Thursday, March 27, 2014

Why I'm In Favor Of Religion…

Recently someone I respect re-posted what I can only call a rant on her Facebook page. After commenting on the ways the religion he grew up in taught him that he was not okay, the author ended with this:

"This is why I am so outspoken about religion.  It's not enough to say I'm and atheist and that I simply don't believe; I am anti-religion and what it does to peoples' lives.  Life is about us, we make our own choices, and this time on Earth is OURS.  Make the most of it."

I would like to offer something of a rebuttal. Or, at least, an alternative perspective. I would like to speak for all those people — including me — for whom religion has been a source of comfort, strength, and inspiration.

The religion I know, or what I think of as religion, tells us that we are worthy, we are loved, and that we are part of something huge and miraculous. Yes, it also tells us that we are "sinners," but by this it only means that we are fallible, that we make mistakes, we make wrong choices, and that we do things, and think things, the block us from manifesting our deepest and truest selves.

I know that some people would insert God here. They would say that we do things, and think things, that block us from our union with God. I happen to find that that language makes sense to me. Yet I don't believe it is necessary for the fundamental truth to still be true. However you phrase it, the reality for most of us is that most of the time we are not "all we can be." We are untrue to ourselves, and who we really are. Most of us, most of the time, do not live up to our own ideals much less the ideals of anything we might call "God."

But that doesn't mean we should feel shame. After all, if this is true of everyone why is it shameful for it to be true of us as well? This is not some kind of condemnation or curse, it is simply a description. It's like saying "we breathe air." "We make mistakes." "We are sinners." "We do not live true to our most authentic selves most of the time." Can anyone really argue with that?

And let's talk about "god" for a minute. As I've heard it said, when the Buddha was asked if there is a God, he said, "this is a question that does not tend towards edification." In essence his argument was this: if there is a God, how should we live our lives? We should do as much good as we can for others, and strive to do the best we can for ourselves, in order to please this God.

And if there is no God, how shall we live? We should do as much good as we can for others, and strive to do the best we can for ourselves, because this is the only life we have.

The question, then, is not, "is there God"? The real question is, "how do we live a good life"? Religion, at its best, strives to help us answer that question. And I think it's always important to remember that "religion" is not a monolithic concept. It is not synonymous with "Christianity."there are all kinds of religions — from Atheism to Zoroastrianism.

That's right. I classify Atheism as a religion.  I do so because -- as I understand the term, at least -- "religion" does not have to do with any particular theological statements (or lack thereof).  The term "religion" comes to us from the Latin relegare which means "to bind together."  Religion, then, is that which helps us make sense of life, which helps us to order our own existence, which connects us to others.  By this definition, then, that poster's "Anti-Religion" is, in an ironic twist, his religion -- it helps him to make sense of the world and his place in it; it helps to order his thoughts and actions.  That's what religion does.

I will readily concede that a whole lot of truly horrible things have been done in the name of religion -- both to individuals and to whole groups.  No question about it.  There's no way to rationally deny it.  But here's an analogy:  say that someone of about my build got into my house one day and stole some of my clothes, and then stole my car.  Say this person then went on to commit a series of robberies and was caught on some grainy security video.  The police, quite naturally, might come to my house, since the robber was wearing my clothes, was about my weight and height, and was seen to be driving my car.  Their mistake would be quite understandable, but what if they decided to prosecute me anyway?

I would argue that there has been a lot of horrible things done in the name of religion, but that that's not the fault of what for want of a better term I'll call "true religion."  That was the doing of "impostor religion."  "True religion" inspired and strengthened Nelson Mandella, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  "True religion inspired the Beregan brothers.  "True religion" inspired Rumi and Hafiz.  Look at virtually every movement for social change and you'll find religion there, often leading the charge.

I am deeply offended by what "religion" has done.  I am compelled by what I know religion can do.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Thinking About My Words

One of my new favorite bloggers is Pastor Jonathan Martin of Renovatus: A Church for People Under Rennivation ("Liars, dreamers, and mystics" they call themselves.). He recently wrote about words, saying:
I look around and see all these words falling—crashing out of orbit around my head.  I have loved these words lustily, but I have not been greedy with them.  They are all I have, since I cannot make anything with my hands like a useful person.  I cannot build anything with brick and stone that can outlive me.  I cannot make anything tactile anyone can hold or feel, anything rough or smooth or with any texture at all. 
Yet, I distribute these words like a street vendor to anyone who will take them.  I have rarely sold them. They are cheap and they are easy to shape.  I give them forms like balloon animals, some in the shape of sermons, some in the shape of books, in the shape of small talk, in the shape of 140 characters or less.  I spit on them, sweat on them, bleed on them, cry on them.  I give some away too recklessly and some far too cautiously. 
I like this because I, too, work with words. My parents instilled in all their children a deep love of them, and "when I grow up" I want to be a writer. 

