Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Can UUs Believe Anything We Want?

This is the text of a sermon (and preparatory remarks) delivered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, May 3rd, 2015.  If you'd like, you can listen to the podcast.

Arthur Rashap's Preparatory Thoughts

“You are out of your mind!” “You are out of your mind!” Think of the times you have said that to others – or someone has said that to you. What did they mean? What did you mean? Probably, that what was said was not rationale. It didn’t make “sense” intellectually to your mind or to the mind of the person who said that to you.

The instructions for doing proper meditation practices these days involve being ‘mindful.’ And, if truly the goal is to let go, to release the involvement with getting lost in what was, with planning for the future – to ‘be here and now’ then wouldn’t a better instruction, a better practice be to be mindless?

Our topic for exploration today is ‘faith.’ In the Worship Weaver discussions with Rev. Erik, it was pretty hard to get our minds, our thoughts, around defining what faith is. When you walk into this Church, the pamphlet rack is full of brochures relating to the faith of a variety of religions and topics. As Erik will discuss, there is a big difference between what you believe and what you end up taking on faith.

About 11 years ago, I took a year-long course to become an Empowerment Trainer, with the goal to understand how to help guide participants in identifying goals in their lives and processes to achieve such goals – basically looking at the question: “if you could have your life exactly as you want it, what would it look like?” The basic process mirrored nature’s processes in producing a flower or a vegetable – clearing the ground, preparing it, planting the appropriate seed, nurturing it as it grows, removing the weeds, reacting to all those things that come up in the growing process, etc.

Looking back at my notes and to the page that fell open, here are some of the things I wrote:

“The less you do, the more you can accomplish. You need to bring in more of the right brain acknowledging that you still need your left brain to have the information for day-to-day living. The ‘knowing’ we are talking about here is having less of ego/personalization, and allowing other elements to enter and be present. The process is called: ‘getting out of the way.’ To really be empowered or empower another, you come from an implicit faith that the person herself knows the answers – that every human being knows what they need and want.

It is not for the leader, the teacher, the facilitor, the minister to ‘fix’ them. That is the saboteur, the devil in processing. Their function is one of midwifery – to bring into being the answers, the true life that lies within. The facilitator needs to be as empty as possible, while being actively engaged. Meeting the person exactly where they are, showing up to challenge them, to fix them, doesn’t work.

So how to work on our egos? To empty ourselves? To become mindless and take the leap into faith? To begin with, have a spiritual practice, whatever that may be. For a muscle to get strong, it needs exercise and the same goes for spirituality. The goal is to arrive at detached compassion, without this, life you grab you in any way. To become empty requires a lot, to have great courage and dedication.

Rumi wrote: Live at the empty heart of paradox. I will dance cheek to cheek with you there. Reality is a constant juxtaposition. Every system is so fraught with paradox, that you can easily lose your way.

Erik will be exploring this subject in his special way in a minute. Both he and I recently found we have been reading and enjoying the words and approach of a Franciscan Monk named Richard Rohr. He sends out daily meditations that I do recommend to you.
I have edited somewhat the meditation from this past Wednesday which he adopted from two of his books: Dancing Standing Still: Healing the World from a Place of Prayer, and Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality:

"Spiritual Knowing Must Be Balanced by Not-Knowing" 
As the Christian church moved from bottom to top, protected and pampered by the Roman Empire, a number of followers of Jesus and some early monks went off to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria to keep their freedom and to keep growing in the Spirit. They found the Church's newfound privilege--and the loss of Jesus' core values--unacceptable. 
It was in these deserts that a different mind called contemplation was first perfected and taught. They came to see that they could understand spiritual things properly through contemplation alone. The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to what we call the apophatic tradition, knowing by silence, symbols, and not even needing to know with words. It amounted to a deep insight into the nature of faith that was eventually called the "cloud of unknowing" or the balancing of knowing with not needing to know. 
Deep acceptance of what has been call “ultimate mystery” is ironically the best way to keep the mind and heart spaces always open and always growing. It really does "work"! Today scientists might call it moving forward by theory and hypothesis. This enables you to be always ready for the next new discovery. 
Admittedly, we do need enough knowing to be able to hold our ground. And the offerings at this Church and in other involvements you have - do provide a container and structure in which you can safely acknowledge that you do know a bit, and in fact just enough to hold you until you are ready for a further knowing. In the meantime you happily exist in what some have called docta ignorantia or "learned ignorance." People in this state tend to be very happy and they also make a lot of other people happy. And we are all burdened by "know-it-alls."
It is amazing how religion has turned this biblical idea of faith around to mean the exact opposite: into a need and even a right to certain knowing, complete predictability, and perfect assurance about whom God likes and whom God does not like. It seems we think we can have the Infinite Mystery of God in our quite finite pocket. 
We know what God is going to say or do next, because we think our particular denomination has it all figured out. In this schema, God is no longer free but must follow our rules and our theology. If God is not infinitely free, we are in trouble, because every time God forgives or shows mercy, God is breaking God's own rules and showing shocking (but merciful) freedom and inconsistency!

