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.


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.


Taking Care, Giving Care

From the spiritual point of view, everything is a lesson – every object, person, or experience I encounter – every cup or pen or rock -- is trying to teach me something. The spiritual task is to listen to each moment. Its meaning is always uncertain – indeterminate. Nonetheless, the spiritual call is to discern – or construct – what meaning we can – to ignore nothing. The poet Kristin Flyntz has been listening for what our current pandemic might be trying to teach.

An Imagined Letter from Covid-19 to Humans
Kristin Flyntz
Stop. Just stop.
It is no longer a request. It is a mandate.
We will help you.
We will bring the supersonic, high speed merry-go-round to a halt
We will stop the planes, the trains, the schools, the malls, the meetings, the frenetic, furied rush of illusions and “obligations” that keep you from hearing our single and shared beating heart,
the way we breathe together, in unison.
Our obligation is to each other -- as it has always been, even if, even though, you have forgotten.
We will interrupt this broadcast, the endless cacophonous broadcast of divisions and distractions,
to bring you this long-breaking news:
We are not well.
None of us; all of us are suffering.
Last year, the firestorms that scorched the lungs of the earth did not give you pause.
Nor the typhoons in Africa, China, Japan.
Nor the fevered climates in Japan and India.
You have not been listening.
It is hard to listen when you are so busy all the time, hustling to uphold the comforts and conveniences that scaffold your lives.
But the foundation is giving way, buckling under the weight of your needs and desires.
We will help you.
We will bring the firestorms to your body
We will bring the fever to your body
We will bring the burning, searing, and flooding to your lungs
that you might hear:
We are not well.
Despite what you might think or feel, we are not the enemy.
We are Messenger. We are Ally. We are a balancing force.
We are asking you:
To stop, to be still, to listen;
To move beyond your individual concerns and consider the concerns of all;
To be with your ignorance, to find your humility, to relinquish your thinking minds and travel deep into the mind of the heart;
To look up into the sky, streaked with fewer planes, and see it, to notice its condition: clear, smoky, smoggy, rainy?
How much do you need it to be healthy so that you may also be healthy?
To look at a tree, and see it, to notice its condition: how does its health contribute to the health of the sky, to the air you need to be healthy?
To visit a river, and see it, to notice its condition: clear, clean, murky, polluted?
How much do you need it to be healthy so that you may also be healthy?
How does its health contribute to the health of the tree, who contributes to the health of the sky, so that you may also be healthy?
Many are afraid now.
Do not demonize your fear, and also, do not let it rule you.
Instead, let it speak to you—in your stillness, listen for its wisdom.
What might it be telling you about what is at work, at issue, at risk, beyond the threats of personal inconvenience and illness?
As the health of a tree, a river, the sky tells you about quality of your own health, what might the quality of your health tell you about the health of the rivers, the trees, the sky, and all of us who share this planet with you?
Stop. Notice if you are resisting.
Notice what you are resisting.
Ask why. Stop. Just stop.
Be still. Listen.
Ask us what we might teach you about illness and healing, about what might be required so that all may be well.
We will help you, if you listen.

Two Kinds of Care

“Some kind of care is the kind of care that caring’s all about. And some kind of care is the kind of care we all could do without.” Some of you will perhaps recognize the line that I am modifying. When my children were little, there was a popular children’s record – made of vinyl – that was called “Free to be you and me” – by Marlo Thomas and friends. We played that record hundreds of times. One of the tracks was a song, with lyrics by Shel Silverstein.
Agatha Fry, she made a pie
And Christopher John helped bake it
Christopher John, he mowed the lawn
And Agatha Fry helped rake it

Now, Zachary Zugg took out the rug
And Jennifer Joy helped shake it
Then Jennifer Joy, she made a toy
And Zachary Zugg helped break it
And some kind of help is the kind of help
That helping's all about
And some kind of help is the kind of help
We all can do without

So: if someone helps you do something that you didn’t want to have done – that’s the kind of help we could do without. It’s the same way with caring. Some kind is the kind that caring is all about. Like when you care about fairness, so you give support to people treated unfairly. Or you care about the people you love, so you take care of them – you make sure they are provided with what they need – whether that’s concrete things or just a friend to hang-out with. Or you care about people learning stuff, so you become a teacher. Or you care about creating beauty and become an artist. We all need something big to care about. Here are some headlines from a few years ago: “Woman with one leg out to conquer Everest” “Six-year-old boy’s dream brings water to half a million people.” Or more recently: “16-year-old to urge United Nations to address climate change.” Wow. Those were people that really cared about something – getting to the top of Mt. Everest with one leg, bringing water to people who needed it, or preserving the earth from the harms of climate change.

If you have enough food to eat, it’s because someone – a whole lot of someones -- cared enough to plant it and harvest it and package it and ship it to a grocery store, so other someones could buy it and prepare it. George Bernard Shaw said, “This is the true joy in life – being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.” The thing we choose to care about so much that our whole life is oriented toward it – that’s the kind of caring that caring is all about.

But then there are the kind of cares that turn into worries. Someone who looks careworn looks tired and unhappy because of prolonged worry. They have anxiety. Cares, troubles, and worries can be a big burden. They can feel like a heavy weight on your shoulders. When worrying isn’t doing any good – when worrying only makes you sad and stressed – then that’s the kind of cares we all could do without.

What do you care about? What caring or cares are with you?

