2021-04-07

Trust, part 2


It’s not up to you to try to make yourself a more trusting person. That might not be a good idea. Williams Syndrome is a rare neurodevelopmental genetic condition that features mild learning or developmental challenges and also a markedly outgoing personality. People with Williams Syndrome have a high level of sociability, very good communication skills, and are very trusting of strangers. And that’s not always a good thing. If you get an email from a Prince of Nigeria asking for your help transferring some funds – or an email purporting to be from me asking for personal help – don’t trust it. Making ourselves more trusting in a world that is often untrustworthy is not the issue.

What we can do is be on the lookout for opportunities to relate to others in ways that grow trust, and to do that, we have to know how that happens – how does trust develop between two people and among members of a group. I turn here again to Brene Brown, who wonderfully combines a scientist’s respect and quest for data with a heart-centered gift for understanding it. She says Trust is built in very small moments.

When people talked about trust in the research, they said things like, “Yeah, I really trust my boss. She even asked me how my mom's chemotherapy was going.”
Or, “I trust my neighbor because if something's going on with my kid, it doesn't matter what she's doing, she'll come over and help me figure it out.”
One of the top things Brown found as a small thing that engenders trust: attending funerals. Someone shows up at your sister’s funeral, it really adds to your sense of trust in them.
Another big factor: asking for help when you need it. Trust emerges between and among people through the accumulation of little things done for each other.

Looking over the data, Brene Brown discerned seven factors that develop trust. Don’t try to make yourself trust, but do be on the look-out for these factors – be attentive to the emergence of where a higher level of trust might be warranted. She’s arranged the seven into an acronym that spells: BRAVING – B-R-A-V-I-N-G. When we trust, we are braving connection with someone.

B, boundaries. Healthy boundaries define who we are in relation to others. They also help us to know what the extents and limits are with others. Personal boundaries are how we teach people who we are and how we would like to be handled in relationships. Boundaries help you to say, “This is who I am.” Be explicitly pro-active about what you’re not comfortable with, and what your needs and commitments are. If you’re not clear about who you are, I can’t trust you. I trust you if you are clear about your boundaries and you hold them, and you're clear about my boundaries and you respect them. There is no trust without boundaries.

R, reliability. I can only trust you if you do what you say you're going to do -- over and over and over again. In our working lives, reliability means that we have to be very clear on our limitations so we don't take on so much that we come up short and don't deliver on our commitments. In our personal life, it means the same thing. The key part to keeping commitments is not committing more than we can keep.

A, accountability. I can only trust you if, when you make a mistake, you are willing to own it, apologize for it, and make amends. I can only trust you if when I make a mistake, I am allowed to own it, apologize, and make amends. Next is keeping confidences – but since she needs a word that starts with V, she calls it the vault.

V, the vault. What I share with you, you will hold in confidence. What you share with me, I will hold in confidence. It goes in the vault and it’s sealed from public view. And it’s not just whether you hold my confidences. If you gossip with me about someone else -- share with me a story that isn’t yours to tell – then my trust in you is diminished. The Vault means you respect my story, and a key way that I come to believe you will respect my story is that I see you respecting other people’s stories.

I, integrity. I cannot trust you and be in a trusting relationship with you if you do not act from a place of integrity -- and encourage me to do the same. Integrity has three pieces: choosing courage over comfort; choosing what's right over what's fun, fast, or easy; and practicing your values, not just professing your values.

N, nonjudgment. I can fall apart, ask for help, and be in struggle without being judged by you. And you can fall apart, and be in struggle, and ask for help without being judged by me. Under some conditions, helping people can actually lower trust. That can happen if we feel that the help is coming from someone who’s judging us for not being able to work it out ourselves, judging us for needing their help. If you’re the helper, you can offer reassurances: “Oh, this happens to me all the time.” “There’s no way you could’ve known how to do that.” “Wow, it’s great that you got this far on your own. I’m impressed.” But there’s still that little edge of suspicion that your assessment of the person’s competence might have slid just a hair. The only way to really remove that hint of judgment from helping someone is for you to take turns asking them for their help. Only then are the vestiges wiped away of the thought that competence is a ground where we’re competing with each other to see who has more of it – which is not a ground of trust. When I think less of myself for needing help, whether I’m conscious of it or not, when I offer help to someone, I think less of them too. You cannot judge yourself for needing help but not judge others for needing your help. Real trust doesn't exist unless help is reciprocal, and thereby free of judgment.

G, generosity. Here we’re talking about interpretive charity. Trust requires that we evince a generosity of spirit in how we understand and interpret each other. Our relationship is only a trusting relationship if you can assume the most generous thing about my words, intentions, and behaviors, and then check in with me. "Assume best intentions" is a wonderful slogan. I’ve noticed, though, that its usefulness is limited if our imaginative capacity is limited. If the only two interpretations you can possibly imagine are “they’re evil” and “they’re stupid” – you may have a hard time deciding which one is the more generous explanation. When you’re hurt and betrayed, your imaginative capacity shrinks. At those times all you can do is just say you don’t know why they did that. You just don’t know. As you heal a bit, get a little distance from the wound, your creative empathetic imagination can start to do a better job of imagining a generous interpretation.

This BRAVING acronym works with self-trust, too. If braving relationships with other people is braving connection, self-trust is braving self-love. We can't ask people to give to us something that we do not believe we're worthy of receiving. An African proverb says, Beware the naked man offering you his shirt. And you will know you're worthy of receiving trust when you trust yourself above everyone else.

These are Brene Brown’s tools for interpersonal trust. To do our part in rebuilding social trust, we take those tools and join organizations, using those tools of trustbuilding in the development of clubs, associations – and congregations.

That you are a member of a congregation – in these times when increasing numbers of people aren’t – already puts you at the forefront of builders and nurturers of social trust. As David Brooks writes: “Whether we emerge from this transition stronger depends on our ability, from the bottom up and the top down, to build organizations targeted at our many problems. If history is any guide, this will be the work not of months, but of one or two decades.”

May it be so. Amen.

Trust, part 1


“Do you trust me?” says Aladdin, as he holds out his hand to Jasmine.

What would you do? It happens twice in the 1992 Disney cartoon movie. The first time, he’s a street urchin, and she’s in disguise as a commoner. The second time, he’s in disguise as a prince and she’s in her element as a princess in the palace. Neither time does she have any reason to trust him. But she says yes – and takes his hand. Both times.

It’s a risk. She might get let down, hurt – maybe killed if she falls off that magic carpet when it takes a swerve. She takes the risk. Why? We don’t know. I don’t think she knows.

Trust. Sissela Bok says:
“Whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.”
Jasmine’s world has been trustworthy enough that she feels she can trust a stranger – take that leap. And because she can – well, “a whole new world” opens up for her -- and for Aladdin.

I want to note that Jasmine’s trust is not a virtue she has. If we said that, then we’d have to say that if she’d said “no,” she’d be lacking some virtue. But no. If she’d said, “no, I don’t trust you, I am not taking your hand” there’d be no basis for finding any fault. Jasmine’s trust is not a virtue of Jasmine, but it is a virtue of the conditions in which she grew up that those conditions have taught her that trusting strangers is a risk she can sometimes take. The conditions of her upbringing taught her that she can trust herself. As the saying goes:
“A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not in the branch but in her own wings.”
Because of that combination of trust in herself and just-high-enough willingness to trust strangers, she answers yes. Takes his hand, takes the leap.

Trust is a virtue of social systems, not of individuals – as opposed to trustworthiness, which IS a virtue of individuals. It’s your responsibility to be trustworthy, but it’s not your responsibility to trust. Trust may come to you as a grace, but don’t force it. If you don’t trust some situation, then trust your mistrust and back away.

Trust is a collective rather than an individual virtue. Trust is built – if it is built -- collectively. “In a restaurant I trust you to serve untainted fish and you trust me not to skip out on the bill. Social trust is a generalized faith in the people of your community” (Brooks) – that most people will do what they ought to do most of the time. Not everybody. Maybe not anybody all the time. But most people, most of the time.

Some level of shared norms – general agreement on what counts as “what one ought to do” – is necessary. “If two lanes of traffic are merging into one, the drivers in each lane are supposed to take turns. If [one] butts in line, [others] honk indignantly. [They] want to enforce the small fairness rules that make our society function smoothly" (Brooks).

Francis Fukayama’s 1995 book, Trust, coined the phrase "spontaneous sociability." He said that where social trust is high, spontaneous sociability increases. We can spend less time and energy checking in other out, looking for signs of untrustworthiness – less time and energy guarding and protecting ourselves from being swindled – and can much more efficiently move into cooperating and helping each other out. Spontaneous sociability means that people are “able to organize more quickly, initiate action, and sacrifice for the common good.”

