working harder on your goals, for not being excellent at everything you do. To a large extent the Inner Critic grows from other people’s judge.
The more strongly we hear judgmental voices around us when we’re growing up, the more we internalize those voices and thus the stronger our Inner Critic is. The Inner Critic cannot be suppressed.

If you try to be rid of the Inner Critic, it just transforms into criticizing for not being very good at not being self-critical. “I shouldn’t be so self-critical” is just more self-criticism.

To become a more ideal democracy, none of the voices may be exiled. All the voices have a seat at the table. But none of them are you. France’s Louis XIV in the 17th century supposedly declared L’etat, c’est moi – the state, it is I – I am France. That, of course, is the opposite of democracy. Your inner democracy requires recognizing that none of the inner voices are you.

The problem isn’t that you have an Inner Critic. The problem is that you become identified with it. You mistake one representative in the parliament for being the voice of the nation itself. This is very common. Counselors who work with clients in recognizing their Inner Critic report that over and over they hear clients say, “I’ve heard that voice all my life. I just thought it was me.”

We see the world through the Inner Critic’s lens, or mirror – just as in Tracy’s story. And we think that’s just how the world is. Developing the Aware Self is like having a Board Chair who has no agenda of zir own, but oversees a process of letting the agenda emerge from the voices at the table, letting decisions be made only when all voices are taken into account.

Developing awareness of your voices – as voices – takes some work and some practice. But TRYING to live life from an Aware Self “gives the Inner Critic the best food of all! Inner Critics simply love to accuse us of not having an Aware Self...If you try too hard to live your life from an Aware Self, it is a sure sign that your Pusher, your Perfectionist, or both have taken over again. This will allow your Inner Critic to grow even fatter as it tries to help you to reach this new, unattainable, goal.”

There are some exercises you can do. But don’t TRY to do them. Just do them.

The crucial move is to not be identified with the Inner Critic – to differentiate from it – to see it not as you but as a voice talking to you. So do this: in your journal, or any piece of paper, write down some of your most common self-criticisms. Writing stuff down is really powerful for self-awareness, and it probably works better to use real pen and paper – typing on a computer screen just doesn’t feel as real.

So write down your most common self-criticisms, only, write them down in the second person – that is, as “you” statements. So don’t write: "I can't get anything right. I'll never be successful."

Instead write: "You can't get anything right. You'll never be successful."

This will help you see these thoughts as an alien point of view – something that an inner voice is saying to you, and not the absolute truth.

Notice how hostile this internal enemy can be. If another person said those things to you, you’d think they were being terribly hostile. Well, it actually is another person – only it’s an internalized one.

So the next step is to envision this other person. What does your Inner Critic look like? For some people, the first image that comes to them is their mother. If you had a critical mother, that wouldn’t be surprising. So, to help take away some of the Inner Critic’s power, imagine the inner critic as a cartoon character.

Imagine that it’s Daffy Duck saying these critical things to you. Or Goofy, or Popeye, or Homer Simpson, or Eric Cartman from South Park, or Tweety Bird, or Snagglepuss.

My inner critic is Yosemite Sam. Yosemite Sam’s insult vocabulary is heavy on “varmint” and “galoot.” I find I don’t take criticism so personally when its coming from someone who calls me a varmint or a galoot.

Next step: Respond to your inner critic by writing down a more realistic and compassionate evaluation of yourself. Write these responses in the first person – that is, as "I" statements. So if your Inner Critic says "You're such an idiot," you could write, "I don’t always understand as quickly as I might wish to, but I am smart and competent in many ways."

This is different from writing down affirmations, which I don’t particularly recommend. It’s a response to a specific criticism that doesn’t say you’re the greatest ever, but just brings a kinder, more honest attitude toward yourself. You’re not trying to give yourself an ego boost or make yourself feel better – your focus is just to be realistic.

You don’t have to do what your Inner Critic says. That ridiculous cartoon character is not you. Thank it for its input, and then take actions that represent your own point of view, who you want to be.

Your Inner Critic may respond by yelling at you louder and louder. Over time, it will grow weaker. And it does take time. Trying to rush it just gives the Pusher and the Critic more power.

Democracy doesn’t always deliver just what you wanted as quickly as you wanted it, but we remind ourselves nonetheless to trust the process. It's the same with our internal democracy. Trying to rush it would be, well, anti-democratic because some voices would get lost in the rush, and the best judgment of "the people" doesn't have time to emerge. Trust the process and give it time.

Spend a few minutes every day – or every week – doing the exercise: write down self-critical thoughts in the second person.