I already was thinking about words this morning as it turns out, before Brother Martin's words about words tumbled into my lap. I was thinking, in particular about all the words on FaceBook, and my tendency to add to them, almost without thought. 

That's really what I was thinking about -- how often I speak, write, post, tweet, blog without thinking. I found myself wondering what it'd be like if I didn't.  Or, I guess, if I did -- think first, that is. 

Can you imagine only posting to FaceBook if it really mattered?  Not just to ... well ... you, but actually mattered? Made a difference?  Could you imagine that?  

It's been said that the purpose of ministry is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." So what if that was the measure by which we judged our posts and tweets?  

Will this picture of my new puppy comfort anyone? Challenge them? Change the quality of their lived experience in anyway? Maybe so; maybe not. But isn't that a good question to ask myself before I posted?

Will my profound ruminations on what I had for breakfast make a difference in anyone else's life? If not, why should I take up airspace with it?

I would never want to suggest that there is a cut and dried, set in stone, bifurcation of what can and cannot be posted. Some breakfasts are indeed encounters with the holy. And sometimes, someone's picture of their cat, or of someone else's cat, has given me great joy and comfort when I needed them both most. Yet I do wonder if such a question — does this really matter? — Is a good question for me, and maybe you, to ask ourselves more often. 

Pax Tecum ,


Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Time to Mourn

Fred Phelps, the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church — you know, the one that said "God hates fags!"and made a name for itself picketing so many funerals — died today. Many of my friends and colleagues are discussing whether or not they feel compelled to forgive, or to mourn and his passing. Some say they hope he will rot in the hell he seem to so enjoy sending others too. Some say that hate should not be met with hate, and that the loss of any human being is a loss.

I find myself having a different response. I find that I greet the news of his death with a certain amount of relief — from here on out, Westburrough Baptist Church will not have Phelps' leadership to push it to ever greater depths. (It seems as though they don't really need his leadership, though, since they have even managed to find inspiration to vilify their leader in death. Apparently in his latter days he called for members of the congregation to at least treat one another more kindly. Even that expression of humanity, however small minded, seems to be too much for this "church" to bear.)

Yet I do find myself wanting to mourn. I mourn, not his death, but his life. I mourn the hatred he expressed, and the hatred he inspired. I mourn his example of a humanity so small, so scared, so unable, or so unwilling, to see the beauty of the whole. I mourn, too, the possibilities of a preacher who could so powerfully move people — what if he'd been preaching inclusive love rather than exclusive hate?

In Westboro's theology, God didn't just "hate fags." Several years ago, they produced a video in which they sang to the tune of "We Are The World" "a song that went "God Hates The World." (One of the scariest and sickest things I have ever seen, to be honest.)  I morn all those who had their theology, and their worldview, warped and twisted by this man's so-called teachings.

And of course, most of all, I mourn for all those whose lives were made that much more difficult, that much more painful, and filled with that much more fear, because of this man and his "ministry."

And so, today, I mourn. But I do not mourn Fred Phelps' death.  I mourn his life.

Pax Tecum,


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

My Bondage and My Freedom

On Sunday, March 16th I preached the following sermon at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.  In my mind it is part of what I call our Jefferson's Legacies Initiative, programs and efforts recognizing that our name gives us much to champion, but also an imperative to work for the eradication of the racism and oppression that can be directly linked to the system of enslavement in which he participated. 
 If you want to hear this sermon, it will be podcast on our website.