Increased trustworthiness, the individual virtue, helps. When more people have the virtue of being worthy of trust, that facilitates trusting. But that’s not enough. Social trust has been falling precipitously in this country, and it’s not clear that the institutions that are less trusted are any less trustworthy than ever.

Scammers prey on the elderly. Why is that? We tend to suppose, well, they don’t think as clearly and can’t follow how they’re being scammed. That’s often a factor. Another factor, though, is that they come from a generation that was much more trusting – a generation that, because of the amazing things they accomplished together through that trust, is called the greatest generation.

“In 1964, 77 percent of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing most or all of the time.” Then came Vietnam, and Watergate, which certainly undermined trust in government. And Reaganomics. Not just economic policies that said government isn’t here for you unless you’re rich, but a stream of rhetoric that said government is the problem. He had that line: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help." That one line may have done more harm than his policies. He turned people who trusted that their government actually could do a lot of very helpful things – which is to say, people who trusted their neighbors to be able to work together collectively through elected officials for the common good (which is what trust in government is) – into the butt of a joke.

“By 1994, only one in five Americans said they trusted government to do the right thing.” From 77 percent to 20 percent in 30 years. Even so, when phrased as a question of trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens, most people still affirmed that. In 1997, 64 percent of Americans had a great or good deal of trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens. “Then came the Iraq War and the financial crisis and the election of Donald Trump.” Today only a third of Americans say they trust in the political competence of their fellow citizens.

The distrust turned explosive. “Explosive distrust is not just an absence of trust or a sense of detached alienation—it is an aggressive animosity and an urge to destroy. Explosive distrust is the belief that those who disagree with you are not just wrong but illegitimate.”

It’s not that way everywhere. In Denmark and the Netherlands, trust has been growing. In Denmark, “about 75 percent say the people around them are trustworthy.” In the Netherlands, “two-thirds say so.” In the US, on the other hand, in 2014, only 30 percent of Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted.” That’s the lowest number since the survey started asking the question in 1972.

It becomes a vicious downward spiral: when we don’t trust each other, we don’t form or sustain networks that we can trust, and then trust falls further. When people believe they can’t trust others, that others aren’t trustworthy, they become less trustworthy themselves.

So our younger people, growing up under conditions of mistrust, have more mistrust. Forty percent of baby boomers say most people can be trusted. Only 31 percent of Generation X – born before 1980 – say most people can be trusted. For Millennials, born since 1981 – the proportion who say most people can be trusted drops to 19 percent.

We need to acknowledge that sometimes, in some ways, American social trust has been intermixed with delusion. “Only 35 percent of young people, versus 67 percent of old people, believe that Americans respect the rights of people who are not like them. Fewer than a third of Millennials say America is the greatest country in the world, compared to 64 percent of members of the Silent Generation.” Believing the US to be the greatest country in the world has always required highly selective measures of greatness – and on many measures we’ve been falling further and further behind. And the disconnect between how highly Americans thought of themselves for respecting the rights of people not like them, and how much they actually did respect those rights is only recently beginning to narrow.

So good for the younger generations for increasingly disavowing those delusions of grandeur. I get how the delusions fostered social trust. But delusions inevitably collapse. Sustainable, nondelusive social trust is possible, and maybe we’ll get there. In the meantime, it’s helpful to name the condition we’re currently in – name the water that, like a fish, we might not notice because we’re immersed in it. What we’re in the middle of right now doesn’t have to stay that way. Our country has been a place of trust – and might be again.

Ordinary Easter, part 2


Mark is the earliest Gospel – written around 70 CE, say most scholars. It’s also the shortest gospel: at under 15,000 words, it’s less than two-thirds the length of the average of the other three gospels. There’s no miraculous birth in Mark – in fact, no birth story at all – and no doctrine of divine pre-existence. No Christmas story, and a truncated Easter story. It begins with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist – and it ends, like this:
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.
They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”
When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.
As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.
But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (NRSV)
The end. "They were afraid." That’s it. That’s the end of the whole Gospel of Mark. At least, let us say, the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of Mark end at that point: Women fleeing in fear from the empty tomb. Most scholars today believe this to be the original ending of Mark’s gospel. Statements from the early Church Fathers Eusebius and Jerome support that this is the original ending. Evidently, this didn’t feel like a satisfactory conclusion, so later manuscripts add a little more. But the original ended right there: “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

Silence and fear. That’s what we’re left with. That’s our Easter story. Silence and fear. Where’s the gospel – the good news – in that?

One scholar, Richard Burridge, argues that Mark’s picture of discipleship involves not knowing whether things will come right in the end. The way Mark’s Gospel ends certainly leaves open the question of whether it all comes right in the end. Burridge compares the ending of Mark to its beginning:
“Mark's narrative as we have it now ends as abruptly as it began. There was no introduction or background to Jesus' arrival, and none for his departure. No one knew where he came from; no one knows where he has gone; and not many understood him when he was here.”
Mark leaves us with silence and fear. Yet the very fact that he’s telling the story tells us that it didn’t end there. Someone broke that silence – the fact of the story lets us know – or there wouldn’t be the story.

I have spoken before of the women who courageously broke silence. First to lament, and in lamenting reclaim dignity and worthiness in the face of loss. And further to remember, to say a name, against all the shaming, fear, and humiliation that would bury it in silence. They broke silence to say his name, as we are today enjoined to say the names of George Floyd, Walter Scott, Breanna Taylor, Philando Castile, Eric Garner and all the others. There is a power to breaking silence, to saying their names.

Further, they broke silence to tell stories that represented that the hope found in this man lived on – stories to transcend fear and affirm community, stories to overcome violence by sustaining hope – stories to transform humiliation into the strength of connection and in so doing resurrect life from death.

Mark leaves us with silence and fear, yet he also leaves us knowing that the silence will be broken, that the fear will be overcome – for the fact that he’s telling the story tells us that the story, and the hope, does live on. And what is that hope? The three women encounter a “young man dressed in a white robe” who tells them Jesus has been raised. And that Jesus “is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”

Galilee: the place on the margins of Israel where Jesus was born, began his ministry, and where the first 9 chapters of Mark’s gospel take place. In other words, to find your hope, go back to the beginning. And go back out to the margins. If Jerusalem, the capital, the urban center of Ancient Near East society, represents the center of what society deems important, then our renewal lies in going to the margins.

Mark’s gospel ends so abruptly. You are left to write the end of the story. Even ancient sources couldn’t resist writing an ending, but never mind their ending, patched in from snippets of Matthew and Luke. What’s your ending? From the fear that has silenced you, what is your path back to the beginning, back out to the margins of what society centers?

What will we do with our fear? Go to Galilee, says Mark. Return to where you came from, on the margins. There you will see Jesus – see your own Christ-Nature, your Buddha-nature, the Moses of your heart. There you will meet the others with whom you may join in the ongoing work of resurrection – of bringing forth new life.

I believe that you know what I’m talking about, and know it from experience. I’m not saying, do this thing that’s nothing like anything you’ve ever done before. I think you have had moments in your life where you did this: broke from what was silencing you, answered your fear, returned to Galilee and touched what we Unitarians call your inherent worth and dignity. You’ve taken action with others to rebuild your life – to build the life we share together -- after a loss or setback. You are not, I think, a complete stranger to the work of resurrection. You got this.

The invitation that is always open, and that Easter is an occasion for remembering, is to ask in what ways, now, and again, are you called back to where you came from to see – now, and again – your true self – and in what ways – now, and again – to take up the work of resurrection?

There may be personal resurrections for you. There is also the social and political rebuilding to be done – the collective liberation that is at the heart of the Passover story, and was the original hope of the Jesus movement.

The testimony of the George Floyd trial this week has made many of us acutely conscious of the fact that we’ve created a police force so insulated from accountability that officers can commit murder at will. It has reminded us of the many ways our society oppresses people of color – and thereby oppresses all of us. Whatever our race, we are all precluded from the Beloved Community for which our hearts yearn.

Building beloved community will require going to the margins – going out to the places where people are marginalized – and going back to our origins – the values of fair treatment, of radical hospitality, of loving all our neighbors as ourselves – the values we embody when we see our own Christ-nature, the love from which we came -- before our silence and our fear made us complicit with white supremacist assumptions and complacent in the emergence of today’s police departments.

Mark’s Gospel leaves you with silence and fear, leaving you to write the end of the story. What’s the continuation to the Gospel of Mark that you will write today? What’s the continuation that you will write . . . today?

