Friday, November 21, 2014

In Remembrance ...

The other night I had a dream.

I'm in a large hall.  It's some sort of melding of a convention center meeting room with the dining room at Camp Quinipet (the Methodist Church camp that did so much good for me in my younger years).  The room is set up with tables, and I'm walking around with a plastic tub picking up people's dirty dishes.  The people here are an odd mix of parishioners and convention attendees.  I know that I am here as one of the presenters at this conference/event (although upon awaking I'd be hard pressed to tell you any details about what the event was).

Someone asks, "Since you're a Unitarian Universalist, explain why Communion is so important."

I continue bussing the tables, and I say:

"As I understand it, Communion isn't some kind of magical act.  In and of itself it isn't really all that big a deal.  Communion is a commemoration, more than anything else, and that's what makes it important.

It commemorates the last meal the Rabbi Yeshua had with his friends before he was arrested in Jerusalem, convicted, and crucified.  In some tellings of the story is was the night of the Passover meal, although not all accounts seem to agree on this.  What they do agree on, though, is that Yeshua sat with his friends at this meal and talked about what they'd done together and what might very well happen next.  Given the religious and political climate of the time, Yeshua's single-minded commitment to the preaching of "The Empire of God," as opposed to the Empire of Caesar, could really only end in one way.  And so these friends ate and they talked.  (In the apocryphal book The Acts of John, there is a lovely detail that after the meal the group went outside and danced together.)  And what we're told is that at some point during the meal Yeshua -- Jesus -- asked his friends to remember him whenever they ate together.

The earliest Communion meals were apparently just that -- meals.  Not just a symbolic wafer and a sip of grape juice, but a full-fledged meal.  Among friends.  Remembering this man who had been so in love with God that it seemed as though they were the same.  (As the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians put it, Jesus was someone who was experienced as, "all God's promises find their 'yes' in him.")  So Communion is not some empty, dry and dusty ritual -- it's an opportunity for people today to gather in community to remember people then gathering in community -- and all those in between who've done so -- to center their lives on Love."

"And this," I say, by this point with tears running down my cheeks and real emotion in my voice, "is why I think Communion is important."

I put down the tub with the dirty dishes, wipe my hands on the apron I'm wearing, and go to get a loaf of rugged home-made bread and a beautiful pottery chalice of wine  I initiate a Communion service then and there.  We sing together.  We eat together.  Love is in the room.

Sometimes dreams really resist interpretation, don't they?  And, of course, sometimes they don't.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Challenge of Good People Doing Bad Things

This past Sunday I preached one of the most difficult sermons I've ever had to preach in my nearly two decades of doing this job.  I don't think I've ever worked so carefully on my word choice and my phrasing.  I don't think I ever more carefully considered as many possible types of listeners, and how it might be heard by different people with different perspectives and experiences.  The topic was clergy sexual misconduct.

More specifically, it was about sexual misconduct decades ago by a clergy person who retired to the congregation I serve.  He had become a beloved member of this community, and while here had been a powerful preacher and pastoral presence.  He had been open with church leaders about the broad outlines of his history so I'd known about it, as had many others.  By all accounts he had done a tremendous amount of work to try to understand and overcome his addiction (which is what it certainly seems to have been).  He carried the memory of what he'd done 'till his dying day.

The challenge, as I saw it, was to someone explore "how to balance a belief in redemption with a belief in accountability."  Does a person's past misdeeds automatically and necessarily undo any good they've done and any growth they've had since?  Is redemption possible?  Can people change?

Bill Cosby is currently in the news with thirteen women accusing him of having drugged and raped them.  That's abuse, pure and simple.  That's criminal.  But he's Dr. Huxtable!  He's the jello guy!  Do we wipe away all the laughter and joy he gave to so many?  The philanthropic good he did?  The inspiration he gave?

Martin Luther King, Jr. is known to have had multiple affairs.  In fact, I recently read that on the night before he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel he'd been with "a woman who was not his wife."  Should we tear down the monuments that honor his leadership?  Should we stop quoting the "I Have a Dream" speech?

The 2010 book Gandhi:  naked ambition details a rather sordid side of the Mahatma that has rarely been discussed.  Is stayagraha meaningless because of this?  Do his accomplishments disappear in the light of these revelations (although like the aforementioned cases it has been known for quite some time)?

The filmmakers Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and, most recently, Bryan Singer have all been accused of sexual abuse, and as each incident has come to light the same question has been raised -- should we stop watching their movies?  Is their oeuvre overshadowed by their crimes?