Taking Care, Giving Care

It’s good to be back. I would really have enjoyed being with everyone altogether in our sanctuary again, sharing hugs and handshakes. And I look forward to us being together in person again someday – even if the hugs and handshakes have to be replaced by elbow bumps. I was away for a six-month sabbatical at a Zen monastery in northern Oregon, which sits on 25 largely-wooded sloping acres overlooking the Columbia River separating Washington from Oregon. There were the two co-abbots, a married couple; five zen priests – three men and two women – whose ordination entailed a five-year commitment to stay at the monastery, and some have been there much longer. Four postulants – two men and two women -- taking a year or two prepare for – and be sure they want – ordination. In the middle of my time there, two of the postulants completed their postulancy and ordained, so the second half of my stay there were seven priests and two postulants in addition to the co-abbots. There were also at any given time 10 to 15 other residents – some there for a month or two or, in my case, six, with three or four planning to be there for a year or more. In all, there were usually about 25 priests, postulants, and other residents around the place.

Our schedule was variable. Some weeks we’d be sitting meditation three or four hours a day, and doing work practice for six hours a day. My work assignments sometimes had me out in the garden pulling weeds, or in the kitchen chopping and cooking, or in the monastery’s store sewing the mats and cushions they sell, or vacuuming, sweeping, mopping, and cleaning bathrooms, or working on a building renovation project installing drywall, staining boards, and painting. One day my work practice assignment was: “there’s a clog in such-and-such a sink. Unclog it.” It took 12 feet of plumber’s snake, but I finally got it cleared.

Other weeks we’d be on sesshin schedule. Every month included one week-long and one or two week-end sesshin, when our schedule had a lot less work practice and a lot more sitting meditation. Many guests came in to the monastery for the sesshin and our numbers from double or triple or quadruple to between 50 and 100 people there for that week or week-end. And still other weeks the schedule would be in-between: a middle number of sitting meditation hours and work practice hours. I’m so grateful to this congregation for affording me that opportunity. I was really glad to go, though I knew I would miss you. A six-month time of intensive practice and being monastic was something I’ve been wanting to do for at least the last 15 years.

I was really glad to be there – it was a beautiful experience, a wonder-filled continual practice of opening myself to beauty. And I’m really glad to be back – back to this community of taking care and giving care.

When I was a child, a caretaker was a person who took care of someone else. Then someone noticed that these people weren’t TAKING care, they were GIVING care.
So since about the 1970s, we’ve been calling them caregivers. And it’s true that they do give care. They also take care. They take care OF someone, and they take care in the sense of being careful – mindful of tending to what is needed. They take care in the sense of taking on the responsibilities of caring. Isn’t it funny that caretaking and caregiving are the same thing?

This is not merely an oddity of the English language, but reflects the dual nature of care itself. You see, the difference between giving and taking depends on there being a difference between you and me. Caring – true caring that isn’t just going through the motions – recognizes the truth that there is no difference.

Caring that has no sense of keeping score or being paid back comes from understanding that you and I are not separate. It comes from what the Sufi poet Hafiz illustrated when he wrote:
“Even after all this time, the sun never says
to the earth: ‘You owe me.’
Look what happens with a love like that.
It lights up the whole sky.”
Of course it’s useful and necessary to be able to distinguish one person from another, Bob from Betty, you from me – and to have good boundaries – including, these days, six feet of separation. From the spiritual point of view, this is a necessary and useful fiction – but a fiction nonetheless.

Your heart and your lungs, for some purposes, need to viewed as separate. But they are ultimately just you. The right atrium pumps deoxygenated blood to the right ventricle which pumps it down to the lungs where it pick up oxygen and drops off some carbon dioxide. The newly oxygenated blood is then drawn into the left atrium, which sends it to the left ventricle, which sends it throughout the body – taking your body the oxygen it needs. The heart never says, “hey, what happened to the oxygen I sent you one heartbeat ago – and the heartbeat before that and the heartbeat before that?” It just keeps sending the oxygen.

It happens that our understanding of vertebrate biology provides an answer to that question that the heart never asks. The body’s diverse functions involve taking oxygen, bonding it with carbon to create carbon dioxide, which goes into the bloodstream, and the heart pumps it back around to the lungs that breathe it out.
Where did the carbon come from? The carbon comes from the stomach and intestines, digesting and breaking down food. It’s all one system. The parts can be viewed separately, but they overlap and blur into one another.

The ultimate truth is that there is no separation of bodily organs – there’s just the one you. And no separation of you from anyone else – or any thing else. There’s just the universe unfolding itself to itself – an unfolding that includes localized pockets adopting the fiction of separation.

The opposite of caring is taking the fiction of separation as if it were ultimate truth. It isn’t. The things we care about, the people we care about and care for, pull us out of ourselves – which is to say, they flow from the recognition that we are not separate, even if we stay six-feet apart, even if we have a screen between us.

We are not separate. Those could be just words – “we are not separate” – just something to say. In our caring, however, we embody and manifest that nonseparation. We live nonseparation in our love for each other, and in our life projects. Whether you succeed or fail at a life project is not the point – but that you were oriented toward compassion is the point. Whether your life project is being an architect that designs spaces of beauty to enrich inhabitants, or being a teacher to help people understand, or being janitor to facilitate others’ productivity by keeping their workspaces clean, or being an epidemiologist working to prevent the next pandemic, what matters more than outcomes is that your vocation orients you toward compassion, that you care about something besides maintaining the illusion of a separate self, and that there are loved ones and life projects with whom and with which you are so bonded that the question of whether you are taking care or giving care makes no sense because care is flowing in all directions at once.

May it be so.


What's Your Great Vow?

LoraKim's Story

When I was a little girl, I went often to the woods to play, and to be with my bird friends. They were so Wow and such good company. They sang to me and I sang to them.