2021-04-06

Ordinary Easter, part 1


I’ll share with you a Zen koan, and talk about ordinariness as salvific: the reliable quotidian rhythms. Then we’ll look at the larger scale hopes for social and political liberation – in the foreground of the Passover story and in the background of the Easter story. We’ll note how the four gospel accounts of Easter are different. In part 2, we’ll take a deep dive into the Gospel of Mark, and see if can emerge with a context for both the ordinary, everyday resurrection and a social liberation that we have not yet seen. I will end with a question, rather than an affirmation, so I won’t be saying Amen at the end this time. Here we go.

A friend of mine is a United Church of Christ minister. We met at the Zen center where we both practice. Every couple weeks we meet on zoom to study a koan together, and from there we often talk shop about how things are at our respective congregations. We are working our way through a collection of koans called the Mumonkan – or Gateless Gate – and when we zoomed last Thursday, the one we were on was number 19:
Zhaozhou earnestly asked Nanquan, “What is the Way?”
Nanquan said, “The ordinary mind is the Way.”
Zhaozhou said, “Should I direct myself toward it or not?”
Nanquan said, “If you try to turn toward it, you go against it.”
Zhaozhou said, “If I do not try to turn toward it, how can I know that it is the Way?”
Nanquan said, “The Way does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion; not-knowing is a blank consciousness. When you have really reached the true Way beyond all doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as the great empty firmament. How can it be talked about on a level of right and wrong?”
At these words, Zhaozhou was suddenly enlightened.
Ordinary mind is the way. There’s no special state to be achieved. The way does call for being mindful – and this mindfulness is simply paying attention to your ordinary life with its ordinary events. There’s no particular turning toward it that is called for. Anything special would be turning away from it.

You don’t have to learn some special knowledge – knowing is delusion. But don’t glorify ignorance either – not knowing is blank consciousness. The way is nothing special.

As my friend and I were talking about ordinariness, we got to talking what we were going to say to our congregations for Easter. I shared with him that I found this koan to be helpful. This is my eighth Easter service with Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation at White Plains. All the splashy interpretations that I might have to offer have been shared in Easters past. It’s getting kinda ordinary – and ordinary is the way: the ordinary and reliable rebirth of spring – the ordinary and reliable lightening of our hearts as the days grow longer, the air warms, and the lovely blossoms push up from the earth.

He shared with me that he wished he could convince his congregation that the resurrection was nothing special. I’ve been reflecting about that. He’s a Christian, and I’m a nonChristian Unitarian – and we’re both also Buddhists. Whether you’re a Christian or not, you may be thinking there’s something special about the resurrection of Jesus – something extraordinary. You might think it’s extraordinary and true -- and is a truth that gives life much of its meaning. Or you might think it’s extraordinary and false – too extraordinary to be credible. But what if neither of those? What if it’s not extraordinary? What if it’s nothing special?

Before you die, your life has what meaning it has in and through the hearts and minds of the people who know you. After you die, your life continues – meaning what it means, in and through the hearts and minds of the people who know you. And apart from that, there's the reliable rhythm of the returning beauty of spring: so glorious – so gloriously ordinary.

The annual rhythm of the seasons is recapitulated in the ups and downs of life – the cycle of defeats and triumphs, of wounding and healing. We resurrect out of silence and into our voice – and find we still have episodes of being silenced. We resurrect out of fear and into assured confidence – and find we still have episodes of being scared. Nothing special.

I am not being the Schmeaster Bunny here. You know the Schmeaster Bunny – the dismissive little rabbit that’s through with carrying eggs all over the place – done with those pretty, brightly colored symbols of fertility – fed up with chocolate representations of itself. “Easter, schmeaster,” says the Schmeaster Bunny. Don’t be a Schmeaster Bunny.

The cycles of rebirth are wonderful, beautiful, delightful – and ordinary. These ordinary and reliable rhythms of life and death and rebirth are indeed glorious and rich – and nothing to be dismissive of. Along with these ordinary rhythms, we also have this background of large-scale liberation. There’s Passover -- the eight days of which conclude at sundown this evening – and the Passover story telling us of the Hebrew people fleeing from slavery in Egypt. The Israelites were then conquered by the Assyrians – though they pretty much thrived as a semi-independent Assyrian vassal. When the Assyrian empire collapsed, the area was conquered by the Babylonians, then Persians, then the Greeks under Alexander the Great, then the Romans. The Romans had been the occupying force for a little over a hundred years by the time of Jesus. And once again (or, more-or-less, still) the Jewish people were longing for liberation from their occupying oppressors.

The original hope of the Jesus movement was a political hope – that he would be the leader, the king, of an independent Israel – like David and Solomon of old. They called him the "Christ," a Latin term, calqued from the Hebrew “Messiah,” which meant anointed one. The reference is to ceremonially anointing with oil at the inauguration of a monarch.

The common thread that links Passover and Easter is the story of a people longing for freedom from oppressive rulers: the Egyptians in one case, and the Romans in the other. The hopes of the people are pinned, in the one story, on Moses, and on the other story, on Jesus. One story has a happy ending – they escape Egyptian oppression. The other story has, well, a different sort of happy ending. The people don’t get the political freedom that they wanted. The hero is executed. Instead the story offers what may be called a spiritual bypass. The message is that a spiritual freedom is offered us – though the oppression of the body continues.

I want to remember with you, that the Four Canonical Gospels differ on what happened Easter morning. Mary Magdalene went by herself to the tomb, or she went with another Mary, or there were three women, or at least four.

She, or they, were taking spices to prepare the body for burial. She came in the pre-dawn darkness, or they came when the day was dawning, or the sun had already risen. They arrived just in time to see an angel roll the stone back, or found the stone already rolled back.

In Matthew, the two women saw an angel and some guards. Mark says the three women entered the tomb and saw one “young man dressed in a white robe." Luke says the group of four or more women saw “two men in dazzling robes.” In John, Mary Magdalene went alone and saw no one; she then left, found two of the male disciples, told them the body was missing, rushed back to the tomb with the men. They saw nothing but linen wrappings. The men left Mary alone crying, and only then did she look into the tomb and see "two angels in white."

Each of the four different stories offers us an allegory with resources for meaning making. For this year, let’s look particularly at the account in Mark. We'll begin that look in part 2.

Hypocrites! part 2


Hypocrisy has a prominent place in Western moral discourse in no small part because Jesus invoked it so often. In Luke 6, Jesus says,
“how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
In Matthew 6, Jesus says, when you give alms, when you pray, and when you fast, don’t do it as the hypocrites do. Don’t sound a trumpet before you so you may be praised by others. Give alms in secret, not letting your left hand know you’re your right hand is doing, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Don’t pray in the synagogues and street corners so you may be seen by others.Pray in your room with the door shut, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. When you fast, don’t look dismal to show others that you’re fasting; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

In Luke 12, Jesus says to his disciples,
“Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”
Later in Luke 12, Jesus tells a crowd that they are hypocritical because they can interpret signs of rain, or of a coming heat wave, but do “not know how to interpret the present time.”

In Luke 13, Jesus eases a woman’s crippling ailment. The leader of the synagogue is indignant because Jesus cured on the Sabbath. Jesus retorts:
“You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
But it’s in Matthew 23 that Jesus really lays into the Scribes and Pharisees, using the sternest words of condemnation Jesus speaks in the gospels. Seven times in that passage he imprecates: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” He says they lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. They make their converts “twice as much a child of hell as” themselves. They dither over whether swearing by the sanctuary, or by the gold of the sanctuary is the more binding oath. They are careful to tithe their mint, dill, and cummin, but neglect justice and mercy and faith. They strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. They clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside are full of greed and self-indulgence. They are like whitewashed tombs: beautiful on the outside, but inside full of the bones of the dead. They and their ilk have killed or flogged true prophets, sages, and scribes. These Pharisees, Jesus says, will bear the guilt of it all. They are show offs -- actors on a stage who drop the pretense when no one is watching.

If “playing a part” is hypocrisy, the solution isn’t to never be on stage. We’re going to need to sometimes put ourselves out there – sign up, join, take a seat at the table -- be on display, but not just displaying. Not just displaying, but practicing with others. Practicing how to listen better, practicing having hard conversations, practicing how to look for joy, share pain, be curious, abandon defensiveness, and find togetherness.

Practice vulnerability, and getting uncomfortable, and being present with people as ourselves, not who we think they want us to be. When we find our belonging, we find our wholeness, our integrity, and there is no thought of fitting in because we apprehend that there’s no way to not fit in.

Whoever you are, you were brought forth by the universe to be the unique gift that you are. And your limitations are indispensable. You need your limitations the way a painter needs an edge of the canvas.

The poor Pharisees get a rather harsh rap. They are accused of being show offs, lonely actors on a stage performing whatever role is required in order to win approval from the current audience. But they were under conditions of occupation. They were an oppressed people. The consequences of failure to meet with the approval of the Romans – failure to fit in with what the regime required -- could be dire. No wonder they acted a part. Even under much more tolerant circumstances, its easy for a person’s need for approval from others to grow desperate.

