Jesus … A Zealot?

On July 26 last year, Fox New’s Lauren Green did an interview of Reza Aslan, author of Zealot, that many people found offensive. She questioned his ability as a Muslim to write a book about Jesus. Aslan pointed out that he is a scholar of religions. He wondered why she questioned that a scholar of whatever faith could research and write such a book. The interview went viral on the Internet and did a great deal to stimulate the sales of the book. (Makes me hunger for a similar interview for the book the Rev. Wayne Arnason and I edited titled Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism. I’d enjoy being indigent as I’m asked how can two Unitarian Universalist ministers say anything about Buddhism.)

Still, Aslan waded into a stormy sea of research, speculation and controversy that has been navigated for the last several hundred years by many Biblical scholars of impressive credentials and accomplishments. Yes, Aslan has three graduate degrees but not focused on Biblical research.

One is from the University of Iowa where he studied creative writing (the subject he actually teaches at the University of California, Riverside); the second was a two-year masters degree at the Harvard Divinity School, where he concentrated on Islam; and his doctorate was not, as he indignantly told the hapless Green, in “the history of religions.” Rather, he wrote an exceedingly brief sociological study of “Global Jihadism as a Transnational Movement,” at UC Santa Barbara. (From excellent review in Jewish Review of Books by Allan Nadler)

Still, I’ll give him credit for the research he has done which is a lot more than I have. I bought the book before that interview because I knew Alsan is an engaging writer. After the interview I felt much more motivated to open it and read it which I have now done.

I’ve also read some more scholarly critiques of the book. While reading them pick it apart and huff and puff about this or that book he didn’t reference, I remembered what he wrote in his introduction:

Granted, writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth … is somewhat akin to putting together a massive puzzle with only a few of the pieces in hand; one has no choice but to fill in the rest of the puzzle based on the best, most educated guess of what the completed image should look like…Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed.

That is true of Aslan as well I’ll say. He also notes in his author’s preface that every argument he makes will likely be both supported and refuted by an array of scholars.

The basic problem here is the very scant first person evidence scholars use for their work. Much of what we know about the flesh and blood Jesus (and some even doubt that he existed at all) comes from suspect sources. None of the Gospel writers knew Jesus personally, saw him perform miracles or die on the cross, let alone come back from the dead. The letters of Paul are some of our earliest sources and he is utterly uninterested in Jesus-in-the-flesh. He is only interested in the Risen Christ he has directly encountered and whose message he preached to Hellenized Jewish followers of Jesus scattered around the Roman Empire.

The literate people who recorded the events of the day that have been preserved didn’t write much about the territory then called Judah. It was a backwater of the Roman Empire, more of a distraction than a focus for the emperor. The first non-Chrisian independent source is the Roman historian Josephus writing about the Jewish Wars. We can learn a lot about the Jewish rebellion from Rome in this book but precious little about Jesus or the Jesus movement. Almost all the sources we have come from the Christian tradition and not so friendly Rabbinical commentary in the Talmud.

Most of what we have is not from impartial observers just looking for the facts. They had a different idea about telling a story. The documentation of the life of Jesus had the purpose of proclaiming him as a savior. The stories and quotes were selected to serve that purpose. If any counter narratives were quoted, they were edited and corrected to support their purpose. The Gospel writers purpose is to support the hearer’s faith in Jesus the Christ not to let you make up your own mind based on the evidence presented.

But scholars are very clever at teasing what they think was closer to the truth out of the edited and embellished texts the Church decided to preserve. We also have later discoveries of texts not preserved by the church like the Gospel of Thomas that is a collection of sayings of Jesus, some familiar and others not. What Aslan has done is taken this material and the interpretations of it by eminent scholars then distilled it down into the creative narrative of what he thinks actually happened. And he tells a good story. That story is what I’d like to consider now.

First we need to understand what a ‘zealot’ was. Zealots were individuals who strove to live a life of zeal, dedicated to preserving and practicing their faith and traditions. Zealous Jews were protecting the identity of their faith from syncretism with Greek and Roman beliefs and practices. This is an age old struggle for Jews living along side people who practice different religions. The Torah is full of railing against people worshiping Baal and the golden calf. This drove Moses nuts and provided the fodder for countless prophets. In that way, Jesus was clearly a zealot for Judaism as opposed to Pagan, Greek and Roman religion.

