Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Seeing In The Dark

This sermonic exploration was originally delivered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, VA on Sunday, December 23rd 2012.

Okay.  So I know that Deborah really already covered this, but I want to go over it again.

It’s thought that about four and a half billion years ago a celestial object about the size of modern-day Mars, slammed into the then quite young earth.  Scientists call this object Theia, after the mythical Greek titan who gave birth to the Moon goddess, Selene, because it’s thought that this “giant impact” did, in fact, create our moon.  It’s also thought that it was this impact, or one quite like it, that tilted our planet’s axis to its current roughly 24 degrees.
And because of that tilt, as Deborah said earlier, for part of the year the northern hemisphere is closer to the sun – making it warmer with longer days and shorter nights – and for part of the year it’s further away – making it colder with the days and nights reversed.  She mentioned how folks nearer to the equator experience roughly even days and nights all year long.  In more northern and southern latitudes folks experience days and nights that never end.  In fact, in Alaska, the sun goes down on November 31st and remains below the horizon for 67 days until it re-appears on January 24th. During this time there is a small amount of light each day – but it’s what most of us would call “twilight.”  On December 21st, the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice Deborah mentioned, this “twilight” lasts just about 2 hours.
So while it’s clear that this affects people in different places to different extents, there’s no question that our largely northern-hemisphere influenced culture has developed in its DNA a memory of this light/dark cycle.  And I’d love to say that our more primitive ancestors experienced the time of short days and long nights as frightening or, at least, really mysterious and, so, they began to develop light ceremonies to encourage the sun to return.  I’d like to say this because it sounds great, and it’s certainly the story I grew up with, but there’s one small problem.  I keep discovering that our “primitive” ancestors weren’t as ignorant as I’d been led to believe.
I was going to start this sermon by describing what it would have been like if the world were flat which, as we all know, was the dominant belief well into the Middle Ages.  In fact, Columbus had problems launching his famous expedition because folks were afraid that their investment was going to sail off the edge of the world.
Well . . . not so much, it turns out.  Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician, postulated a spherical earth back in the 5th century BCE and Aristotle affirmed it in 330 BCE.  By the time Columbus came around it’s been pretty well established that the idea that the world was flat was held by pretty much none of the educated people.  True, there were a lot of rather uneducated people in those days, but when it comes to the teachings of science, there really still are.
And it turns out that our most ancientancestors weren’t all that much in the dark about . . . well . . . being in the dark.  As far back as 3000 BCE – what’s known as the Neolithic era – at least some of us humans knew enough about what was happening to erect a bunch of giant stones in such a way that the sun set above a particular stone on the evening of the winter solstice.  That would have been a heck of a lot of work to mark that particular moment if they didn’t know what it was about.
A better explanation may be that they did recognize the solstice as the tipping point from lengthening nights to lengthening days and the fires and candles were not so much to encourage the return of the sun but, rather, to celebrate it.  These celebrations may have been born not so much in fear as in relief.

But whatever the origins and the original intent may have been, there are a lot of festivals at this time of year that honor the coming of light.  Wikipedia notes thirty-four winter solstice festivals – from the proto-Scandanavia’s Beiwe to the Roman’s Brumalia, from the Pakastani Chawmos to, well, Christmas.    There’s Dongzhi, Goru, Hannukkah, Hogmanay, Inti Raymi, Junkanoo, Lá an Dreoilin, Makara Sankrati, Maruaroa o Takurua, and . . . well . . . in seminary they told us never to use lists in our sermons.  (People apparently tune out after a while.)

My point is just that it seems human and natural to mark this time:  this time when the nights are so long and the days so short; this time when darkness – the good and the ill of it, its fearsomeness and its freedom – hold sway over the light – which has its own good and bad aspects, of course.  Throughout the whole of human history and across this diverse globe we human beings seem to have a need to mark times such as this.

And I think that the real reason – the deep, down, core, essential reason – is that such times as this do not only occur “out there.”  It’s not just the skies and the seasons that change and flow; it’s not just our external world that goes through cycles.  Our inner world does, too.

When Deborah and I were first talking about this service, she told me that she wanted to use something by Maurice Sendak.  We knew that this would be a multigenerational service and she said that no one quite captured the inner nighttime, if you will, of children better than Sendak.  Mickey, in In The Night Kitchen, is nearly cooked in the “morning cake.”  Max, in Where The Wild Things Are, travels to the very land of the Wild Things who love him so much that they want to eat him up.  And Pierre?  Pierre is actually eaten by the lion. 

And I really wish you could see the illustrations because Sendak drew a lion that just looks so . . .  proud of himself which, maybe you would be too if you’d just eaten a kid who was being such a pain in the neck.  “I don’t care.”  “I don’t care.”  “I don’t care.”  Utterly unpleasant little urchin.

But who among us – let’s be honest now – who among us hasn’t gone through our own “I don’t care” phase?  Who hasn’t had one of those really long nights that seems to go on forever?  One of those times when we’re just aching for the dawn and aren’t really sure we can wait all that much longer?  One of those times when we can’t see our own hand in front of our face, and certainly can’t see any help . . . or hope?

And maybe you know it, too . . . that feeling of being inside the lion’s belly.  Luckily not all of us have been there, but some of us have.  And others know people who have.

This longest-night-of-the-year stuff is not just something that happens “out there.”  It happens “in here,” too.  And I think that that’s the real reason we’ve put so much energy – as a human family – into these festivals of light and hope.  Not because our ancient ancestors feared that the sun would never rise again.  But because we still do.