Jesus tells his followers: Your heavenly Father, who sees in secret will repay you for giving alms. Your heavenly Father who sees in secret will repay you for praying. Your heavenly Father who sees what is hidden will repay you for your fasting. We might put it this way: the universe, in ways both subtle and clear, welcomes you into your wholeness. The world needs you as you are, integrated.

In Jesus’ time, the primary spiritual practices were alms giving, praying, and fasting. The function of spiritual practice is to deepen our awareness that we are, indeed, never alone – to more thoroughly grasp the connection of love that binds us to one another and our world. But the practice won’t work if we are merely performing, if we are showing off. So Jesus suggests do it in secret. Just remove the temptation of any motive other than to pause and be conscious of the love that surrounds us, flowing into us and filling us up. Pause to reconnect with your inalienable belonging, inherent wholeness, and unbreakable integrity.

In the creative enterprise, the art, that is living, showing up for others, is of the essence. The musician needs recitals, the painter needs exhibits, the writer needs readers. We need to step onto our respective stages – bringing our authenticity, honed in solitary practice. If the actions taken when on stage flow from authenticity, then they are not under- (hypo) performed. It's "showing," rather than "showing off."

Going back to the root meaning of “-crisy” – before it meant "to play a part," and before it meant "to answer a fellow actor," it simply meant “to answer.” We are here to answer: to answer our call -- to respond to what we are called to be by offering up the wholeness of our being, rather than hypo-answering, under-answering with mere pretense.

Knowing your authenticity, knowing your true belonging, knowing your wholeness and your integrity -- helped along by insights from others but not dependent upon their approval -- is always a work in progress. It is a knowing glimpsed but never quite grasped. Thus our reach exceeds our grasp. Thus are we liberated from pretense.

May it be so. Amen.

2021-04-03

UU Minute #36

England: Wycliffe to Henry VIII



Our story now makes its way to England, which has its own very distinctive church history. Antitrinitarian thought had popped up in the British Isles at least as early as 1327, when Adam Duff O’Toole was executed outside Dublin for denying the Trinity.

Later that century, John Wycliffe had headed a reform movement of sorts, questioning the privileged status of the clergy, the luxury and pomp of local parishes and their ceremonies, the veneration of saints, the sacraments, requiem masses, transubstantiation, monasticism, and the legitimacy of the Papacy.

Wycliffe, together with supporting associates, produced the first translation of the Bible into the English vernacular of the time – what we call Middle English. The project was completed the year Wycliffe died, 1384. The printing press hadn’t been invented yet, so the Wycliffe Bible didn’t have the impact it otherwise might have.

Still the Reformation didn’t come to England in the form that it swept over the mainland. England did a sort of Reformation Lite, by creating the Church of England – which, to this day, as the Anglican or the Episcopalian church, has a liturgy and worship style that’s halfway between Catholic and Protestant.

While Luther’s Reformation was based on 95 theses of critique against the abuses and corruptions of the Catholic Church, England’s Henry VIII simply wanted to be rid of a wife who, through no fault of her own, had not born him a surviving son – and who also wasn’t as young as Anne Boleyn. Since the Pope wouldn’t grant Henry an annulment, Henry prevailed upon the English church to renounce papal authority. The year was 1534.


2021-03-30

UU Minute #35

The Dissipation of Socinianism



The Minor Reformed Church, that is, the early unitarian church, began in Poland because Poland in the 16th century was tolerant enough to allow it. But in the 17th century, Poland proved not tolerant enough to allow it to continue. In the half-century after Fausto Sozzini’s death in 1604, oppression increased and worsened until, in 1660, the Socinians were forcibly expelled.

Some went to Transylvania where Polish-speaking unitarian churches were then established -- these eventually assimilated. Some exiles went to Konigsburg, Prussia, where, for another century, Socinian congregations survived. The Socinians who made it to Holland established the congregations that endured the longest.

Fausto and Elizabeth Morsztyn had had one child: a daughter, Agnese. Agnese grew up and married Stanislaw Wiszowaty, and they had a son, Andreas Wiszowaty, born 1608. Andreas, Fausto’s grandson, was a theologian in his own right and minister in the Socinian churches of Holland, as were both of Andreas’ two sons. After the generation of Fausto’s great-grandchildren, for all practical purposes, Sociniansm as an organized religious movement died.

The ideas, however – the thought printed in Fausto’s books which had been leaking into England since 1590, continued to filter in over the next two centuries and fuel a Unitarian movement there. Through those writings, Fausto Sozzini was, as David Parke writes, “More than any other person, the architect of modern Unitarianism.”

We are his heirs. Not because we share his doctrines. Most of us do not. We are his heirs because we Unitarian Universalists today continue the conversation to which Fausto Sozzini so substantially contributed. We have expanded upon his commitments to tolerance of diverse viewpoints, and we retain his emphasis on religion as what we live, one example and model of which is the life of Jesus. May we be worthy of this rich inheritance.


NEXT: England: Wycliffe to Henry VIII

2021-03-28

Hypocrites! part 1


Here’s the roadmap. We’re going to go through Browning, the nature of art, and why hypocrisy, as commonly thought of, isn’t a problem. We’ll swing briefly by Mary Katherine Morn, and then go to ancient Greece. We’ll see that integrity and belonging are really the same thing, and drop in on Brene Brown. In part 2, we’ll hang out with Jesus for a while, see what spiritual practice is for, and how we answer our call. It’ll be fun. We ready? First stop, Browning.
“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?”
wrote Robert Browning in 1855. A woman’s reach should exceed her grasp. A person’s reach should exceed zir grasp. We should aim higher than we can actually attain.

Browning is describing the creative imperative. The line appears in Browning’s poem, “Andrea del Sarto.” Del Sarto was an Italian renaissance painter, known as “the faultless painter” due to his exceptional technical abilities. Browning seems to be suggesting that art can be faultless only if you know when you start out exactly what you’re aiming at, and then you attain that aim. You grasped exactly what you were going for – and then you reached what you had grasped. But Browning is calling for a creativity that doesn’t have the goal clearly in mind, creativity driven by a vague and inchoate yearning for je ne sais quoi – something, I know not what.

This is a creativity that reaches for what has not been grasped, that seeks to create something that cannot be understood until it is created. Such an art cannot be faultless – and, for that matter, cannot be flawed -- for there is not a standard against which fault or flaw may be assessed.

We are all artists, creating a life. Our every act is a brushstroke, a word in a poem, a musical note or chord, a dance step. And in creating the art of our lives, we reach for what we cannot grasp.

Some of what we reach for we can articulate and measure. Some of what we reach for, we can articulate, but can’t measure. Some of what we reach for, we can’t even articulate, though we feel that we’ll know it when we see it.

So hypocrisy, as it is commonly understood, is not something I worry about much. Our theme for March is Integrity, and our ideas about hypocrisy are bound to be one aspect of our ideas about integrity. But if hypocrisy means that we don’t live up to our ideals, that’s not a problem. If that’s what hypocrisy means, then we are all hypocrites, and we should be. We need ideals that we don’t live up to. In fact, if you’re living up to every one of your ideals, then it’s time to get some new ideals. Someone who seems to you to not be practicing what they preach is probably trying to – and that’s a good thing. We must reach beyond what we grasp.

Last week, if you were with us, you heard Rev. Mary Katherine Morn say,
“If we lived in full and vivid awareness of how we are connected, how different our world would be. Have we learned this? Will we? I forget, every day. But I promise I will continue to call myself back to this -- to hear the call that arises in our communities of faith and conscience -- to remember the call of people around the world who need us to know this.”
She forgets every day. I do, too – I forget to live in full and vivid awareness of how we are connected. Maybe you do, too. Many Unitarian Universalists – like Mary Katherine, and me, and perhaps you – recommend living in that full, vivid awareness of connection. But we forget to. If hypocrisy means not living up to our own ideals, then we are hypocrites.

In politics, each side accuses the other of hypocrisy. In anything as large and varied as a political party, there are going to be some cases of people acting in ways that are easy enough to interpret as violating the very principles that party criticizes the other party for violating. “Hypocrisy” is such an easy charge to level against whichever party for you is the OTHER party – but I don’t think that’s what hypocrisy is really about.

I preach. Do I practice what I preach? Some of it. On a good day. But I don’t think hypocrisy is about how well or poorly I practice what I preach. Hypocrisy means pretending to virtue. This may include, as philosopher David Runciman says, “claims to knowledge that one lacks, claims to a consistency that one cannot sustain, claims to a loyalty that one does not possess, [or] claims to an identity that one does not hold.” So if you frankly acknowledge falling short of your own ideal – as Mary Katherine did -- then that’s the opposite of pretending to virtue, the opposite of hypocrisy.

