Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Eve Was Framed

Artist Unknown
This is the text of the reflections I offered on Sunday, October 7, 2018 at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.

There’s a joke I’ve always loved, but always have to look up to make sure I get it right.  When I looked it up (again) this week I discovered that in a 2005 poll in the UK it had been voted the funniest religious joke:

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: "Stop. Don't do it."

"Why shouldn't I?" he asked.

"Well, there's so much to live for!"

"Like what?"

"Are you religious?"

He said: "Yes."

I said: "Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?"


"Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"


"Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"


"Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"
"Baptist Church of God."

"Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"

"Reformed Baptist Church of God."

"Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?"

He said: "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915."

I said: "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him off.

There’s one thing everybody seems to be united on these days, and that’s the fact that we’re so divided.  Whether we’re talking about the country, a local community, our families … it seems that everybody’s taking “sides:”  Liberal and Conservative.  Women and Men.  Old and Young.  Pro-Kavanaugh and Anti-Kavanaugh. Laurel and Yanni.  (People who get that joke and people who don’t.)

It seems that we humans have always been tribal by nature, have always dichotomized “us” and “them.”  After all, we humans are social animals by nature, and we’re decidedly ill-quipped for living in isolation – ill-equipped both physically and by temperament.  We need one another.  By living in groups, with others, our ancestors were able to share resources, and were better able to protect themselves from threats.  And because we evolved in small groups, there was an adaptive advantage to being able to discern who is in you group and who isn’t.  “Us” and “Them” isn’t a new phenomenon.  At one point our survival depended on it, so much so that it’s as if it’s been encoded in our DNA.

And many people think that “religion” – writ large – is one of the most effective ways we humans have ever devised for perpetuating the perennial problem of partitioning the “saved” from the “damned.”  Look at all the religious wars that have ever been fought – that are still being fought – and you can see all the proof, if proof you’re looking for, that “religion” is dangerously divisive. Some say that it’s really religion’s only purpose. 

Last week I threw out my planned reflections because I couldn’t imagine not speaking to the blatant display of our culture’s misogyny that was taking place in those Senate hearings.  Coincidentally (or not) for more than a month it had been my plan to reflect this morning on the roots of sexism and misogyny in the Judeo-Christian traditions that can arguably be said to be the foundation of Western culture(s).  This week I read something that provides a clear bridge between these two explorations.  In defending Kavanaugh, and, more to the point, attacking Dr. Ford, someone tweeted, “What did you expect?  Women have been nothing but trouble for men ever since Eve gave that apple to Adam!”

There’s no question that the Jewish and Christian scriptures have been used in some grossly damaging ways.  The apostle Paulwrote to the fledgling church in Corinth, for instance: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.”  That’s just one example of what the Biblical Scholar Dr. Phyllis Trible described as “texts of terror.”  (Which is also the name of her important 1984 book.)  To take another example, this time from the Gospels, there’s a story told in the Bookof Matthew about a Canaanite woman who desperately pleaded with Jesus to heal her daughter.  Jesus is recorded as saying, essentially, that he’d come to save the Jewish people and that he wouldn’t waste a healing on a non-Jew.  (The text actually reads, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”)

And then, of course, you have Eve.  Most people know at least the broad strokes of the myth.  Adam and Eve were living in the literal, actual “Garden of Eden.” The character of God tells them that they can do anything they want, enjoy everything they see, but that the one thing they absolutely must not do is to eat any of the fruit from the tree in the center of the garden, the tree known as “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.”  Well, wouldn’t you know it, the Devil, in the form of a snake, convinces Eve (silly woman that she is) that it’s perfectly okay to eat that fruit, which, of course, she does.  And then she tempts Adam, so that he also breaks God’s one and only limit.  And for this, the two are unceremoniously evicted from the Garden, and we’ve been locked out ever since.

As if to overly reinforce Eve’s role in all of this – her responsibility for all of this – Biblical commentators have, over the centuries, said that Eve "tempted, beguiled, lured, corrupted, persuaded, […] urged, used wicked persuasion, led into wrongdoing, proved herself an enemy, used guile and cozening, tears and lamentations, to prevail upon Adam."  So, what do you expect?  Women have been causing trouble for men ever since Eve gave Adam that apple!

It's passages like these that have led many to argue – even many UUs to argue, even some UUs here to argue –  that religion is irredeemable, since it is forged in, and reinforces, patriarchy (among other things).  And it’s not just the Jewish and Christian traditions!  Even Buddhism, in its sutras, describes the signs of a Buddha – hair in a certain pattern, skin of a certain color, a particular type of genitals.  In other words, men only need apply.

I would argue that these are a perversion of religion’s truest, deepest message.  I love verse 49 of the Holy Qur’an, which says, “O humankind!  We have […] made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that you may despise each other).”  We’re different, yes, but we’re different in order to learn from one another.  Built into the fabric of the Muslim faith – and I’d argue the fabric of every faith – there is this sense that we are, as I’ve put it, “one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love.”

Dr. Trible’s book Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives is not just a litany of texts that have been used to oppress and subjugate, particularly, women.  It’s also an offering of ways to reclaim what she believes, as do I and many others, the underlying message of unity and equality, the real, foundational message of faith.