So here’s my Yule-tide message for this year.  (And my message for Shab-e Chelleh, and for Soyal and Zagmuk too.  And let’s not forget We Tripantu, now either.)  The sun is coming back.  The light and the warmth are on their return.  Love and hope are expanding.  A new day dawns. 

And if not now, then trust that it all will.  And don’t trust it because I’ve said it.  (Although I’m generally pretty reliable about this sort of thing.)  And don’t trust it because pretty much all of humanity’s sacred books say that it is so.  (Although when you can get pretty much all of humanity to agree on something it’s a pretty good sign.)  

Instead, believe it because it’s been proved to be true – year after year, decade after decade, millennia after millennia.  That’s why we light the festival fires.  That’s why we light the candles.  And that’s why we always will.

In Gassho,

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Look at the Second Amendment

"A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, 
the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

That's what it says.  That's the (to some) "sacred scripture" known as The Second Amendment.  "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

There are some who focus on the fourth word -- militia -- and the statement that it's "necessary to the security of a free state" as a way of saying that we've got this whole "right to bear arms" thing completely wrong.  These folks argue that what our Founders were saying is that because it's necessary to have a militia, people need to be able to keep guns.  So that they can be called up to be part of the militia.  To protect the security of the free state.

In other words, these folks argue passionately, the second amendment does not simply guarantee individuals the right to keep and bear arms for any and every reason a person might think to do so.  It doesn't, they say, guarantee people the right to weaponry for their own individual purposes.  Instead, this is a guarantee of the right of the people to take up arms against tyranny or to protect the state from invaders.  It is, then, a community right -- the right of "the people" (plural) to create a militia.

Others say, "not so fast."  The second amendment clearly says "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."  (Some of the eagle-eyes will have noted that this version of that clause does not have a comma between "arms" and "shall" as the one in italics at the top does.  Apparently both version are canon -- the first is the way it was written in the Constitution that Congress adopted; the second is the way it was written in the Constitution that the states ratified.  But I digress . . .)

This second group of folks say that it makes no sense to tell people that they can keep guns only for the purpose of being prepared for the possible formation of a militia.  Gun ownership was too much a part of the fabric of colonial lives and, so, the only sensible reading of this is that the amendment guarantees the right of gun ownership -- in fact, assures that this right will in no way be infringed upon.  One of the reasons for this -- but, perhaps, the only one that needed to be spelled out -- was so that the people could come together to form militias if need be.

And so the argument has been going on for quite some time. 

I'd like to focus our attention on the second and third words of the amendment -- "A well regulated militia . . ."  While I'd agree with the folks in the second camp to the extent that it does seems as though a sensible reading of the second amendment would see it as a guarantee of an individual's right to own guns, I'd also point out that the Founders apparently thought that this right should be "well regulated."  That is to say that they apparently didn't want undisciplined gangs roaming the streets, or to see an "arms race" among the populace.  Somehow they could see a way that the potential militias could be "well regulated" without "infringing" on a people's right to bear arms.

Is it possible that if Washington or Jefferson were alive today they would suggest that no one has a "right" to automatic or even semi-automatic weapons?  To armor piercing ammunition?  Is it possible that they would see the insistence on background checks and waiting periods not as "infringements" on the gun owners' rights but as simple tools to keep it all "well regulated"?

I just can't help wondering . . .

In Gassho,


 Oh . . . and about the graphic?  Well, apparently the image of the guns was taken from the video game "Call of Duty:  Modern Warfare 2."  Most of the weapons pictured aren't fully automatic and many actually are illegal.  These cheeses can be purchased in many specialty shops.  So . . . while a wonderfully provocative image, don't be making too strong an argument based on it.  (Thanks to Benjamin Blair's Stupid FaceBook Arguments for setting me straight on this.)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

On sin and second-hand smoke

I'm going to go out on a limb here.

It is quite likely that some of my dearest friends may find what I'm about to write here objectionable.

But I think I just had an epiphany.  I think I just got a glimpse of something True and True things strike me as important.  Truth is a pretty powerful thing, and seeing things clearly is always helpful.  (Not always pretty, not always pleasant, but in the end always helpful.)

So . . . here goes:

I was on FaceBook earlier this evening and I saw the picture posted here:  Saying someone should be gay because it's against your religion makes as much sense as saying someone shouldn't eat a donut because you're on a diet.

My initial reaction was to "like" the post and to pass it on.

But then I had my epiphany -- what the religious right is saying about homosexuality is actually not at all like this, and saying that it is does a disservice to the cause of equality.  Because telling someone that they shouldn't eat a donut because you're on a diet is stupid.  It's crazy.  And it never helps move a conversation forward to tell the other person that they're stupid and crazy.

Before I go any further I want to make something clear.  The argument I'm making here comes from my perspective as a straight ally.  I have not, personally, had the experience of having my identity, my very existence, branded as "evil" the way my gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender friends have.  I can imagine what that feels like, but I can't know.  Not really.  So it's quite possible that there may be a little more "detachment" for me.  There may be a little more willingness to try to understand "the other side;" a little more of a desire to try and find bridges.

For many folk in the GLBT community(ies) those bridges have been long ago burned.  Having been badly hurt in incredibly deep and personal ways . . . well . . . there's not so much interest in trying to understand the ones who have done -- and continue to do -- the hurting.

And I am certainly not saying that they should.  But maybe that's one of my roles as an ally.  Perhaps that's one of the things allies do -- as bridges ourselves we do the work of trying to build bridges.  Because, I believe, we must all eventually get together.  I preach often the message, "there is no 'us' and 'them,' there is only 'us.'"  With tremendous passion I believe this.  And I want to see it come to be as real "on earth as it is in heaven" (to coin a phrase).