“Sincerely and earnestly hoping that this little book may do something toward throwing light on the American slave system, and hastening the glad day of deliverance to the millions of my brethren in bonds—faithfully relying upon the power of truth, love, and justice, for success in my humble efforts—and solemnly pledging myself anew to the sacred cause,—I subscribe myself, Frederick Douglass. Lynn, Mass., April 28, 1845”
Seven years before the 1852 publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influential anti-slavery novelUncle Tom’s Cabin, and the publication the next year of Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, Frederick Douglass published his first autobiography, Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.  Ten years later, in 1855, he published his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, which gives this sermon its title.
I don’t generally give what in some circles are appropriately called “book report sermons.”  I don’t subscribe to the “lecture and concert” theory of Unitarian Universalist worship.  But I’ve got to tell you – while I knew Douglass’ name, of course, what I’ve learned about his story while preparing for this morning has astounded me.  I’m hoping it will astound you, too.
The man who came to be known as Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, sometime during 1818, most likely in February.  At the beginning of his Narrative Life he said, "I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it."  He had no clear memory of his mother, either, because it was the custom in the part of Maryland he was from to separate a mother and her children as soon as possible.  He said he never even saw her “by the light of day” because while she would lay down with him to help him to sleep she would be long gone by the time he woke up.
He was moved from one “owner” to the next – and I put “owner” in quotes because, of course, no human can actually own another, no matter what some have thought.  When he was twelve he had been given to a man named Hugh Auld and his wife Sophia.  An appropriate name, actually, because Sophia taught Douglass the alphabet, even though it was illegal to teach enslaved people to read or write.  When her husband discovered what she’d been doing he strongly disapproved, and offered what Douglass later referred to as the "first decidedly antislavery lecture" he’d ever heard – he said that if a slave were to learn to read he would become discontented with his situation in life and begin to long for freedom.  Truer words were never spoken, and it was in this encounter, perhaps, that set in place Douglass’ life-long belief that, as he put it, “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.”  It is known that on his own Douglass learned to read and to write from watching white children and the men with whom he worked.
When he was hired out to a man named William Freeland – a rather ironic name this time – he began to teach the other enslaved people on the plantation to read and write.  The enslaved on other plantations heard of these lessons and would come to the Sunday School Douglass had begun, as many as 40 at a time.  While his own so-called owner didn’t seem to mind what was happening in the Sunday School, other plantation owners did, and one day they burst in on the assembly with clubs and stones.  Shortly thereafter, he was moved to the farm of a man named Edward Covey, whom Douglass described as, “first rate hand at breaking young negroes."
Now bear in mind – all this happened before Douglass was sixteen years old!  And it was this young man’s youthful and rebellious spirit that Covey tried to break.  Douglass endured countless beatings and whippings at Covey’s hand, but eventually he fought back.  He literally fought back, fighting both Covey and his cousin for over two hours before finally emerging victorious.  Covey never beat him again after that.
Douglass had tried to escape when he was with William Freeland, and he tried again when he was with Edward Covey, but he was never successful.  In 1836 – when he was eighteen years old – Douglass met a free Black woman named Anna Murray.  She had seven older brothers and sisters who’d been born into slavery, but her mother had been manumitted just before Anna’s birth, so she and her four younger siblings were born free.  She and Douglass fell in love, and she helped him, finally, to escape the enslavement.  (Their daughter Rosetta would later remind people who idolized her father that his was a story, “made possible by the unswerving loyalty of Anna Murray.”)
Of his newfound freedom, Douglass would write, 'I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.  Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.”  He sent for Anna, and the two were married just eleven days after he’d arrived in New York – it was September 15, 1838. 
September 15th – that’s the day my son Theo was born, 163 years later.  A lot has changed in that time, yet not as much as we – and especially we white folk – would like to believe.  As recently as this past week a man named Jim Brown, who was running for Congress in Arizona’s 2nd District, wrote on his FaceBook page,
“Back in the day of slavery, slaves were kept in slavery by denying them education and opportunity while providing them with their basic needs … Not by beating them and starving them.  (Although there were isolated cases of course.)  Basically slave owners took pretty good care of their slaves and livestock and this kept business rolling along.”
I don’t know what infuriates me more, his assertion that “slave owners took pretty good care of their slaves,” or his casual equivalence of “slaves” and “livestock,” or that he’s still out there on the campaign trail and might still have the opportunity of serving this country in Congress.  How much has changed, really?