There was however overlap between those who claimed to be a messiah and those who had zeal for their tradition. Jesus was not the only person who claimed the mantle of messiah that the prophetic Jewish texts predicted would arise, overthrow foreign occupation and restore the glory days when King David ruled Israel. Aslan tells the stories of these messianic claimants before Jesus and after him who were all crucified by the Romans and their followers exterminated or dispersed. The culmination of that messianic rebellion led to the destruction of the temple by Rome in 70 CE, forty some years after Jesus’ execution.

The question is, was Jesus a militant revolutionary messiah like the others we know about from history, or was he a different kind of messiah altogether. The evidence we have from the gospels Aslan presents begin with the fact of his crucifixion. Crucifixion was reserved for rebels as a tool of terrorizing and controlling the population. Those crucified were not taken down from crosses. They were left hanging to rot, be eaten by birds, until their bones fell down on the ground.

Why would the Romans crucify Jesus? Aslan claims he must have been seen as a threat to Rome. Clearly the story of his disruptive behavior in the Temple overturning the tables of the money changers would be all the needed evidence. Aslan argues Pilate would have ordered his execution without a second thought as he had done with many before and after him that littered Golgatha with bones.

After his crucifixion, the Jesus Movement took root first in Jerusalem, then in smaller groups of Hellenized Jews who spoke Greek and lived in non-Jewish cities like Corinth, Thessalonica, and Galatia. Jesus’ brother James was the Bishop of Jerusalem for some 30 years after Jesus’ death, establishing it firmly as the mother church.

Into this world came a persecutor of the followers of Jesus named Saul of Tarsus. Here is how Aslan tells his conversion story:

As he approached the city gates [of Damascus] with his traveling companions, he was suddenly struck by a light from heaven flashing all around him. He fell to the ground in a heap. A voice said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. The reply broke through the blinding white light, “I am Jesus.”

Saul took the name of Paul and started to follow Jesus. But he didn’t do it the same way James, Peter and John, the original disciples of Jesus followed him. Paul felt he had received direct guidance from the Risen Christ rather than the teachings of the Historical Jesus. He didn’t need to know anything about the flesh and blood Jesus because he received guidance directly from Jesus the Christ.

The record we have in Paul’s letters and in the Book of Acts outlines the conflict between the Jerusalem church and the church Paul envisions. As the temple was being destroyed, the Jerusalem church waited expectantly for Jesus to return and establish the Kingdom of God. Sadly for them, that isn’t what happened. They were all killed or scattered. Any texts they had created were destroyed. All that was left were the letters of Paul to propagate his vision of Christianity. Scholars believe the four gospels were likely written very close to or after the temple destruction. Certainly stories and Jesus sayings were known to the Christian diaspora but Paul’s organization of the meaning of it all shapes, dare I say infects, all of them, especially Luke and John.

There is much more in the book to examine and discuss than this quick overview of Alsan’s argument. I’ll be opening that up in three classes using his book starting March 3. Admitting that I am not a Biblical scholar, I’d now like to respond with my thoughts about the historical Jesus from my many years of reading about him, studying sections of the gospels and doing my own little bit of research. I expect I’m likely to guilty of creating Jesus in my own image, but maybe that is okay if I’m willing to own it up front. With Lent beginning in March in a little over a week, this is a good time to return to the story of Jesus and use it to find meaning for our lives. The truth of who he was, his purpose, and his after death transformation shall forever likely be a mystery. But by engaging his story, we can find meaning for our own lives. And we do have a story of the life of Jesus to work with.

There is fairly scant evidence of Jesus as a leader of a revolutionary movement that a traditional messiah would have mounted. What I read lines up more with the traditional actions of a prophet who goes before the king and tells him that he has deviated from the covenant with Moses and should come back to it or suffer God’s wrath. Jesus’ actions in the temple speak of symbolic protest more than an attempt to takeover the Temple or stage a rebellion. I don’t think such a rebel leader would be in the Garden of Gethsemane praying for the bitter cup to pass from him rather than manning the barricades with sword in hand.

Rather than a violent militant, the record we have of Jesus is one of a healer who worked without charging people for his services. That was one of the reasons for his enormous popularity. A doctor that fixed hips, knees, cured heart disease and infections for free would be very popular today too.

My hunch is that he was gravely offended by the execution of his own teacher, John the Baptist by Herod. The movement from Galilee to Jerusalem happened after John’s death. I wonder if his love of his teacher drove him to Jerusalem to protest the corruption of the Temple.

The value I think we get from Jesus will not be found in the magic of whether he came back to life in three days or if he will come back someday to save humanity. These all sit in the realm of speculative theology that most Unitarian Universalists don’t find useful.