Birds also came to me in my dreams, and were in my prayers. I grew up in a religious tradition where children were encouraged to pray to God every night before bedtime. So I got on my knees by my bedside, and then, after bowing my head for a bit, looked out the window and said, “God, I don’t want to go to heaven if you don’t take the birds, and if only some get to go to heaven, take the birds. That’s the earliest form of a promise I was making considering birds, though I was trying to get God to do the promising, not me. When I was a little older, I begged my parents to let me have a parakeet for my 6 th birthday, then a little parrot for my 10th birthday, and then pigeons for my 12 th birthday. I just had to be around birds and I had to take care of them. During this time, I saw a cartoon of the Eskimo curlew who was going extinct. I was so moved on behalf of my bird friends that I promised right then and then that I would be a bird veterinarian taking care of birds.

And so that is what I did, I became a doctor of birds. And not just any birds, but wild birds. For I was learning that there was no way birds could flourish in cages. Taking care of birds meant letting them fly free. Because the most endangered group of birds is parrots, I became a wild parrot veterinarian. And now I get to go all over the Americas taking care of birds. My veterinary clinic fits in a variety of suitcases and backpacks.

Sound fun? Like a wonderful job, and an easy promise to keep to take care of birds? Well, it hasn’t been an easy road. For one, I really, really, don’t like going to school. College was miserable, I just wanted to be outside. But I had to attend University, because I had made a vow to take care of birds. Also, taking care of wild birds doesn’t pay well, so I’ve had years when I couldn’t go to the doctor or dentist because I had no money, and couldn’t go to movies or go out to a restaurant. Taking care of birds in trouble, means traveling and living in places that many people would consider dangerous. I lived in Guatemala during the Civil War there and I was scared all the time. I couldn’t go out at night, and spent a lot of time in my home or yard – much like now. I’ve had all kinds of diseases and all kinds of things bite me.

But you know what the hardest part of my promise to birds is? I can’t save them. Parrots are in real trouble and we are losing them. All my work often feels like it is for nothing. But I do get to save the lives of some individual birds, and it matters a lot to them, and to be in solidarity with people, which matters a lot to them. And taking care of others means a lot to me, because it means I am honoring the lives of so many who have given much to me. I just want to give back to all those birds I kept in cages as a child, and do my best, no matter the outcome.

I owe it to them. I owe it to myself. I have some sadness about not being able to save them. At the same time, I have great joy for giving them all I can.

Birds give me wows and I give them vows.

Meredith's Sermon: What's Your Great Vow?
Part 1

The Stoic philosophers emphasize not worrying about what isn’t in your control. And that is such an important wisdom – to let go of concern for what isn’t in your control. But what IS in your control?There is a further wisdom that recognizes that any control is ultimately an illusion. Your thoughts? Nope. Your thoughts are not in your control.

Try sitting very still and very quiet, lowering your eyelids so they are almost but not quite shut, gazing downward at a 45-degree angle and bringing all your awareness to something in the present – noticing the minute details of the sensations of breathing in and breathing out, say. You will soon notice that a thought will intrude. The mind will wander off from the assignment you have given it.
"I need to do my laundry soon. . . . So-and-so was curt with me; what was that about? . . . Perhaps I’ll start a garden. . . . I wonder if the movie theatres will be re-opening soon. . . . What’s for lunch?"

You didn’t ask for those thoughts, you didn’t choose them. They just popped up. And if your thoughts aren’t in your control, then can the actions that flow from thoughts be? They certainly seem to be in our control, and it's important that they seem to be. The illusion is a necessary one – but it is an illusion nonetheless.

Spiritual deepening involves gradually seeing through the illusion of control. Sages in many times and places have recognized that we are not in control. Recently, scientific methods have confirmed it. Benjamin Libet’s experiments in the mid-1980s showed that the motor signal is headed to the muscle several hundred milliseconds before we become conscious of it. We have already begun the action before the apparatus of conscious decision-making comes on line.

For most of day-to-day life, consciousness isn’t deciding what to do. Consciousness’s job is to come along after the fact, notice what we’re doing, and make up a story about how what we’re doing is what we meant to do. All day long, it’s going: "I meant to do that. Oh, yeah, I meant to do that, too." But the meaning-to-do-it trails the beginning of doing it. Our brains create a running commentary on whatever we are doing, even though the interpreter module has no access to the real causes or motives of our behavior.

In Michael Gazzaniga’s experiments, he flashed the word "walk" in a part of the visual field that would be seen by only the right hemisphere. It’s the left hemisphere that processes language consciously, so subjects were not conscious of seeing the word. Yet many of them would stand and walk away.When asked why they were getting up, subjects had no problem giving a reason. "I’m going to get something to drink," they might say. Our inner interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing it has done so.

My language centers and neocortex notice my behavior, and they make up a story about this character named “Meredith” who is heroic, yet with certain endearing foibles. At each moment of the day this “Meredith” can be found deliberately and intentionally acting. Whatever it is he’s doing is a reasonable part of his pursuit of reasonable purposes.

This is an after-the-fact story. The behavior came first, we now know. And people of great spiritual awareness have recognized long before Libet or Gazzaniga came along that this story of the self was a fabrication.

With spiritual development and seeing through the illusion of control comes an increased appreciation of grace (the wonder, beauty, and abundance that cannot be earned or deserved), decreased worry and anxiety from trying to control outcomes, decreased attachment to the ego's story about either "accomplishments" or "failures," a decreased interest in blaming self or others.