In literary studies there’s something called “the hermeneutics of suspicion.”  It says, essentially, to pay close attention to what a text doesn’t say.  So that passage from Paul in which he tells women to sit down and be quiet?  She’d say that it actually provides proof that in the early Christian church women were vocal leaders – why else would you need to tell them to sit?  And Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman in which he calls her a “dog”?  It continues with the woman responding that even dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table.  The story then says that Jesus stopped in his tracks, praised her faith (and, no doubt, determination and powerful sense of self) as being greater than any he had seen among his own people, and heals her daughter. Actually, he says that her faith healed her daughter.  The story can be read not as one of a man disparaging a woman (although that’s certainly in there).  The story really is about a strong woman changing Jesus’ awareness and the course of his teachings, because the author of Matthew records that from that time forward Jesus never again talks about his mission as being to one group only, but, rather, to the whole world.  Tribalism was replaced by a recognition of our common humanity.

What Eve?  That story can be read as showing women to be God’s ultimate creation, since she was created after Adam, just as he was created after the animals and was describes as superior to them.  Additionally, the text says nothing about Eve “tempting” Adam.  Instead, it says simply that “she gave some to her husband and he ate.”  Some say that like most parents, God knew that the prohibition against eating the fruit of that tree was the best way to guarantee that they would do so; that it was actually part of the plan, because “the knowledge of good and evil” is part of what makes us human.  We have the ability to discern right action from behaviors that hurt and harm, and with that knowledge we can consciously choose which to do.

There’s one thing everybody seems to be united on these days, and that’s the fact that we’re so divided.  And while that may have been an evolutionary benefit in the early days of our specie’s development, it is a danger to us today.  We are fundamentally social animals, and if we evolved in small groups, today we absolutely must recognize that we live on a very small planet, and that continuing to divide humanity into “us” and “them” will not keep us safe, it will guarantee our demise.

What will save us?  What the story I read earlier was all about – kindness.  One of our hymns has the line, “kindness can heal us,” and it may, in truth, be the only thing that can – whether on the interpersonal level or the level of nations.  “Each little thing we do goes out, like a ripple, into the world.” Ms. Albert said to her class.  “Each kindness […] makes the whole world a little bit better.”

Divisiveness may be encoded in our DNA, but thanks to the mythical Eve we can choose to continue to follow patterns that no longer serve to keep us safe and to, instead, embrace our common humanity.  We must learn that we are all of the same tribe.  And we must learn to be kind to one another.

Pax tecum,


Monday, October 01, 2018

A Reason to Hope

This is the text of the reflections I offered on September 30, 2018 at the Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve in Charlottesville, VA