What we do have of great value can be found in the Beatitudes; the congratulations to those who suffer for they will not suffer forever; the day will come when the poor will find the domain of heaven. Those who grieve will be consoled. The gentle will inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for justice will feast. And those who work for peace will be recognized as holy. Of great value is Jesus’ vision of creating a good society organized around our highest and most precious values rather than the baser drives of individual profit and mutual mistrust.

As the Letter of James puts it: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the [Realm of God]

The most valuable part of Aslan’s book for me was the direction to look to Jesus’ brother James as the source of what Jesus might have taught. And we do indeed have a letter from James preserved in the Biblical canon. What if this book closely parallels what Jesus might have taught?

We’ll have a look at the letter of James with that in mind in the class. As I read it, I hear echos of teachings in the gospels as well as teachings found in Buddhism. And I find core values that resonate with Unitarian Universalism.

The dilemma of the status of the poor and the rich is every bit as difficult today as it was in the time of Jesus. I can imagine both Jesus and James joining the occupy movement to rail against the 1%. I also see resonance with the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka proclaiming their goal of no poverty and no affluence.

The vision we inherit from the historical Jesus is a vision of what the world would be like if God was in charge. That world vision would definitely reject exploitative empire as a way to govern people, whether emperor, king, colonial power, dictator or corporation. That is also a core principle of Unitarian Universalism that promotes democracy as well as peace, liberty and justice for all people.

If Jesus does decide to come back, I hope he would consider using our principles and our ministry as a way to finish his earthly work cut short by his execution.

Some Unitarian Universalists do see our collective work to embody those values Jesus preached and help usher in that good society he called the Kingdom of God, we sometimes call the Beloved Community.

Whether we embrace the vision of Kingdom of God or the Beloved Community, may we be guided by Jesus’ inspired values as we work to build world community and work to restore the health of our planet.

Benediction

James, brother of Jesus, likely said:

Be doers of the word, not merely hearers.

We have heard much today about Jesus. In those words, powerful truth rides on the breath. It is our challenge to bring that truth to life. When we find ways to bring truth to life as a community, the Realm of God Jesus taught becomes real.

Readings

Matthew 10:34-39

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ” ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law– a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 21:10-13

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, ” ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’”

Matthew 5:3-9

Congratulations to the poor in spirit!
Heaven’s domain belongs to them.
Congratulations to those who grieve!
They will be consoled.
Congratulations to the gentle
They will inherit the earth.
Congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for justice!
They will have a feast.
Congratulations to the merciful
They will receive mercy.
Congratulations to those with undefiled hearts!
They will see God.
Congratulations to those who work for peace!
They will be known as God’s children.

James 2:2-5

Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the [Realm of God]?

On Being Wisely Compassionate

Person holding sign saying Last Saturday, my wife Philomena, our son Andrew and my sister Sue were in the theater district of Manhattan. We were squeezed and jostled by the large crowds on a chilly, late December Saturday afternoon. With the sun, low on the horizon and shining in our eyes, we walked up to Central Park and then back down again, taking in the sights.

In the crush, I remember passing two people asking for money. One was an older man who sat on the cold sidewalk near the street shouting like carnival barker, “Spare change? Need a little help here.” I also remember passing a middle aged woman wearing lots of clothes leaning on the icy stone bricks of a building with a small basket of change next to her. She didn’t look at us or say a word as we passed, I couldn’t tell if she was even awake or not.

I could have stopped and said hello to either of these people and offered them some attention and/or some money. I didn’t. Even though we walked past thousands of people on the streets, I’ve only remembered them, and wondered about their situation. Wondered if I should have paused to offer them at least a little compassion?

I think I was a little more sensitive to these two people because I was mulling over the topic for this service. Religion usually lines up strongly on the side of compassion as a religious obligation, especially for the poor. The Great Commandments to Love God and Neighbor are pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. If I were to take Jesus’ counsel found in the Good Samaritan parable, I would gather them both up and take them to an Inn. Jesus spent a lot of time healing and comforting the outcasts.

The Abrahamic faiths all emphasize the compassionate nature of God. Traditionally, Judaism enumerates God’s thirteen attributes of mercy. Some of these qualities, identified in the book of Exodus, are: compassion before and after a person sins, graciousness when in distress, being slow to anger and forgiving of iniquity, transgressions and sins and pardoning the guilty. Allah’s most repeatedly praised quality in Islam is being merciful and compassionate. Every chapter of the Quran except one starts with Bismillah er-rahman er-rahim, in the name of Allah, most merciful and compassionate.