Why would our brains be built to generate this illusion of control? One plausible suggestion is that “the conscious feeling of intent is simply a marker indicating that we own the action. . . . This marker is very important so that our episodic memory shows whether actions” were “ours” or just happened (Janet Kwasniak). The memory of an event that came from me influences my neurons for the future -- we do learn from our actions and their results. If I get a pain from something I did, my neural wiring makes me less likely to do that again. But if the pain “just happened” – if it was apparently not a result of some particular behavior of mine -- the effects on my wiring are different.

What we call “volition” is not a generator of behavior but only a perception that a behavior is ours. The illusion that intentions precede and determine action, then, is a by-product of the way the brain learns from experience.

We are not in control. And yet. And yet, and yet, and yet. Intentions matter. It matters that we set an intention for what we’re going to do today, or this week, or with this one precious life.

There’s a distinction to be made between the after-the-fact rationalizations of our impulses of the moment, versus the large over-arching story of the purpose of lives. Both, it would seem, are fabricated stories, but the over-arching story has the power to feed-back down into those subconscious places that generate particular behaviors.

Conscious brain has no idea what’s going on in the subconscious, so conscious brain just makes up a story. Yet, the subconscious is listening to that story – and starts taking it into account. It listens with a skeptical ear at first, but if the story is referenced repeatedly, the subconscious wiring adjusts. Say one time you did a favor for someone. Maybe you did it for purely self-interested reasons. But you happen to have been asked why you did it, and you fabricated a story – not from any intent to deceive, but because it’s the job of conscious brain to invent rationalizations – and say your story was that you care about the well-being of others. Sub-conscious brain was listening to that story. It was not entirely sure whether to believe what it heard, but it made a note – a sort of little, “huh!”

But if it so happens that you have other occasions to tell that story about yourself, then the story gets reinforced a little more. What began, as all our explanations of our behavior do, as an after-the-fact rationalization, can eventually become an actual driving force.

Having spent half a year at a place called "Great Vow Zen Monastery," I’ve had the chance to reflect about the vows in our lives – the over-arching stories of our commitments and values that come to be our guiding forces.

We can have a vow of the moment – like vowing to get dinner on the table – but the underlying vow is what you get to if you keep asking, “why?”

Suppose (to adapt an example from Jan Chozen Bays, The Vow-Powered Life) a youth vows to become the highest scoring player on her basketball team. If she happens to be asked, or ask herself, a series of why questions, there are various directions she might go. She might want to impress a certain prospective mate she has her eye on.

Why? There are again various possible answers. Perhaps, "Because I eventually want to have a long, happy marriage like my grandparents had."

Why? "Because I want a deep and lasting connection to another human being."

Why? "To learn to love other people genuinely, and also myself." And this is where the why questions stop. We recognize implicitly that we have reached an ultimate.

The series of why questions might have taken us down a very different path to a different ultimate. She might instead have said that she wanted to become her team’s top scorer in order to get a scholarship to college, that would otherwise be unaffordable. Why does she want to go to college? She might say “to get a good job,” or she might say “to learn about international politics” and those would each lead to a different ultimate.

Whatever it might be, when you get to that ultimate that puts a stop to further why questions, that’s your great vow. When our young basketball player first formed her determination to be her team’s top scorer, there were almost certainly a variety of different urges at work. As my father used to say to me: “Son, nobody every did anything for only one reason.”

If subjected to the pressure of why questions, she’ll select rationales that sound good at the time. Yet the subconscious is listening to what the conscious brain makes up, and if the story is one that she sticks to, it will gradually become a true guide.

The great vow is your personal mission. Most of us are used to mission statements for institutions -- companies, congregations, and nonprofit organizations, etc. But do you have a mission statement for your life? If you do, you have articulated your Great Vow.

If we are never pressed for ultimate purpose, then we can spend our lives pulled this way and that by forces of the moment. So it’s important to pursue that series of why questions, get down to an ultimate that feels right, and stick to it. Keep repeating it – especially as an explanation for something you are doing, to strengthen the link between your words and your action.

Each time you sincerely say it, you reinforce your orientation toward realizing that world that you dream.

Part 2

Great Vow Zen Monastery has been encouraging people to articulate their Great Vow since the place was founded in 2002. A few years ago, they built on the property a Shrine of Vows for displaying painted declarations of people’s vows.