I recently read, too, about a teacher in Ohio – who was, thankfully, suspended after this incident – who allegedly responded to one of his African American students who had expressed the desire to one day be President, “We do not need another black President.”  The teacher denies the allegations, of course, but can we deny that such things are being said, are being thought, around the country.  When President Obama recently sat down for a mock, comedy interview on the internet showBetween Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis as a way of promoting the Affordable Care Act to a demographic unreached by the usual media, one the host’s classically inappropriate and uncomfortable questions was, “So … what’s it like being the last Black President?”  (To which Mr. Obama replied, “What’s it like for this to be the last time you talk with a President?”)  But you know people are thinking it.  You know people are wishing it.  You know that people are actively organizing and working to ensure that there never will be another person of color in the White House.  You know it.  How far have we come, really?
Back to Douglass – he became fervent speaker on the Abolitionist circuit.  William Lloyd Garrison became both an inspiration and an ardent supporter. Yet when his first autobiography, Narrative Life was published people were skeptical that a black man could write such an eloquent book.  (It reminds me of all the commentators who fell over themselves in 2008 to say how eloquent then candidate Obama was.  Remember that?)
As his reputation grew there were those who feared that Douglass’ so-called “owner” would try to get his “property” back, and so he was encouraged to go abroad and speak in Ireland and England as other free African Americans had so successfully done.  Of this experience, Douglass wrote:
"Eleven days and a half gone and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle [Ireland]. I breathe, and lo! the chattel [slave] becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people—I reach the hotel—I enter the same door—I am shown into the same parlour—I dine at the same table—and no one is offended... I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, 'We don't allow niggers in here!'" 
I want to be clear that I’ve intentionally chosen to retain Douglass’ own language there not only for historical accuracy but because I want this to be uncomfortable.  I want it to be painful.  It can be so easy to hear all of this history in an abstract way, in a distant way, in a disconnected way.  And that, perhaps, is often the lecturer’s way.  But I’m a preacher, and this is a sanctuary, and we’re here for a sermon.  So all of this background, all of this history, is to bring us to this point – whether it’s the story of Frederick Douglass, or Solomon Northup, or Harriet Tubman, or Sojourner Truth, or (closer to home) Isaac Jefferson, or Sally Hemings (of whom there is no known image, although this may be one of her daughters), these are stories that need to be told, and retold, and engraved in our memories and on our hearts because unless we do we are really all still enslaved to them, whether we know it or not.
Michelle Alexander’s powerful book The New Jim Crow makes an extremely strong case that there is a clear progression from the oppressions and dehumanization of slavery, to the Jim Crow laws that followed on the heels of slavery’s nominal end, to the current system of mass incarceration which overwhelmingly and, she argues, quite intentionally targets people of color.  Slavery kept Black Americans out of public life, as did Jim Crow, and today an African American woman or man who has served time as a result of “America’s War on Drugs” can find themselves legally stripped of the right to vote, can be denied housing and public assistance, and can find it nearly impossible to get a foot in the door in the job market because of that one question on most application forms – have you ever been convicted of a felony?
We need to hear these stories, and tell these stories because it is so important that we remember – when we are in our own private despair or lose strength for the struggles that still need to be waged – we need to remember that despite the most oppressive of beginnings a person likeFrederick Douglass, or Malcolm X, can rise to accomplish astonishing things. 
I thought of Malcolm X while I was reading about Douglass and tried to imagine the conversations they might have.  I was struck by their mutual insistence that education was the key to freedom, and then about how much history, and truth, has been lost and denied as a result of oppression and suppression.  And it’s not as if racism stands alone.  Racism, Classism, Ableism, Sexism, Heterosexism, and so many other “isms” beside, are all ways that some of us keep others of us in perpetual second class status, keep others of us as always being “other.”
Douglas knew this.   Back in the 1800s he was saying things like, “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”  He fought for the rights, for the equality of African Americans, women, Native Americans, and recent immigrants.  He was even nominated, without his approval apparently, to be the first African American to run for Vice President as the running mate of Victoria Woodhull on Equal Rights Party ticket of 1872.  (And Woodhull’s an amazing story in her own right, but that’ll have to wait for another day.)
Here’s a cool fact – in 1848, at the Seneca Falls Convention at which Elizabeth Cady Stanton asked the delegates to pass a resolution asking for women’s suffrage, the convention was far from unified.  And then a 30-year old Frederick Douglass, the only African American in attendance, rose and spoke.  He said that he could not accept the right to vote as a Black man if women were denied that same right.  He said, “In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.”  The resolution passed.
These are stories that need to be told, and retold, and engraved in our memories and on our hearts because unless we do we are really all still enslaved to them, whether we know it or not.  In the words of Emma Lazarus, who also composed the poem that stands at the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” She said this a few years after the time we’ve been talking about, and it’s a refrain lifted up again by President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fifty years ago, and they are still true today. We must always remember.  We must never forget.  And we must ever keep moving.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Of Moses and Me ...

