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")