Monday, November 05, 2018

What Grounds Us?

This is the text of the reflections I offered on Sunday, November 4, 2018, to the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Sort of.  I preached from notes, so this is my best reconstruction of what I'd said.  (In places I'm sure this reflects more what I wish I'd said!)

In Yarmouth, Maine the area clergy would get together once a month for lunch.  At least they did while I was there.  I really hope they still do.  Those lunches were great.
We all got together for lunch once a month – same restaurant, same table, same waiter even, and same lunch order.  Every month we all ordered the same things we’d ordered the month before, and which it was pretty much certain we were going to order the next month as well.  (The funny thing was that each month the waiter would run through the specials anyway, knowing that none of us would order them; he’d come back at the end of the meal to ask if anyone wanted desert, knowing that none of us would.)
This regular routine was broken one month when one of us – I think it was the Pastor of the Methodist church – asked for Thousand Island dressing on his salad rather than his usual Ranch.  Well, pandemonium ensued.  Chaos.  The next month someone did order desert, and someone else ordered something entirely different than their usual.  One time one of us even ordered the special!  The best thing is that for once it wasn’t the Unitarian Universalist who bucked the system and broke with tradition – I really liked their fish and chips and never saw any reason to change things up.
But I digress.
This group of area clergy met each month, and we talked about all sorts of things.  Like I said, these lunches were great.  Yet it quickly became clear to me that this wasn’t really an interfaith group – it was an ecumenical group.  The difference is that in an interfaith group people of different religions come together; in an ecumenical group, the people who gather are from one or another branch of Christianity.  I brought this up to the group once, and asked if they realized that Unitarian Universalists are not a branch of the Christian family tree.  Oh, there are Christian Unitarian Universalists, and our movement is rooted in the so-called Judeo-Christian heritage, yet we aren’t merely some kind of “Protestant lite.”  We’re our own thing, our own distinct religion, just as Buddhism, Judaism, and Wicca are different religions.
This was apparently news to them.  My predecessor had apparently not thought it overly important to stress this distinction.  But I was fresh out of Divinity School, and a recent convert to Unitarian Universalism to boot, so I thought it was an important distinction to make.  I thought it was important for this group to recognize that “Christian” was not our primary language, and that they couldn’t even assume a theistic orientation of any kind.
The Pastor of the local Baptist church was particularly … intrigued.  He peppered me with questions.  Not in an accusatory way; he was sincerely interested in understanding us.  We even stayed around for another 45 minutes or so after the lunch had ended.
To try to illustrate our tradition, I used what I call, “The Mountain Analogy.”  Using theistic language – to make things easier – the mountain analogy says that we can think of God as a mountain, and that there are many paths to the top.  Most religious traditions say that there’s really only one, true path.  We Unitarian Universalists, on the other hand, say that each of those paths has its own trajectory, and that none can be called “the only” path.  Some may be easier.  Some may be harder.  But no one path is the only right one.
I can remember the Pastor asking, “What if the path you’re on leads to a dead end?”  I told him that from our point of view (again, using theistic language) God isn’t just at the peak but is the whole mountain.  So even if you get stuck in the parking lot at the bottom of the mountain, you’re still on the mountain, and why would any God worthy of the name care if you’re at the summit or the base?
“Okay,” he asked, “what if you come to a broken bridge, or find yourself at the edge of a cliff?  What then?”  “Well,” I replied, “I’d like to think we’re smart enough to turn around and go back, and then look for another path.”
We came to a point when we had to stop our conversation – he had a wedding rehearsal to lead and I had a memorial to facilitate.  In the parking lot, on the way to our cars, he said, “I’m going to pray for you.”  He quickly added, “No!  Not in the way you’re probably thinking.  I’m going to pray for you because … that sounds really hard!”
And it can be.
It was around this time that I came up with my rather erudite explanation of our faith – “a non-creedal, covenantal, post-Christian, religious movement.”
Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal, covenantal, post-Christian, religious movement.
Let’s “unpack that,” as we preachers like to say.
Non-creedal.  We don’t teach a truth.  We don’t hold that there is only one way of looking at the world, only one way of understanding of life. That’s us at our best.  At our worst we can be as dogmatic as anyone else.  I was talking with a UU once who said that if anyone wanted to have deep conversations about life’s meaning I should point them to him, because he’d known the truth since he was a teenager.  He was, shall we say, far from being a teenager now, so I said to him, “Hmmm … since you were a teenager.  Maybe it’s a little past time to take another look at those beliefs of yours.”  (The Trappist monk Thomas Merton once said, “If the you of five years ago doesn’t think the you of today is a heretic, you’re not growing spiritually.”  There’s also a bumper sticker I love – “If you can’t change your mind, how do you know you still have one?”)
I know that there are some people who think that we UUs do have a common creed, and they point to the Principles.  For many people, the so-called Seven Principles are a clear and concise statement of what Unitarian Universalists believe.  There’s even a little red card titled, “What Unitarian Universalists Believe,” and inside you’ll find the Principles.  They are:
1.      The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
2.      Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
3.      Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
4.      A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
5.      The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
6.      The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
7.      Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Right now there’s an effort to add an 8th Principle to that list:  journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.