Here at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist we wrestle with a similar conundrum.  Jefferson has a great many tremendous accomplishments to his credit -- not the least of which are the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom and, of course, the Declaration of Independence.  Yet we wonder if we should continue to honor this man who also has a very different legacy.  He was, after all, the owner of slaves, the author of some extremely racist ideas, and the illegitimate father of children he continued to hold in bondage.

Marie Fortune, founder of the FaithTrust Institute ("working together to end sexual & domestic violence") is also, arguably, the foremost authority on clergy sexual misconduct.  She recently wrote on her blog a piece titled, "The Message or the Messenger: a question of legacy" in which she explores this very question.  Her answer is essentially, yes, a person who preaches that "all men are created equal" yet who also believes it possible to own other men and rape at least one woman has lost his credibility.  Someone who preaches "the inherent worth and dignity" of every person, yet in their personal life degrades the worth and dignity of others, is not someone to honor.

She begins by looking at the case of Joshu Sasaki Roshi was a Rinzai Zen Buddhist teacher who was accused of multiple counts of sexual abuse.  She quotes Bob Mammoser, a resident monk at Rinzai-ji, as saying, “What’s important and is overlooked, is that, besides this aspect, Roshi was a commanding and inspiring figure using Buddhist practice to help thousands find more peace, clarity, and happiness in their own lives.”  Fortune goes on to ask, "What about the hundreds of Sasaki’s students who found chaos, confusion and suffering in their lives because of his sexual abuse?"  

It's a good question.  And a hard one.  As I said in my sermon on Sunday, "If there is an answer I don't think it is a simple one."  In words William Shakespeare put into the mouth of Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."  This is the way it no doubt often is, and there are many who would say that this is as it should be.  I'm not so sure.

I'm nearly always a both/and thinker.  And I think a challenge in this life -- perhaps the biggest challenge -- is to remain open to the reality of paradox.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote,

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?  Can we have compassion for the survivors of abuse and the perpetrators of abuse?  In his book Peace is Every Step, the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh includes a poem titled, "Call Me By My True Names," in which he identifies both with the injured and the one who causes the injury, both the abuser and the abused.  It sounds like the spiritually mature thing to do.  But is it the right thing to do?  Even with all the wrestling I've done of late, I honestly don't know.  Perhaps the answer is to be found in the living into the tension of the paradox.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Dog" is "God" Spelled Backward

Did you hear about the dyslexic agnostic with insomnia?  He spent his nights lying in bed wondering if there is a dog.

I was reminded of this old joke this morning.

I'd gone to bed last night in a seriously grumpy mood.  Seriously grumpy.

At 3:00 am our dog started barking, needing to go out.  This is not a common occurrence; usually he sleeps through the night.  Suffice it to say, I was not at all happy with this change of routine, so I woke up even grumpier than I'd gone to bed.  "God damn it," was, in fact, the phrase that jumped to mind (and came out of my lips).  So I got up, threw on a sweatshirt, got the dog, and went outside.

And it was glorious!  It was cold -- bracing -- the kind of temperature I really love.  And the sky ...  So many stars and so incredibly clear and sharp.  The words of Psalm 19 replaced my curses: 

"The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display God's craftsmanship."

And in an instant grumpiness turned to an awareness of grace.  And gratitude.  So much gratitude.

Several years ago I had what felt like a revelation -- that a perfect image of God is that of a puppy:  always wanting to play, always ready to lick your face, always ready for adventure, the embodiment of unconditional love, and greeting whatever happens with unbridled enthusiasm.  Last night I was reminded of this, and grateful that I have a dog in my life.  And God.

Pax tecum,


Thanks to the owner of the Waiting for ION blog at
Image used under Creative Commons License

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Egy Az Isten

435 years ago, Ferenc Dávid died in the prison in Déva, Transylvania, convicted of the crime of "innovation."  The anniversary of his death is marked as a holy day within the Unitarian tradition in Transylvania. 

Dávid Ferenc  — or, as he is known in the west, Francis Dávid  — was born into a world of religious conflict. The 16th century was a time of great religious upheaval. The Protestant Reformation was shaking the very foundations of western civilization. Religion and politics were so heavily intermingled that theological disputes often had as much to do with temporal power as they did with transcendent realities. The unity of the Christian church was torn apart: now there were Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists. New sects sprang up everyday and with more or less vehemence defended new ideas; old traditions fought back.