So . . . that epiphany.

Let me suggest another analogy -- saying someone shouldn't be gay because it's against your religion makes as much sense as saying someone shouldn't smoke because you don't want to get lung cancer.  At first blush this also seems ridiculous.  It certainly did when the effort to ban smoking in public places first began.  But we've since learned quite a lot about the dangers of second-hand smoke.  If you smoke, the smoke you exhale, the smoke that exudes from you, that lingers around you like a cloud, can indeed make me sick.  As the child of parents who smoked like chimneys I can certainly testify that the odor alone is incredibly offensive.  But we've also now learned that the poisons in cigarettes are not ingested only by the person smoking.  Insidiously they spread, and do real damage to folks who've never lit up themselves.

So saying that you shouldn't smoke because I don't want cancer is not, as it might first seem, ridiculous.  It's not stupid; it's not crazy.  It actually makes sense.

And I truly believe that a great many -- perhaps even a majority -- of the folks on the religious right see this as true about homosexuality as well.  That was my epiphany tonight.  I understood -- perhaps for the first time -- that "they" really do believe that sin does not just harm the individual sinner but insidiously spreads and does real damage -- eternal damage! -- to people who otherwise are "innocent."

(And yes, I know, there's a problem with the idea that some people consider themselves "innocent."  There's the whole, "let the one who has not sinned cast the first stone" thing going on.  But let's not get caught up on that for a moment, okay?  While certainly theologically correct and consistent, it'd be something of a distraction from this line of thinking . . .)

So let's consider, for a moment at least, that the people who are saying that folks "shouldn't be gay," or that homosexuality shouldn't be normalized, or that their unions shouldn't be recognized and honored in the same way that heterosexual unions are . . . let's just, for a moment, consider that they have (what seems to them to be) a legitimate concern.  They're really afraid that this "sin" -- this literally God damned "abomination" -- is not just some kind of alternate lifestyle choice but is, in fact, a clear and present danger to them.  Let's imagine that for a moment.

Do you really think saying, "that's stupid" is going to be an effective strategy?  Does that ever help someone get over a fear?  If somebody's afraid of flying is it just a matter of telling them that that's crazy to get them over it?  Being called "stupid" and "crazy" generally leads to someone getting defensive, and defensive people rarely open up to change.  Usually they constrict and dig in their heels.

So what do you do to help someone overcome her or his fears of flying?  You lead them through a process.  You teach them the facts about aviation safety.  You give them ever-increasing exposure -- often going to an airport and watching the planes take off.  Walking on to a plane and sitting there while it's on the ground.  Little step by little step introducing the person to the actual experience of flying and, little by little, the actual experience replaces the fear.

Earlier today I saw a beautiful little video.  It's actually an ad by Expedia.  And I think that this ad is not only a lovely depiction of someone making such a journey from fear to love.  Because the story is told in such a matter-of-fact way I believe it could be a step on someone else's journey.  It's like offering an aerophobe an invitation to watch a movie about someone overcoming their fear of flying.  Doesn't that seem more effective than telling them that they're stupid?

In Gassho,


Saturday, September 29, 2012

Why Do We Think We Were Wrong?

In working on my sermon for tomorrow morning (yes, it's 9:30 on Saturday night and I'm still working on my sermon for 9:15 tomorrow morning!) I came across this sermon I wrote back in 2000.  I have to say that I rather liked it and, so, here it is:

This morning I would like to tell you four stories.
The first happened this summer.  I went into my office one morning and found a note on my desk.  It had been left there by a young man who is tangentially related to our congregation, someone with whom I've talked several times and who was home on vacation after his first year of college.  A few months earlier, in a casual conversation, it had come up that he hadn't yet read the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.  I strongly encouraged him to do so.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the book it tells the story of a man who answers an ad in the Personals section of the paper which simply said:
"TEACHER seeks pupil.  Must have an earnest desire to save the world.  Apply in person."
What follows is a very intriguing, profound, and inspiring account of the lessons this pupil learns at the feet of this teacher (who turns out to be a talking gorilla named Ishmael).  If you haven't read the book yet, you really ought to; it's well worth it.
Anyway, this young man took my advice, which should have told me right off the bat that he was a very special person.  He read the book, and then he slipped into my office one afternoon and left the note that I found that morning.  All it said was:
Rev. Wikstrom --
I read Ishmael. 
I have an earnest desire to save the world. 
Let's talk.
My first reaction, I have to confess, was a bemused and somewhat patronizing chuckle.  "Ah, the naive optimism of youth," I thought to myself.  "Someday he'll learn that it's not that easy."  But even before I could think that whole thought through I stopped short and wondered, "but what if he's the one who can do it, and I miss out on the opportunity to be part of it?"  I called him right away and set up a meeting for later in the week.
The second story happened a couple of months ago when Mary and I went to see the movie Pay It Forward.  That's the one with Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt, and the incredible Kevin Spacey.  In it Spacey plays a teacher who gives his students a very open ended assignment:  come up with an idea that will change the world.  And as you've no doubt heard by now, Osment's character comes up with the idea of doing a favor for three people -- something big, something they couldn't do for themselves -- and then asking them, instead of paying it back, to pay it forward by doing favors for three other people.  Those nine people are each then asked to pay their favors forward to three more people, and on it goes from there.  If everyone does their favors the day after the favor was done for them, by the end of two weeks 4, 782, 969 people would have had something good done for them and, of course, each of them would the next day do a big favor for three more people.
I know that some people really loved this movie -- saw it over and over again -- and some people thought it was really schmaltzy and saccharine.  But the point of my story is that walking out of the theatre I again found myself feeling caught between an immediate response of thinking that things don't work like that in the "real world" and really wanting to believe that it was possible.
The third story.  A story of hope.  It comes from the magicians Penn and Teller and, so, I can't tell you whether it's true or not.  I'd like it to be.  They tell of a time when they wanted to try and do something nice for people, along the lines of paying the toll for the car behind you, but wanted it to have an odd, Penn and Teller twist.  One day, while they were eating in a truck stop, they had their idea.  They called their waitress over and, with a theatrical flourish, ordered "A round of jello for the house!" Each and every person in the place was to get one of those little bowls of jello.  After a while a trucker -- a big, beefy, somewhat scary looking guy -- came over to their table carrying one of those little bowls.  "Did you send this over?" he growled at them.  They confess that they had.  "Why?" he wanted to know.  More than a little frightened now, they admitted that there'd been no good reason.  All of a sudden this guy's face softened and he said, "thanks guys.  My mom used to make me jello."  And then he told them that every so often he was going to buy "a round of jello for the house" just to keep this thing alive.  Maybe he still is.
My fourth, and last, story takes place during the height of Apartheid in South Africa.  Nelson Mandella is still in prison, and it seems as though things will never change.  A scheduled political rally is canceled by the security police, and Archbishop Desmund Tutu decides that, if they can't hold their rally, this would be the perfect time to hold a church service.  So he invites everyone who had come for the rally back to his church.  Of course, the security police come to.  They stand in waves outside the church, and they stand, armed, all around the inside of the sanctuary.
That day, in the face of all the evidence of how bad things can be, Archbishop Tutu declares that Apartheid can not last because it is evil.  He looks at those armed guards, he points his finger right at them and says, "You are very powerful, but you have already lost.  Today I invite you to come and join the winning side."  The congregation starts dancing in the aisles. 
Several years later a man who'd been in the church that day is on the dais next to Tutu for the swearing in of Nelson Mandella as President of South Africa.  The man asks the Archbishop if he remembers that day, and Tutu smiles.  "Oh yes," he says.  "And you see?  Today everyone has joined the winning side."
When I was younger, the age of the children who were just up here on the steps, the age of Haley Joel Osment's character in Pay It Forward, or even back when I was in college, I believed that there was a lot wrong with this world but that we really could change things.  So did most of you.  We'd have agreed with Margaret Meade who said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has."  We believed that there were a great many people who had "an earnest desire to save the world," and that if we could only begin to work together to act on that desire the world would be saved in no time flat.  As God tells Neal Donald Walsh in Conversations with God, we have at our disposal right now everything we need to end hunger and poverty and oppression all over the planet if only we had the will to do it.  When I was younger I believed that there was a lot wrong with this world but that we really could change things.  Movies like Pay It Forward and books like Ishmael seemed to me to be blueprints for how to do it.  It all seemed so easy.
As I got older I got more cynical.  I know that to many of you I still seem young, but in my lifetime I've already seen far too many examples of "man's inhumanity to man. " (A sexist phrase, to be sure, but one which loses something in translation.)  Over and over again I've seen that we human beings are capable of really terrible behavior toward one another; that everyone does not have everyone else's best interest at heart; that good hearted, trusting people who think the best of everyone often get taken advantage of and hurt.  This world can be a very discouraging place to live.  I've seen on your faces and heard in your voices that you get discouraged too.  And it's not even as simple as thinking that people do bad things because they don't know any better; some people know better and do bad things anyway. 
All of this is true.  It is the way life is.  But what leads us to think that we were wrong when we believed that it can be different than it is?  As a kid I knew that there was a lot wrong with the world -- that wasn't the issue, I wasn't blind to that reality -- I just thought that good hearted, well meaning people could change things.  So why do I now think I was wrong?
Desmund Tutu certainly knew how bad the world can be, but he never stopped believing in how good it can be, either.  Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Mohandas Gandhi looked out at the same world we do -- an even more discouraging world than many of us will ever see -- yet they never stopped seeing its possibilities.  And maybe that's the key -- recognizing that this life is a paradox and refusing to let either side blind us to the truth of its opposite.  Perhaps the key is to be found in the saying at the top of your Order of Service:  "You see things; and you say, 'Why?'  But I dream of things that never were and I say, 'Why not?'"
Last summer a young man told me that he had an earnest desire to save the world, and I decided to believe him.  Or, perhaps more accurately, I decided to believe in him, and in so doing to believe in myself.  I made a decision to believe in the human capacity to turn random acts of violence and senseless brutality into random acts of kindness and senseless beauty.  I decided to believe that something as simple as doing a good deed for someone else could grow into a movement which could sweep the world.  Maybe something as simple as a "round of jello for the house" would be a good place to start.
This is the season of miracles.  We all believed in them once.  We can decide to believe in them again.  For I do believe it is a choice: a choice to remain open to the possibilities rather than close down in self-protection; a choice to keep our eyes peeled for reminders that the best is true even in the face of evidence that the worst is true as well; it is a choice between listening to voices like the ones we heard here on these steps a moment ago telling us that the best is yet to come, or listening to the voices of the fearmongers who tell us that the end is near.  Put that way, the choice seems easy to me; I know who I'd rather be listening to.
The Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, certainly no stranger to humanity's capacity for cruelty, has written words which seem to sum up all I've been trying to say:  "Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. . . .  It would be a pity if we are only aware of the suffering."   It would be a pity.  Let's not make that mistake.

In Gassho,

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Labels . . .