Perhaps Brother Rohr is suggesting that when it comes to faith, being ‘out of our mind’ is not such a bad thing.

RevWik's Reflections:
I’m sure that some of what Arthur just said would be very difficult for the average – or, at least, the stereotypical – Unitarian Universalist.  And I’m not talking about the explicit “God talk.”  “Cloud of Unknowing?”  “Balancing knowing with not needing to know?”  “Learned ignorance?”  Oh, we Unitarian Universalists – again, at least the stereotype of us Unitarian Universalist – really don’t do all that well with not knowing, not understanding, not at least trying to know and understand.  The search for truth and meaning and all that.

We are – historically, generally speaking – rationalists.  Many of us, if not most of us, believe most firmly, most strongly, in what we can see, hear, taste, and touch.  We like facts.  Hard facts.  [Like this pulpit here – solid.  Real.]  In this year’s Wednesday Wonderings group we’ve been reading our way through a book written in the late 1940s by the Universalist preacher Clinton Lee Scott, which he adapted from radio addresses he’d given.  The book’s title is Religion Can Make Sense – and his fundamental stance is that Universalism is a religion that “makes sense,” that is attuned to the world as it is, and by this he means the world as it is revealed to us by science and not as described in myth.

Yet today, because of science, we know that the “hard fact” of this real and solid pulpit is, in fact, not so hard at all.  What we perceive – see, hear, touch – to be solid is actually a swirling mass of energy with far more empty space in it than matter.  And the same is true of us.  We, too, are a concentration of energy, given solid form by perception, nothing more.  Science tells us that we live in a universe in which particles pop into and out of existence on a quantum foam, and where Schrödinger’s cat can be both alive and dead simultaneously.  What we perceive as empty space all around us is filled with molecules of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and carbon dioxide.  And there are light waves, infrared waves, radio waves, and as Richard Feynman said, all of these are really real.

So what do you believe – that this pulpit is solid and that this hand is solid and that each is distinct from the other, or that when I put this constellation of energy (my hand) on this swirling pool of energy (the pulpit) the distinctions between the two blur?  Do you believe that you are distinct, individuated, independent, or that you and I and all that is are dynamically and fundamentally interdependent, made of the very same stuff?

A Buddhist teacher once told me that the waves of the ocean each think themselves separate and unique, yet the ocean knows that there is nothing but ocean. What do you believe?

And I ask that both as something for you to ponder, and as a rhetorical device to lead us into the question I want us to explore this morning:  “Can a Unitarian Universalist believe anything she or he wants to?”  This is something that’s often said of us, you know.  “Unitarian Universalists … well … they can believe anything they want.”  We even say it of ourselves sometimes.  “One of the great things about being a UU is that you can believe anything you want!”  And it’s true to the extent that there is no Higher Authority dictating what we must believe in order to be a UU.  There is no creed or dogma to which we must assent to belong.

This, then, hardly seems like a topic worthy of our examination.  The answer is obvious!  Of course!  Of course a UU is free to believe whatever she or he wants to believe!

And yet …

And yet someone will usually come up with the retort, “But what about a member of the modern Nazi party, or a member of the Klu Klux Klan, or the Westboro Baptist Church?  Could they believe what they believe and still be welcome here?” 

Now that is precisely the kind of conundrum that, as the Oracle said to Neo, will really “bake your noodle.”  On the one hand, people in our faith tradition are freed from the necessity of believing any particular thing, yet it does seem as though we’re not open to just any thing a person might believe.  Where do we draw that line?  How do we draw that line?

How about someone who believes in shamanic journeying?  Of life after death?  Or multiple lives?  Or channeled teaching?  Would people with these beliefs be welcomed here?

How about that Jesus is not just a great guy who had some good ideas but was, in fact, a manifestation of God and that he not just was but still is?  Or that God is real?  Or that there is no such thing as that to which the word “God” is meant to point?