Herewith, a sampling.
1. One person quoted from Henry Miller: “I know what the cure is, it is to give up, to surrender, so that our little hearts may beat in unison with the great heart of the world.”
2. “I vow to recognize frustration and impatience.”
3. “Awake” and “I vow to do the work tirelessly”
4. “I vow to believe in myself,” and “Remember who you are.” (unclear whether “you” refers to others or to self)
5. “I vow to help myself and others wake up to the inexhaustible tenderness of the present moment.”
6. “Awake open-hearted wonder”
7. “Embrace the Flaws” (I wonder if the “a” in "flaws" looks a little funny on purpose to exemplify a flaw)
8. “I vow to become a zen priest. I vow to devote my life to practice. I vow to free everyone.” (It’s signed "(Shinei) Sara" and dated 2013, and I can tell you that Shinei is indeed now a priest, and seems well on her way toward realizing the other two.)
9. “I vow to awaken fully so that I can help others learn to end their own suffering” – and this one continues on its other side
10. “So we can all be enLIGHT(ened) together!”
11. “I vow to serve the truth.”
12. “I vow to cultivate wholesomeness in myself and to nurture it in others.”
13. “I vow to live fearlessly” and “I vow to see all beings as my teachers.”
13. “I vow to make amends.”
14. “I vow to do more than I think I can. And then more than that.”
15. “I vow to illuminate curiosity and beauty.”
17. “I vow to be a gentle dragon.”
18. “I vow to become a mirror to reflect the true nature of all beings.”
19. Love and death. A vow to die – referring, perhaps, to the dying away of what clings to attachments and keeps us separate -- rests adjacent to a vow to love.
20. A vow engraved in wood quotes from Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhissatva: “For as long as space endures, and for as long as living beings remain, so then may I too abide, to dispel the misery of the world.”
21. “I vow to expand the container until nothing is excluded.”
22. “See all as Buddha”
23. “I vow to devote my life to practice.”
24. “Shine” – a simple, one-word vow.
25. “I vow to live as if each day is my last.”
26. “Not two” – a reminder that nothing is separate.
27. “Complete combustion” – perhaps this person wants to burn away all delusions, or maybe burns with the fire of commitment.
28. “I vow to be of service to the Great Mystery and to help others lead lives of fulfillment and growth.”
29. “I vow to listen with heart and sing with guts.”
30. “I will move on.” With a depiction of baggage being left behind.
31. “I vow to find my true home in everyday life.”
32. “Simple mind. Pure heart”
33. “I vow to serve children in need.”
34. “To abide and move in love.”
35. “I vow to drop the tragic story line and tell interesting stories.”
36. “I vow to let it go.”
37. “I vow to always give full attention to my passion.”
38. “I vow to love fearlessly,” and “I vow to live this truth.”
39. “I vow to plant a garden on earth of lovingkindness for all beings.”
40. “To cherish all life”
41. This one has no words – perhaps some vows are wordless.
42. This one seems to be a marriage vow: “In your eyes the three treasures – this marriage, a dharma gate – and you: companion, beloved guide, and friend. I carry your heart. I carry it in my heart.”
43. “I vow to embody pure love.”
44. “Become prayer”
45. “I vow to love myself so I may love others.”
46. “I vow to embody love and justice.”
47. “I vow to guard and keep the precepts.”
48. “To feel peaceful and give peace to others.”
49. “Understand the human condition.”
50. “I vow to know the true mind of the Lotus Sutra.”
51. “I vow to cultivate lovingkindness for myself and all other beings.”
52. “Seeing, in all circumstances, that my practice can be of help to others.”
53. “I vow to be warm, inclusive, and creative in how I share the dharma life.”
54. “To cherish the Earth and all its beings.”
55. “I vow to embody true compassion.”
56. “Green every place”
57. “I vow to see through birth and death.”
58. “Awaken!”
59. “I vow to be cautious with my steps and words and thoughts.”
60. “To settle into basic goodness.”
61. “I vow to never, ever, ever, give up my spiritual quest.”
62. “Unperfect” – or perhaps the verb, “UnperFECT”
63. “I vow to be gentle with every being.”
64. “I vow to be of service.”
65. “Awaken the world.”
66. “I vow to always return to practice.”
67. “I vow to live and seek the truth.”
68. “I vow to teach wisdom.”
69. “I vow to sustain life and nourish paths to enlightenment.”
70. “Peace. Whole. Connection.”
71. “I vow to heal and help myself and others.”
72. “I vow to speak my truth.”
73. “Manifesting life as channeling, offering, and dancing the cosmic dance to the music of the spheres AS the music of the spheres.”
74. “be nowhere”

As you think about how you would articulate your Great Vow, it’ll be helpful to reflect on your sources of vow. There are three sources: inherited, reactive, and inspired.

What is your inherited vow? As you were growing up, what were you given to understand by your parents or primary caretakers was the primary function of a life? They may never have articulated it to you, but if you had to now articulate what your parents’ great vows were, what were they?

My parents were both professors – Mom’s field was chemistry and Dad’s was English. In the early years of my life, they were grad students, then they settled into tenure-track teaching positions. So my inherited vow from both of them was: One, learn stuff. Two, teach it to others.

These vows made sense to me, and they guided me through young adulthood as I became a professor myself.

You might, however, have reached age 18 feeling that your parents showed you more about how you wanted NOT to be than how to be. So that leads to the second possibly important source for your vow: reactive vows.
“Reactive vows can ricochet through many generations. For example, a child raised by a military father who is precise, strict, authoritarian, and conservative may become a hippie. The hippie’s child, tired of dirty clothes, living out of a van, and not having predictable meals, may decide to become an accountant who lives in the same house for forty years and hoards food, toilet paper, and paperclips. The accountant’s child becomes a rock musician perpetually on tour; the musician’s child, a buttoned-up stockbroker; and so on.” (Bays 36)
Or reactive vows can be a response to situation faced while growing up.
“People who become physicians often have had an experience with illness or death in their early years, either in themselves or their family. Their choice of profession may be due to an unconscious desire to gain control over the helplessness and vulnerability they felt as they faced sickness and death at an age when they had no defenses or coping skills. Incidentally, many lawyers seem to be impelled into law after an early experience of injustice” (Bays 12).
A reactive source of vows is not a bad thing. It COULD be over-reactive, but reaction itself is often not overreactive. What makes it reactive is that’s it’s driven by a desire to avoid something – avoid being like your parents, or avoid a kind of experience, such as sickness or injustice.

A third, and the last vow source I’ll mention, is inspired vows. We pick up inspired vows – often in adolescence or early adulthood – when we learn about someone we admire. We aspire to be like them. Martin Luther King Jr’s vow of nonviolence came from an inspired vow – inspired by the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi. Athletes often draw inspiration from a particular athlete they admire. Who are your heroes?
“You cannot discover your vows by thinking. Your vow lies within you” (Bays 5)
To bring it out, to consciously articulate and thereby strengthen it as the orientation of your life, it helps to explore those three questions:

  • What did you learn from parents or primary caretakers about what life is for? What are your inherited vows?
  • Second, what negative lessons did you learn – lessons about what you wanted to avoid if at all possible? What are your reactive vows?
  • Third, who are your heroes? What are your inspired vows?