Of course she falls short; of course we all do. Our reach must exceed our grasp.

The word hypocrisy comes from “hypo,” and “crisy.” “Hypo” means low, or under, as in hypoglycemia for low blood sugar – hyposensitivity for undersensitivity – hypotension for low blood pressure – hypodermic for under the skin. It’s the opposite of “hyper.”

“Crisy” comes from a root that originally meant to sift, decide, to sieve and thus to discriminate or distinguish. In classical Greek, the meaning evolved from “separate gradually” to “answer” – as one might sift or weigh one’s answer to a difficult question. From there, the meaning evolved to “answer a fellow actor on stage.” The ancient Greeks, remember, had theatre.

And from, “answer a fellow actor on stage,” it generalized to mean “play a part.” So hypo-crisy is under-playing a part – that is, not really living up to the part – in particular, claiming the part of a virtuous person, without actually having the virtue. The hypocrite plays the part only when on the stage – but underperforms by not following through when no one is watching.

We think of hypocrisy as being about integrity, our March theme. And it is. But to dig deeper, what’s going on here is ultimately about belonging – our February theme. What we begin to see, exploring this issue of pretending to virtue, of showing off, and where it comes from, is that integrity and belonging are interwoven. Showing off comes from trying to belong – to fit in.

When we truly understand our inherent belonging, then we can just be who we are. What appears when we are on stage coheres with who we are out of sight. We come into a wholeness that is the ground of integrity.

True belonging, as we saw in February, means belonging to ourselves – the courage to stand alone. And that courage comes from the recognition that we are never alone. So, yes: the courage to stand alone comes from knowing that we never stand alone. We are connected to one another – not by membership in a group that we tried so hard to fit into, but connected by love and the human spirit – indeed, our animal spirit.

We are connected by and through being part of the same spiritual story. As we read from Brene Brown for February, “fitting in” is the opposite of true belonging. “True belonging means abandoning our ideological bunkers and living from our wild heart rather than our weary hurt.”

2021-03-25

Integrity, part 2


I’m reminded of how democracy is a skill. The habits of hearing diverse viewpoints, of weighing other people’s interests and perspectives with our own, of running meetings, and participating in meetings so that your voice, and all voices, are heard without your voice or any voice dominating, of reaching decisions efficiently when they have to be efficient, and of taking time to consider more complicating factors when efficiency isn’t so pressing, and of being able to discern the appropriate weight to give to efficiency – these are all skills: skills we can learn and skills we can improve. Meeting in committees is how we learn and hone those skills, and a populace that has come to find committee work onerous, that increasingly avoids it, is a populace that is losing the skills of democracy – a populace that is growing ripe for acquiescing to authoritarianism.

The skills of democracy 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. 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 – to serve the flourishing of the group for the sake of the freedom of its members, and to serve the freedom of its members for the sake of the flourishing of the group. The skills of democracy – the skills of e pluribus unum, of fashioning from many, one wholeness – are also the skills of personal integrity.

Each of us is an unruly and raucous parliament of voices, each voice 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. 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, allowing none to gain enough power to suppress any. Where all the voices are integral, and integrated, there is integrity – wholeness. E pluribus unum is then an unfolding reality, whether of a people or of a person.

Integrity is never a finished product. We get broken – and bringing the parts back together, re-integrating into a whole – is the ongoing project of life: always healing, never healed. Rachel Naomi Remen is an M.D. with a psychological approach to people with life-threatening illness. Her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, is a book about healing, about wholeness, about the integrity that comes to us slowly and takes us unawares, yet can appear full-blown in times of crisis or loss. There’s a selection from Kitchen Table Wisdom in your Journey Group Packet this month, and you’ll have a chance to explore that passage in your group.

I’d like to leave you with a different story from Kitchen Table Wisdom – a story about the emergence of wholeness, of integrity, from brokenness. It’s a story of a young man who lost his leg – his leg had to be removed at the hip to save him from bone cancer. This young man was one of Dr. Remen’s patients. She writes:
“He was twenty-four years old when I started working with him and he was a very angry man with a lot of bitterness. He felt a deep sense of injustice and a very deep hatred for all well people, because it seemed so unfair to him that he had suffered this terrible loss so early in life. Over the course of more than two years, slowly a profound shift began. He came to look beyond himself, to reach out to others who had suffered severe physical losses, to make visits. Once he visited a young woman who was almost his own age. It was a hot day in California. He was in running shorts, and his artificial leg showed as he entered her hospital room. The young woman had lost both her breasts to cancer. And she was so depressed that she would not even look at him. The nurses had left a radio playing, so, to get her attention, he unstrapped his leg, and began dancing around the room on one leg, snapping his fingers to the music. She looked at him in amazement, and then burst out laughing and said, 'Man, if you can dance, I can sing.'” (Remen)
A year later, Remen says,
“We sat down to review our work together. He talked about what was significant to him and then I shared what was significant in our process. As we were reviewing our two years of work together, I opened his file and there discovered several drawings he had made early on. I handed them to him. He looked at them and said, ‘Oh, look at this.’ He showed me one of his earliest drawings. I had suggested to him that he draw a picture of his body. He had drawn a picture of a vase, and running through the vase was a deep black crack. This was the image of his body and he had taken a black crayon and had drawn the crack over and over again. He was grinding his teach with rage at the time. It was very, very painful because it seemed to him that this vase could never function as a vase again. It could never hold water. Now, several years later, he came to this picture and looked at it and said, ‘Oh, this one isn’t finished.’ And I said, extending the box of crayons, ‘Why don’t you finish it?’ He picked a yellow crayon and putting his finger on the crack, he said, ‘You see, here – where it is broken – this is where the light comes through. And with the yellow crayon he drew light streaming through the crack in his body.” (Remen)
That man’s one-leggedness became the way that he was able to shine in this world. The broken-ness brings emergence of a new wholeness.

When we are cracked open, we may then discover the integrity which had been hidden.

May it be so. Amen.

Integrity, part 1


Integrity. That’s our theme of the month for March. One of our Journey Group facilitators pointed out to me that there’s something a little odd about having integrity month. If you’re only doing it for a month, it isn’t integrity. Having a consistency and steadiness through the years is part of what integrity is about.

The concept, "integrity," has three features, according to standard dictionaries. My first question for you – the first question offered by this month’s Journey Group packet – is: what ties these together? What gives integrity to the idea of integrity? The three features are:
  1. Adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty.
  2. The state of being whole, entire, or undiminished.
  3. A sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition, as for example we might speak of the integrity of a ship’s hull.
What’s the connection between wholeness, being structurally sound, and being of good moral character?

I think there is a fabric of integrity that weaves those three strands together, but I’m interested in how you would articulate how they weave together, and you’ll have the chance to do that in your Journey Groups this month. (And if you’re not in one, you can sign up for one at any time – the sign-up form is on our website.) There’s also that feature of steadiness and consistency, which a sound moral character implies and provides.

This doesn’t mean you don’t change and grow and learn. Many of us put a high value on growing – on lifelong learning – and we don’t conceive of learning as simply amassing an ever-larger database of information. We think of learning as really meaning something: it matters to who we are, it changes us. And that’s also a puzzle for us to chew on this month: when does personal growth and change threaten our integrity? When does the growth and change of our congregation threaten its integrity?

For some of you, perhaps, this is not a purely hypothetical question. You may have had an experience where something you were a part of – your congregation, your workplace, your marriage – changed so much that it didn’t have the integrity that it had seemed to have. Others around you may have felt your integrity was a bit fuzzy, or dubious, when you underwent some big learning and change. What’s our story about how a life of integrity and a life of learning go together? We probably want to say that they seem at odds only if there’s some misconception about learning, or about the nature of integrity. So what is the correct conception?

Sometimes it’s my job to offer you answers. I don’t GIVE you answers – certainly not THE answer – Unitarians don’t do that. But sometimes I offer what I hope are helpful angles of approach. And I’m going to do that today. But for starters, I just have questions for us, and an invitation for each of us to wrestle with them. Because if integrity is anything, it’s not something some one else can give you. You have to work out what it is, and what yours is.

I do appreciate the writers who call attention to wholeness. I was intrigued to learn, as I was looking into the etymology, that integrity comes from the word “integer.” An integer is whole – no fractions or parts. Integrity means all of who you is included -- all the parts of you get welcomed in – no part is exiled, excised, repressed or suppressed. There’s a lot of pressure to parcel yourself, as Courtney Martin says – “to show up as only slices of ourselves in different places.”