I can tell you from my direct experience that there are UUs, there are members of TJMC, who hold each one of these beliefs.  And I know of folks who think them extremely odd for doing so.  Can you believe anything you want to here?

Let’s step back for a moment and try to clear something up.  A lot of people conflate the ideas of belief, on the one hand, and faith, on the other.  A lot of people use the words interchangeably, as if they were synonyms.  “What is your faith?”  “I believe in God.”  “How strong is your faith?”  “I believe, I believe, I believe …”

The trouble is … they’re not the same thing.  Look at it this way: belief is an intellectual proposition, it’s something that you think; faith, on the other hand, is something that you do.  Faith is living in the world as if you believed what you say you believe.  Let me say that again:  faith is living in the world as if you believed what you say you believe.

There are people who say that they believe in God and that God will never give you more than you can handle, yet when things get rough they act as though there’s no way they could ever possibly handle all that’s come their way.  There are people who say that they believe people are fundamentally good, yet who feel more than a little anxious and, so, cross the street when the see a stranger coming toward them.  Belief is easy.  Faith is hard.

And it’s hard, at least in part, because our minds are smart enough to know that accidents can happen.  We know that we could be wrong about that thing we believe, whatever it is.  I had a philosophy professor who said that a philosopher can only say that she knows something when she is absolutely certain.  How often does that happen?  I mean not a doubt in the world, absolutely no possibility that you’re wrong, 100% solid? How often does that happen?    As a friend of mine used to say a lot, “you could always get hit by a bus on the way home.”

And so our protective little egos – which think that it’s their job to protect us from, I don’t know, death or, maybe even worse, looking foolish – our protective little egos throw up a dust storm of doubt just as we’re about to take that leap of faith.  And so we come to a screeching halt and find ourselves poised precariously at the peak of a precipice, and our sneaky little ego says, “I told you so.”  “You may not have faith,” it says to us a little later, “but at least you can content yourself with all the good things you believe.”

Putting your beliefs into practice.  Trusting your beliefs.  Living in the world as if you believed what you say you believe.  That, my friends, is faith.  And we’ve been told time and time again that faith can move mountains.

So how do we bypass our all-too rational egos so that we might take that leap?  Richard Rohr, in that passage Arthur read earlier, spoke of a kind of knowing that makes use of “silence, symbols, and not even needing to know with words.”  That’s a start.  Going even further, Arthur himself talked about how our being “out of our mind” might not be such a bad thing.  When I was writing my first book – Teacher, Guide, Companion – Mary Benard, the incredible editor I was blessed to have been working with, had a whole lot of suggestions for me of things I really ought to change.  She was usually right.  But I held my ground on one sentence, because I thought that poetry should trump grammar:

“… you must be willing to loose your mind [she’d wanted me to change that to “lose”], to loosen the vice grip of the sensible and rational in order to allow the imaginative and intuitive ways of knowing to come to bear.”

That “vice grip of the sensible and the rational” is what gets in the way for so many of us when we try to live into our faith.  Yet that’s exactly what we need to do.  Because faith trumps belief every time – it’s not our beliefs that matter, it’s the way we live our lives; it’s not what we think that counts most, it’s what we do.

During our newcomer orientations I often say that one of the things that makes Unitarian Universalism unique is that our first question isn’t, “what do you believe?”  Instead, we ask “what kind of world do you want to live in?”  We ask, “how do you – or how do you want to – live your life?”  In other words, we ask about your faith.

And it is our faith that brings us together – our faith that this is a beautiful world, and that all things that live on or in it are deserving of respect; our faith that love is strong and that we should reach out to others, ever widening the circle of inclusion; our faith in hope, that no matter how much to the contrary things might seem, there is always a way.

Can a UU believe anything she wants?  Of course, because to us the question of belief is merely interesting – a chance to get to know one another better and, perhaps, see the world through a different lens.  The real question, what matters to us most, the “so what” of all this is the vision of the world all these differing beliefs point us toward, and the ways we put our oh so lovely beliefs into action. 

None of us will do this perfectly.  I know I sure can’t.  Yet if none of us can then we each don’t have to worry so much whenever we, ourselves, get stuck on the edge, unable to leap.  And that’s why places like TJMC exist – so that we can help each other; and remind each other; and reach out to one another; and support, and celebrate, and encourage one another.  Be there for one another.

So please, own and honor your beliefs – whatever they are and however … odd … they might seem to me or to anyone else.  And then, with me, with us, try to put them into practice.  The world doesn’t need more believers but, rather, more people of faith.  May we, at least some of the time, be those people.