Imagine them coming from a cartoon character – because they are – the Inner Critic is cartoonish, a caricature of you. Write a more well-rounded response in the first person. Gradually, differentiation from the Inner Critic occurs. The Aware Self comes more often to the fore. Over time people learned to see the looking glass as only one lens or reflection of a much deeper experience.

May it be so.

2020-04-28

Attending to the Indigenous Voice



Invocation Poem
by Larry Robinson, HERE

Part 1
Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
If we would know where we are going, we need to know what we are. If we would know what we are, we need to know where we came from.

We come from the universe that began 14 billion years ago, and the planet earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, and the life that began there more than 3 billion years ago.

We come from the vertebrates that first appeared over 500 million years ago, and from the rise of mammals that was paved by the 5th great extinction 65 million years ago when, probably, an asteroid struck the Earth leading to the extinction of 75% of all species of that time.

We come from the order primates that first appeared 55 million years ago, the family hominid that first appeared 15 million years ago, the genus homo that first appeared 2 million years ago, and the species sapiens that’s been around about 250,000 years, that wandered out of Africa about 50,000 years ago, that transitioned from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and settlement starting about 12,000 years ago, and began what is called "civilization" (settlements large enough to be called cities, labor specialization, imposing buildings, trained armies, and at least a rudimentary civil service) about 5,000 years ago.

And then, this thing called Western Civilization. This is where it gets personal. People from Europe dominated the globe – conquered, colonized, oppressed, stole, usurped. Why? How did it happen that Europeans were able to do this?

It won’t do to say that Europeans were superior human beings: they were smart enough to develop writing with a small-set alphabet that made a more widespread literacy possible, and later they made the printing press. All this facilitated the development of learning and technological advantages like guns and steel swords and ocean-going vessels. If there was a technological superiority, there was also what we might call a moral inferiority. The European invaders had a level of greed beyond what the native peoples could imagine, and a casual willingness for mass slaughter, theft, deceit, and promise-breaking in service of their greed.

On the one hand, the Europeans might also be said to have had an organizational advantage. The rise of the nation-state in Europe saw the emergence of institutional and governmental structures by the time of Columbus that were equipped to organize and carry out an invasion of a land area more than 4 times the size of all of Europe. On the other hand, that they would be so keen to do so may suggest a further level of moral infirmity.

What accounts for these differences – technological, organizational, or moral? It’s not genetic. There’s no genetic difference among peoples in their capacity for any of these things. It’s not that God favored Europeans -- nor did God curse them.

Animals -- other than humans, that is -- are part of the story. The fertile crescent that happened to have the wild grasses barley and wheat, also happened to be where the wild ancestors of cows, pigs, sheep, and goats are native. After the harvest, the animals could eat the stubble and turn that into meat, as well as milk, wool, and leather. Domesticable animals made farming much more wealth-producing, which meant larger populations could be supported, all staying in one place. Hence, urbanization and specialization of labor -- which facilitated further technology development to support still larger populations. Those methods became Greek, then Roman, and then European.

Relatively few animals, it turns out, are practical to farm. Elephants take too long to mature. Zebras are too flighty and nervous and have a vicious streak. In the Americas, only the llama and the related alpaca could be domesticated. So geographic fluke is part of the story. Whatever part of the world happened to have both wild grasses like barley and wheat and domesticable animals like cows, pigs, sheep, and goats would eventually initiate a feedback loop that created increasing surplus wealth, technology, and social organization. The technology would inevitably come to include guns and steel for swords and other uses. Moreover, the close proximity to our domesticated animals bred diseases, to which Europeans gradually developed increased immunity. And here we have the "guns, germs, and steel" story that Jared Diamond's 1997 book of that title details.

One of the effects of wealth is that it orients people toward creating still more. In part, this is because wealth creates inequality. Hunter-gatherers or subsistence farming cultures are comparatively egalitarian. With inequality, you have the lower classes oriented toward climbing, and the upper class oriented to staying on top. It’s a giant petri dish for growing greed.

Such a dish of greed was, arguably, a consequence of the geographic fluke of having just the right sorts of domesticable grains and livestock around. But that geographic fluke doesn't account for the unique way the separation of powers between secular and church authority developed in Europe. Europe's church-state dynamic was also a fluke, but it was a fluke that was not determined by the conditions that allowed for highly wealth-producing farming.