TV writer Aaron Fullerton photoshopped an image from inside the room in the U.S. Capitol,
next to a dystopian government meeting in the show on Twitter
As I listened on Thursday to the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, I knew that what I’d planned to reflect on this morning had to be set aside.  This happens to preachers from time to time.  I’ve had it happen as late as while I was stepping into the pulpit.  I know someone who says that there’ve been a time or two when they finished composing their sermon when they sat down after delivering it.  I at least had a few days, which was time enough to pass a draft by other eyes and hearts.  I’m glad I did, because they saved me from my worst inclinations – to fill this time with statistics, and analysis, politics.  To avoid, in other words, literally the heart of the matter.  The statistics are staggering, yet it’s the stories and the women who tell them that really matters.
Before I go any further, though, I do want to say that while I won’t be talking in any kind of explicit detail, I understand that any discussion of the way(s) our patriarchal, misogynist society degrades and dehumanizes women might be a rough sermon for some people.  If you find these reflections bringing up painful things for you, please listen to your body and your heart; reach out to others for support.  Rev. Alex is available to listen, as am I, Leia, Chris, and members of our lay Pastoral Visitors.  Your Covenant Group might be a safe space.  Perhaps a close friend or a member of your family.  What I’m getting at is that if your feelings are too large to hold, and if it is all possible, please don’t try to hold them alone.
I also want to say, here at the outset, that I recognize the last thing some of you may want is another straight, white, gender-conforming man pontificating about something that he – that I – really can’t know much about.  That’s not quite right.  I can know, but I can’t really fully understand, can’t fully comprehend, because I’m a straight, white, gender-conforming man who grew up in this country during the last half century.  I know that the anger I’ve felt these past few weeks, the disgust, is nothing compared to the anger, the pain, sometimes the shame, the grief, the fear, the exhaustion so many women have had to carry for their whole lives … which many of you have had to carry.
Over the past year, since the #MeToo movement began, a number of women I’ve known have used Facebook and other social media platforms to tell the story of their experience of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault.  All too often it was their stories, in the plural, because so many had more than one.  These women courageously, defiantly, wrote about their experience — some for the first time. They wrote of being harassed, attacked, abused, and assaulted by strangers, friends, and family.  One friend of mine from high school had a list that began with harassment in elementary school and continued throughout her life.
None of this should have been surprising.  I know the statistics — most of you probably do too —they are … alarming (to say the least).  Yet I was surprised, and shocked, deeply saddened, and really, really angry that women I’ve known have had to suffer in silence for so long.  Have had to suffer with this at all.  That’s how oblivious I’ve been able to be — I’ve been able to see, yet not see.  The dominant misogynist, white supremacist, classist, heterosexist culture in which we live does such a good job of putting a clean and polished veneer on everything, and is expert at deflecting attention:
Don’t look too hard at those young black men being shot in the streets.  Call it an anomaly, a few bad apples — don’t see the systems this violence stems from and supports.
Don’t look too hard at the staggering — and increasing — wealth gap between those with the most and those with the least — don’t see the structures that guarantee this disparity.
Don’t look too hard at the mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, aunts, grandmothers, co-workers, teachers — all those women who have been … and are being … assaulted at a rate that’s equivalent to one act of sexual violence against a woman every 98 seconds.  Oh no, don’t look too hard at any of that, and especially don’t look at all the many, many ways ways large and small that women are harassed and abused on a daily, hourly, moment-by-moment basis.  These things won’t make the evening news, yet they work together to create the cultural context from within which some men can believe they have the right to treat women as less-than-human, and other men are able (even if unconsciously) to see the truth that’s right in front of their eyes.
In this room there are women who have stories they could tell, many of whom have no doubt never told anyone except, perhaps, a therapist or a very close friend.  I imagine that some of these women have lit Candles over the years.  These stories are most certainly among those things that have “gone unsaid,” for which we light that last candle each week.  So let me say what shouldn’t need to be said but might:  these stories — your stories — have a place in the sanctuary of our hearts.  To the extent it is possible, we see you, we hear you, and we believe you, even if you never say a word.
“Women” is not a monolithic category, any more than any other group is of one mind at all times.  The past few weeks have been hard in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons.  And the last few days?  The papers are saying that the nation was “captivated,” “riveted,” by the scene that played out in the Senate.  “Captivated?”  “Riveted”?  Those are words we use to describe action movies and thrillers.  “Sitting on the edge of your seat.”  Yet this wasn’t a performance.  This was just about as clear a distillation of our country’s dominant misogynist culture as anyone could want.  It was infuriating, nauseating, forehead slapping how-can-anyone-not-see-what’s-going-on – ing.  It was surprising and horrifying for those who’ve been able to avoid the truth of the way women are, and have been, treated in our society.  It was wearingly predictable for those who live that truth.
A week or two ago a member of the congregation stood during Joys & Sorrows to share that she had been remembering roughly 25 years ago, during the hearings concerning the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court when he was accused of sexual harassment by Dr. Anita Hill, she and her friends talked about how their generation was going to change things – they were going to raise their sons to reject the patriarchal/misogynist culture that was on such clear display in those hearings, and they would choose partners who already had.  That was in 1991, and here we are again.  It can feel – it does feel for many – that nothing has changed and that nothing is ever really going to change.  And that can lead some women (and some feminist men) to a kind of hopelessness, a demoralization born from decades upon decades of denigration and dehumanization.
There’s a school of thought which says that all sermons must end on a note of hope.  A preacher should send the congregation back into the world with inspiration.  I’m not sure that I believe that as strongly as some do, yet there is some truth in that.  And despite the way things seem right now, many of my female friends have told me that they take hop in the fact that “here” is not exactly the same as it was back then.  From the Women’s March, to the #MeToo Movement, to the predicted – hoped for –  “blue wave” (which shows every sign of being led by women , and especially women of color), there seems to be a wider and growing awareness today of what has for too long, by too many, been too ignored.  And there is a greater willingness to call things as they are or, perhaps, a refusal to let that truth continue to be ignored.
On Thursday the world witnessed a petulant poster-child for patriarchy bluster his was around the thing being unsaid:  that straight, white, gender-conforming men (and especially straight, white, gender-conforming men of means) are entitled to use and abuse women in any way that they like just as they are entitled to everything else in life.  Kavanaugh – and those male Senators who sat in judgement looking for all the world like the tribunal of Commanders in the Handmaid’s Tale – was a personification of the problem.
And there was Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who came forward to tell her story knowing the vilification that would be hurled at her like so much excrement.  She came forward – in front of the cameras, in front of the world – to speak clearly and courageously about the egregious harm that had been done to her, not only by this man, but also by the society which gave this man permission and which demanded of her acquiescence.
I asked one of my friends who’d shared her story online, sharing parts of it for the first time if she was okay, after sharing so publicly something that had until then been entirely private.  She said, simply, that she was ready to share.  And whether it’s in a Senate hearing on national television, on a person’s Facebook page, or with a hashtag at the end of a tweet, more and more women are finding themselves “ready to share.”  In numbers that would have been inconceivable not all that long ago, women are bravely telling the truth of this culture, the truth that so many just don’t want to acknowledge, and seems as though more people are willing, and able, to listen.  In that I pray we can all find some hope.

Pax tecum,


Monday, September 24, 2018

Members of One Another

This is the text of the reflections I offered to the congregation I serve on Sunday, September 23, 2018.

The various traditions and lineages of Buddhism disagree with one another as much as the different branches of Christianity do (or, for that matter, people who understand Unitarian Universalism differently).  These various traditions and lineages do share many common teachings, of course.  One of these is that all Buddhists — from no matter what specific tradition — vow to “take refuge” in the what’re called the Three Jewels (or the Three Treasures).  I’ll get back to just what those are in a moment.  First, I want to look at what it means to “take refuge.”

The dictionary definition of “refuge” is:  “the state of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or difficulty.”  You can trace its roots through Old French — where it meant, “a hiding place” - back to the Latin word refugiumre, meaning “back,” and fugere, meaning “to flee.”   In other words, the root understanding of “refuge” is that it is a place we can “flee back to,” a place to which we can return again and again and be assured of safety. 

In addition to doing my usual online research, this week I called out to my Buddhist friends Facebook friends.  Those who responded agreed that that’s pretty much their understanding of what “taking refuge” means in the Buddhist context.  I asked one of them if it’s about refuge from “the distractions and delusions that flesh is heir to.”  He replied, sagely, “Yup.”.  One of the articles I read put it like this:

The English word refuge refers to a place of shelter and protection from danger. What danger? We seek shelter from the passions that jerk us around, from feeling distressed and broken, from pain and suffering, from the fear of death. We seek shelter from the wheel of samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth.

So a Buddhist “takes refuge” in the Three Jewels, the Three Treasures — the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha.