Pax tecum,


Monday, May 04, 2015

Riots or Uprisings ...

In 1784 Thomas Jefferson published his Notes on the Sate of Virginia.  In his chapter on slavery he proposes that slaves should be emancipated and then put on boats and sent back to Africa.  He rhetorically asks himself "Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave?"  He then answers himself with these words:
"Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."
Take a moment to read that again.  Isn't this what we're seeing in Baltimore, and Seattle, and Chicago, and Ferguson?  "Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites" coming up against "the thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained," along with "new provocations"?

Malcolm X said:
"If you stick a knife in my back 9 inches and pull it out 6 inches, that's not progress.  If you pull it all the way, that's not progress.  The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made.  They haven't begun to pull the knife out, much less heal the wound. They won't even admit the knife is there."
Some are beginning to say that we should really think of these "riots" as "uprisings."  Angry people, with "the thousand recollections of the injuries they have sustained [along with] new provocation," are responding not just to any particular specific instance of injustice, but to all they have endured and continue to endure.  Some are responding with control and strategy; others with unbridled rage run rampant.

I've also seen on the Internet this summation of the situation:  Black people are literally saying "Stop killing us!"  And there are people saying "But ..."  I can't imagine -- as a white person I really can't imagine -- how that feels.  But I can't imagine that it doesn't count as a "new provocation."

So what are we to do?  I guess that depends on who we mean by "we."  On April 29th, Salon.com published Julia Blount's article (originally posted on her FaceBook page) "Dear white FaceBook friends:  I need you to respect what Black America is feeling right now."  We -- and by this I mean white Americans -- could begin by reading things like this.  The Unitarian Universalist blogger Kenny Wiley has written some wonderful things on his blog "A Full Day."  (His perspective, by the way, is that of an African American Unitarian Universalist millennial male.)  For a brutally honest big picture view of the background to what's happening pick up Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow:  mass incarceration in the age of color blindness.

Better than -- or, perhaps, in addition to -- reading is talking with people.  Again, to the primarily white folk who read this blog, talk with people of color you know.  And maybe better than "talk to" would be "listen to."  Listen to what they are thinking and feeling about all of this.  (And by "this" I don't mean just Baltimore, nor even just issues of police violence and the inequities of our justice system.  I mean anything having to do with the ways people of color and whites are treated differently from one another -- that thing called "systemic racism.")

If you don't know any people of color, you could talk with other white people.  But don't allow the conversation to fall into easy assumptions.  Question and, then, question again.  Challenge -- both the person with whom you're talking and yourself -- to see things from outside of your experiences of "normal."  Try to imagine the issues from as many different perspectives as you can.  Push yourselves to try to make sense of the things you can't understand and defend things you disagree with.  Broaden your perspective.

If you don't have people of color in your life with whom you can talk about these things ... ask yourself, "Why?"  See if there are things in the way you're living your life that are keeping you from making connections with African Americans, Latino & Latina Americans, Asian Americans (which, of course, encompasses a widely dispirit group of folks!).  Look for ways to begin putting yourself into situations where you can meet folks who don't look like, think like, you.  Tread lightly here, naturally.  You certainly don't want to create a single, token, "Black Friend."  Nor do you want to too soon assume the intimacy and trust that talking about race-related issues with someone of a different race requires.

For a moment I'm going to directly address Unitarian Universalists;  If you're a FaceBook user you might want to check out UUs Resisting New Jim Crow & Mass Incarceration, and Allies for Racial Equity.  (Consider joining that later one!)  For all of us: are you yet a member of the NAACP or the National Urban League?  Things to think about ...

Is what we're seeing in Baltimore and elsewhere a case of "riots" or is it an "uprising"?  I think the answer to that will rest mostly on our -- white -- shoulders.  Our brothers and sisters of color are giving voice to their outrage, their grief, their anger, and their exhaustion.  If it is to be more than that -- if it is to be a full-bodied, long-lasting assault on "the way things are," then it's going to take the involvement of those who most benefit from "the way things are."  As this blog puts it so well:  racism is a white problem.  But maybe, just maybe, we can come together not just to calm this violence but to eradicate its root cause and, so, avoid Jefferson's predicted, "convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

An Open Letter to SCOTUS

Dear Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States,

Today you begin hearing arguments on the subject of marriage equality.  Perhaps I can be of service.  I have been making this argument for well over a decade now, and to tell you the truth I am surprised that its cogency has not yet settled this issue once and for all.  I guess that that's your job now.  As an aid, in case it's needed, here is what I have argued in letters to the editor, sermons, bulletin articles, previous blog posts, and anywhere else I find an opening:

  1. The "sanctity" of marriage is none of the government's concern.  Sanctity is a religious category and as such is irrelevant to political consideration.  Religious institutions bless unions and declare them sacred; the government can only decide if they are legal.
  2. The government does have an interest in regulating the contractual aspect of marriage, striving to ensure that it is effective in promoting social cohesion.  Denying gay and lesbian couples the opportunity to enter into marriages creates a two-tier system of unions which is a decidedly  less effective approach.  Bringing more people within the institution of marriage, and applying the same standards to this contract no matter the gender expression of those who enter into it, is the the most simple, and therefore most effective, approach.  
  3. To the argument that recognizing same-gender unions will impinge on religious freedom the first point comes into play again.  There currently legal marriages that have not been sanctified by a religious tradition -- many people choose to be married not in a church or other house of worship but in a courthouse.  These marriages coexist with religiously blessed marriages without any infringement on a religion's ability to establish their own requirements.  Nothing would be different here.
  4. To the argument that if the federal government were to overturn state bans they would be defying "the will of the people" who, in many cases, voted for these bans I would simply point out that if "the will of the people" was always paramount we would still have segregated drinking fountains.  (And interracial marriage would still be illegal.)
  5. To the argument that marriage, as an institution, must be limited to heterosexual couples because its primary purpose is to create a stable environment in which to bear and raise children all that needs to be noted are the hundreds of heterosexual couples who are infertile or uninterested in raising children.
  6. To the argument that gay and lesbian marriages would somehow endanger "the institution of marriage," six words:  Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?    The current high rate of divorce, and the extent of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse within heterosexual marriages would certainly suggest that gay and lesbian marriages are not the danger facing heterosexual marriages.

As an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister I have had the pleasure of officiating at both heterosexual marriages and homosexual unions.  I have seen no difference in the love, the devotion, and the commitment shown by these couples.  It seems inconceivable to me that anyone can still argue that there should be a legal distinction.

Pax tecum,


Friday, April 24, 2015

On Our Knees

I have been introduced recently to the Franciscan preacher, teacher, and monk, Richard Rohr.  Since then I've been voraciously reading everything of his that I can put my hands on.  I recently encountered a line that really jumped out at me:

I do not want to belong to a religion that cannot kneel.

Let that sink in for a moment.  Sit with it, as it were.  I've had these words circling around in my brain and heart since coming across them a couple of days ago, and I realize that I don't either.  Yet I do.

There's a paragraph that was written by a teenage member of the Unitarian Church of Ithaca, NY, after their youth group visited a local Benedictine Monastery for vespers.  (It was originally published in their church newsletter; I first came across it in the Worship Reader compiled by the Congregation of Abraxas.

“In the chapel there were only a few people watching the service, and I sat in front of them.  I wanted the sensation of being alone there.  I wanted to be open to the beauty of the chapel and the circle of monks and to the chanting.  And I see now that I wanted more than that.  I wanted thru some sort of magic to enter into the service, not simply because its forms were beautiful, but because they seemed at once mysterious and full of meaning. . . .  The monks knelt and rose and bowed; bowing, their bodies bent forward from the waist, torsos almost horizontal.  But I could not move. . . .  I was brought up I this [Unitarian] church where no one kneels and no one bows.  Physically I’m very inhibited, so that I don’t move easily.  And when has it ever been suggested that I might kneel, even figuratively kneel, before or to something?  I wanted to kneel, that’s the important thing.  But I could not. . . .  To kneel and to mean it would be frightening because there is a darkness in the kneeling and a darkness in us which we cannot reason about.  You [Unitarians] teach the fear of form without meaning, and that is right; but having avoided forms, you have sometimes avoided the darkness, and it is from the darkness that the real questions arise.” [Italics are mine.]

Not that long ago the Christian Fellowship in the church I serve held a communion service.  Afterward, one of the members came up to me and, very excitedly, told me that they had "used the original words."  By this she'd meant that they'd sung, "Let us break bread together on our knees" instead the oft used variation, "Let us break bread together you and me."  When has it ever been suggested that we might kneel, even figuratively kneel, before or to something?