The term, “Performative Self” was developed by sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman’s groundbreaking 1959 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, looks at how, when a person comes in contact with other people, ze will shift zir setting, appearance, and manner in an attempt to control the impression that others might form. We primarily seek to avoid embarrassment, so we look for ways to highlight our most positive aspects. We perform a version of ourselves through our manner, and appearance.

As a performer, we might often work with others in teams jointly committed to a shared performance that maintains a certain storyline. Think of a formal dinner where someone trips and the others pretend not to see the fumble – a collective collaboration in saving face and maintaining the illusion that anything that might be embarrassing does not exist.

Such shared willed credulity happens on every level of social organization. Impression management is particularly in evidence in social media. Users create a profile and share very selectively and specifically what they like with their friends, family, or the world. So our increasingly on-line world amps up the pressure to parcel ourselves, present slices. We are curators of ourselves, deciding which exhibits to put on display.

It’s an act of rebellion, notes Courtney Martin, to be a whole person.
“It’s an act of rebellion to show up as your whole self, and especially the parts that are complex, that are unfinished, that are vulnerable.”
Before we can show up as a whole self to others, we have to show up as a whole self to ourselves. Or, rather, maybe it doesn’t have to be before. Sometimes maybe it comes after. Some part of ourselves might be revealed in a social context that surprises us – that we hadn’t revealed quite as much or in quite that way to ourselves.

So let’s say, rather, that there’s a back and forth. We may consciously intend to show up as a whole self – including the complex parts, the unfinished parts, the vulnerable parts. We can specifically aim to present ourselves as works in progress, which of course all of us are.

That’s our theology: revelation is continuous, including revelation of the self, and it has to be, on both of two levels: both because the whole thing can’t be presented in a single view, every exposure is necessarily from just one point, pointed in just one direction -- and because the whole thing is constantly changing. Even if the whole universe – or the whole universe of you – could be revealed in one mind-blowing flash, the next moment the world is different. The next moment you’re different.

We can specifically aim to notice when we’re presenting a pat package, and look for a way to acknowledge and reveal the un-pat, making-it-up-as-you-go, feeling your way reality that’s behind any given presentation of assured competence. If we look to reveal more of ourselves in social contexts, this helps us reveal more of ourselves to ourselves – in our private reflections. And as we look to show up in more of our wholeness to ourselves, this helps us reveal more in social contexts. That’s the back and forth.

UU Minute #34

Roots Intertwined with Mennonites



Fausto Sozzini’s Racovian Catechism outlined the basic tenets of what was beginning to be called Socinianism.
  • The Ten Commandments and Christ’s teachings were to guide personal and social behavior.
  • Christians may hold public office and bring suit in court.
  • Common swearing is forbidden, but civil oaths are permitted.
  • Self-defense is permitted, but not the taking of human life.
  • Ownership of property is permitted, but not the accumulation of wealth above one’s needs.
  • Self-denial, patience, humility, and prayer” are the primary responsibilities.
  • Only one sacrament is recognized, that of the Lord’s Supper.
  • Baptism, while having no regenerative power and inappropriate for infants, is recognized as an appropriate act for welcoming converts.
In the years after Fausto’s death in 1604, the Socinian church grew. There were yearly synods. The 1611 synod drew about 400 ministers and lay leaders; later synods, even more. According to Jack Mendolsohn, “it is generally believed that by 1618 there were more than three hundred Socinian congregations."

There was a high emphasis on morality. Members were expected to take seriously the obligation to live by Christ’s model as much as possible.

It bears remembering that our history and the Mennonite history are intertwined at their roots. The Mennonites are also antitrinitarian, and continue to have the views about baptism that the early unitarians had. And while Sozzini took the moderate view that self-defense, bringing suit in court, and owning property is permissible, you can see in the culture of those Polish unitarian congregations certain similarities to Mennonite life – the pacificism, the repudiation of wealth above one’s needs, the self-denial, patience, and humility.

If the Minor Reformed Church hadn’t had such high standards, we might have had even more members. Our rules today are a bit looser than they were then, yet we continue to emphasize that religion must be lived, not merely believed.


NEXT: The Dissipation of Socinianism

UU Minute #33

Rakow, and the Racovian Catechism



The town of Rakow, Poland is 120 kilometers northeast of Krakow and 190 kilometers south of Warsaw. The antitrinitarian Polish Brethren, also known as the Minor Reformed Church – founded Rakow in 1569, 10 years before Fausto’s arrival in Poland.

Rakow was founded specifically to be a place of religious tolerance – illustrating once again the connection between critique of the Trinity and religious toleration. In 1602, the Socinian Racovian Academy was founded there, based on the ideas of Fausto Sozzini. Although Rakow, Poland today is a small village of 1200, in the 1630s, its population had grown to 15,000, with faculty, students, and businesses centering on the Academy, and the Minor Reformed Church’s Press.

Fausto Sozzini wrote prolifically, and both his books and his church spread.
“Much of Sozzini’s writings never appeared in print during his lifetime because of lack of funds. After his death, however, the Minor Church, determined to preserve his legacy, collected his writings, publishing those that had appeared only in manuscript and reprinting those that had been previously published. For the next quarter of a century, a steady flow of his books emanated from the church’s press at Rakow, some of them in German and Dutch translation” (Howe 75).
The best seller amidst Sozzini’s vast posthumous output was his Racovian Catechism, which first appeared in Polish in 1605, one year after his death.

The Racovian Catechism outlined Sozzini’s basic beliefs. Socinian Christology says that Christ did not exist in any way before being born from Mary. This distinguishes Socinian AntiTrinitarianism from Arian Antitrinitarianism, which said that, while Christ was not coeternal with the Father, Christ was the incarnation of the preexistent Logos – and so, in some abstract form, pre-existed his birth from Mary.


NEXT: Roots Intertwined with Mennonites

2021-03-10

UU Minute #32

Sozzini Feels the Love -- and the Hate



In 1583 -- four years after Fausto Sozzini’s arrival in Poland – the Jesuits established a center in Krakow, and began assaults on the Minor Reformed Church. Enemies were becoming suspicious that Sozzini had indeed authored the works he published anonymously – notably “On Jesus Christ the Savior,” completed in 1578, the year before his arrival in Poland, where Sozzini had argued that Christ is our Savior because his teaching and his example show us the way of salvation, not because his death paid off our debt of sin.

Sozzini was also under attack because:
“Sozzini insisted that the command not to kill is clear and without exception for Christians. Therefore, Christians could not engage in warfare or in any activity that might cause them to take a life. Nor was the punishment of criminals a Christian office. . . . Jesuits and other critics insisted that by refusing to accept an obligation to support the nation when it was at war, Sozzini was undermining the authority of the King and the security of the state.” (Bumbaugh)
With the danger in Krakow mounting, Sozzini withdrew to the nearby estate of a sympathetic nobleman, Christopher Morsztyn, who had a daughter named Elizabeth. In 1586, Fausto Sozzini, now age 47, and Elizabeth Morsztyn were married. Within a year, the couple moved back to Krakow and a daughter, Agnese, was born to them. Alas, a few months after the birth, Elizabeth died. The last 17 years of his life, Fausto Sozzini continued to write, was a single father to Agnese, and, as the acknowledged leader of the Minor Reformed Church, bore the contempt of that church’s outraged critics.


NEXT: Rakow, and the Racovian Catechism

2021-03-05

UU Minute #31

Sozzini and the Minor Reformed Church



This church in Secemin, Poland, 90 kilometers north of Krakow, is where, in 1556, Peter Gonesius issued Poland’s first challenge to Trinitarianism. Twenty-three years later, in 1579, Fausto Sozzini moved to Poland. He investigated the churches in the area. And he liked the antitrinitarian Minor Reformed Church best. They were the most liberal game in town.

They weren’t all that liberal though, then. They required that he be baptized as a condition of membership. So he never joined. He offered to be baptized
“on the condition that he first could state publicly that he believed baptism unnecessary and that he was participating simply for the sake of closer fellowship. His proposal was rejected, and repeated attempts to persuade him to change his mind all failed.” (Howe)
He worshiped with them, participated in their discussions, lent his administrative skills to the development of their organization, taught their students, trained their church leaders, defended them in correspondence and public debates. But he never actually joined.

When Sozzini first arrived
“the Minor Church at that time was in a state of disarray, with neither leadership nor doctrinal agreement. Perhaps forty congregations existed of varying sizes, composition, and emphases. Some were little more than chaplaincies on the estates of nobles; a few were sizable congregations in the larger towns and cities.” (Howe)
In his writing and his public speaking, Sozzini brought a coherence to the fledgling movement. We can admire two things about that church. It was tolerant, for its time. And under Sozzini’s influence, it came increasingly to emphasize Jesus’s life, rather than his death, as the model which can save us. This lead to an emphasis on social action, social compassion, and pacificism.