Saying that I take refuge in the Buddha, a Buddhist I am saying that I turn to the Buddha for shelter.  I could mean the historical incarnation of the Buddha in young Prince Siddhartha roughly 26 centuries ago.  I could also mean the concept of “the Buddha,” the Buddha-nature that is in all things.  I could also be talking about a commitment to seeking out the Buddha within, for according to some traditions each and every one of us is, right now, a fully enlightened Buddha.  (Most of us just don’t know it, and few of our family and friends would confirm it to be so.)  To take refuge in the Buddha could mean any — or all — of these things.  What it boils down to though, is that a Buddhist recognizes “the Buddha” to be a source of shelter and safety from the bombardment we all too often find ourselves under.

Similarly, dharma can be understood in a number of different ways. It can mean anything from the specific, particular teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, to the deepest and most profound wisdom wherever it is found and however it is expressed.  Taking refuge in the dharma, then, is saying that when I am in danger of stepping off “the middle way,” I will seek safety in wise teachings.

The third of these refuges, the sangha, is the one I find most interesting, especially in the context of this community this morning.  “The sangha” is “the community,” and that can be as specific as the particular people with whom you practice, all Buddhists, or even all sentient — even all non-sentient — beings. That this is one of the Three Jewels surprised me.  Maybe it’s because the stories and images I knew best depicted the Buddha alone (on his own beneath the Bodhi tree, for instance).  I don’t know if any of you share this perception with me, but I had always thought of the Buddhist tradition(s) as a particularly solitary path.  That’s why I was more than a little surprised to learn that one of the Three Jewels that all Buddhists commit to taking their refuge in is the sangha, the community — that the community is on a par with the Buddha and the dharma in importance, and is understood to be equally efficacious as a place of shelter and support.

This is a community.  It’s a human community, of course, and we humans do not always live up to, in to, or out from our best selves.  Yet at our best, the members of this congregation — from long-time formal members to the most recent recurrent newcomers — at our best, the people who make up TJMC make up a community.  And one of the things that’s promised of the Beloved Community we strive to be is that we, too, can turn to this community as a place of refuge from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” which we find flying towards us with (at times) frightening frequency.  When we, as a community, are at our best, we provide a shelter for one another.

And yet …

And yet, if I want this congregation to become the true community I know it can be, I have to recognize that it can’t be all about me.  It just can’t be all about doing what I want to, when I want to, in the way that I want to.  It can’t even be about my getting my needs met all of the time because, to put it simply, you’re here too.  You’re here, and you have wants and needs, too.  And you’re wants and needs won’t always be the same as mine.  It’s possible that they’ll hardly ever be the same as mine.  It’s possible that your needs and my needs will conflict with each other at times, and when we bring that person into the equation, and that other person over there, then it becomes less and less likely that everything will be done the way I would do it, or that everything I want — or, again, need — will be done at all.

This is nothing new, of course.  This is no great revelation.  We all know that it’s not all about us; we all know that, to borrow a phrase, “[we] can’t always get what [we] want.”  We know this, we say this, yet it’s also true that the first time something doesn’t go my way, or the first time I feel that a real need of mine hasn’t been met (or wasn’t met in the way I thought it should have been), I forget all of that stuff about it not being about me because, gosh darn it, in this instance I think it should be.  After all, even though we all know that it’s not supposed to be all about any one of us, shouldn’t my wants and needs matter?

Now … let me just take a minute to say that I feel pretty certain there are some people who are thinking that I’ve been talking about them.  And I feel equally certain that there people who think they know what group or person I’m talking about, and I’d be disingenuous if I said that I didn’t have some specific examples in my mind as I worked on these reflections this week.  Yet it’s important to be clear that I was also thinking of examples in my own life, times when I’ve forgotten the “it’s not all about me” mantra.  (And believe me, there have been plenty of those.  Actually, a few current examples I hadn’t even been aware of came to light while I was writing.)  The deep truth is that if we’re honest with ourselves, none of us is immune to forgetting from time to time that while my wants and needs are most important to me, they are not necessarily most important to the community.

The Apostle Paul said in one of his letters to a fledgling Christian community that they should understand themselves to be “members of one another.”

[J]ust as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so […] we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

We belong to one another.  I belong to you, you belong to me, and we both belong to that other person over there.  There’s a hymn — #317 in our hymnal (we’ll be singing it at the end of the service).  It’s called “We Are Not Our Own.”  We are not our own.  The Vietnamese poet, peace activist, and Buddhist teacher, the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, created a term to express this deep interconnectedness – he says that we “inter-are.”  [Inter-are]  You and I “inter-are.” We belong to one another.  We are a part of one another.  Our very being depends on each other.  We cannot exist — at least, we cannot exist in deep, life changing, world changing community — without one another.  More than being “interconnected,” we “inter-are.”

And that means that when I come to this community one of the things I most fervently want, one of my own deep needs, is that you get the things you want and need.  One of my deepest desires is that you find your desires fulfilled.  Even if that means that I don’t get what I want and need.  This way, when things go your way and don’t go mine, I actually have gotten something that I wanted – I got your getting your needs met.

Of course, I most certainly hope that I will get my way … at least some of the time.  My wanting you to find what you want and need is only one of my own wants and needs.  And I’d be pretty foolish to stick around too long if things never went the way I want, if I never got my needs met.  Yet there is a corollary to my wanting you to get what you want and need even if, at times, that means that I don’t get my own needs met.  The corollary is that at the same time I’m thinking about you, you’re over there wanting the same thing for me even if you have to let go of some of your assumptions and expectations.  And that other person over there is hoping this for that other other person.  And so it goes.  Each of us deeply desiring the best for the other; each of us remembering that our own needs are only part of story.