That teenager sure had it right -- to kneel and to mean it -- would be frightening.  Is frightening.  It means acknowledging that we are not the Grand High Poohbah of All Existence.  As the Rev. Barbara Merrit put once put it, "Whether or not we believe in God, we must recognize that we ourselves are not God."  And that means, ultimately, recognizing that there is absolutely nothing we can do to control the Universe and our part in it.  We cannot guarantee success for ourselves and our friends and doom for our enemies.  We cannot ensure that things will work out as we wish they would -- that we always will be safe, happy, and secure.  We just can't.  And whether or not we believe that there is some kind of Sacred Something that is holding us through it all, we do need to come to terms with the fact -- the inescapable and undeniable fact -- that we are not in charge.  That can be a terrifying thing for some of us, and kneeling -- and meaning it -- can be an embodiment of this truth.

If you haven't done it in a while, I encourage you to do so.  Kneel.  Literally get down on your knees
and see how it feels.  (Not so much how it feels in your knees and hips, but how it feels in your heart.)  Bow your head even, maybe, or lift it upward.  Do this in your home in front of a home altar or, just the end of your bed.  Do this in the sanctuary, before or during the service, with or without other people there.  Do this outside, in the woods or just a corner of your yard.

Richard Rohr said, "I do not want to be part of a religion that cannot kneel."  Neither should you.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Praying for Guidance

There is a classic film called The Bishop's Wife.  It stars David Niven as a Bishop who very much wants to build a grand new cathedral, Lorretta Young as his far too neglected wife, and Cary Grant, as the angel named Dudley who comes to help sort things out.  (If you've never seen it, go and watch it at once.  This post will be here when you get back.)

In an effort to raise the needed funds, the Bishop courts a wealthy widow, but she will only give her money with certain stipulations -- that it include a large stained glass window of St. George the Dragon Slayer, with her late husband's face.  Eventually the Bishop caves to her demands.

But things don't end there, because Dudley didn't come to help the Bishop build his cathedral.  In a fantastic exchange the Bishop challenges Dudley and says, "But I prayed for a cathedral."  "No," Dudley replies, "you prayed for guidance, and guidance has been given you."  The Bishop realizes that he was on the verge of losing his wife because his priorities had gotten skewed, and that he was no longer even really serving the God he claimed to be wanting to honor.

Dudley gave guidance elsewhere, too.  He visited the widow and convinces her not to give her money to the building project.  I'm paraphrasing here, but he says to her, "For the cost of that one big roof, I wonder how many little roofs you could build."  Why would God want a grand cathedral when there are people who need homes?

I think about this scene whenever I hear something like I did the other day.  Hillary Clinton's campaign aims to raise $2 billion.  $2 billion.  That's more than was spent in the entire 2008 election!  Think of all the good that could be done with that money -- the teachers who could be more fairly compensated, the people who are struggling with addictions who could receive treatment, the unhoused who could find homes.

Why in the name of all that is Holy do we have to drag out our campaigns for so long and spend so much money on them?  People have been informally positioning themselves for the run since before the 2008 election was over.  In England they have had elections that lasted no more than one month.  As Gerald D. Skoning wrote in his 2010 op ed in the Chicago Tribune,
How long does it take for candidates to communicate their positions on issues? How long does it take for the electorate to get to know the candidates, their qualifications and their election platform? Are voters from the U.K. that much smarter than Americans that they need so little time? Are the candidates in the U.K. so succinct and articulate in the expression of their position that they need only one month to run an effective campaign? Do the Brits go to the polls with inferior information? Are we better informed voters?
Obviously no.
There are millions billions that are spent on political campaigns (so that an electorate that has largely already solidified its opinions can watch their candidate extol the failings of the other candidates).  There are millions that are spent on holiday decorations at the White House.  There is so much money that is spent on the equivalent of "one big roof."  If only Dudley would return ...

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, April 21, 2015


When I was a kid one of the highlights of the year was the night they would show both "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas."  I would wait for it all year, and as Christmas loomed near, I looked forward to that night with almost as much anticipation as I did Santa himself.

One year I had a toothache.  That's too small of a word, actually -- it was a burning, stabbing, exploding pain in my mouth.  But I didn't say anything to my parents because I wanted to see these shows.  I was determined to see them, no matter what.  Even pretty excruciating pain.

I can't now remember which order they were in but let's say that "A Charlie Brown Christmas" came first.   The pain finally got to be too much for me and, so, during the last few minutes of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" I let out a scream.

Luckily one of our neighbors across the street was a dentist who worked out of his home.  My parents rushed me over to him and he determined that I had an exposed nerve.  He said he couldn't imagine how I had been able to bear that kind of pain; it took a whole lot of Novocaine to numb it.  (I remember five shots, but my memory might exaggerate.)  And through it all I cried and protested that I simply had to get back home or I'd miss "The Grinch ..."

