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.)