Some people cite these as the things that UUs believe in, and there is an implied belief statement in there, but what these really are is a covenant.  This list doesn’t come from some theological tome.  It’s actually from the UUA’s bylaws, and it’s preceded by the statement that the congregations of the Association “covenant to affirm and promote …”  What’s important, what’s foundational for us, is not the shared beliefs reflected in those Principles; it’s the promise we make to affirm and promote them in our lives and in the wider world.
That’s a natural segue in looking at what it means to be a covenantal tradition.  In many, if not most, religious traditions the first question you’re asked is, “What do you believe?”  If what you believe and what we believe align, then you can be a part of the group.  That’s not our first question.  Our first question is, “What kind of world do you think this should be?  How do you think we should treat one another?”  If your vision aligns with the open and inclusive vision our tradition espouses, then why shouldn’t we join together?
Our second question has to do with belief – “What do you believe that has led you to that vision?”  For some people it’s because we are all God’s children, or because Christ died for our sins, and so we’re responsible for making heaven on earth.  For others, it’s because all things have Buddha-nature, and so we are all interconnected.  Still others don’t see anything but what our senses can observe, so if we (and our planet) are going to survive, then we have to find a new way of being together.  Asking about beliefs isn’t determitive of whether we belong, it’s inquisitive so that we can learn from each other.
To go back to that Mountain Analogy – if you climb up the north face, you won’t have any idea of what it’s like over on the south face.  And if I’m climbing up the south face, I won’t know anything about the vistas you’ve seen.  So we get together from time to time, sit around a fire, and share our experiences.  Like the wiggly creatures in the story, we tell each other about where we’ve been, what we’ve seen, and what we’ve done.  In this way, all of our understandings are enriched and expanded.
So … Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal, covenantal, post-Christian, religious movement.
Saying that we’re “post-Christian,” is not so much a theological assertion as it is a sociological one. We live in a society in which Christianity is no longer the center of the conversation.  Some people would like to change that, but for now it is true.  Scholars have long noted that American religion is essentially secular. 
In one of my classes we were taught that you can tell a lot about what is central to a society by looking at its cities.  During the middle ages, Cathedrals dominated – they were the largest, grandest, most ornate buildings.  Then, several generations on, government buildings that were the most impressive structures in a city.  Then it was the universities and other places of learning that took pride of place.  Today it’s banks and businesses, the “citadels of commerce.”  We live in a society in which religion is no longer the most important thing in that society, and it is in this sense that UUism is “post-Christian.”
Religious.  Yes.  This is a bit of a tricky one.  There are some say that Unitarian Universalism is the religion for people who don’t like organized religion.  The joke is that we’re not really organized.  Yet for many of us, it’s the word “religious” that’s the stumbling block.  That word carries some bad connotations for some folks.  Yet the word itself comes from the Latin root is “relegare,” which means to bring together, to bind together.  (Another religious word --  “worship” -- comes from the Old English weorthscipe, “to consider things of worth.”)  Ours is a religion – different and distinct from other religions, yet nonetheless a way to bring people together, and bind people together in community.
So … we’re a non-creedal, covenantal, post-Christian, religious movement.  One of our Universalist ancestor’s, when asked what Universalists stand for, said, “we don’t stand; we move!”  Some today might tweak that a bit to say, “we don’t stand; we march!”  (Just this morning I read a colleague describing Unitarian Universalists as, “not too sure about God, but absolutely certain about voting!”)
Yet, like the wiggly sea creature, just moving around isn’t enough.  Just moving around, going wherever the current takes us, passing one another going this way and that, is no way to make a community.  It’s certainly no way to make the Beloved Community we dream of (and work for).
So … what grounds us?
Less well-known than the Seven (soon, I hope, to be Eight) Principles the Association identifies Six Sources of our “living tradition:”
1.      Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;