In 494, Pope Gelasius articulated the "two swords doctrine" -- foreshadowed in Saint Augustine's City of God almost a century before. The Two Swords doctrine expressed the understanding that Europe largely shared for the next thousand years: that royal power and priestly power were two separate but cooperating authorities divinely established to govern human lives in this world. In theory, the State was to deal with human, temporal concerns while the Church was charged with responsibility for people's eternal salvation and for the worship of God. In practice, the church's interest in addressing all the material obstacles it perceived stood in the way of human salvation lead it to exert influence in ways that overlapped with the secular authorities, creating a constant tension between the two "swords." Kings were fighting against each other, but both sides were answerable, at least a little, to the Pope and Bishops. The Catholic Church, as the Western Roman Empire was falling, was growing into a quasi-independent, transnational power structure that was unique on the planet. A kind of federalism prevailed in medieval Europe, with the centralized power of the church over all of Christendom balanced by the decentralized secular authority of the nobles within their respective realms. A variety of conditions produced this "two swords" arrangement -- and certainly the upward spirals of population centers, technology, and organization initiated by the luck of domesticable grasses and farm animals was among them. The fluke of domesticability, however, while it may have been necessary, was not sufficient for the emergence of Europe's church-state dynamic. A continent that hit upon similarly profitable farming methods might have gone down a very different path.

Yet without Europe's unique church-state dynamic, the Crusades would not have happened. The Crusades, a product of a church that wanted to spread its religion and secular authorities eager to plunder, especially with the church’s blessing, resulted in “unprecedented wealth in the hands of a few.” The Crusades thus further exacerbated the importance of wealth in the minds of Europeans. As Dunbar-Ortiz notes,
“the crusading armies were mercenary outfits that promised the soldiers the right to sack and loot Muslim towns and cities, feats that would gain them wealth and prestige back home.” (33)
And the Crusades proved to be a warm-up for the conquest of the Americas. The culture into which Christopher Columbus was born in the mid-15th century had become highly sophisticated and organized, and oriented toward amassing superfluous displays of wealth – hence the mania for a useless metal, gold. The mixture of religious rationale and drive for wealth fostered by the Crusades against the darker-skinned Muslims was then deployed against the darker-skinned nonChristians of the Americas.

Where do we come from? We who live in North America, whether we are of European descent or of African or Asian descent – live in and are shaped by – we come from -- a culture founded in European invasion, conquest, and genocidal intent – and we all carry those wounds.

What are we? We are people, like all people, prone to fears, greed, and delusions. We are products of our culture, which developed as a particular unique set of strategies for addressing universal human needs. We recognize that strands of the culture that is still with us produced the evils of Conquistadors and settler-colonialism – and that the conditions of our lives were created by those evils.

Where are we going? We are replacing exclusion with inclusion. We aren’t always sure how to do that, so we are learning to attend better to the voices of the excluded. We are replacing dehumanization with respect. We aren’t always sure how to do that, but know it must include attending to the voices of those who have been dehumanized – as well as doing our own work. We are replacing the certainty of our own rightness with awareness that we need to learn, and an openness to understanding in new ways.

Prayer
HERE

Part 2

This year’s Common Read, selected by our denominational body, the Unitarian Universalist Association, is Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. If we are going to know who we are, what we are, we have to know this history.

I remember when I was about seven or eight years old, around 1967, I looked forward very much to Thursdays, because Thursday night my two favorite TV shows were on back to back. "Batman" – the campy one with Adam West – was followed by "Daniel Boone," played by Fess Parker. I loved that show. The idyllic relationship between the townsfolk of Boonesborough, Kentucky and the native peoples in the area made sense to me. It was echoed by the sort of story of the nation’s founding that I was getting in school – and was reinforced at home in such celebrations as the annual Thanksgiving Day feast, with romantic images of Pilgrims and Indians breaking bread – and Turkeys – together.

I now know that the colonists that landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 did not call any event in their first years a “Thanksgiving.” The first “Day of Thanksgiving” – as proclaimed by Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay colony – came 17 years after the Plymouth landing. The proclamation focused on giving thanks for the return of the colony's men who had traveled to what is now Mystic, Connecticut where they had gone to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot men, women and children. The roots of the American Thanksgiving holiday are a celebration of the massacre of hundreds of Native people – which grew into a general celebration of genocide. For example, a Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1676 thanks god that the "heathen natives" had been almost entirely wiped out in Massachusetts and nearby.

We know about the history of slaughter and deportation, and the trail of tears, the forced relocation of some 60,000 Native people to areas West of the Mississippi.

We’ve heard about the deliberate planting of small pox in blankets given to indigenous people – an early use of biological warfare, disguised as cooperative trade.

We’ve learned about the trail of broken treaties: that 374 treaties between the US and Native nations were ratified, and numerous others – treated as binding on the Natives – were never ratified – and that the US promptly ignored many of them as soon as they found it convenient to do so.