Last week I talked about an aspect of the Beloved Community and said that it’s a vision of a community in which, “No one […] is considered […] less.  No one is considered, ‘Other.’  Each is recognized for the gifts they bring; each adapts to the other because we’re all kin.”

This morning I’ve offered another – a community in which we all know ourselves to be “members of one another,” who “belong to one another.”  The Beloved Community is one in which our needs are balanced with, integrated with, those of everyone else.  A community where we “inter-are,” where we recognize that our very being depends on the being of others.  A community which, for many, we already are.  A community I have no doubt we can ever get closer to.  A community in which we can indeed find refuge.

Pax tecum,


Monday, September 17, 2018


This is the text of the reflections I offered on Sunday, September 16, 2018 at the Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This morning I’d like us to explore two ideas:  marginalized community, and beloved community.  We hear both of these terms a fair bit, yet with one of them we have all too many examples to look to, and the other nowhere near far enough.  When I studied philosophy in college I learned that it’s really important to begin by defining your terms.  That way, when debate ensues, you can focus in on the concepts being discussed without having to spend a lot of time arguing over what terms you’re using to describe those concepts.  Over the past year in particular, it’s become very clear that I haven’t always done that here.  At least not well enough.  It’s clear that we haven’t always shard a same common of what we’re talking about.  That’s my fault, and it brings to mind Mark Twain’s cogent observation that, “The greatest obstacle to communication is the illusion that it has occurred.”

So … let’s unpack the term “marginalized community” a bit.  By “community” I mean a group of people who share some common characteristic.  (“Common” and “community” share the same root.)  As Unitarian Universalists – those of us who identify in that way – we share our sense of ourselves as UUs, and the rest of the world sees us as being UUs, and so we can say that we are a community.  Each of us is part of a myriad of communities, of course, because each of us have a whole lot of characteristics that we share with others.  And it’s impossible to really separate them, because they intermingle and intersect in our lives.  Yet it is sometimes necessary – a necessary artifice – to make our discussions easier.  So, while we are all part of various communities, it can sometimes be helpful to look at what it means to be part of a particular community.

The “marginalized” part of “marginalized community” describes a community’s relative position with regards to the center.  And who gets to decide what’s the center and what’s the margin?  The people in the center, of course.  And in the culture in which we all live, the center is occupied by people who look pretty much like me.  I’m a white, gender-conforming heterosexual male.  I’m middle-aged (because yes, I do expect to live until around 112!)  I have a good income – I’m not ultra-rich, but I’m certainly far from poor – and I have a lot of formal education.  I’d have to be a lot more wealthy, and a good deal more conservative than I am to be in the center center, yet for the sake of illustration I’m as close to the center as you can be. 

Everyone who isn’t one or more of those things is more or less further away from that center, and more or less closer to the margins of the society.  In our patriarchal, misogynist, rape culture, a woman is closer to the margins.  In a culture that is built on the depiction of gender identity as binary, a transgender or gender-fluid person is closer to the margins.  The less money, and the less formal education a person has, the closer they are to the margins.  A gay or a lesbian person, a person in a wheel chair, a very young or very old person – they’re all closer to the margins than I am.  And if someone is all of these things, and a person of color as well, that person is as far away from the center as you can get.

What’s true for these individuals, of course, is true of the communities of people who share one or more of these characteristics.  A “marginalized community,” is a group of people who the dominant culture decrees belongs not in the center, but more or less on the margins of society.  And the dominant culture does this in ways both explicit and implicit.  Take the marginalization of black and brown people as an example – tiki torch wielding white supremacists are clearly an embodiment of an explicit means by which the dominant culture – a culture that at its foundation holds that “whiteness” is in all ways superior, supreme – Jason Kessler and his ilk are explicit means by which the dominant culture reinforces itself.  Yet cultures also work in far more implicit, invisible ways, because cultures operate at an almost subliminal level.  All of us, to that extent, participate in and perpetuate the dominant culture of white supremacy because we’re so often not even aware that we’re doing so.  This is especially true for those of us who identify or are identified as white, but it’s true to some extent of everyone who lives within the dominant culture’s paradigm.  Even without knowing that we’re doing it, even though we are actively working to fight, to tear down, to undo the culture of white supremacy, it’s part of the air we breathe, the water we swim in, and we can’t help but take part in it.  Yes, even those like by far the vast majority of the people in this room who have spent a lifetime committed to a non-racist world, even people such as us unknowingly participate in and unwittingly perpetuate white supremacy. 

I think this is a part of what the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel meant when he said, “A few are guilty; all are responsible;” I know it’s what I’ve meant when I’ve talked about us as being “complicit.”  We can’t help but be, any more than we can help our breathing.  That’s why the work of undoing racism, or dismantling any of the kinds of marginalization our culture specializes in, requires of those of us who are further in toward the center an almost Herculean effort to learn, and keep learning, and then keep, keep learning to see and understand the ways we are infected by the cultural waters we swim in; it’s why the work of undoing sexism, and the dismantling of oppression in all of its ugly forms requires the less oppressed to change.  What’s required is not just less overt acts of racism, or misogyny, or the “othering” of people who have fewer resources; what’s required is a radical reorientation, a recreation of the wider culture.

Which brings us to the idea of the “beloved community.”  The term itself was apparently coined in the early 20th Century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce (who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation).  It was unquestionably popularized, though, by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (who, perhaps not coincidentally, was also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation).  It’s a term that we use, often, yet we don’t often talk about what we mean when we use it.  I know that I am not alone in lifting up the importance of those of us closer to the center of the dominant culture to work diligently to undue the marginalization of people and communities further “out,” if you will, and that the only way of doing so will require us to be discomforted, to be, as Dr. King also said, “maladjusted,” to be changed.  Which is hard; which we understandably resist; which, truth be told, when we really begin to experience directly (rather than abstractly) that discomfort, that maladjustment, that pain which always comes with change, when we really begin to experience all of that directly we often find ourselves pushing back against it, not really wanting to change all that much, if at all.