We start by acknowledging our own lived experiences.  We’ve always said that our own discoveries about life are at least as important “scriptures” as those written thousands of years ago.  So we ground ourselves in our own direct experience of life.

2.      Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;

If we are only grounded in our own, personal, subjective experience(s), then we’re not really grounded at all.  My mentor used to say of us that, at our worst, our churches should take down their steeples and replace them with weather vanes, because we’re really just going wherever the prevailing wind happens to be blowing at the time.  To provide some balance, we also ground ourselves in the wise words and deeds of those who have come before us.

3.      Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;

We acknowledge that we are our own different and distinct religion, yet in doing so we don’t disparage any of the others.  Each represents a path up that Mountain, and there is wisdom in each.  One of the ways we ground ourselves is by seeking, and learning from, the truths others have discovered.

4.      Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;

Specifically, we look to the teachings of the Jewish and Christian traditions, because that where our earliest roots are found.  And this source doesn’t mean that we all find the word “God” and the notion of “God’s love” to be meaningful.  Rather, it asserts that it is in the teachings of these traditions about what they understand as “God” and experience as “God’s love” that we find strength.

5.      Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;

Many, if not most, of the signatories to the original Humanist Manifesto were Unitarian or Universalist clergy.  We recognize that the head is just as important as the heart in exploring issues of birth, and death, and everything in between. 

6.      Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

When we talk about affirming and promoting the principle of “the intereconnected web of all existence of which we are a part,” we do sometimes bump up against the dominant culture’s assumption that those last two words are really one.  This last source in which our religious movement is grounded reminds us that we are not apart from nature but, rather, are a part of it.  Our vision of Beloved Community is not, must not be, about human community alone.  We are part of a cosmic community, and this reality grounds us, too.
Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal, covenantal, post-Christian, religious movement, and we are grounded in some pretty powerful places.  And because our movement is grounded, we can be grounded, too.  We, as a congregation, are not just floating out there alone, being pulled and pushed by forces beyond us.  There is something we can hold on to.  And this is true for us as individuals, too.  Our faith tradition, our Unitarian Universalism, is a religious movement that can bring us together, and bind us together, and encourage our examination of things that really matter.  And if Rick, my Baptist pastor friend, were here right now, I would tell him that it is a hard way we travel.  Yet the views are spectacular!

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Leaves. Branches, Trunk, and Roots

This is the text of the reflections I offered at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, October 21, 2018

You can find it in the myths and folklore of pretty much all Mesoamerican cultures; it shows up in lot's of other cultures, too.  Hungarians called it, “égig érő fa,” the Sky-High Tree, and “életfa,” the Tree of Life.  To the Norse it was, “Yggdrasil,” the World Tree.  At the base of which was the pool of the wise woman Mimir, on which Odin sacrificed himself to learn the secrets of the rune stones and of magic, and into which Lif and Lifthrasir will be hidden during Ragnarök so that after all the destruction they might emerge as the first man and first woman and start it all again.  The World Tree motif shows up in religious myths throughout the world.  It is an example of the axis mundi, the center, the pillar, of the world and the cosmos, and it connects the heaves – which rest on its canopy – the earth, and the underworld – into which its roots grow.  In his book Creation of theSacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions, scholar Walter Burket suggests that because our ancient primate ancestors living in trees for roughly 60 million years, the idea of a world sustaining, life sustaining tree was coded in our DNA.