NEXT: Sozzini Feels the Love -- and the Hate

UU Minute #30

Our Socinian Roots



Four and a half centuries ago, in 1579, Fausto Sozzini – in Latin, Faustus Socinus – migrated to Poland. He was a 40-year-old Italian of mild manner, saintly and scholarly. He became a friend, but not a member, of the antitrinitarian Minor Reformed Church there. In writings and public debates, he became the Minor Reformed Church of Poland’s principal defender and the chief explicator of its theology. After his death, the Minor Reformed Church – also called the Polish Brethren -- maintained publication of his prolific writings, and thus the church came to be called Socinian.

It is to the Socinian church that we trace the origin of the Unitarian half of our institutional history. Michael Servetus did nothing to found or develop a church. And Unitarianism in Transylvania was isolated, not spreading beyond the Carpathian mountains. But Socinianism spread – both its ideas and its congregations – from Poland to Holland. From there the ideas spread to England. From England to America. To us.

In the face of the many schisms that rivened Christendom – the Polish Minor Reformed Church embraced toleration of difference. They would even have tolerated trinitarianism, except that the Trinitarians wouldn’t tolerate them.

The Polish Brethren also emphasized that religion must be lived. Theology is ultimately subordinate to ethics. Not that theology isn’t important -- but theology takes its meaning from the ethical life to which it is connected. By a theology’s fruits ye shall know it. And that’s an essential part of the Unitarian Universalist good news that continues to be preached today in the some 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations in North America.


NEXT: Sozzini and the Minor Reformed Church

2021-03-02

UU Minute #29

Antitrinitarianism in Poland: The Minor Reformed Church



As you’ll recall – 1517, the Protestant Reformation began. At first all the Protestant churches were called Reformed, as opposed to the unreformed Roman Catholic church. Then, within the Reformed Churches, a big fight arose over the communion – the Lord’s Supper. One side held that the body and blood of Christ are present in the bread and wine; the other side said the bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood. The first side, followers of Martin Luther, began calling themselves Lutheran. The other side, followers of John Calvin, kept the name Reformed.

In Poland, the first Reformed – i.e. Calvinist – Church service wasn’t until 1550, near Krakow. Within 15 years, the Reformed Church had itself schismed, and this schism was over the issue of the trinity. By 1565 the trinitarians in Poland refused any further association with the antitrinitarians, who formed their own association of congregations as the Minor Reformed Church.

The new Minor Reformed Church had its own divisions. They were divided about Baptism. For infants, or only for adults who can make a considered decision? While the Minor Reformed Church was antitrinitarian, and agreed that Christ was not God, some said Christ was a deity, subordinate to the Father, and existed prior to conception in Mary. Others, Unitarians, said Christ was not a deity, and did not exist prior to conception in Mary.

And here’s where something special happened. This Minor Reformed Church adopted a principle. Not a doctrine, but a principal that said freedom of conscience would be allowed. Once again, the people who rejected the trinity were the people who embraced toleration.


NEXT: Our Socinian Roots

2021-03-01

Ending the Pursuit of Happiness, part 2


When Thomas Jefferson imbibed John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689), and summarized Locke’s philosophy in this country’s foundational document, The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson made one crucial emendation. John Locke had said that people have inalienable rights – rights based in a foundation independent of the laws of any particular society – and Locke listed these rights as life, liberty, and property. Jefferson’s tweak was to say that all are endowed with “certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” -- replacing "property" with "pursuit of happiness."

I appreciate Jefferson’s impulse to dig a little deeper, to ask, what is property for, and to point instead to the purpose of having property at all. That purpose is to facilitate the pursuit of happiness, which is a purpose one may well choose to pursue without much property. But this pursuit of happiness idea has been interpreted as pursuit of instant gratification of desires – when what Jefferson had more in mind, we know from his letters, was limiting desires, cultivating friendships, and rejoicing in the moment.

If Jefferson had said instead that governments are instituted among people to secure the rights to life, liberty, and the means to construct for themselves the meaningful life to which they are called, he’d have avoided the implication that every unhappiness was a bad thing, that the purpose of life was to chase away every dissatisfaction. If, instead of “pursuit of happiness,” he had spoken of the means to construct a meaningful life, then he’d have better said what his letters make clear he had in mind.

* * *
After almost twenty years of starting up and leading Zen meditation groups -- in El Paso, Texas; Gainesville, Florida; and White Plains, New York -- I have a pretty good idea of the range of reasons people come to meditation. After a lifetime of being part of Unitarian Universalist congregations – and 17 years as a UU minister – I have to say that people coming to congregational life seem to have a wider range of reasons – and any given person is likely to have a number of them.

In Western Society, Zen is the newfangled thing that appears to offer a fix that ordinary American churches and synagogues don’t. Offer a fix. Most people that walk into a Zen center have an idea that something is wrong with them, and Zen might fix it. This talk they’ve heard about "enlightenment" sounds like just what they could use some of to straighten out what’s wrong with their life. If their Zen teacher is any good, or if they just read around much in the Zen section of the bookstore, they will be instructed that
“the life we’re already leading – this ordinary day-to-day life of ours is not the problem but, somehow, already the solution we’re looking for.” (Barry Magid, Ending the Pursuit of Happiness: A Zen Guide xiii)
But curative fantasy dies hard. Fantasies of being cured and brought into some model of a perfect life tend to persist. A curative fantasy, explains Barry Magid,
“is a personal myth that we use to explain what we think is wrong with us and our lives and what we imagine is going to make it all better.”
In this country, churches and synagogues have much deeper cultural roots than Zen centers, so in congregational life there tends to be a little less of the impulse to get fixed and a little more implicit understanding that attending and participating is not something that makes you special, or cured, but is simply a constituent of ordinary day-to-day life.

Congregational life appears to be fading from the cultural scene in the West, and increasing portions of what’s left of it are dominated by mega-churches purveying some curative fantasy of their own. Nevertheless, our culture still retains a wonderful sense of congregational life as simply an ordinary part of an ordinary life, an arena for making meaning and engaging in work that is real. Make some friends, and reflect a little bit about values and meaning – not because that will make you better, but because that’s how you be what you already are. Not that what you are is ever static.

Congregations are for making connections, having a community, learning things together, and doing some things together to ease a bit the world’s harshness. If Zen and meditation groups stick around for another couple generations, they will gradually move from the cultural space of
that place to get something called enlightenment, or bliss, or inner peace,
and move into the same cultural space that congregations have occupied when they aren’t devoted to curative fantasies:
one of the places where you play out the meaning of your life.
Zen Centers will then be understood, by members and outsiders alike, as churches and synagogues are understood: an ordinary part of an ordinary life -- a community within which to gradually age out of the genius of our youth and into the sagacity of our maturity and finally into the gentleness of our senescence. What could be more ordinary?

Unhappiness is not a disease from which we are suffering and of which we need to be cured. Depression needs to be addressed (whether at the individual level, or the family and friends level, or the social policy level), but simple unhappiness is just a part of the ebb and flow of an ordinary, full life – a way of calling our attention to the next challenge to bite off.

Meaninglessness needs to be addressed (at all appropriate levels), because we need meaning in our lives a lot more than we need happiness. If your life has meaning, you can put up with a lot of unhappiness. If your life has meaning, then unhappiness can take the form of purpose and drive.

Joyful creativity is urged on by an edge of dissatisfaction pushing us forward. Where life has meaning, we may even speak of the "joy of unhappiness" – an enjoyment of ongoing engagement with our very dissatisfaction. After all, to enjoy the fun of problem-solving – or just problem addressing -- requires having problems that feel meaningful.

So meaninglessness needs to be addressed. And isolation and alienation need to be addressed (at all appropriate levels), for those are the cousins of meaninglessness. But you don’t need to be happy all the time. If you are, fine. If you’re not, also fine.

Happiness works better as something you look back and notice has been with you as you were living out a life of meaning, rather than as something to chase after.

There’s a Zen verse that goes:
“Caught in a self-centered dream – only suffering.
Holding to self-centered thoughts – exactly the dream.
Each moment life as it is – the only teacher.
Being just this moment – compassion’s way.”
It’s not the dream that’s the problem. Humility should remind us that we don’t know reality – that our perceptions are inherently distorted by the bias machine that is our brain. So in some sense, it’s all a dream. But a self-centered dream only makes for suffering. The self-centered dream pushes against the world – to wrest our desires from a world that seems intent on withholding them. Instead, the meaningful work works with the flow of the world – as Piercy’s poem described it: “moving in a common rhythm” as “when the food must come in or the fire be put out.” We add our work to the current, rather than against the current. We don’t have to paddle upstream – but we do have to add our energy to assist in and be part of the "common rhythm."