I tell this story to my children and they can't really comprehend it.  They're growing up in an on-demand world where they can watch pretty new movies in full HD right in our living room.  They can go onto Netflix or Amazon and watch several seasons of some show they become interested in, one episode after another.  No waiting involved.  I tell them that you once had to wait from week to week to see what would happen next in something you were watching.  They get impatient when Netflix makes you wait something like 17 seconds for the next episode to being.

I'll admit, I've gotten pretty used to it myself.  When Netflix released the entire season of "Daredevil" on the day it premiered I rejoiced that I could watch as much of it as I was able at a time.  When I wanted to relive the pleasure of "Lie to Me" I could do it without commercials and without distraction.  

Yet I think we pay a price for this convenience.  In Robert Heinlein's classic novel Stranger in a Strange Land.  An expedition to Mars goes silent shortly after landing.  Twenty-five years later another expedition returns and finds only one survivor -- a young man who had apparently been born there and raised by Martians, Valentine Michael Smith.  When he is brought back to earth he encounters a very different culture that the one he'd known, which provide Heinlein a wonderful vehicle for cultural critiques.

One aspect of Martian philosophy that Smith shares is the importance of waiting.  He finds humans to be extremely hectic, moving way too fast for our own good.  "Waiting is fullness," he says.  Even as he is eventually greatly acculturated to our ways, even when he, himself, begins to move more at our pace, he does not entirely give up on his Martian philosophy.
"He was not in a hurry, "hurry" being one human concept he had failed to grok at all. He was sensitively aware of the key importance of correct timing in all acts — but with the Martian approach: correct timing was accomplished by waiting. He had noticed, of course, that his human brothers lacked his own fine discrimination of time and often were forced to wait a little faster than a Martian would — but he did not hold their innocent awkwardness against them; he simply learned to wait faster himself to cover their lack
The timeless wisdom of the Tao te Ching asks us, "Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?"  I worry that our on-demand, binge-watching world is making that harder than ever.

Pax tecum,


Monday, April 20, 2015

For the Beauty of the Earth

This is the text of the sermon deliverd on Sunday April 19th at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.  If you would like to hear it, you can listen to the podcast on our website.  (I began by holding a plastic inflatable globe ...)

This is it.  The earth.  Our home.  (Well, this isn’t it, actually.  It’s not clear plastic, and when you see it from this distance the various continents are differently colored, and they don’t have labels on them.  And that makes a difference.

There’s a song by Julie Gold that’s been sung by Nancy Griffiths and Bette Middler that’s called, “From a Distance.”  Beautiful song.  And it says that from a distance you can’t see any of the problems that we can see all too clearly.  From a distance, all you can see is the beauty of this planet.  And it is a beautiful planet.  And the only home we have.

It’s easy to talk about the threats the planet faces.  Climate change – and I can say that because this isn’t Florida – climate change is just what it sounds like:  the changing of the climate, and those changes aren’t going to be good for us or for the vast majority of the things on the planet that need clean air and water to live.  That’d be most things.

So it’d be easy to talk about the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and what that’s doing -- and projected to do – to global temperatures and weather patterns.  It’d be easy to talk about the diversity of plants and animals that are dying off; easy to talk about rising sea levels and the destruction of essential habitats.  (Including ours.)  It’d be easy to talk about the apathy, the indifference, the sheer ignorance of so many among our political leaders and the ordinary person on the street.  All of that would be easy; ad all of that you’ve heard before.  As one of our own environmental activists put is:  “if we don’t have a habitable planet, no other social justice issue will make much difference.”

When the subject of the environment comes up it often does so in the context of how endangered it is.  Climate change – which since we’re not in Florida I can say – climate change seems to intractable that,

Yet we needn’t simply bemoan our fate.  We can also celebrate our successes, and there are successes in the environmental movement.   According to a report published by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization, we are well on our way to repairing the damage to our ozone layer such that it might actually recover fully in the next few decades.  Some of thought we might never see that.

From 2010 to 2013, 441 new species have been scientifically identified in the Amazon, including a titi monkey that purrs like a cat and a new passion flower that sprouts spaghetti-like filaments from the center of the bloom. Various scientists described the new species and World Wildlife Federation compiled the list of 258 plants, 84 fish, 58 amphibians, 22 reptiles, 18 birds and one mammal.
While the West African Black Rhino has now been officially declared extinct, still the remaining population of Northern White Rhino in Kenya is under 24-hour protection, and the Indian Rhino has returned from the brink of extinction.