I must confess ... sometimes the sermon I write turns out to be the wrong sermon.  That happened with the one I worked on for this past Sunday -- "Go Down, Moses!"  I worked hard on it; thought about it; developed it.  And then, when I'd committed most of it to paper I realized that it wasn't the right message for the service.  And rather than change the service, I changed the sermon.  I wrote another one.  But I still had the original idea(s) floating around my head -- and saved in DropBox -- so I decided to turn it into a blog post.  This blog post, in fact.  And, so, here is the sermon I didn't preach on the subject of Moses and the Exodus:

First, a little backstory.  It was Joseph, son of Abraham, who really got this story started.  Or maybe it was his brothers.  But you may recall that Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him and decided to do what older brothers often want to do – they decided to kill him.  At the last minute, though, the come to their senses and “merely” sell him into slavery.  And that brings Joseph to Egypt.

Joseph’s story is filled with as many plot twists as an episode of Scandal, but suffice it to say that he eventually becomes the right-hand man to the Pharaoh himself.  And when, thanks to Joseph, Egypt has weathered an economic collapse (aka, a famine) much better than any of the surrounding nations, people from all over flood in for aid.  Including Joseph’s family.  And that’s what brings the nascent Hebrew people to Egypt.

Over time the Israelites do well for themselves and they become quite numerous.  And as long as Joseph is at the right-hand of the Pharaoh, or as long as Joseph is remembered by the Pharaoh’s successors, things are okay.  But eventually there comes a day, as the Bible tells us, in which a new Pharaoh does not remember Joseph, and everything goes to hell pretty quickly.

The exodus story proper begins with this Pharaoh wanting control over all these now undesirable “others.” He condemns them to slavery.  And then he increases the brutality of their enslavement.  Yet apparently even that wasn’t enough for him, so he orders that the midwives who attend to Hebrew women should kill every male child as it was being born.  And then there’s one of the great acts of civil disobedience on record – the midwives refuse to do this, and explain their failure to follow the Pharaoh’s edict by saying that the Hebrew women were too strong and too healthy and were always giving birth too quickly for the midwives to get there on time. 

But this doesn’t stop Pharaoh.  He just changed his decree, and now ordered that every newborn Hebrew male be thrown into the Nile to drown.  When Moses was born his mother had a different idea, so she threw her son into the Nile … in a basket so that he might live.  (It’s worth noting, I think, that many, many years later another King – Herod – orders that all Jewish boys be killed and that another savior – namely Jesus – was himself saved from such a fate by his parents.  Not only that, but there’s the irony that Jesus’ family go to Egypt to ensure their safety!)

The plan worked.   Moses lived.  And he was found by the Pharaoh’s daughter who took him in, ensuring not only that Moses survive but that he would thrive in a life of privilege.  He grew up a member of the Pharaoh’s household – you might say that he had the opportunity to “pass.”  While his people suffered in slavery he experienced endless freedoms. 

But one day he witnesses and Egyptian overseer mistreating a Hebrew slave, and Moses couldn’t take it.  He intervened on behalf of the outcast, the oppressed; he intervened and killed the Egyptian, burying his body in the desert so that no one would know.  The next day, however, when he saw to Hebrew men arguing he tried to mediate, but they looked at him and said, “What?  Are you going to kill us now?”

So Moses took off.  He ran away.  Oh his own, by himself, of his own accord he’d tried to do something to ameliorate the suffering he saw around him, tried to do something to redress the wrongs the oppressor had done to the oppressed, but it was too much for him to take on.  He flinched.  He hightailed it out of Dodge and tried to put the whole thing behind him.

Jump ahead a bit.  Moses is in a comfy situation in the nearby state of Midian.  He’s married.  He’s got a family.  He’s got a good job with his father-in-law, and he’s doing pretty well for himself.  He’s become a man of substance, a success.  And while it’s not the luxury he knew in the Pharaoh’s palace, at least out here he could forget about all that injustice in his homeland.