Take a piece of paper and write down your answers about your inherited vows, reactive vows, and inspired vows.

Please do that this afternoon, before you forget.

Then sleep on it. Some time tomorrow, please look again at your paper – what you put down about your three sources – inherited, reactive, and inspired.

And then, in that light, draft your Great Vow.

I’m asking that you email it to me. Send it to minister at cucwp dot org. I will print out your vow. And when we finally return to our congregational building, you will find there our own CUUC Shrine of Vows.

If you’d like your name to appear with your Vow, then include your name at the end of the vow in the same paragraph (i.e., without a line break before your name). Otherwise, vows I receive will be displayed anonymously.

Please make it so. I am so looking forward to seeing what your Great Vows are!

Blessed be and Amen.


Traditions of Liberation


It seems appropriate during this time when we are worshipping via internet to begin with a poem that came to my attention by being widely circulated around the internet. In this time of virus, here’s a poem that went viral. Some of those circulating it claimed it was written a hundred years ago as a response to the 1918 flu pandemic, but it turns out it was written in the last month. This is by Kitty O’Meara.

And people stayed home
and read books and listened
and rested and exercised
and made art and played
and learned new ways of being
and stopped
and listened deeper
someone meditated
someone prayed
someone danced
someone met their shadow
and people began to think differently
and people healed
and in the absence of people who lived in ignorant ways,
dangerous, meaningless and heartless,
even the earth began to heal
and when the danger ended
and people found each other
grieved for the dead people
and they made new choices
and dreamed of new visions
and created new ways of life
and healed the earth completely
just as they were healed themselves.


We are celebrating today both Passover and Easter. The Jewish holiday of Passover began last Wednesday sun down, and continues until sundown on Thu Apr 16. Some of you joined me for an online virtual Seder that night, and I thank you. It was moving to be together and to tell again the familiar story, and say again the familiar words.

A traditional saying at the end of Seder and also at the end of Yom Kippur services is “next year in Jerusalem” – evoking the hope for, and commitment to, a more full spiritual redemption, a more complete liberation that comes from a more widely realized justice. But as our online virtual Seder concluded, my thoughts were also on, “Next year, back in our building, together in person.”

The Passover story is a story of political liberation – the story of a people escaping from enslavement in Egypt. Two ideas in the Passover festival have remained unchanging and central. One, it is a celebration of freedom. Passover is known as “The Season of our Liberation.” Two, it is a call to hospitality.

In Exodus, Yahweh alternates between telling Moses what to do, and telling Moses how, in future years, he is to celebrate what he’s now in the middle of doing. As soon as the Israelites get out of Egypt – before Pharaoh’s army comes chasing after them – Exodus 13 relates:
“Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. You shall keep this observance in this month. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the Lord. You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’”
“You shall tell your child,” it commands. So the Haggadah text to be followed at Seder dinners emerged in order to obey this commandment, this mitzvah, to tell each generation about the liberation.

The two phrases that echo most loudly through the Haggadah are
"In every generation let each one feel as if he or she came forth out of Egypt"
“Let any who are hungry come and eat.”
These are interrelated and intertwined.

The human psyche has three basic categories: ME, US, and THEM. US is, roughly, the people who share a culture with me. “Culture” is a fuzzy notion – its borders are vague and constantly shifting – but it is important and powerful nonetheless. Exodus tells about the liberation of an US. As a story initially and primarily told by Jewish people to Jewish people, it’s the story of how WE were enslaved. Physical needs for food, clothing, shelter, or sleep were often inadequately met. Worse, human needs for respect, autonomy, trust, dignity, worth, and self-expression were systematically and extremely denied – through regular use and constant threat of inflicting great pain and humiliation, typically the lash, applied in a way sometimes punitive and sometimes simply random, though always ostensibly punitive. Another way to say that: sometimes the slave is publicly tortured or executed for something they did, and sometimes just for who they are – and it’s never clear which one a given instance might be. It’s a combination cruelly effective at maintaining tremendous oppression.

It was an utterly miserable existence. That’s the miserable existence WE were stuck in. But WE got out of it. WE, as a people, as an US, achieved political liberation – a system of some modicum, at least, of rights and liberties. It was not at all a democracy, and a read through the books of the prophets illustrates how the Israelites struggled constantly for centuries with issues of oppressing each other. But the oppressors were US now – we shared a bond of culture and of worship -- and their cruelties were less systematic, less extensive, and usually less extreme. So we were free.

(And, I’d like to add: What’s remarkable isn’t that Israelites oppressed each other – for every people of that time did. What’s remarkable is that they actually struggled with it – they had a tradition of prophets, a tradition of calling each other out for abuses of power. The Jewish people invented social justice. They hardly perfected it, and may not have been much better at it than other cultures of the times, but they invented the idea of it -- the idea that there was a standard of social justice to which even the powerful were held. That idea was their tremendous gift to the world.)

When political liberation happens – when a people enjoy some rights and liberties, when physical needs can be met and those human needs -- respect, autonomy, trust, dignity, worth, and self-expression – are not systematically denied, people become susceptible to different kind of bondage. We are likely to want to guard what we have. We can become, essentially, enslaved to self-protective habits and desires of the moment. Life can come to feel bereft of meaning. The tradition of liberation that begins with political liberation from external oppressors must then turn to personal liberation from our own internal oppressors. When US is no longer oppressed by THEM, ME may still be oppressed by ME-self.