I'm having an on-going revelation . . . experiencing an extended epiphany.

This isn't really anything new, of course, and the specifics of this situation aren't really important, but for what it's worth I offer this story.

I was in the check-out line at Whole Foods yesterday afternoon, and as my eyes wandered while the cashier did her thing I noticed a CD for sale in the "impulse buying" rack.  It was a re-issue of five classic Ray Charles recordings from Atlantic Records.

I've always considered myself something of a Ray fan, and I'd say, too, that I generally just think of him as an incredible musician.  A master.  But if I had to put a label on him I guess I'd have said that he was a popular R & B guy.  Something of a cross-over artist between the popular music of his day and hardcore rhythm and blues.

So I picked up this collection and so far I've listened to two of the albums.  And the first one blew my mind -- all instrumental, all jazz.

Like I said, nothing really new here.  It's not new to say that jazz has its roots in the same blues/gospel loam that gave rise to R & B.  But I've apparently never put "Ray Charles" into the "jazz musician" category in my brain.  But hearing him in this (for me) new context makes perfect sense.

And so I find that all of the file drawers in my mind are being reorganized.  The file drawers for "R & B," "Jazz," "Ray Charles," and "What I Thought I Knew" are all getting cleaned out, reconfigured.

And that's probably a good thing for me to do with all of the files, from time to time.

Maybe you too.


Thursday, September 06, 2012

It'll Take Some Time . . .

When I was in my mid-twenties I had a wonderful opportunity to spend a few months in Japan.  A friend from college, a mime, was putting on a big show in a Tokyo theater and invited me to come work with his troupe.  (He said he needed my "American sense of humor!")  Shut up!  Pantomime didn't revolutionize the theatrical world as we knew it, but it provided a solid foundation for the success my friend Takeo has come to know and it pointed me into the ministry and out of the theatre.

But that's not what I want to write about.  This is actually a political post, as the image on the right no doubt has already made clear.  So why bring up the Japan thing?

Because while I was there I was able to experience a real shiatsu massage.  Takeo's partner, Yoshiko, was a shiatsu practitioner and one day she took on my already achy and creaky body.  When the session was over I asked her how long it would take for shiatsu to return my body to its intended level of health and vitality.  "Thirty or forty years!" was her response.  I was shocked.  She explained,

You're about twenty-five now, so it's taken you twenty-five years to get into this shape.  If you were to make a change today, to start doing all of the right things that you need to do and stop doing all of the bad things you've been doing, it'd take about the same amount of time to get you out of the shape you've gotten yourself into.  But you won't.  You won't make those changes right away or all at once.  And, so, for the first few years of the treatments you'll actually be continuing to make things worse.  So I think it'll take you thirty or forty years to completely reverse all of this.
Those aren't her exact words and, to be honest, all I can claim is that this is how I remember the conversation to have gone.  But regardless of the veracity of this account, the point of the story seems an important one -- when it's taken you a while to get into trouble, it's probably going to take you a while to get out of it.

As I remember the 2008 Presidential campaign, lots of people put all sorts of expectations on candidate Obama.  There were folks who seemed close to deifying him; certainly he was held up by some as some kind of savior.  Yet he, himself, kept saying that things were pretty tough economically and that no one should expect quick fixes.

And while there are those who keep maintaining (falsely) that President Obama enjoyed full control of both houses of Congress at first, the truth is that his policies were fought every step of the way.  He asked for collaboration and received (largely) confrontation.  Who can forget the comment made by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, while peaking with National Journal magazine about Republican Party priorities for the 2008-2010 Congress, that "the single most important thing we
want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." 

So President Obama inherited a very hurt and aching "body politic."  It had taken at least eight years -- but more, really -- to get into this shape.  If everything were focused on becoming more healthful one could expect, then, that it'd take at least eight year -- and possibly more -- for it to turn around.  Yet it should be clear that during these first three-and-a-half years there has been a willful intention to continue on with unhealthy behaviors, a strident effort to avoid making necessary changes.  How much longer, then, would a full recovery be expected to take.

I believe -- indeed, I find that I have to believe -- that neither the Right nor the Left are "evil."  When I hear, as I do, both sides using virtually the same words and images to demonize the other, and attributing to one another almost exactly the same vices, I tend to disbelieve both.  While, certainly, there are individuals involved in politics today whom I would look at with grave suspicion, on the whole I believe that both major parties (and even their more fringy off-shoots) really do have the best interest of the country at heart.  They just fundamentally differ on how they see the world and, therefore, on what they feel needs to be done.

Yet no one should argue that President Obama has "failed" during his Presidency.  He promised us that things would be hard and that it would take time to make things right again.  He has kept that promise.  And even with the difficulty of the challenge, and the vehemence of the opposition, things have been, and continue to be, improving.  Not quickly.  Not as fast as we would like.  But perhaps as fast as they possibly can.  Surprisingly fast, actually, if you think about it from the point of view of my shiatsu story.

So . . . for this reason -- among many, many others -- I, too, want to give President Obama another term  to try to complete the work he has begun.  And I'd love to see a Congress that will actually work with him for the good of us all.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, September 04, 2012

If You're Lucky, You'll Read This Book!

James Ishmael Ford has just published a new book:  If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break:  Field Notes from a Zen Life(Wisdom Publications, 2012.)   It follows on the heels of the anthology he co-edited, The Book of Mu:  essential writings on zen's most important koan (Wisdom Publications, 2011), and sits on my shelf right next to his earlier Zen Master Who?  A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen (Wisdom Publications, 2006) and his essential in this very moment:  a simple guide to Zen Buddhism (Skinner House, 2002, 1996).  James is a prolific writer.  (Check out his blog Monkey Mind!)

