Friday, June 18, 2010

The Benefits of a Classical Education

When I was in college I took two semesters of Latin.  I knew that I was intending to be an ordained minister, and somehow I thought that it would be useful to know this ancient language. 

I will confess that I do not appear to have a gift for learning languages.  I remember very little that Señora Delgado taught me of Español during my high school years.  And I really only got two things from my year of Latin studies.

The first is good pronunciation.  My teacher was a stickler for it.  I was taught that in Latin, unlike English, all consonants have only one sound.  So the letter "c," for instance, only has its "hard" sound.  (There's no "soft c" as there is in English.)  The same with "g" and others.  So when you see the word C-A-E-S-A-R, whether referring to the Emperor or the salad dressing, you wouldn't say "sea-sir."  Instead, according to what I have been taught, an ancient Roman would ask for a "kah-eh-sar" salad.  I didn't go to college for nothing, as the Flying Karamozov Brothers have said, it cost me thousands of dollars.

The other thing I took away from that class has had a little more lasting value for my life.  Every Tuesday and Thursday, when I come in to Boston to work at UUHQ, I walk through the Boston Commons and encounter dozens of Columba livia -- that's the Latin name for the common rock pigeon.  These beautiful birds are everywhere -- flying and flapping.  And cooing.

Except that they don't really "coo."  If you listen closely, the sound a pigeon makes is a little more complex than a simple "coo."  It's really more like "coorrr."  Kind of like the beer, but without the "s" and with a little more roll to the "r."

So what does this have to do with my Latin studies?  I first noticed the pigeon's true call while walking to class with a friend one day.  The two of us smiled, and immediately said in unison reply to the pigeon, "Propter."  Because, you see, cur -- pronounced just as the pigeon had -- is Latin for "Why?"  Propter is, of course, the Latin word for "because."

My walks through the park have never been the same.

In Gassho,


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Vision of Reality

In the Christian scripture The Gospel of John (chapter 15, verse 5), Jesus is remembered as saying, "I am the vine; you are the branches."

What if the universe were like this?  There's one central trunk from which emerge various branches.  These separate into even smaller twigs, upon which leaves grow.  And fruit, of course, or other kinds of seeds.  And then there are the roots -- a mirror, of sorts, below the ground of what is going on in the air.

Each of these limbs is, in its own way, independent and, yet, completely dependent or, perhaps better, inter-dependent.  They grow in their own directions, following their own unique paths, and yet all are growing essentially sunward, and they all are nurtured by the same source.  Each leaf might think of itself as an individual, yet who can say where "tree" ceases and "leaf" begins?  And even when, at the end of autumn, the leaves fall, don't they become the very nutrients that nurture the tree's ongoing growth and it's next crop of leaves?

Is it so very different?

We may think that we're seperate, autonomous.  We may believe ourselves to be individuals, yet we are part of an interconnected whole.  Quantum physics tells us that at the subatomic level the boundaries between the energies that makes up "us" and the energies that makes up "not us" are blurry indeed.  The dividing line between us and the rest of the universe is not as sharp as we think.  And biology tells us that we are directly related to the other life on this planet.  Humans are not something extraordinarily unique -- we share 50% of our DNA with bananas for goodness sake!  And astrophysics tells us that we are made up -- we, the big we that includes all life on this planet, we and all of our kin -- of the same elements as the stars, are made, in fact, from star dust.

Some say that, perhaps, we should call the trunk of the "tree of life," by the ancient name "God" and recognize ourselves and limbs branching off, or leaves, or fruit.  Sit with that image for a while.

In Gassho,


Monday, June 14, 2010

Holding the Banner High

I've been on a roll lately with posts about the spiritual life and, in particular, the practice of prayer.  But today is "Flag Day," and I want to make a shift and offer a sermon I originally delivered to the folks of the First Universalist Church in Yarmouth, Maine on Flag Day 2002.  I must have struck some kind of chord that resonated -- the owners of the hardware store across the street asked me what I'd said to the congregation because that next week they'd had a run on flags!  The order of service was topped by this quote from President William Jefferson Clinton:
“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America.”
Here is my sermon --   "Holding the Banner High."

In Gassho,


I can tell you at the outset that you’re not going to hear the sermon I intended to write. When I learned that we were being given an Earth Flag to join the U.S. and U.N. flags that have long hung in our sanctuary, and when I decided that our receipt of this gift should coincide with Flag Day, I envisioned a vexillogical sermon. Vexillology is the study of flags. The term comes from the Latin vexillius—which means, simply, “flag”—and which is, itself, the diminutive of velum—which means “sail.” (Etymologically, flags are tiny sails.) The use of flags seems to go back as far in human history as our gathering together in groups or clans—the story is told in the Hebrew Scriptures of the people of Israel wandering through the desert, each of the twelve tribes beneath its own banner, and this is by no means the earliest reference to such a practice.