The internal voices of self-protection and of satisfying desires of the moment drown out the voices that want our life to mean something more than its own security and gratification. Thus the Passover Seder tradition, the Haggadah text, addresses this liberation, too. “Let any who are hungry come and eat” is as central a message as “we escaped our enslavement in Egypt.”

To liberate US, we get away from the THEM that oppresses. But then, to liberate ME – that is, liberation from internal voices of self-protection and desire – we must turn toward THEM, turn toward those who are other, turn with an open heart toward those, whatever their culture, who we can help. We make our lives meaningful – liberated from the abyss of meaninglessness – by reaching out to help, to share with, any THEM that is need.

I just used a whole bunch of words to say what I think Rabbi Hillel so beautifully said in 25 words or less:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Hillel’s plaintive question, "What am I? If I am not for others, what am I?" points to the void of meaninglessness of a life solely consumed with self-protection and gratifying the moment’s desires.

Yet another way to say it is that gratitude and generosity are intrinsically linked. The Seder exercise of imagining yourself as personally coming forth out of Egypt is an exercise in gratitude. It fills us with thanksgiving for the freedoms we enjoy. And the concomitant of gratitude – the action that confirms and solidifies and sustains gratitude – is generosity. So the gratitude of escaping slavery very naturally segues into the generosity of “let any who are hungry come and eat.”

I invite you to inspect your own experience here. What does being ungenerous – being stingy – feel like? Whether you notice the stinginess in yourself or in someone else, what is it like? Does it not feel like a kind of ungratefulness? Isn’t the miser necessarily also an ingrate (whether in the form of your own inner miser, or someone else)?

In the story that Tracy’s going to share with us in a few minutes, you’ll notice a movement toward generosity, toward radical hospitality, toward open-heartedness toward THEM who are not US. As you do, notice the feeling of increased liberation, of increased meaning that comes with that turning.

Political liberation without radical hospitality becomes personal enslavement.

[Tracy's story, from UUA's "Tapestry of Faith" set of curricula, is HERE.]


In the midst of this Passover season, sacred in the Jewish tradition, today is Easter, sacred in the Christian tradition. So let us pray:

Dear Light of the World that can pierce the darkness of our world and understanding – piercer of darkness that Christians name Jesus:

We come to this Easter morning in the midst of a pandemic. These are times of uncertainty, fear; lack of food, money; lack of access to basic necessities, healthcare, clean water and sanitation.

Let us remember that for those on the margins, this is their “normal.” Facing conditions of uncertainty and lack has been the daily reality for those with severe disabilities or illness, the migrant, the refugee, the homeless, the poor, the jobless, the voiceless, the powerless, victims of violence, those with mental illness. For many there is the added trauma of grieving the loss of loved ones while separated by ‘social distancing’, quarantine, or lockdown.

Light of the World, illuminate us with loving compassion. Pierce the darkness of our world and understanding.

Many are rediscovering the joy of sharing and the joy of loving those who are our neighbors. We celebrate and give thanks for the kindness of so many. In Italy, the Rainbow in Every Street movement leaves food for those in need. “If you don’t have food, please take. If you have, please give.”

Two Nigerian software engineers fix faulty ventilators for free at the University of Jos teaching hospital.

In Capetown, South Africa, the gangland truce helps provide food instead instead of lethal turf wars.

We rejoice in the inventiveness of so many across the globe trying to solve the critical shortage of medical equipment and personal protective supplies.

Light of the World, heal our selfishness and help us reset our values where every one of us truly looks out for each other. May we come out to the reality of new life for us all. Help us to travel the road to freedom to live in your Light. May we be open to the promptings of compassion.



The Easter story is also a story of liberation – the story of freedom from the bondage of sin. I know that language, for many of us, evokes a way of thinking that feels alien. Yet we would agree, I think, that we aren’t always our best selves – that heedless pursuit of passing desires can feel like a kind of bondage – and that habits of self-protection can sometimes constrain us from a more fulfilling joy.

Even so, we may well wonder how this is supposed to work: how does a story of a person cruelly executed yet rising from the dead free us from any kind of bondage. One account, prevalent in much of traditional Christianity, is called the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. This is the account of Easter that, somewhere along the line, you probably learned. It goes roughly like this:
The Easter story tells us that Jesus' suffering on the cross is redemptive. He suffered and died that we might have life (i.e., he substituted for us in order to atone for us). In that way, we are freed from bondage to sin.
I don’t think substitutionary atonement is the best way to read the Easter story. The implication of substitionary atonement is that real love manifests as complete submission and self-sacrifice. God required of Jesus -- and may sometimes require of us -- passive acceptance of violence. I think that’s actually a dangerous and harmful interpretation of the Easter story. As I read it, the death from which we may rise, from which we can help others rise, is specifically an entombment in fear and shame.