He's also a unique figure in the sphere of liberal religion.  A Soto Zen Priest, he is also a Unitarian Universalist minister.  If anyone can be said to be involved in the evolution of Buddhism as it encounters the 21st century West, James is the guy.  And in his new book he offers notes on his forty years of being in the middle of it.

And by "it" I mean both Western, or as James calls it, Liberal Buddhism and also the Big IT -- Life.  As I noted in my review on Amazon, in If You're Lucky James manages to write an informative history of Buddhism, an analysis of modern Western Buddhism, and profound teachings on what I've always called The Big Questions.

There is so much in this little book.  I know that I'll be digesting what I've read for a good long while.  Already I can see some of my thinking shifting because of it.

Here's one example.  It's not exactly paradigmatic of the book as a whole, but it is a passage that hit me like a kick in the chest when I first read these three lines.  (But in a good way.)

"We are responsible in a way no other creature I'm aware of is.  We have eaten of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and we have become as gods.  And that godlike quality is responsibility." (p.121)
That's it.  A mere 38 words, and my understanding of God, of myself, and of my place in the universe is forever changed.  It hit me like one of those optical illusions where you see one image if you focus on the foreground and something all together different if your focus is the background.  Usually at first I stare and stare and stare, able to only see one of the two images.  I am honestly unable to see anything but the thing I first see.  And then something shifts.  Or, maybe, everything shifts.  The second image comes into view and I can never not see it again.

That's how this passage affected me -- "that godlike quality is responsibility."  Somehow, out of all of the ways I've heard people describing that thing some call God, I don't think that the word "responsible" has ever been uttered.  And when I've heard people trying to make sense of the idea that "we are made in the image of God," I've heard a lot of talk about how we share the trait of Creativity, or Compassion, or even the Ability to Will, but I've never heard someone say that we're made in the image of God because we, also, are Responsible.

As I said, I need to digest this.  I need to sit with it for a while.  Maybe a long while.  But here are two things that I see right now:

First, it removes for me the capriciousness that is sometimes attributed to "God."  Sometimes it is unintentional and accidental, and sometimes it seems to verge on purposive, but the way people often talk about God implies that God can -- and does -- do anything he/she/it wants.  Because God is declared to be omnipotent -- all powerful, able to do anything -- God can act on God's own whims.  Of course, the whims of God are usually described as making up some kind of cosmic plan, yet so many different things are attributed to God's doing -- everything from hurricanes to Super Bowl victories -- that it certainly seems to me that God doesn't really have a plan after all or that, at least, it's a very unfocused one.

Yet if the quality that describes God best is "responsibility," then that changes everything.  It offers proof, if you will, that three quarters of the things attributed to God's will are not.  Because a truly responsible God would behave a lot differently than Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps would have us believe.  A truly responsible God might be worth . . . well . . . might be worth calling "God."

And if we are "made in God's image," and if our "eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil" has, indeed, "made us as gods," and if what changed for us is that now we are responsible, than that makes "responsibility" part of my essential make up.  It makes "responsibility" part of the essence of my humanity.  And this, too, changes everything.  Because the word "responsible" implies, to me at least, a mutual relationship, a sense of equality.  I cannot be responsible to or with someone or something that I see myself as either "above" or "below."  Being responsible, it seems to me, recognizing my innate responsibility in life, is acknowledging that there's a claim on me.  It is a companion to freedom (and free will) and, in many ways, a corrective.

I like books that make me think.  I like books that encourage me to think in new ways.  I like If You're Lucky, Your Heart Will Break very, very much.  I hope you will read it to.

In Gassho,


Thursday, August 16, 2012

How do I make sense of this?

I want to teach myself to play French Horn again, and jazz horn at that . . .
. . . and the recorder
. . . the harmonica
. . . the bagpipes
. . . the trumpet
. . . and the guitar a little.

I want to make masks and art pieces again . . .
. . . and do photography
. . . and cross stitch
. . . and start carving wood.

I want to take up juggling again . . .
. . . and start jogging
. . . and weight lifting
. . . and tai chi
. . . and bicycling
. . . and unicycling
. . . and walking a tight rope
. . . and hiking in the woods.

I want to study the work of Joseph Campbell . . .
. . . and the new cosmology
. . . and writing
. . . and nutrition/health
. . . and coaching
. . . and the theology of Tielhard de Chardin.

I want to write more of the books I have ideas for . . .
. . . and articles
. . . and slam poetry
. . . and keep my blog up to date.

I want an active prayer life . . .
. . . and to practice a simple life
. . . and to work for justice
. . . and to have balance -- and peace.

I want to earn my living as a writer and public speaker . . .
. . . and a spiritual director/life coach/pastoral counselor
. . . and a church consultant and workshop leader
. . . and, of course, in doing what it is I'm doing right now, right where I'm already doing it.
I want to go fishing with Lester . . .
. . . and build train layouts with Theo
. . . and go on dates with Mary
. . . and have some time with myself
. . . and God.
How do I make sense of all of this?
I don't know.
And yet, I think there's a clue in that "simple life" and that "balance" I'm looking for.  This is way too much for any one lifetime.  The Renaissance was a long time ago, and even then there weren't all that many Renaissance Men.  Perhaps if I were Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod, or one of his ilk, I could make my way through this list. 
But I have . . . maybe . . . another fifty years.  And I guess that means I have some choices to make.  My dad always said to "keep your options open," but that makes it kind of hard to choose.  A "yes" to this is a "no" to that.  (Or, at least a "not yet.")  If it's true that "when one door closes another opens" -- and, for that matter, even if it's not -- it's also true that "when one door opens most of the others close."
"Discernment" it was once called -- the ability to choose between this and that.  This seems to be getting more difficult in this "on demand" world.
Good luck to us all.
In Gassho,

Monday, August 13, 2012

Are You DAF?