So there’s another verse that isn’t from the Zen tradition – that every one of you, I think, knows and has known since childhood – and it is this verse I leave you with:
Row. Row. Row your boat.
Gently – down the stream.
Merrily. Merrily. Merrily. Merrily.
Life IS but a dream.
Blessed be and Amen.

2021-02-28

Ending the Pursuit of Happiness, part 1


“I just want them to be happy.”

It’s a sentiment commonly expressed by parents about their children. But a life of meaning – a life that feels real – is more important than happiness. Parents who say they just want their child to be happy may be talking themselves into letting go of some expectation. Secretly they were hoping the girl would go to medical school – or that the boy would become a teacher – or that their child would one day take over the family business -- and when it becomes clear that’s not going to happen, the parents coach themselves into accepting that alternative career paths are fine. So they say: “I just want her to be happy.” Or him. Or zir.

If meaning is more important than happiness, then why don’t parents say they want their child to have meaning? I’m not sure. Maybe they think “meaning” would convey that that they are projecting their own assessment of what would constitute meaning, and “happiness” seems more objective -- and feels more like you're leaving it up to the child. Or maybe they wish they could spare the child the challenges and some degree of unhappiness – the toil that may come with a life of meaning.

Another way to say "meaning" is to say that we want to be of use. Marge Piercy expressed it well in her poem, “To be of Use.”
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
It says something that we’re more likely inclined to wish happiness for our children, or perhaps for our partner, than for ourselves. You’ll hear, “I just want them to be happy,” more often than you’ll hear, “I just want to be happy.” At some level, we understand that contributing to someone else’s happiness is meaningful – that a life helping others be happy is a life of purpose, of being of use. But a life of just being happy feels rather shallow.

In the 1999 film, The Matrix, Laurence Fishburne offers Keanu Reeves the choice between a red pill and a blue pill. The red pill frees one from the machine-generated dream world and allows escape into the real world, but the "truth of reality" is harsher and more difficult. On the other hand, the blue pill represents a beautiful and pleasant life without want or fear within the simulated reality of the Matrix.

We admire the one who chooses reality – with all its struggle and anguish -- over the one who chooses happiness. Nowadays "red pill" and "blue pill" have become political metaphors. Naturally, we all believe our own political opinions are the correct ones – otherwise, they wouldn’t be our opinion. But if our certainty grows rigid – if we lose the context of humility that recognizes that we could be wrong, that our opinions were formed by the same sort of hodge-podge, higgledy-piggledy brain deeply oriented by its built-in cognitive biases as every other person – then we begin to wonder how it is that other people can be so foolish or pig-headed as to disagree with us. We can fall into the trap of thinking we ourselves see reality while those others have taken the blue pill of ease and delusion. Of course, this trap is itself the blue pill. The most common blue pill there is, is the ease and delusion of thinking yourself to be among the few who have taken the red pill – that you see the truth while most other people are stuck in their dreamworld.

What this reflects, though, is that we want the red pill. We want reality, truth, meaning – and will choose the difficult challenges of meaning over meaningless comfort. Not always. There are times in every life – and in some lives more prevalently that others – when one is so worn down, tired, abused, oppressed, or in pain that one would gladly reach for a blue pill if one could. But by and large, most of us, most of the time, choose meaning over happiness – choose reality over withdrawal. Of course, discernment of reality is inherently skewed and distorted, so I might better say we choose engagement over withdrawal, for what we engage with IS our provisional sense of reality.

We choose to be present, as much as we can be, over being absent. There is that in us which stirs and moves in resonance with John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech in which he said:
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard – because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
Whatever you might think of the moon mission – and its impetus to display military might -- we do yearn “for work that is real,” for undertakings that are hard – hard enough to “organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

And yet, there is also that in us which is influenced by a culture obsessed with happiness. This idea that we should pursue happiness is in there -- in our hearts and the presumptions of our thought -- in most of us. And, you know, I don’t think it’s helpful.

I’ll come back to that in part 2.


2021-02-02

The Longing for Belonging, part 2


The longing for belonging, we have seen, can be the enemy of true belonging, of resting in the awareness that it is impossible for you NOT to belong, that your belonging is inalienable.

But the longing arises nonetheless, doesn’t it? We have noted that your belonging does not depend on everybody knowing your name. You belong even if no one knows your name. Yet it still feels nice to be known, to be seen, to be respected, doesn’t it?

Take, for example, the neurophysicist that Brene Brown interviewed for her work on belonging. He told her:
“My parents didn't care that I wasn't on the football team, and my parents didn't care that I was awkward and geeky. I was in a group of kids at school who translated books into the Klingon language. And my parents were like, ‘Awesome!' They took me to the Star Trek convention!"
Dr. Brown concludes:
“He got his sense of belonging from his parents' sense of belonging, and even if we don't get that from Mom and Dad, we have to create it for ourselves as adults — or we will always feel as if we're standing outside of the big human party.”
If we don’t get that from Mom and Dad, we have to create it for ourselves as adults. If you can do that – if you’ve been doing that – developing your self-acceptance and strengthening the abiding awareness of your inherent belonging – great!

Maybe you’ve had some help along the way. If you didn’t get it from Mom and Dad, your belonging might have been affirmed by teachers, by trusted friends, by spiritual practices, by inspiring books like “You Belong” by Sebene Selassie.

Most of us could use a little help from time to time remembering the inalienable belonging that gives us the courage to stand apart. Maybe you could use a little help in appreciating that the unique beauty that is you belongs in the world. Here’s the thing. One of the best ways to get that help is to offer it to others. The way to feel more welcome and accepted and warmly received is to be welcoming, accepting, and warmly receiving.

And that brings us to the Jan Richardson poem that I started off this service with. She begins:
“You hardly knew how hungry you were to be gathered in, to receive the welcome that invited you to enter entirely — nothing of you found foreign or strange, nothing of your life that you were asked to leave behind or to carry in silence or in shame,”
Yes, that does feel good. And even if you know that your belonging is inherent, that it does not depend on others inviting you in – even if your self-acceptance is high and does not require the approval of others – it can begin to get hard if we have no sanctuary from people finding you foreign or strange.

Even if you know that your belonging is inherent, it does get hard to sustain that knowing in the face of unrelenting hostility, or even in the face of unrelenting indifference.

That hunger to be gathered in, to receive the welcome that invites you to enter entirely is not a hunger to be ashamed of. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed to be self-accepting and aware of your inherent belonging. You do belong, everything does belong, and your hunger also belongs.

If you have been coming back to this congregation for a while, long enough to have become a member, it’s because this place fed that hunger for, as Starhawk put it, “a circle of hands” that will “open to receive us, eyes [that] will light up as we enter, [and] voices [that] will celebrate with us.”

If you have kept coming back for a while now, it’s because this place has been a blessing. “But the deal with this blessing,” as Jan Richardson says, “is that it will not leave you alone, will not let you linger in safety, in stasis.”

As Reverend Lauralyn Bellamy says in words that those of you who have been coming regularly for a while have heard me say a number of times as the benediction:
“If, here, you have found freedom, take it with you into the world. If you have found comfort, go and share it with others. If you have dreamed dreams, help one another that they may come true! If you have known love, give some back to a bruised and hurting world.”
Because once you’ve found a little bit of comfort, the way to find more is to share it with others.

This blessing – this blessing of belonging and sanctuary – comes as seed of joy planted in your heart, and once planted it wants to grow. For it to grow you must become the sanctuary. The seed, as Jan Richardson wrote,
“desires for you to become the sanctuary that you have found — to speak your word into the world, to tell what you have heard with your own ears, seen with your own eyes, known in your own heart: that you are beloved, precious child of God, beautiful to behold, and you are welcome and more than welcome here.”
The seed of awareness of inherent belonging wants to sprout and grow and send forth new seeds of joy to plant in other hearts.

If you have ever found comfort and sanctuary, ease and acceptance here, then go ahead and bask in that for as long as you can – because you won’t be able to simply bask in it for too terribly long. It is the nature of this blessing that it will not leave you alone.

And if it seems to you that the ease and sanctuary of this place doesn’t feel quite like it used to for you, then you’re ready – ready for that next step. The way to feel more welcome and accepted and warmly received is to be welcoming, accepting, and warmly receiving. That means making our congregation a place more welcoming of people who have sometimes felt unwelcome. That also means the work of social justice – making the world a place of greater acceptance and celebration of diversity.

When we talk about injustice and oppression, it isn’t to make you feel bad. It’s to help you feel good, by lifting up the wonderful meaningful work there is for us to do together. If you need comforting, be a part of offering comfort to others – and justice to all. That’ll do it.

May it be so.
Amen