Closer to home, Charlottesville is taking part in The Georgetown University Energy Prize,  a nation-wide competition open to small and medium-sized localities with the goal of reducing energy use.  The Grand Prize -- the $5 million grand prize –will be awarded in 2017. It’s exciting to note that Charlottesville has moved into the semi-finals, competing against 49 other communities across the country.  (And these 50 were winnowed down from the 8,000 communities who entered!)  There is a city employee, Susan Elliott, whose sole objective is to lead the EnergizeCharlottesville effort to win the grant, which has to be used to reward the community as a whole and to further its energy savings efforts.  If you are a city resident you may have noticed Susan’s call for citizens to take specific actions to reduce their environmental impact which appeared in the City News that comes with the gas & water bill.  In order to win the grant Charlottesville has to show that it is already making meaningful and significant changes even without the money.  We have 2 years to accomplish this; and by our status as a semi-finalist we seem to be doing well.

Members of our Forever Green group – formerly the Environmental Action Committee – will be handing out something called the “Greenfaith Pledge.”  It is a list dozens of things – things large and small – that each of us can do to help reduce the damage our species is doing to our planet.  Things that you and I can do.

Did you know that our congregation has already been doing quite a lot to make a difference?   Our incredible Environmental Action Committee led us in a process that culminated in our being officially recognized UUA “Green Sanctuary.”  (And I’m sure that any of these folks would be proud to tell you about all that went into that accomplishment.  A couple of years ago we mounted solar panels on our roof to help offset our dependence on fossil fuel derived electricity (the only church in Charlottesville, I believe, to do so).  This decision was controversial at the time, but it’s exciting to be able to say that we are currently displacing approximately 25% of our electrical energy costs here in the main church building.  (That’s roughly $1,500 a year in savings as well as reducing our impact on the planet.)

And we are working to further reduce our impact on our environment when we voted at our last congregational meeting to divest our endowment fund of all fossil-fuel related investments.  (We have already sent $200,000 of our endowment to be managed as part of the UUA’s socially responsible Common Endowment Fund.) 

Even close to home, there are individuals and families in this congregation who are actively and conscientiously making decisions in the way they live their lives so as to make to make a difference.  Some have put solar panels on their homes, some are careful about what cleaning products they use, or the kind of car they drive (and how often), the temperature they set their thermostat, or dozens of other measures to help the environment.  If you are one of these people who are consciously trying to make a difference, would you please rise.  You may not have been honored this morning as our 2015 Eco Hero, but you are all heroes nonetheless.

Bust so far all I’ve given you is information.  Useful information, I hope.  Inspiring, even.  Yet that’s not what makes a sermon.  That’s what makes a lecture.  At best a “talk.”  And if all we offer are talks and lectures, we have already lost.  If environmental justice is a simply a cause we struggle for, then we will, in fact, be part of the problem.

I say that because the challenges facing the earth are not “out there.”  We are not apart from the earth; we are a part of the earth.  That wonderful astrophysics Neil deGrasse Tyson revels in pointing out that the iron in our blood is exactly the same thing as the iron in the rocks around us, is exactly the same thing as the iron in the stars in the universe.  We are made of the same stuff.  We are a part of the world.

And thinking that we are apart from it, that we are separated from it and some how different, is a good bit of how we got in this mess in the first place.  Some trace it back to the Judeo-Christian traditions which, in the book of Genesis remember God as saying that humanity should have “dominion over the earth.”  For generations we have acted as though that meant that we could do anything we wanted with it.  We’ve acted as though the earth and all that’s on and in it were objects for our use.

Yet today many scholars and theologians are saying, as some scholars and theologians have always said, that what that passage really meant is that we are to be stewards of the earth.  That we are to care for it.  As the only species that we know of that is capable of understanding the consequences of our actions and of thinking ahead, we have the responsibility – whether called by God or not – to care for this place, our home.

And it’s important that we remain mindful that the earth is not just the home in which we live.  Calling on St. Francis again, one of his great gifts is his modeling of a recognition that everything that is is part of one great family.  The rocks, the trees, the sun, the wind, the water, the birds, the wolves … brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles.  This is our family, and just as we are beholden to take care of our human families, so, too, are we beholden to care for all of our relatives.

Turning down the thermostat is good, but why do we do it?  Because our family needs us to.  Deciding not to drive gas-guzzling vehicles is good, but why do we make that choice?  Because our relatives are crying out to us.  As in so many other areas there is no “us” and “them” here.  There is only “us.”  One family.  One home. Let us do what we can.

Pax tecum,