Anyway, as I delved into my research I was about as fascinated as you are now, so I stopped and asked myself why I was taking this particular tack. Why, having decided to do a flag day service, was I so seemingly intent on doing a boring one? That’s when I realized that I was feeling uncomfortable. That’s when I realized that I was ill-at-ease with this whole “flag day” thing and that I was trying to cover up that discomfort with a veneer of pedantic erudition.

Well, you don’t have to tell me twice. When I see something I’m afraid of—I mean, when I genuinely recognize that I’m facing a full-blown fear of something—I generally try to walk toward it. I figure that anything that scares me so much must have something to offer. And, so, I decided that rather than a sermon of facts and figures this morning I’d offer you a sermon of feelings. My feelings. My feelings about the flag, about our country, about the whole idea of patriotism. I offer such a sermon not because I am convinced that I have anything profound to say, not because I feel certain that I have any answers, but, rather, in the hope that in the particularities of my wrestling with this topic there’ll be something to help you with your own. And I think it’s something we should be wrestling with.

I began with a question: why am I uncomfortable? What makes me ill-at-ease? And I realized that I’m embarrassed, that I don’t want to get too close to the flag. I realized that I’m afraid you’ll think of me as “a flag waver,” the connotations of which to me are overwhelmingly negative. Those right wing, red necked, flag waving . . . well you can see why I’d want to keep my distance.

George Bernard Shaw said that “patriotism is a pernicious, psychopathic form of idiocy. . . . the conviction that [your] country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.” Well, I know that I don’t want to be associated with that. I know that I don’t want to be associated with the kind of provincial, xenophobic, jingoism that is so often associated with . . . flag wavers. I am, after all, a citizen of the world. I am not so much an American as a member of the Human Family. Erich Fromm said, “Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. ‘Patriotism’ is its cult. It should hardly be necessary to say that, by ‘patriotism,’ I mean that attitude which puts one’s own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice . . .” “My country right or wrong,” in other words. “America, love it or leave it.”

But when did this happen? When did all these negatives come to be associated with pride in our country and its symbols? When did the flag become a blindfold rather than a banner—requiring us to be “blindly” patriotic in order to be patriotic? In some ways it’s analogous to what’s happened with religion—people who take their religion seriously have become “Bible thumpers” and “Holy Rollers,” and people who love and are proud of the United States have become “flag wavers.” In both instances there’s a whole mental picture that’s conjured up with those words, a picture I in no way want to be associated with.

Yet the older I get the more I find that I want to wave the flag. Last month I discovered that one of the great pleasures of living on the Snow Road in Freeport is that it’s where the High School marching band practices. Coming up on Memorial Day I’d hear the cacophonous warm up of the drummers and take Theo onto the front porch to watch. “See, Theo,” I’d say, pointing to the kids trying—and not trying—to walk in step while playing. “Your mommy and daddy did that when we were kids.” I remember so clearly my own days of marching in the Memorial Day Parade, and for a couple of weeks I had sounding in my head the words of that quintessential Memorial Day song, George M. Cohan’s, “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

“You're a grand old flag,
You're a high flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave.
You're the emblem of, the land I love,
The home of the free and the brave.
Ev'ry heart beats true 'neath the Red, White and Blue,
Where there's never a boast or brag.
But should auld acquaintance be forgot,
Keep your eye on the grand old flag.”
That song—and the memories that go with it—touches me at a very deep level. It conjures up images of little league baseball, and home-town parades, and “John John” Kennedy saluting as his father’s casket passes, and communities gathering for cookouts or to help raise a barn. It calls to mind wheat fields, and Times Square; Charles Ives and Charles Mingus. It calls to mind “America” and all that is good and right in her.

And when, at the opening of the Olympics in Salt Lake, they marched in with the flag that had flown at the World Trade Center and I heard Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner” I’ll readily admit that tears rolled down my cheeks. 9-11 gave new meaning to those well known words:

Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And this is the part that got me:
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
It did. It does. How can I not feel proud?

To be sure, there has been much said and done in the name of patriotism of which I am not proud. There is much this country has done, is doing, and no doubt will do with which I disagree and, at times, of which I am deeply ashamed. But that does not mean that I don’t love this country, as well. That doesn’t negate all that is good—all that is great and might be great—about it. Our flag is the symbol of those ideals, and the fact that we have not always lived up to them is not the fault of the symbol.