Trees aren’t just cosmic symbols, either.  At a tree planting ceremony I attended some years ago, the worship leader noted that a remarkably large number of people, if asked, could name at least one tree that held a special place in their hearts.  We went around the circle, and sure enough — everyone had a story.  For one it was about a tree that one of their children planted when they were in elementary school, and how they watched that tree grow along with their child until it, too, became bigger than the house.  Another person spoke about a tree on their grandparents’ property, in which they climbed when they were little, played in a treehouse when they were older, snuck out for a smoke under when they were older still, and how personal and painful it felt when that tree eventually had to be cut down.  I remember someone else talking about how, while visiting Sequoia National Park, they were deeply moved by the realization of just how old those trees were, and how much of history they had witnessed.  “If only those trees could talk,” they said.  Maybe you can think of such a tree.

The Trappist monk, Fr. Thomas Merton, once wrote, “Nothing has ever been said about God that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.”  (Nature has often been called “God’s other Bible.”)  Emerson talked about how being in the woods brought him to a profound spiritual place:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith.  There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair.  Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eye-ball.  I am nothing.  I see all.  The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

I’ve known many people who, when things are hard, find a tree to rest against, to feel through their backs its strength and stability.  Maybe you have, too.

This morning I want to explore this symbol, the tree, in an even more personal way.  But first, a little science:

There are five structures that make up a tree:  roots, trunk, branches, leaves, and seeds. 

Roots are usually the first part of a plant to emerge during germination, and they have two primary purposes:  to bring water and nutrients from the soil up into the tree, and to provide stability.  Some plants have roots that grow deep; others spread themselves wide.  In her poem “Connections Are MadeSlowly” (which is number #568 in our hymnal, and is also called, "The Seven of Pentacles"), the poet Marge Piercy reminds us that “more than half a tree is spread out under your feet.”

When I looked up the purpose of the tree trunk, what I found again and again was the simple statement that it’s what connects the roots to the canopy, the foliage at the very top of the tree.  It is the in-between.  You might be tempted, as I was, to think that this makes it the reason for a tree’s existence, since nutrients come down to it from the leaves, and up to it from the roots.  It is more accurate to say that the seed is the purpose of the tree, the continuation of the species, and so we come again to the role of the tree being that which connects the roots and the canopy.

There are four parts to the trunk – the bark, cambium, xylem, and heartwood.  The bark, we know, because it’s the part we see, the outermost part that, like our epithelial layer, serves to protect the more delicate parts inside.  And -- again, like our skin -- the outer bark is made up of dead cells.  I say “outer bark” because there’s an inner bark that’s quite a bit different.  It has its own name – phloem – yet it’s not consider a separate part of the tree.  The phloem is filled with, made up of, tubes, like drinking straws, and it is through these tubes that the water and nutrients the roots have taken from the soil pass up into the tree.

I’m going to skip over the cambium, the next layer, for a moment, and direct our attention to the xylem.  This is sort of like a reverse phloem.  The xylem is also made up of straw-like tubes, only these are what bring the food created by the leaves’ photosynthesis down to the rest of the tree.  Eventually, though, the cells of the xylem die, and it becomes part of the heartwood, the very center of the tree, a dead layer that provides the tree’s stability.

I skipped over the cambium, the layer between the phloem and the xylem, because, if I’ve understood what I read correctly, it’s made up of cells that can become either of those other two layers depending on the tree’s needs -- it can become phloem or xylem.  Like our stem cells, I suppose, the cells of the cambium become what’s needed of them, and in a very real sense they’re what makes the growth rings as the tree ages.

So that’s the roots and the trunk.  (And I promise, the science lesson will be over soon, but all of this is important background to get the most out of the tree’s symbolism as I want to talk about it this morning.)  The branches are the tree’s way of getting the leaves out into the sunlight.  That’s why they grow the way they do, twisting this way and that, growing around things, even getting entangled with other things.  Yet if you really look at them, they're always moving upward.  Branches are the vehicle the tree uses to move the leaves to the places where they'll get maximum exposure to the sun.  This makes it possible for leaves to work their magic of photosynthesis, turning sunlight, air, and water into sugar, the food the tree most needs.