But one day …  and that’s a motif, really, throughout the Bible’s stories.  Things are going along normally, life seems solid and stable, “but one day” …

One day Moses was out tending the sheep of his father-in-law when he decided to take them to a new grazing area.  And then he saw it – a bush that appeared to be on fire but wasn’t being consumed by it.  And even if you didn’t know any of that other stuff you probably know this – out of the fire the voice of God spoke to Moses by name and called him to go back to Egypt and free the Hebrew people.

So let this sink in for a minute.  Imagine yourself in Moses’ sandals.  You were raised in a life of privilege and freedom.  You’ve taken this life for granted.  It’s all you know, yet all around you there is untold suffering.  And then one day – there is that motif again – one day you realize that you really have more in common with the oppressed than with the oppressor with whom you have identified for so long.

It would take some serious soul searching, wouldn’t it, before you’d know how to respond, right?  It’d take some serious shuffling of perspectives and assumptions.  It’d take a radical reconstruction of the way you see the world, right?

As I began writing this I was well aware of the way(s) in which the story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from their bondage in Egypt was a powerful story for the enslaved people in early America.  It’s not for nothing that famed Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman come to be called, “the female Moses.”  This story had profound resonance for African Americans in those days.

And when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr spoke about having “been to the mountaintop” yet perhaps not being able to “get there” with his people, he was making a clear reference to the exodus tale, as Moses also viewed the Promised Land from a mountaintop yet was never to set foot within its borders.

So, as I said, as I began writing I was well aware of the many ways this story was evoked, and how it provoked, the causes of African American freedom and equality throughout our nation’s history.  What I hadn’t realized until I reached this point, is that Moses can be a powerful model for Euro-Americans who are doing – or want to be doing – anti-racism/anti-oppression work.

As we’ve seen, Moses was raised in luxury and privilege.  And because of his status he no doubt never really questioned it – the way his life was was the way life should be.  He was aware, certainly, of the plight of the enslaved Jews, and poor Egyptians as well, yet it seems reasonable to assume that if he thought about it much at all he’d have thought that his lifestyle and life-experiences were the norm and that these “others” were aberrations.

Isn’t this very much like what has been learned about the state of White Americans?  Speaking as one, haven’t we been raised in (at least relative if not outright) luxury and privilege.  Yes, of course, poor White Americans still suffer from poverty, and there are some extremely successful Black Americans.  Yet it is also true that if you compare poor Whites and poor Blacks, and wealthy Whites and wealthy Blacks, the lives of these Black Americans are generally more difficult than their White counterparts.  And, so, White Americans can understand Moses’ mindset as the story begins to unfold.  We know (to some extent and, again, at least relatively) what it’s like to live in Pharaoh’s house.

And then there comes that moment when Moses sees the Egyptian overseer beating the enslaved Hebrews, and it is no longer possible for him to ignore the injustice.  He has to act.  And at least among Euro-Americans who are working for racial equality, wasn’t there usually such moment?  Wasn’t there usually some encounter, some discussion, some acquaintance, some event that made action all but inevitable?  So we can relate to Moses here, as well.

And then … Moses runs away.  Rather than try to do something about the injustice he has now seen, he turns his back on it.  Pretends it doesn’t exist.  His freedom included the freedom to ignore the enslavement of the Hebrews, to close his eyes to their oppression.   Which is what a lot of well-meaning White folk do as well. This pattern is so pervasive that it led Dr. King to say, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

But then there’s Moses’ fateful encounter at that Burning Bush.  For him it was the voice of his God, for us White Americans it could be so many different things, but many of us, too, know the experience of something that changes us.  Changes the way we look at ourselves and look at the world.  Changes us so that we not only oppose the oppression of others but that we come to identify with the oppressed.  That we see, as Moses did, that the enslavement, the oppression of “others” but of “our people,” for we are one human family, after all.

And then we, too, if we’re brave enough, go back to Pharaoh, whom we know so well because we grew up in the Pharaoh’s household, and demand that he free those whom he has enslaved.  We acknowledge the role that we, ourselves, have played in “their” oppression, and we declare our decision to stand with “them” until there is only “us.”

Two more thoughts here.  First, it’s worth noting that Moses responds to God’s call by arguing that he’s not the right guy for the job.  He says that it’d take an eloquent orator and that he stutters.  He says that his brother would really be a better fit.  He says, “Really, God – couldn’t you find someone better than me?”  