[There’s a great two-panel cartoon.  On the top there’s a drawing of a preacher saying, “Who wants change?”  Every hand in the congregation is raised.  In the lower panel the preacher asks, “Who wants to change?”  Silence.]

I’m not alone in lifting all of this up.  I’m also not alone in frequently forgetting to lift up at least equally as clearly why.  It’s so much easier to be focused on what we need to do than it is to remember why we need to do it. In part that’s because we often assume we all know why, that we all understand the why.  To paraphrase Twain, though, the greatest obstacle to understanding why we’re putting ourselves through all of this discomfort is the illusion that we do.

It’s also true that we have many more examples of marginalized communities than we do of beloved community.  That means that we see more clearly what needs to be changed, and far less clearly what it needs to be changed to.  In other words, just why we’re doing the work.

There is a rather remarkable example to be found, though, on Martha’s Vineyard Massachusetts in the 17th and 18th, continuing until, roughly, the 1950s.  Martha’s Vineyard at that time was not the tourist destination it is now.  It was largely isolated from the New England mainland, and some parts, like the village of Chilmark, were even isolated from the rest of the island.  This isolation was, at least in part, a reason that something truly remarkable happened there.

One of the early Europeans to move to Chilmark was a man named Jonathan Lambert.  He was deaf, and his children were born deaf.  The isolation of Chilmark, even isolated from Martha’s Vineyard as a whole, meant that nearly all of the families there were related to one another, and that the gene pool was not tremendously varied.  It was not long before there was a large deaf community.  To give you an idea of just how large – in the United States as a whole it is estimated that one in 5,700 people was deaf.  On Martha’s Vineyard it was more like one in 150.  In Chilmark, it was one in 25.

Still, even in Chilmark, those people who had a serious hearing impairment were outnumbered by the hearing community.  And the history of deaf people demonstrates that they have been a marginalized community – excluded from much of what might be called “mainstream” society because of “mainstream” society’s holding hearing as normative.  In fact, for a good bit of that history it was the practice to segregate people with hearing impairments into their own, isolated communities – “for their own good,” of course.

That’s not what happened in Chilmark.  Perhaps because the gene that caused the majority of deafness there was recessive, meaning that it would express itself in some members of a family and not in others, the deaf community and the hearing community were intermingled, and directly related to each other.  Nearly every nuclear family had both deaf and hearing members.  Separation, segregation, simply was not possible.  They were kin.

Back then, there was no unified “American Sign Language.”  There were, instead, regional variations, and there was a Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language.  But if the incidence of deafness in Chilmark was one in 25, the number of people who knew (and used) Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language was roughly 25 in 25.  Everyone used it, and not as an accommodation the hearing community made, but as an excepted necessity.  It couldn’t be otherwise.  There could be no marginalizing of the deaf.  There was only one community there. 

Hearing people used sign language even when there were no deaf people around.  (In my research I came across the wonderful detail that kids used it to talk behind their parents’ backs, and people were able to carry on conversations during Sunday morning sermons.)  Yes, of course, this “one community with no marginalization” picture I’m painting was true pretty much only in this regard.  Women were marginalized; people of color were marginalized.  Yet in this one perspective, which provides the illustration we need this morning, despite the differences between the hearing and deaf communities, there was no division.

And this, expanded further to include all of today’s historically marginalized groups, is the picture I hold in my heart of what beloved community is all about.  It’s the why of the what of my anti-racist, anti-oppression, multicultural work.  One community.  Only a center, no margins.  Yet this isn’t achieved in some kind of homogeneous way.  The differences that make life rich, and beautiful are still there.  No one, though, is considered the less.  No one is considered, “Other.”  Each is recognized for the gifts they bring; each adapts to the other because we’re all kin.  The village of Chilmark could not have worked, could not have survived without this erasure of the barriers that typically separated the hearing from the deaf.  So it will be in the beloved community – each of us, all of us, will recognize that our human community will not work, will not survive, without the erasure of all the barriers that have separated us one from another.

And this vision, this understanding of beloved community, a world in which no one is relegated to some artificially constructed concept of “margins,” is one that I think is worth the discomfort, the maladjustment, worth the pain of change that will need to be endured as we make our way to making it reality.  As we continue to encourage one another, and support one another, and strengthen one another for the what of it all, let us remain equally clear and mindful about the why of it.