Crucifixion was designed to inflict optimal physical pain, dragged out over many hours. More than that, crucifixion was designed to humiliate. The person was stripped naked – lifted up to public view, gasping, fully exposed, utterly powerless. At the moment of death, his bowels would loosen, for all to see. Crucifixion was designed to instill fear, and to make anyone associated with the victim feel ashamed of themselves. As Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, write in their book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire:
“Crucifixion was used against the underclasses and slaves and was regarded as so shameful that even victims’ families would not speak of it. It functioned to fragment communities, tearing the fabric of even the strongest bonds of connection and commitment.”
And, as Ron Rolheiser adds, for some of Jesus’ followers, it worked.
“Many of them abandoned Jesus and scattered after the crucifixion. They simply couldn’t connect this kind of humiliation with glory, divinity, and triumph.”
In their fear and their shame, they fell silent about the promise of a new social order, a Kindom of God. Others, though – women, at first – broke silence. Brock and Parker write:
"The Passion narratives broke silence about the shame and fear that crucifixion instilled. To lament was to claim powers that crucifixion was designed to destroy: dignity, courage, love, creativity, and truth-telling. In telling his story, his community remembered his name and claimed the death-defying power of saying his name aloud....The Passion stories brought testimony before a higher court of appeals than the bogus trial of Jesus they indict. The purpose of such writing is assuredly not to valorize victims, to praise their suffering as redemptive, to reveal ‘true love’ as submission and self-sacrifice, or to say that God requires the passive acceptance of violence. Such interpretations mistakenly answer the abusive use of power with an abnegation of power. The story of Jesus’ crucifixion, in marked contrast, asserted that the answer to abusive power is the courageous and decisive employment of the powers of life – to do deeds in Jesus’ name.... To break silence whenever violence is used to shame, instill fear, fragment human community, or suppress those who advocate for justice is life-giving. Just as Jesus, in John’s Gospel, stood before Pilate and said, ‘you have no power over me,’ the Passion narratives defied the power of crucifixion to silence Jesus’ movement. In doing so, they placed before his movement the choice to tell the truth and live by ethical grace. They said life is found in surviving the worst a community can imagine, in lamenting the consequences of imperialism, and in holding fast to the core goodness of this world, blessed by divine justice and abundant life."
Against all violence to body or to spirit, against all fear and shame endured by us and by others, against all the protective strategies we ourselves devise to be safe, there is rising to accept and affirm and speak who we are. There is yet the possibility of transformation into who we are, unobscured by fear or shame. There is yet the possibility of justice, an end to violence, a new social order, a Kindom of God. That’s how I read the Easter story.

But why would that story need to include the part of the story about the empty tomb – the resurrection? One answer is what I've indicated: the resurrection of Jesus is symbolic of resurrection from the psychic death of fear and shame. Another answer is: because it’s important to remember that the dead are not gone. On Easter we remember that the dead do continue to guide us. They do so through conscious memories of them, what they said, and what we may imagine they would say. They also do so in unconscious ways – they continue to influence our individual and collective way of being.

Let me share with you a personal story by way of inviting you to reflect this Easter on your experience of ways the dead rise -- continue to comfort, to guide – ways their love and their wisdom continues somehow to be felt.

I have had three lucid dreams in my life. The first was 40 years ago, and the last was just couple months ago, and is still very vivid for me.“Lucid dream” is a name for the extraordinary experience of being conscious that you are dreaming while you’re in the dream. As you are conscious that you are dreaming, more of your waking brain is functioning. So if something completely crazy happens, your normal dreaming brain casually accepts it as if it were perfectly ordinary, but in a lucid dream you would recognize that things that make no sense, and you can bring more of waking cognitive capacity to the unfolding narrative. In what’s called lucid dreaming, the awake consciousness gets to interact with subconscious stuff in a way that it normally can’t.

In the first two lucid dreams of my life, as soon as I realized I was dreaming, my concern was to wake up. I was like: “This place isn’t real. I don’t want to be in an unreal place. Get me out of here.” I was straining to wake up, but couldn’t – so I felt trapped. In this third one, though, I met my father, and was delighted to have the chance to be with him again.

I was on an academic campus. Nothing unusual there. I grew up on college campuses, as both my parents were professors, and then spent my young adulthood as a grad student and then professor myself. I had left something behind in one of the buildings, and went back in to look for it. In the lobby, there was my Dad.

He said, “I’ll show to your new office.” Now that was a twist, because the narrative up to that point was that I was just visiting this campus, for some conference, say. I didn’t have an office there – or the responsibilities that would go along with that.

It was at that moment that the dream became lucid – that I became aware that this was a dream while I was still having it. My brain went from casually accepting that it was perfectly natural for my father to be standing there to: “Oh, my god! Dad!”

It’s been five years since my father died of Alzheimer’s in January 2015 at the age of 82. Because of the nature of Alzheimer’s, the Dad I knew has actually been gone for a lot longer than that. The man who was standing before me – who was offering to show me to my ‘new office,’ wearing a tie and a tan sport coat with elbow patches – was the version of my father when he was in his early 50s and at the height of his powers. He was smart, he was funny – could be sarcastic sometimes – had a finely tuned sense of irony. God, I've missed him.

So I held out my arms and I said, “Dad! Hold me.” And he did.

Then we were walking down the hall toward this new office, and I said to him, “You’re dead, you know.”

And he answered in that one-eyebrow-raised, ironical way of his, “here and there.”

And then, sadly, I did wake up in my bunk at the monastery. But what a perfect answer that was. Just like my Dad. Yet my conscious brain by itself would never have thought of that.

Death, like life, is always a "here and there" affair – parts of us go and other parts stay.

Some would characterize such a visitation as a projection of the subconscious. Others would say that a spirit from the afterlife broke the veil to communicate with the living. As for me, I don’t see what the difference is. Aren't they the same thing? After all, my subconscious knew the man very well.

The dead are with us. They continue, in ways we often but dimly apprehend, to comfort, to guide, to orient us toward our next “new office” whatever that may be. In such ways the presence of those who are absent calls us to our better self – offers us a nudge toward liberation from pettiness.

He is risen. She is risen. They are risen.

Happy Easter, everyone.