And as I suggested earlier, you could say that the purpose of all of this – the reason for the roots, trunk, branches, and leaves – is so that the tree can produce seeds, whether in fruit, wings, cones, or husks.  The purpose of the tree is its propagation, the eternal perpetuation of itself, its species.

Okay.  So.  Here we go:

Let’s say that the trunk is us.  You, me; any of us.  We, like the trunk of the tree, live between the roots which go down (metaphorically, into the past), and upward to the leaves, the canopy (which can be seen as a metaphor for the future).

We draw on those who came before, drawing into us all the legacy they have left us: the strength, the wisdom, the foibles and follies, even the lessons we can gleam from their failures.  This inheritance nourishes us.  The image on the wall behind me [and above] may look like a traditional family tree, yet it is different.  It was designed with the special needs of adopted families in mind, because families created through adoption do not have a single path for their roots.  My children are connected to the ancestors of their birth parents, and even though we’re not related by blood, they are connected to my ancestors and those of my wife.  And their children, and their children’s children, will also have this wider lineage.  

Looking at the roots of a family tree in this way is good for non-adoptive families.  Each of us, all of us, have ancestors who support us, who provide us with sustenance, from whom we draw spiritual and emotional nourishment, who are not related to us by blood.  Next Sunday is our annual Ancestors Sunday service, a part of which is the creation of an ancestors altar onto which we place photographs, mementos, and other objects to recognize and honor these roots -- all of these roots.  (So remember to bring your objects with you!)

For us, today, we are the trunk.  We, too, have a layer of emotional and spiritual protection, and it’s often made up for the most part of assumptions, habits, and patterns of our past which no longer serve us.  Which, in a sense, are no longer really "alive."  This isn’t necessarily bad – these things have served us in the past, and they can still provide the protection we need.  But not always.  Sometimes we have to be like the Shagbark Hickory, certain varieties of Maple, and the White Birch, which shed their bark regularly.  It is a beautiful thing to come across these peelings which have exposed a new (and renewed) layer of protection for the tree.

It’s worth noting, too, that this outer layer largely made up of outmoded parts of our histories is intimately tied to the part of us which is drawing up the gifts of our ancestors.  They are not unrelated.  Together, they both help us to weather the … well … weather.

We also draw sustenance from our futures, odd as that might seem.  We, too, are here in large part for them, those who have not yet come.  I often say that our congregation must be strong and healthy now, not only for ourselves, but also for those who haven’t yet come.  Just as our ancestors planted this community 75 years ago, we, too, are preparing for future generations.

If we are wise, if we are grounded, then we also have a part of ourselves, a dimension of our consciousness, our hearts, our spirit, (call it what you will,) that adapts to the needs of the moment, helping us to discern what will feed us most, right here and right now.  Do we call upon our ancestors, our past, our inheritance, or in this instance do we really need to draw strength from the future?  Like the tree’s cambium, it is good to be able to adapt as needed.

Then there's the heartwood … perhaps that’s just what it sounds like, for in a very real sense it is our hearts which provide us with our greatest strength and stability.

Maybe you're already ahead of me.  Our branches are the ways we reach out to the warm glow of relationships.  We humans are a communal species; you and I were not built to go it alone.  Sometimes the route to real relationships is circuitous; sometimes we have to wend and wind our way to get there.  If we listen deeply and well, we will always be moving toward love.

Then there are the leaves, the interactions, the kindnesses done, the generosity shown, the gifts shared – these things make that love real, and make it possible for us to produce seeds that will live on.  A recurrent theme in virtually every memorial service I’ve ever officiated is that the person being remembered, mourned, and celebrated had lived a life that would live on in the memories, in the lives, of the people who remain.  Over and over again I’ve heard people say, essentially, that they intend to move forward from their loss with something of their loved one inside them, growing, shaping their futures.  And, of course, these same people talk about how they hope to pass these gifts on to their children, and their children’s children, and on through the generations to come.

Leaves, branches, trunk, and roots,
It takes all of the tree to be a tree.
If any part were missing,
Or different,
It could not be what is.
Neither can we.
Leaves, branches, trunk, and roots,
Where we came from,
Who we are,
And where we’re going
Is what makes us, us.

 May we learn the lessons of the trees.

Pax tecum,


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,