Eastern religions are no less appreciative of compassion. The Buddha’s attendant Ananda asked him, “Would it be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is a part of our practice?” The Buddha replied, “No. It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice.”

Because the world religions value compassion so highly, Karen Armstrong used it as the unifier to bring people around the world together creating a Charter For Compassion that I wrote about in my Windows column for January.

Compassion literally means joining with another person’s suffering. There are moments when we are spontaneously moved to action when we encounter someone in pain. When Sigrin Newell fell right over there a couple of weeks ago, people rushed to her aid. When Jacqui Williams fell outside a month ago, she was surrounded with care. If we had a big crisis and our members needed food and clothing, you know there would be an outpouring of support. I expect if our neighbors on West and Bradford Streets were suddenly in trouble because of some disaster, we’d be there for them.

This kind of immediate, heartfelt, emotional response seems both natural and good to us … but ancient Greek and Roman philosophers would not have been so enthusiastic. They would have wanted us to be guided by our reason in our actions rather than by our feelings.

One danger of our compassion being guided by our emotions is in the area of justice, symbolized by a blindfolded woman holding a scale. In a courtroom, the defendant should be convicted or go free based on the evidence not how we feel about the victim or the accused. The defendant may sway us emotionally toward mercy and compassion yet may be clearly guilty and deserve punishment. On the other side, think of the racial bias that leads to the high level of incarceration of people of African descent. Would we want to condone a father or mother taking revenge against those who have harmed a son or daughter? There are good arguments to moderate our compassion with reason.

I had an opportunity to explore this distinction when I briefly served as a chaplain in a Florida hospital as part of a six month pastoral care training. I found it easy to feel compassion for and offer comfort to the patients I visited. Sometimes though, my rational mind interfered. Visiting a severely obese person with congestive heart failure, a heavy smoker with lung cancer or an alcoholic with cirrhosis of the liver could bring up resistance to feeling compassion. Of course, thin people get heart failure, non-smokers get lung cancer and non-drinkers have liver failure too. What I noticed during my hospital visits was my all too human tendency to judge, interfered with my feelings, limiting my willingness to feel another person’s suffering.

A woman named Mary had a powerful lesson in what opens and closes the heart to compassion. Her teacher was her seven year old son. She writes:

It was a bitter winter in Wiesbaden, a beautiful but rather stuffy city in Germany. Sebastian and I were visiting my mother. On that particular day – just a week before Christmas – darkness had fallen early. I was hurrying through an underpass to catch the bus home. Suddenly I felt Sebastian tug at my coat sleeve. I looked down.

What’s up?”

Mum,” he said, “why didn’t you give that lady any money?”

I looked back and saw a woman sitting on a threadbare blanket, begging.

Oh,” I said, shaking my head, “she would most likely use any money I gave her for drugs or alcohol.”

Let me pause here in telling the story to encourage you to turn inward and examine your own response to this situation. How often have you been in the same situation and had those same thoughts. I confess to having that very thought in New York City last weekend. It is a common defense against giving money to people on the street.

In my research this week, I read a challenge to this defense against compassion from white, anti-racist activist Tim Wise. He makes a habit of always giving people money and questions this assumption as a reason not to give. He points out that if an employer suspected that an employee would be getting drunk on the weekend, that employer wouldn’t choose to withhold the employee’s salary to prevent it. He writes:

to suggest that one is withholding money from homeless people or beggars “for their own good” is a dishonest and preposterous conceit. If you feel that the poor don’t deserve your support because of their presumed moral failings, so be it… If they would just take out your garbage, they might be entitled to your dollar in alms, and the hooch that said dollar might help them obtain. But if they merely beg for it, without first performing some labor, then whether or not they have a drug or alcohol problem, you will be free to presume they have both and refuse to aid them.

Mary’s seven year old son didn’t presume so. Her story continues:

Sebastian took my hand and looked up imploringly.

Only someone who is very unhappy would sit in the cold and beg, don’t you think?”

I blushed. Then I walked back and gave her some money.

Now, I don’t want to make this easy. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see the woman. She might be a con artist. Maybe she makes 400 Euros a day sitting there looking miserable. I’ve heard stories about skilled people who do make a lot of money begging and borrowing. And if you don’t believe that, I have a guy from Ethiopia I’d like you to meet who needs help with his ten million dollar inheritance.