The concept of a separation of church and state did not yet exist and, so, these different religious traditions were often also backed by the power of the state.  It was a dangerous time for religious seekers.  In 1531, when Dávid was in his early 20s, the Spanish theologian Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Calvin’s Geneva with a copy of his book On the Errors of the Trinity tied to his leg (so that if he accidentally got to heaven there'd be no mistaking that he belonged in hell).

Dávid began life as a Catholic, eventually becoming a priest. As he encountered the ideas and ideals of the Reformation he embraced them converting, first, to the Lutheran movement, then, to the Swiss Reformed movement (which followed Calvin), and, finally, to Unitarianism. It tells you a lot about this man that he rose to the rank of bishop in each of these reformist traditions.

In 1568  the King of Transylvania, King John Sigismund, called together proponents of the major religions being practiced at that time in his kingdom -- Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Unitarians.  He gave each an opportunity to argue for the primacy of their tradition.  Dávid argued persuasively not only for the specific doctrine of Unitarianism, but for the freedom, reason, and acceptance which were the underlying principles of the movement. After this public debate, Dávid became the court preacher to King Sigismund, and had much to do with the king’s issuance of the Edict of Toleration which says, in part:
 “. . . in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel, each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well; if not, no one shall compel them, for their souls would not be satisfied . . . but they should be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall annoy or abuse the preachers on account of their religion . . . [nor] allow any to be imprisoned or punished by removal from his post on account of his teaching, for faith is the gift of God.”
Dávid was not the first to argue for Unitarian ideals, of course.  During the period of the "Christological Controversy," great church debates at the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople in 325 and 328 , the Unitarian, or Anti-Trinitarian, position was argued strongly, although it eventually lost out to the concept of the Trinity which became orthodox teaching. Yet this notion that “God is one” never completely went away, and throughout the centuries it resurfaced in various forms with such names as Ebionism, Sabellianism, Samosatenianism, Arianism, Photinianism, Socianism, and Unitarianism. Theologians such as Arius, Servitus, and Socinus argued its cause; communities like that founded in Raków, Poland in the mid-1500s sought to live by its principles. Yet it can be argued that it was in Transylvania that a Untarian church -- as an institution -- was born, and Dávid was its first bishop.

Dávid's theological understandings and teachings continued to evolve, and that's where he got into trouble.  After Sigismund's death, the tenor of Transylvania changed.  While there could be no rolling back of the religious freedom that had flourished there, Sigismund's successors declared that there could be no new teachings.  That things had to remain as they were.  Dávid -- Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, Unitarian Dávid -- could not more limit himself to his understandings of yesterday as he could stop breathing and, so, he was eventually arrested, tried, and convicted for "innovation."

As Unitarian Universalists today, we are heirs to this man's legacy.  May we do it proud.

Egy as Isten ... God is one.

Paxt tecum,


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Piece by Piece

When I was a kid my dad gave me a hammer.  I still have it.  I had it twenty-five years ago when the Berlin Wall was opened, and I took it with me when a friend and I flew to Berlin to be a part of its destruction.

One of the first things I did when I arrived in Germany was to purchase a chisel -- a meißel, I learned -- and I took my new meißel and my old hammer and headed off to Berlin.

What I saw there absolutely amazed me, and I know that I comprehended only a fraction of its true import.  All along the wall there were people chipping away at what was once an impenetrable barrier.  Families had once been separated by this wall, and people who tried to cross over it -- in either direction -- risked being shot.  Getting too close to the wall was to take ones life in ones hands.

Yet here were people as far as the eye could see, not only near the wall but actually breaking it apart with their own hands.  One of my German friends said that she had never imagined she would ever see something like this.

One of the things that astonished her was the reaction of the guards who were still patrolling the wall.  As they walked along people would back away from the wall and put their tools to their sides or under their coats.  And the guards would walk past without a word.  If someone didn't do this, if they kept on chipping at the wall -- which was technically illegal -- the guards would confiscate their tools and throw them over the wall.  But if people made the slightest semblance of following the law, the guards did nothing.  Even when people immediately began to strike at the wall again as soon as the guards had passed.  It was clear that they didn't want this wall there either, and although it was their job to prevent people from doing just what it was that we were doing, it was also clear that they were going to let it happen.

At one point a man came up to me.  If someone had been casting a cold war thriller and wanted to hire someone to play "typical East German man" they would have cast this guy.  Long black coat.  Black fur hat.  Beard.  Stiff, formal, and somewhat wary bearing.  He came up to me and asked if I would be willing to chip off a piece of the wall for him.  I proceeded to try to get him a good sized chunk.  When I finally did he asked how much I wanted for it.  When I looked confused he said, "Well ... you're American, aren't you?"  To which I replied, "Well ... it's your wall, isn't it?"  He then asked if he could borrow my tools so that he could do his part to break the wall down.  The mixture of pride, delight, and awe that I saw in his face as he did so will always stay with me.