The answer, of course, is, “no,” and that’s the answer we will receive when we wonder aloud (or to ourselves) whether someone else might be better suited to the task of undoing racism and ending oppression.  Nope.  It’s up to you; it’s up to me.  Again, speaking as and to White Americans, we’re the ones who are going to have to do this.  Only a member of Pharaoh’s own household will have access to Pharaoh, and only one who has herself or himself experienced the privilege of the oppressor can demand the release of the oppressed.

The second thought is this – it took ten times, for Moses to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrew people go.  And in between each attempt there were some awful plagues that came upon Egypt, and yet the Pharaoh refused to budge until it got really personal.  In the story it was the plague of the death of every firstborn child and animal in Egypt that tipped the scales.  In the United States in the early 60s it was the images from the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, or of the rubble of the 16th Street Baptist Church that broke open the hardened hearts of most of White America.  (And, of course, there are some hearts and minds still walled off, which is why there’s still work to do.)

This work is not easy.  It is not comfortable.  Change will not happen overnight – nor can we say it has already come.  Some, yes, but far from all that is needed.  And it will never come if we who’ve lived in Pharaoh’s house are unwilling to step out of that house so that we are both insiders and outsiders.  Yet the promise of the exodus story is that change will come eventually.  Freedom cannot be stopped up forever.

Let’s commit to doing what we can to help that day come sooner.

Pax tecum,


Thursday, March 06, 2014

Giving Up Ourselves ...

I think I'm finally beginning to get the hang of this "social media" thing.  I've had FaceBook down for a while now, and I've been learning the benefits of Twitter.  And while I've been writing this blog on and off for a while now, it's only recently that I've begun to really regularly read other people's blogs.  (Thank you Feedly!)

One that I've been enjoying is John Shore's.  His tagline is "Christianity With Humanity," although I really enjoyed his earlier tag which was something like, "Trying God's patience since 1958"  (That's what really hooked me when I first came across his posts.)

The other day he posted a lovely and, to me at least, powerful piece about Lent:  "Giving Myself Up For Lent."  He wrote:
"Along with meat and alcohol, this year for Lent I’m going to give up something else. Insofar as I can, I’m going to give up myself.
I’m going to give up my ego. My self-identification. My drive to make something of myself, to be someone, to matter. I’m going to try to give up the whole idea of myself as a separate, independent being in the world—as a person who has any real existence at all outside of the awesomely fearful sacrifice made by Jesus Christ on behalf of all mankind (including, even, me)."
I know that that last line is one that'll give some UUs pause.  After all, not all of us are Christians, and not even all those who identify with Yeshua ben Miriam put much emphasis on "the awesomely fearful sacrifice made by Jesus Christ on behalf of all mankind."  But I'm going to encourage you to put that resistance on hold for a moment.
Whatever you feel about "God," whatever you believe about whether there is or is not some "sacred something," can we agree that there is a dimension that is bigger, greater, larger than our own small ego-self?  Don't think "deity" -- or, at least, don't let such thoughts get in your way right now.  Don't think Grand High Poobah.  Ask yourself if you are the center of all that is, if you are the be-all and end-all of existence.  If you think so, then you really have to ready John's piece and try to let it sink in.  As my colleague Barbara Merritt once put it, "Whether or not we believe in God, we must realize that we ourselves are not God."  (That's in her chapter on "Adversity" in the excellent Skinner House anthology Everyday Spiritual Practice: simple pathways for enriching your life.")
Yet even if you don't think you're God -- or, as I once put it in a sermon, "think you're at least applying for the job" -- John's primary point is worth pondering.  Is your "self-identification," your "drive to make something of [yourself], to be someone, to matter" helping you or hindering you in your efforts to live fully a life of peace and authenticity?  Does your "idea of [yourself] as a separate, independent being in the world" get in the way of your making deep connection with everything else in the world?  Does it make it more or less difficult to really see yourself as "a part" of the "interconnected web of being"?

One of the reasons so many of us find it so difficult to be open to "The Other" (whatever that "Other" might be for us) is because we are so bound by our perception of our own selves and the value (overvalue) we put on them.  As our Christian kin mark the Lenten season, perhaps we, too, can make of it an opportunity to "give up ourselves."

Pax tecum,