Pax tecum,


Monday, September 03, 2018

Water & Community

This is this text of the reflections I offered on September 2, 2018, at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Water is pretty awesome.
50% - 60% of the human body is made up of water.  Did you know that?  50% - 60%.  And some 75% -- ¾ -- of the earth’s surface is covered in water.  (Some people say we shouldn’t call our planet “Earth;” we should have called it, “Water.”)  Life on this planet, at least, began in the primordial oceans, and biologists and chemists believe that only water and carbon are necessary for life to arise.  And not only is water needed for life to arise, it’s vital for life to continue – you can live for about a month without food, yet only for about 3 – 5 days if you have no water.
Water is essential.
And water is powerful, too.
As Leia just said, we’ve seen, both in the news and, maybe, even on our own roads and in our own basements, the dramatic power of water.
Yet water has another kind of power, too.  In Chapter 78 of the Tao te Ching, Lao Tzu wrote:
Nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet in overcoming the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal.
Has anybody ever taken some water in your hand and let it run through your fingers?  It’s clearly a fluid, it just flows out of your hand so easily, doesn’t it?  Yet anyone who’s ever done a cannonball –how many of us have ever done a cannonball? – we know that water can also be really, really hard.
Even in its fluid, though, it’s “soft and yielding” state, water is powerful.  The Grand Canyon, which in places is as much as a mile deep, was formed by the Colorado River cutting through the solid rock of the Colorado Plateau.  It took a while – roughly 6 million years – but in a game of rock, paper, scissors, water, water will always win in the end.
This morning we’re about to celebrate a ritual that Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country will also be celebrating as part of their In-Gathering services.  The water communion apparently began back in the 1980s, and we’ve been doing it here for a long, long time.
We line up.  Each one of us carrying a little contain of water, and we pour our water into this common bowl.  We do this, of course, to symbolize the kind of community we strive to create here – each of us bringing our own individual selves, together forming something more than any one of us alone.
Yet the water itself adds to that symbol, because it turns out that coming together in community is essential, just as water is essential.  Scientists tell us that people who don’t have community can’t sleep as well, have weakened immune systems, and higher levels of stress hormones.  Children who grew up without strong communities are in poorer health 20 years later than their peers who did have wider connections.  Loneliness can increase the risk of stroke by about 1/3, and it’s as damaging to our health as smoking.  (Even our Transcendentalist ancestor, Henry David Thoreau, knew about the importance of community.  During his experiment of living alone in the woods around Walden Pond, Thoreau would actually left his 10’ x 16’ cabin from time to time to go into Concord and have dinner with his friend Emerson.)
Community is essential.
And, like water, community is powerful.
The cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
The incomparable Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray once said, “One person plus a typewriter equals a movement.”  (For those who don’t know, a typewriter is an old-fashioned word processor.)  And while that is in many ways true, it is also true that the hundreds of thousands of people who participated in the Women’s March in Washington D.C., and the million or more who took part around the globe, would have had far less of an impact that if only one person had showed up.
Although our fiscal year begins in July, this really feels like the beginning of the church year.  Some of us traveled during the summer, others stayed around here but were busy doing a whole bunch of things, and a whole lot of people kept coming to church more weeks than not, yet the annual In-Gathering Water Communion service feels like our coming back together.
So, as we come back together, readying ourselves for another year of trying to live by our Unitarian Universalist principles; wanting to grow ourselves, make a difference in the lives of those around us, and help to heal the world; let us remember just what it is we are signing up for.  We are agreeing to bring our own, individual selves and to join with others in the creation of something that’s larger than any of us.
Because community is essential for life.
Because community is powerful.

Pax tecum,
Rev. Wik

(PS -- the Closing Words were an excerpt from the Marge Piercy poem, "The Low Road")

Monday, August 27, 2018

Surprised by Joy

Elwyn Brooks White, better known as E. B. White, may be best known as the author of Charlotte’sWeb and Stuart Little, or, by people of a certain age, the co-author of a little volume often called Strunk & White or, more accurately The Elements of Style.  (Some people shudder at the memory of it; others delight in its clarity and decisiveness.  Most are surprised to know that it was written by the same author who wrote Charlotte’s Web.)

For 50 years White was a contributor to The New Yorker, most often writing what the magazine calls "Newsbreaks" which are short, witty comments on oddly worded writing, under various categories such as "Block That Metaphor."  (I got some of my love of words from these pieces, which my mother delightedly shared with me.)  White won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for (in the words of the award), "his letters, essays and the full body of his work.”  He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963.
In my research I came across this description of White that I just have to share with you all.  James Thurber, who also delighted my mother and me, once described White as a quiet man who disliked publicity and who, during his time at The New Yorker, would slip out of his office via the fire escape to a nearby branch of Schrafft's to avoid visitors whom he didn't know.  Thurber wrote:
Most of us, out of a politeness made up of faint curiosity and profound resignation, go out to meet the smiling stranger with a gesture of surrender and a fixed grin, but White has always taken to the fire escape. He has avoided the Man in the Reception Room as he has avoided the interviewer, the photographer, the microphone, the rostrum, the literary tea, and the Stork Club [a trendy nightclub in Manhattan]. His life is his own. He is the only writer of prominence I know of who could walk through the Algonquin lobby or between the tables at Jack and Charlie's and be recognized only by his friends.
White and his family came to live full-time at their farmhouse on the coast of Maine.  By all accounts he loved his life on the farm, relishing the delights – and there’s that word again – of the natural world that surrounded him.  In fact, he once stopped in his barn, captivated, watching a spider spinning her egg sac.  That spider eventually became “Charlotte.”  The Newbury Award winning author Kate DiCamillo, in her foreword to Charlotte's Web, quoted White as saying, "All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world." All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”
I tell you all of this to give you something of the background of the man who said the quote that’s at the heart of this morning’s service:
“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
It’s also sometimes remembered as (and I prefer this version):
“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
There’s a condition known as “compassion fatigue,” or, “secondary traumatic stress.”  I’d wager that many of us, maybe most of us here, know at least a little something about it.  I cannot tell you how many people have told me that they’ve had to stop watching the news because they just can’t take it (especially since the Presidential election this past year, but honestly, for years and years before that as well).  We see:

  • The seemingly constant shootings of unarmed black men by police officers who too often face no charges;
  • The obscene income gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” – a gap that is growing, leaving far too many people struggling just to eke out the most basic level of living;
  • The rape culture in which we live and which is taken as the norm, apparently accepting (or ignoring) that a sexual assault occurs on average once every 2 minutes, and that one-in-five women will be raped at some point in their lives (a percentage that is significantly higher for women in LGBTQ communities);
  • The so-called school-to-prison pipeline, pandemic in communities of color, which can be argued to begin as young as preschool, where black children are roughly 3 ½ times more likely than white children to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions;
  • Environmental degradation so profound that many scientists think are nearing the point of no return, if we haven’t passed that already;
  • Utter disregard for any kind of civil discourse, or even belief in things like “facts;”
  • The intentional and explicit targeting of people in historically marginalized communities, rolling back any progress seen toward societal recognition of their full humanity;
  • The disintegration, here and abroad, of the building blocs of democratic societies;
Of course, I could go on (and on, and on), yet just hearing such a list threatens to burn out even more people.  I recently re-watched the movie Where the Wild Things Are, in which the wild thing Carol at one point angrily shouts a litany of things that are wrong on their island, among which he includes the fact that the sun is dying and will have essentially burned out in something like 5 to 6 billion years.  The point?  Live is hard.
And I haven’t even brought up all of the local, personal tragedies and traumas we face – people we know who have just received serious health news, or our own receipt of a serious prognosis; the death of loved ones; accidents with catastrophic consequences (and even not so catastrophic ones); job loss or insecurity; addictions; divorces …
I could go on with this list, too, yet the point is the same:  life is hard.  And there is so much that is wrong with the world that many of us wake in the morning desiring to save the world.  Or we go to bed nearly broken by the secondary traumatic stress we find ourselves having to endure.  It’s as if the world itself, as if life itself, is one of J. K. Rowling’s Dementors – creatures who drain “peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them.”  The world we live in threatens to such the joy from our lives, and has already done so in some cases.
There’s a story from the Buddhist tradition which tells of a mother who’d just gone through the death of her child.  Distraught, overcome, she seeks out the Buddha, whose teachings are said to be “medicine,” and begs him to bring her son back to life.  The Buddha tells her that she must bring him a mustard seed from a house that has known no suffering.  The woman goes door to door, asking for a mustard seed, but when she asks if there had ever been any suffering there, at each home she is told of some difficult thing the family had had to endure at some point.  After going to all of the houses in her village, the woman, undaunted, begins to visit neighboring villages, yet her experience is always the same.  Over time, though, the woman’s frantic desperation begins to be somewhat tempered by the kindness of the people she meets, the empathy and care she experiences, the evidence that even despite their sufferings the people she visits have gone on with their lives.  Finally, the woman returns to the Buddha.  “Have you found the seed from the house that has known no suffering?” he asks.  “I have found no such home,” she replied, “yet I now know that I am not alone.”  “That is good,” the Buddha said.  “I can not return your dead child to life, but I can return your life to you.  Go in peace.”
The Protestant theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote:
"You are alive. It needn't have been so. It wasn't so once, and it will not be so forever. But it is so now. And what is it like: to be alive in this maybe one place of all places anywhere where life is? Live a day of it and see. Take any day and be alive in it. Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter. It is your birthday, and there are many presents to open. The world is to open."
“[T]here are many presents to open.  The world is to open.”
E. B. White was born in 1899, and died in 1985.  During those years he certainly saw how painful, how cruel, how hard life can be.  He saw wars, the civil rights struggle, the Great Depression.  He knew how much the world needed saving. 
And yet …  (Those who know me could have guessed that there’d be an “and yet” before we were through here, right?)
White knew how hard life in this world can be, and yet he also knew life’s wonders.  And so, he arose each morning “torn by the desire to save the world and to savor the world.”  For years I’d thought that it was this phrase, this seeming conundrum, that was the important point of thiS quotation.  I’ve lately come to realize that it’s actually what I’d thought was the throw-away that is the point.  I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”  This makes it hard to plan my day.  He is talking about making an active, conscious choice.  A choice he makes each day.  He knows the world needs saving – oh how we know that too, we know so, so, so many ways that our world needs us to work for its salvation.  He also knows how worthy the world is of being savored.  And he is torn, as so many of us are.  Yet he also knows that it is within his power to choose where he will put his focus.  He gets to plan his day; it isn’t planned for him by either the savoring nor the saving.  And so it is for us, too.
It’s not easy, but as Buechner said, nobody claimed that it would be “entirely painless.”  That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though.  And I’m going to tell you this morning — and remind myself — that it’s absolutely possible.  We … can … choose … day-by-day … whether we have the strength today to save, or whether we need to restore ourselves with a little savoring. 
One last thought:
While it’s true that we often need to make a choice, we don’t always.  Sometimes that savoring can be part of the saving.  In fact, you might say that sometimes the ability to savor the world saves the act of striving to save it from completely burning us out.
A few weeks back I told the story of the activist Emma Goldman, who is remembered as saying “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”  It’s more likely that what she actually said was something more like, “what’s the point of a revolution if you can’t dance?”  Either way, the point is the same.  When we’re involved in the work of striving to save the world, when we’re knee deep in the effort to address the ubiquitous injustices we can’t help but see all around us, it is essential that we take – that we make – the time to dance, sing, laugh, savor.  Rev. Alex put it really well last week:  “Pick your tool, if you have not already. And continue your work, side-by-side. And, sing some work songs while you are at it.”
Look around you.  The people you are sitting with, and most likely you, yourself, are people who are involved in the work of making the world a better place, have been involved in that work … some of you for a very long time.  Look around you.  [Seriously, look at the people around you.]  Drink in their beauty (remembering to remember your own, of course).  Let their commitment(s) inspire you.  There are so many good examples in this room of people committed to making this world a better, more just, more love-filled place.  Savor one another.  And then let’s back the work of saving this hurting, beautiful world.

Pax tecum,