Not too long after that the heavy machinery came in and began to take the wall down in big sections.  There are two here at the University of Virginia near where I'm writing this.  Those in power took over the project of dismantling the wall, but for a while ... for a while it was something that dozens, hundreds of average citizens had taken upon themselves to do for themselves.  Piece by piece.

Something to think about -- and remember.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, November 04, 2014

There is nothing new under the sun ...

When I was a kid I was a fiend for Monty Python's Flying Circus.  (Still am, actually.)  It came on at 11:30, and I'd stay up to watch, howling in the otherwise quiet house.  One night my dad came into the TV room just as Python was about to start and said that he wanted to see what I thought was so funny.  He sat through the entire episode, as I remember it, without laughing even once.  When the show was over I asked him how it could be possible that he thought none of what he'd seen had been funny.  He said, "I thought it was funny when Ernie Kovacs did it in the 50s."

At the time I thought that that was kind of a weird response, but later I experienced my own version of it.  When It's Gary Shandling's Show came on critics went wild.  They especially heralded his unprecedented practice of breaking the so-called "fourth wall" and talking directly to the camera.  And as I read reviewer after reviewer lifting up this cutting edge concept I kept thinking to myself, "but George Burns did that on the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show thirty years earlier"

This came to mind a couple of nights ago while watching the incredible fanfare surrounding Nik Wallenda's high wire walk in Chicago (brought to you with breathless hype by the Discovery Channel).  I don't want to take anything away from his accomplishment.  It was pretty cool, especially the second segment where he walked blindfolded.  And, as he said, he'd strung his wire higher than it had ever been in his family's roughly two centuries of wire walking.  None the less:
  • While his wire was strung higher than ever in his family's history, it was still only about half as high as the wire Philippe Petit walked in 1974.
  • We were told how his team -- of a dozen or so riggers -- only had two days (!) to rig the wire, which included guys lines that reached a thousand feet to the grounds and special hardware that was bolted into the buildings.  Petit's team of four people (led by Jean Louis Blondeau), not only had just one night to rig his wire, but had to do so while dodging police, with the time pressure of beating sunrise, with the need to secretly get the wire from one building to the other (they used a bow and arrow ... seriously!), and without the ability to to attach cables to anything other than the roof of the towers themselves.
  • After his first walk of about three or four minutes the hyper hosts and commentators wondered if Wallenda would have the stamina to do the second leg of the walk.  Petit was on his wire for forty-five minutes, making about eight crossings.
  • Both Wallenda and Petit performed their walks without any kind of safety gear but Petit, again at roughly twice the height, did not have trained rescue crews on the ready to rush out to him should he fall and catch himself to hang on the wire.
  • Throughout his walk Wallenda was in constant contact with his family and his team.  Petit was entirely alone up there, and those who had worked so hard to make le coup possible could only watch and hope.
  • Wallenda walked two wires -- one with a 19° incline and the other he walked blindfolded.  Petit, on the other hand made eight crossings, as I said, during which he knelt and saluted, sat down, and even lay down looking up, as he said, at a seagull flying overhead.  (And did I mention that his wire was twice as high as Wallenda's?)
  • A reported 65,000 people turned out to watch Wallenda's walk.  It was hyped in the media as an event not to be missed.  There were commentators, expert talking heads, and even a computer generated model of what the winds might be like.  In James Marsh's haigiographic film Man on Wire there is a moving picture of some of Petit's friends and co-conspirators looking up at the speck that was Petit on the wire.  There are a few people who have stopped to look up, too, but there are others who keep on walking, oblivious.  Yes, Petit undoubtedly wanted an audience, but it does seem as though the experience itself was the driving force.
  • And while I can not say this for certain, I cannot imagine that Wallenda's team had anywhere near the passion and devotion not just to the walk itself but to the adventure of doing something impossible (and getting away with it) and to the sheer artistry and beauty of this surprise gift to New York City.
Again, what Nik Wallenda did in Chicago the other night deserves to be celebrated.  It was an incredible feat.  But he is not the first to have done something like this, and I fear that there are those who know nothing about the history on which this act was built.  If it hadn't been for Petit's team, and Petit himself, walking between those twin towers forty years ago, no one would have even cared about something like Wallenda's walk.

Our history matters, and our pioneers should not be forgotten.

Pax tecum,