You might not know about the more recent history. You might not know about the Indian termination policy the US pursued for 20 years after World War II. It was a campaign from the mid-40s to mid-60s to try to assimilate Native Americans – get them off the reservation, abandon traditional lives and “begin to live as Americans.” The idea gained support from a 1943 report finding that living conditions on reservations were very poor and that the Bureau of Indian Affairs was grossly mismanaged. So getting rid of reservations was seen as a way to improve the lives of people mired in reservation poverty. Federal tribal recognition was withdrawn from over 100 native nations – most of which have since been reinstated. When we recall that the 50s were a time when Jim Crow was in full swing, schools and lunch counters were segregated, and inter-racial marriage was outlawed in 30 states, then we see that what was at issue wasn’t really assimilation into all the privileges of whiteness.

You might not know the ways that rationalizations used for past atrocities against indigenous people may still be invoked – by our government – today – as in the government’s justification of holding prisoners at Guantanamo.
“In early 2011, a Yemeni citizen, Ali Hamza al Bahlul, was serving a life sentence at Guantanamo as an ‘enemy combatant.’. . . In arguing that Bahlul’s conviction be upheld, a Pentagon lawyer, navy captain Edward S. White relied on a precedent from an 1818 tribunal.” (201)
His brief argues,
“Not only was the Seminole belligerency unlawful, but, much like modern-day al Qaeda, the very way in which the Seminoles waged war against U.S. targets itself violate the customs and usages of war.”
You might not know that our history with Indigenous people echoes in the government’s recent defenses of torture. Law professor John Yoo, serving in the Justice Department, wrote an influential memo in 2003. He invoked the category, “unlawful combatants” to say that what would otherwise be a war crime did not apply to acts against people deemed enemies of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. His precedent for the concept of “unlawful combatant” was the US Supreme Court’s 1873 Modoc Indian Prisoners decision, in which the court said that “
the laws and customs of civilized warfare may not be applicable to an armed conflict with the Indian tribes upon our western frontier.”
We need this book, and I’m grateful to our Unitarian publishing house, Beacon press, for commissioning it and to Indigenous scholar Dunbar-Ortiz for writing it. The call of compassion is a call to understand.

Every time anybody says anything, there’s a lot that is left unsaid. And that’s not a problem – unless what you’re saying turns out to be part of a strategy for obscuring something else. For example: it’s true that the Europeans’ average immunity to certain diseases had gradually increased after a thousand years of sharing living quarters with their livestock and enduring resulting pandemics – and Native populations’ immunities to those diseases tended to be lower. It’s true that the diseases Europeans unleashed were a factor. But it’s important to know that that fact has been politicized as a strategy for downplaying the role of the colonists’ unrelenting wars in causing the across-the-board reduction of Indigenous populations by 90 percent following the onset of colonizing projects.

If we attend to indigenous voices, they can tell us what words are being used against them, and we can better avoid unwittingly adding to the harm.

If we attend to indigenous voices, we will see come to see ourselves more completely.

If we attend to indigenous voices, recognizing a common humanity while respecting and honoring important differences, we help build our world’s appreciation of cultural diversity.

If we attend to indigenous voices, we can more fully come to terms with our country’s past. Living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did – as Native historian Jack Forbes stresses. They are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past. When we today assume responsibility for what is ours to be responsible for – the society we now live in – our lives become forces for survival and liberation of others and ourselves.

Everyone and everything in the world is affected, for the most part negatively, by US dominance and intervention, often violently through direct military means or through proxies – as we continue today to play out the enduring legacy of colonialist thought patterns. It is an urgent concern. So let’s read this book, and let’s talk about it. On four Sundays -- May 3, 10, 17, and 24 -- at 16:00 (4pm), please join our online class to process together the the book.

As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes:
"Indigenous people offer possibilities for life after empire, possibilities that neither erase the crimes of colonialism nor require the disappearance of the original peoples colonized under the guise of including them as individuals. That process rightfully starts by honoring the treaties the United States made with Indigenous nations, by restoring all sacred sites, starting with the Black Hills and including most federally held parks and land and all stolen sacred items and body parts, and by payment of sufficient reparations for the reconstruction and expansion of Native nations. In the process, the continent will be radically reconfigured, physically and psychologically. For the future to be realized, it will require extensive educational programs and full support and active participation of the descendants of settlers, enslaved Africans, and colonized Mexicans, as well as immigrant populations." (235-36)
In the words of Acoma poet Simon Ortiz:
"The future will not be mad with loss and waste though the memory will be there.
Eyes will become kind and deep, and the bones of this nation will mend after the revolution.”
May it be so. Amen.