On Friday my post made reference to a new position being created here at the congregation I serve -- the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist of Charlottesville, Virginia.  It's called The Director of Administration and Finance.

Today I want to write a little more about it, because it's more than just a new position -- it's the beginning of a new way for us to be doing church.  And I'm excited!

The kinds of faith communities I am most familiar with -- and TJMC is no exception -- are voluntary associations.  While the ordained clergy person -- aka, "the Minister" -- may often be seen and even act as a de facto Chief Operating Officer, the real power, the real authority is held by the Board of Trustees as delegated by the congregation.  It is the congregation -- the individual members joined together in common cause -- that really, ultimately, "runs the show."

That means that congregants -- both "formal" members and dedicated "friends" -- do an awful lot of things that are primarily focused on institutional health and maintenance.  And let's face it . . . these things are not always particularly conducive to deepening one's spiritual life or transforming society.  But they need to be done.

As congregations mature, there is a tendency for them to become aware of this tension and often respond by bringing on professional staff to take responsibility for the things that members either don't want to or really can't do effectively or efficiently.  (As one example, when volunteers are responsible for all of the administrative functions of the institution the quite natural and desirable turnover of leadership creates a challenge in holding on to long-term institutional memory.)

Several years ago the TJMC community recognized it's growing maturity and began to evolve what had been a "church secretary" position into a role that has been called the Congregational Administrator.  A lot of extra responsibility was added to the position but, to be honest, not a whole lot of additional authority.  (This is a bit of a digression, but that's not too atypical an experience in churches -- individuals and groups being given responsibility without the concomitant authority.  Therein lie many, many a churches problems.)

During this past year a truly dedicated band of folks worked to assess the staffing needs of our congregation.  They interviewed staff and key volunteers.  They reviewed job descriptions.  They identified the various tasks that are currently being performed, or that need to be yet aren't.  And they asked, "how could this multiplicity of tasks be accomplished in the most effective and efficient way?"  The report they delivered to the Board, and which has been formally adopted now, is a really exciting vision of church that is growing into greater maturity.

One aspect of this vision is the continued evolution of the "church secretary," then "congregational administrator," into a Director of Administration and Finance.  This new position will take on much of the responsibility for the day-to-day administrative and financial functions of our community and will have the authority to do so.  Responsible directly to the Board of Trustees, the Director of Administration and Finance (DAF) will not have to check each and every decision through web of committees, councils, and strong personalities.  She or he will be given the authority to actually do the things we ask of them!

The Board has created a search committee, and this committee is now actively advertising this new opportunity widely.  It is hoped that we will be able to have interviews in September, with a start date in October.  If you know of anyone who would be -- or should be! -- interested in this position, please pass along the ad below.

This is an exciting first step of a tremendously exciting journey that will assist our congregation to be more fully what I've described as "a total-immersion language school of the soul."  (See my book Serving With Grace:  lay leadership as a spiritual practice for more on this metaphor for congregational life.)

I think that this is going to be an exciting year!

In Gassho,


Director of Administration and Finance
Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – Unitarian Universalist
Charlottesville, VA

Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – Unitarian Universalist (TJMC-UU) seeks a Director of Administration and Finance, starting at 30 hours per week, beginning in October 2012, to manage the administrative and financial functions of the Church under the direction of the President of the Board of Trustees.  Will oversee the daily operations of the Church business office, and supervise administrative staff, working closely with the Minister.  Responsibilities include: office management; budget preparation, controller duties, and financial management; oversight of IT operations; and facilities management. 

Qualifications: A degree in business administration and/or five years of managerial or significant professional experience in a non-profit (preferably religious) or a not-for-profit organization.  Excellent communication and interpersonal skills required.  Flexible office hours with some evening and weekend meetings and activities.  Background check required.

Salary based on professional standards and applicant qualifications.  Salary range: up to $ 30,938, with benefits.  Closing date: August 31, 2012   Please submit resumes and two references by email to: bevandjim5@comcast.net.  For more information, call 434-205-4087.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Who Made MeThe Jell-O Sheriff?

On one of Bill Cosby's early records he said something that has become legendary among his fans, and thanks to his years as a Jell-O pitchman among others as well.  I first heard it, actually, from a dear friend during my summer camp days. 

It's a question, really.  The kind of question you ask when someone acts like they've got some kind of authority you don't agree they have (like, for instance, when your brother catches you stealing the last pudding in the 'fridge.) 

"Who made you the Jell-O Sheriff?"

I've been thinking about this lately in relationship to my role in the church I serve and, for that matter, when I think of the role people like me play in congregations all over the place.  Yes, I am an ordained minister who has attained final fellowship within my ministerial association.  I have fifteen years of experience in parish ministry.  And I was duly called (by a unanimous vote!) by the good people of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist

But who made me the Jell-O Sheriff?

During this past year a great deal of work by a really marvelous task force went into a series of recommendations for the staffing of our congregation. One piece of this rather exciting whole is a new position -- the Director of Administration and Finance.