While I don’t believe there are simple answers for when and how to be compassionate to another, I do believe wise guidelines for our compassionate response can help. They can help to unite our head and heart when we are moved by another person’s suffering. There are a number of ways our compassion can go wrong and do more harm than good. Those harmful ways are sometimes called “idiot compassion.”

One kind of idiot compassion is rejecting the process of identification with the suffering of another person. In this case, the feeling of compassion arises but makes us uncomfortable and we want to make it go away. My first memory of this kind of feeling was during the Nigerian–Biafran War. Seeing pictures of little dark skinned children with swollen bellies and flies on their faces was very disturbing to look at. I was more identified with the feeling of disgust looking at the picture than feeling connected to the suffering child. My giving of money was less for the food aid and more because I didn’t want to see that picture again.

That same discomfort gets stimulated this time of year when many of us get mailings and see ads featuring children with cleft palates. I don’t know whether the organization promising to fix their birth defect is a good one or not, but it is an example of charity pornography, using images of suffering to stimulate donations. It works to stimulate giving, but often generates more revulsion than compassion.

Another kind of idiot compassion is being moved by the suffering of another and being willing to help, yet offering what isn’t wanted or needed. I remember this from when I cooked breakfast for homeless men sheltered in the Oakland Unitarian Church. Thinking they would like a filling and nutritious breakfast, I made them sausage and eggs. It wasn’t long before we got complaints that the food was too high in saturated fat and we didn’t have any tofu for the vegetarians. This happens at food pantries too. People donate uncommon foods (I might want to donate sardines, for example, to satisfy my idea that they need essential fatty acids) that many clients of the pantry wouldn’t touch. People commonly donate what they want to get rid of rather than what they have learned is needed by these clients.

The last kind of idiot compassion I’ll mention is an unawareness of skillful means of helping. In a sense, awareness itself is the core of wise compassion. When we recognize the object of our compassion, the source of the feeling welling up within us, and use our reason to skillfully choose our response, we are much more likely to be effective in making a positive difference. This is an iterative process that incorporates learning from our mistakes. Just the last couple of days, I have fallen short several times when I could have been more compassionate. My commitment is to witness the results of my actions or inactions and to learn from my successes and failures. In the process, I hope to grow a little wiser and increase my motivation to continually deepen that commitment to being loving and compassionate in word and deed. There isn’t any perfection to be had in wise compassion, but we can become more skillful and more effective.

The Buddha’s First Noble Truth, the troubling presence of a stressful and unsatisfactory component of existence he called dukkha, has always captivated me. Being born sets us up for having sickness, if we’re fortunate, growing old, and certainly dying. Sickness, old age, and death are not desirable. Jesus had his way of saying it, “the poor will always be with you.” We can have moments of freedom from difficulty but there are burdens of being alive that we all must discover how to live with.

And that shared dilemma of dukkha, is itself the deep root that unites us all and serves as the common concern that fuels our compassion. The more we can recognize that common condition and identify feel our shared reactions to it, the deeper will be our capacity for wise compassion.

Ultimately, we don’t have control of the outcome of our compassionate acts. We do have some control however over refining the intention that motivates them. By being wisely compassionate, we can strengthen the social fabric of our worldwide community and connect across boundaries of gender, race, culture, class and ability.

May wise compassion be a vehicle for the holy in me to meet the holy in you. And in that meeting, may our inherent worth and dignity find affirmation in our unity embodying the Spirit of Life that brings us into being.

Encountering Disconnection

The December holidays feel like a self-examination.  It takes till December, however, for me to discover the status of my holiday spirit. I can’t predict how I’m going to feel. Sometimes I’m really excited and full of anticipation. That was especially true when our son was little. Christmas experienced through a child’s eyes is so magical. This year I’m kind of neutral to slightly positive. Not having any snow and warmer weather makes it less real that we’re approaching the shortest day of the year. And a few times, I’ve gritted my teeth and just plod on through till Christmas morning just wanting to be done with it. Those years felt very uncomfortable as the celebrations cranked up and I wasn’t feeling much connection to the joy and happiness I’m supposed to be feeling.

That sense of disconnection can be even larger if there has been a major loss in the past year. The death of a loved one weighs heavily on the heart as others are making merry. There are so many little reminders of that person’s absence that come up unexpectedly. Then a wave of grief hits, tears flow and an inner ache pulls one out of the present into memory, and into an intense longing for what can no longer be.