So this Friday I intend to do something I’ve never done in my adult life. Fly the flag outside of my house. And I intend to fly the flag again on July 4th. Yet I’ll do so not because I think that my country is better than anyone else’s but simply because it is my country. I’ll do so not because I think that everything we do is right and just but precisely because I don’t think so—I will hold the banner high as a reminder of the ideals for which we should strive and my responsibility in that striving.

Earlier this year, when I preached following the attacks of September 11th that we should hold onto the hope of peace and the vision of our common humanity, that we should not allow evil to win by dividing us into “us” and “them,” I was told by some that I was being “un-patriotic.” (“Aiding and abetting the enemy” was one of the phrases used.) Yet the writer and activist Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us that “Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots,” and Edward Abbey once wrote, “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.” We should never forget that our flag is the symbol of a people who challenged the actions of their government to the point of revolution.

I want to fly the flag to help reclaim it from those who would use it to bully and blind, to stifle and stagnate. As a Citizen of the World, I want to fly the flag of my country with pride and hope and commitment; not as a comparison to others but as a grounding for myself. The members of the tribe of Dan or Benjamin marched beneath their banners without ever forgetting their membership in the larger community of the people of Israel; the one does not preclude the other. In fact, I believe the one makes the other truly possible.

The quote I read earlier from Erich Fromm—the one that began, “Nationalism is . . . our insanity [and] ‘patriotism’ is its cult . . .”—continues with a positive description of patriotism as: “. . . the loving interest in one’s own nation, which is the concern with the nation’s spiritual as much as with its material welfare—never with it power over other nations. Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love [he concludes], love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”

There is a wonderful passage in Robert Frost’s poem “Choose Something Like A Star.”

“So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.”
The same can be done with a flag. Rather than tear it down, or burn it up, we can hoist it higher as a reminder of who we are and who we want to be. That’s why I’m glad we have these flags here, these banners beneath which we gather week after week and which, as I said to our kids earlier, remind us of the expanding circles of our community.

In closing, I want to tell you that I had a hard time finding hymns for this service—at first glance there are no patriotic songs in our hymnal. In order to get us to sing “America the Beautiful” I had to have Pat make an insert from our old hymnal. But as I thought about how to conclude this service, I realized that we have what I think of as the most truly patriotic song I’ve ever heard, and so I ask you now to stand as you are able and join me in singing hymn #159 in our hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, “This Is My Song.”

Holding the Banner High, © June 9, 2002, Erik Walker Wikstrom

Friday, June 11, 2010

I can't help it . . .

My last post got me thinking . . . not in a profound way . . . not in a spiritually deep way (whatever that is) . . . but in that way that my brain sometimes works that those who know me well have gotten used to and that those who don't probably will never get used to.  So, for today's post, a revelation of sorts:

In Gassho,


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

With a Little Help From My Friend

Today I'd like to pick up on a theme I began to explore in a post a few weeks ago -- the idea of prayer as a mutual relationship.  I'd been reading the work of a wonderful teacher of prayer, the Russian Orthodox priest Anthony Bloom, who stresses that prayer is all about building a real relationship with a true, living, active Other -- a mutual relationship, not a one-sidded affair where I call all the shots. 

Bloom implies, and I'd agree, that if you look at it with honest eyes this is exactly what most of us are actually doing when we pray -- acting like we're in charge of the encounter.  We expect God to show up because we've called and respond to our requests in the way we've imagined, generally fulfilling all of our expectations.  Not a very nice way to treat a friend . . . especially if that friend happens to be God!  And not what happens in any other relationship we have . . . not any that last for very long, at any rate.  In real relationships there is a mutuality and so, Bloom contends, we must expect a mutuality in our prayer lives as well.  If this God we are trying to be in relationship with is truly a living God and not simply some cardboard cutout or some idol -- at one point he uses the phrase, "an imaginary God, or a God you can imagine" -- then we need to expect real interaction, real give and take.  It'll be a two-way street.  And that's one thing most of us are probably specifically not ready for!

But I want to take this idea in another direction today.  I'm going to continue to use Bloom's imagery, his metaphor of "relationship."  I'm stressing that the use of this word is a metaphor because -- and this is important -- whatever this thing that Bloom and I are calling "the living God" is something that we can not imagine.  (Remember, Bloom says specifically that the living God is not "[the] imaginary God, or [the] God you can imagine."]  This is the God about who Thomas Aquinas said, si comprihendis non es deus -- "if you understand it, it's not God."  And if this God is so utterly unimaginably incomprehensible, then this "relationship" must be different than anything I've ever experienced, either.

And yet I can tell you from my own personal experience -- and here I'm backed up by contemplatives and mystics from a myriad of religious traditions -- there is an experience that feels like relationship with this "sacred something" that I'm calling God.  I know of no better word to describe it, even though I know that that word is not entirely accurate and leaves me open to easy misinterpretation.  Still, it's the best that I have to work with.