It's been decided that the Director of Administration and Finance will not report to me, the Lead Minister.  Rather, she or he will report directly to the Board.  Some thought that the Lead Minister should be the supervisor of this new position, as the ordained clergy person in many, if not most, of our congregations functions something like a CEO.  What finally swayed the day was the argument that one reason for creating the Director of Administration and Finance was to take those sorts of things off the plate of the Lead Minister, and if I was the supervisor of this new staff person we would, essentially, be putting all of that stuff back on my plate again.

In terms of an organization chart, then, the Director of Administration and Finance and the Lead Minister are on the same level, each of us with our own particular area of focus -- one on the "administrative" side of the church and the other on the "program" or, as some people would like to put it, the "spiritual" side of things.  Co-equal.

It makes sense, does'nt it?  And yet when I talk about it with folks -- lay people, other clergy colleagues -- especially if I use that word "co-equal" a lot of people freak out a bit.  It seems that there is an underlying assumption that the ordained minister should be the person who is ultimately in charge.

But why?  Who made us the Jell-O sheriffs?  What part of my divinity school training prepared me to run a non-profit organization?  What part made me an expert in religious education, or finance, or even volunteer coordination?  Do you want to know something about Biblical exegesis or church history, then I'm your man.  (Although you'd better come quick because a lot of that stuff is fading fast!)  But if you want to know about these other things then I've got to admit that while I've picked up a lot over the years pretty much I'm winging it.

So why not have a Director of Administration and Finance at the same organizational level as a Lead Minister?  (We might even change the later title to Director of Ministries.)  After all, isn't the congregation the ultimate authority in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, with much of that authority delegated to the Board of Trustees?  And since we already have a Director of Lifespan Faith Development, why not bring that position in line with the other "directorships" while we're at it?  And then there's the Director of Music . . .

In the movie The Big Chill there's a scene in which William Hurt's character has just said something that really shocked and upset his friends.  He replies, in his defense, "I was just trying to keep the conversation lively."  Perhaps it was my recent experience at the Canadian Unitarian Council's Spiritual Leadership Symposium, at which I was engaged to be a provocateur, but that is really what this post is about, too . . . keeping the conversation lively.

And so . . . let the conversation commence!

In Gassho,


Thursday, August 09, 2012

This preaching thing

This is a piece for all my preaching colleagues, all the folks -- both lay and ordained -- who get into a pulpit or in some other way come before a gathered community and attempt to say something meaningful.

Each Sunday at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia there is a time during our offering when folks are invited to text and tweet and update their FB statuses as a way to reach out to those not in the room with us.  Yes, folks are encouraged to go digital -- we consider it another expression of the offering. 

This past Sunday, here's part of what I wrote on our FaceBook page:

"This preaching thing is not always easy . . ."

It's not always easy, is it preaching pals?
This past week, for example, I had an idea, a vision, of what I wanted the sermonic exploration to feel like.  And it just wouldn't come.  I tried several different approaches, and each time I hit a new wall.  I just couldn't bring into existence what was so intangibly present in my head.

One of the elements I was weaving into the homiletic tapestry was the anniversary of Philippe Petit's legendary 1974 high wire walk between the Twin Towers in New York City.  Watching the film Man on Wire again I was reminded that Monsieur Petit and his accomplices had made an attempt to stage le coup once earlier, before that incredibly August day.  They tried, but they weren't ready.  They couldn't get the vision grounded enough (and, yes, that pun was intended), couldn't create what they could see, and, so, they postponed.  That's what I did this past Sunday -- postponed the experience I so want to create for a time when I'm really ready to do it.
This preaching thing is not always easy.

In the days since I have had another reflection on why this vocation of preaching can be so difficult.  I was listening to the incredibly Playing for Change CD Songs Around the World.  One of the tracks is a really lovely choral interpretation of the Bono/Bob Dylan song "Love Rescue Me."  The second verse really jumped out at me:

Many strangers have I met / on the road to my regret . . .

Okay, maybe that one doesn't really resonate all that much.  At least the "road to my regret" part.  But doing this ministry thing I have met a whole lot of folks who were strangers to me, at least when we met.  That's a part of it all, isn't it?  We who preach put ourselves out there in front of folks we know and folks we don't.  And even the folks we know may be in some place that's different for them this week than we've known them before.  And as Woody Allen's character said in The Front, "can we ever say we really know anybody?"

Many lost who seek to find themselves in me . . .
There was a parishioner in the first congregation I served who said this nicely.  "Clergy," he said, "are walking rorschach tests on which people project their feelings about religion."  Over time, of course, we cease being such strangers to our congregations, and they to us.  We get to know one another.  And, yet, it's honest to admit that there's a whole lot of projection going on . . . again, in both directions.  People look at their preacher and see not only her or him but also what we want them to be; what we think they should be; what all of our previous exposures to preachers, and church, and religion lead us to expect of them.  Folks see to find themselves in our sermons.

They ask me to reveal / The very thoughts they would conceal . . .
And this might be the hardest part of all.  The Rev. Ken Patton once wrote a sermon titled "The Prostitution of the Clergy."  He said that preachers are, in some ways at least, like prostitutes who, he noted, sell something precious -- their bodies and their sexuality -- for money.  Clergy, he said, sell something precious as well -- their spiritual lives.  The song hadn't been written yet, of course, but I think Patton would have agreed with Bono -- our congregations often ask us to reveal the very thoughts that they, themselves, would rather not express out loud, they ask us to go places, to look at things, that they would rather avoid.

This preaching thing is not always easy.

Love rescue me
 And that's the prayer, isn't it?  When overwhelemed by the enormity of the task, it does us well to look to that spirit of love, that spirit of life, which both holds us close and sets us free.  This preaching thing is not always easy, but it is so worthwhile.

In Gassho,