So I'm going to continue to use Bloom's imagery, his metaphor, of "relationship," but I want to take this idea in another direction today.

I was recently facilitating a discussion about prayer with a group of seminarians, nearly all of whom said that they were in this particular workshop because they wanted to deepen their prayer life or because they were struggling with it.  There were a few people there for other reasons, but essentially there were these two groups -- those for whom things were going well and who wanted to learn what they could do to go deeper, and those who were having trouble getting started who wanted to know what they could do to get over the hurdles they were tripping over.  What both groups had in common, though, was the assumption that they, themselves, had to do something; that it was up to them to take the next step.

We talked for a bit about this idea of prayer-as-relationship, and I asked them what they thought might happen if they just showed up and didn't do anything in particular to try to improve the relationship other than just showing up.  Well, that and having the expectation that their partner in the relationship has a role to play, too.  In fact, doesn't it make sense to show up and let the person who's better at something take the lead?  And who would be better at prayer -- you or God?

You see, once again, we act as though we're in charge, as though the whole encounter is up to us.  But what if it really is an encounter?  What if we really are engaging with the Sacred Something, the Ground of Being, the Spirit of Life, the Living God?  Well, then, God is engaging with us, as well, and God might be fully capable of helping us deepen our prayer lives or getting over the hurdles of a rough beginning, don't you think?

But don't take my word for it.  Try it.  Even if you don't know who or what you're hooking up with, go into the encounter expecting to be met.  Show up and see what greets you.  And if you want to know how to deepen your prayer life, bring that question to your next encounter and see what comes up.  (After all, wouldn't you ask your friend how to deepen your friendship rather than go and ask someone else about it?)  Sometimes all it takes is a little help from your friend.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Answered Prayers

I was flipping channels the other night and caught a bit of the movie Evan Almighty.  There was a scene in which God, played by Morgan Freeman, talks about the way prayer works.  He says,
"Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them opportunities to love each other?"
I love it when a goofball movie includes a bit of theology I really resonate with.

One of the complaints I often hear people make against prayer -- against God, too, but that could be another post of its own -- is that it just doesn't "work."  We pray and pray and pray for something, the argument goes, and nothing happens or, even worse, we seem to get more of the very thing we're praying to get rid of!

There's a story told by either Anthony de Mello or Anthony Bloom (I honestly can't remember now which) about a monk who had something of a short temper -- he was frequently annoyed by the other brothers in his monastery and was, in turn, rather annoying to them.  Finally he realized that this was a problem, and so he went to the chapel and prayed before the statue of Christ that Christ might remove his temper.  After spending several hours in prayer he did feel calmer and a lightness of spirit that he had never known before.

Immediately upon leaving the chapel he came upon one of the brothers who had actually never bothered him in the past, but today this brother said something really insulting to him.  The monk felt some of his old anger returning.  And then one of the lay sisters who worked in the monastery and who'd always made him smile passed by and was really rather rude, and before he knew it he was rude back to her.  And then, as a passed a visitor, someone he'd never seen before, he said a cranky word.

Realizing that was returning to his old ways, the monk ran back to the chapel and fell back on his knees.  "Lord," he said.  "I thought I'd asked you to remove my anger?"  And the Lord responded, "That's why I've increased your opportunities to practice."

Every day as part of my prayer bead practice, on one of the entering-in beads, I pray, "Open my ears, that I might hear your voice in whatever form it might take . . . especially those I would rather not hear."  This morning I was feeling seriously tempted, as I got off the bus in South Station, to go to the ATM and get some money so that I could stop and get a fast food breakfast.  I didn't need the food -- I'd already had cereal -- and I certainly didn't really want it -- that kind of food makes me crazy.  But it was calling out to me.

On my way to the ATM I heard a voice in my head say, "Erik, you really don't want to do this."  I pushed on.  A very large man, much heavier than I am, walked by me.  I kept walking.  The next thing my eyes landed on was the book rack in the store near the ATM and, specifically, Jillian Michael's new book Master Your Metabolism.  I still kept heading for the ATM.  And then I had a vision of how good it would feel to be walking on the Commons on this beautiful day without the heavy feeling the BK food would give me.  "Okay.  Okay.  I get it," I said, and headed for the escalator.

Maybe one reason that our prayers don't get answered is that we don't recognize the answer.  We want courage, not opportunities to be courageous; or patience, not opportunities to be patient; or warm fuzzy feelings, not the chance to practice actually being loving.  We don't recognize the form the voice takes, and so we miss it.

Keep listening.

In Gassho,