There are other losses that gnaw at the heart this time of year. Those who are new in this area and not able to return to be with friends and family may be lamenting the separation. For some this may be the first year after a relationship break-up. There may be family members newly moved away who will be celebrating the holidays alone or with others. Children may not be coming home for the holidays. There is a significant emotional price we pay for our transient and mobile lifestyles.

Some may be struggling with employment or lack of employment. Money may be tighter making the gifts we’d like to give unaffordable. It doesn’t feel very good to cut back this time of year when the impulse is to splurge.

Unbidden, we find ourselves stuck in an emotional trough of disconnection.

Others of us may have an ongoing experience of disconnection that troubles our lives. I was listening to a podcast recently describing the challenges children have when their parents have unhappy marriages and go through bitter divorces. When these children grow up, frequently they struggle in forming intimate relationships, often with significant trust and abandonment issues. If they marry at all, it is often much later in life, postponing their child bearing years.

Another common source of disconnection in families are the taboo dinner table conversation topics at Thanksgiving: politics and religion. I’m amazed at how quickly I can want to disconnect from someone I’ve recently met when we start disagreeing about politics and religion. I’ve had those conversations on airplanes. The fellow sitting next to me will ask what I do for a living. If I mention I’m a minister, he’ll ask what denomination. Then he’ll ask me what Unitarian Universalists believe. I’ll do a credible job explaining our faith and its value as a religious path. The other person will nod and and smile. When I finish, he will ask, “Well all that is interesting, but is Jesus Christ your personal savior?” And I’ll know that this conversation isn’t going anywhere. The disconnect happens when I hear the word “savior” because I know he is on a way different religious journey than I’m on.

But as bad as disconnecting around religion and politics is, the hostile feelings that come up around money are deep sources of disconnection. Loving families can be ripped apart by ill will generated by how an inheritance is distributed when a parent or grandparent dies. Friendships can end quickly when money is loaned and not repaid. It is one reason I never loan people money. I give money away when I can and it is asked for. If they want to give me some back that would be very pleasant. Pleasant but not expected.

The feeling of disconnection can also happen in small ways. Small ways that can still feel disproportionate to the situation. That happened to me recently and I’d like to describe the situation.

Last January I attended a Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Convocation in Florida. The focus for my fifteen hours of class time was a presentation by the co-minister at First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York, the Rev. Scott Tayler. The theme for his presentation was “Doing More with Less.” Tayler is an organizational genius. He has studied all the successful church models and distilled their ideas, with his own innovations added, into some great programs in that congregation. I’ve translated one of them into a new program for our congregation called Meaning Matters that is going very well so far this year.

As the class ended, several of the participants informally started talking about meeting to follow up on what we had learned and brainstorm implementation strategies. One of the ministers offered his cabin in the Adirondacks as a place to gather, so six of us agreed to meet there in June. We had a wonderful meeting for a couple of days, did a lot of talking and came up with some grand plans.

The way we realized we could “do more with less” effort was through sharing materials with each other. What makes sermons and adult programs great are the materials and resources we have from which to prepare them. This is some of the hardest work of my week, searching for that great illustration or story that will inspire you and motivate you. If we could share with each other our great finds by focusing our efforts on a shared theme for the month, we would all benefit. We chose themes and set up resource sharing locations in the cloud with excitement and anticipation.

So when September came, I was distressed that the contributions and material didn’t appear the way I had expected. I put up what I was working on but the response was lack luster. Two of our group didn’t post anything at all that first month.

Now, I know how hard ministry is, how many distractions there are. I know how best laid plans do not come to fruition as a memorial service or a congregational crisis intervene. Yet, the absence of any emails from those two bothered me. I was afraid I’d be going to the extra effort of sharing all my material and getting little I could use back. The urge to withdraw, reject and disconnect came up.

This is a familiar experience, I might add, in congregational life too. The mismatch of expectations and results creates a lot of stress. We are all working together to create this community and sometimes people don’t follow through on their commitments. They are less friendly and kind than we’d like. Events don’t turn out to be as satisfying or enjoyable as we’d hoped. Each Wednesday, Matt, Leah and I review the previous Sunday services looking for ways to improve what we do. Your hard working staff troubleshoots all the unexpected problems that come up so your expectations are met as often as we can.

And still there are moments of disconnect, many that we have no control over.

I listened to a very interesting sermon recently by a British minister named Stephen Matthew describing those kinds of disconnections that happen in his church. He pointed out that people sometimes get disaffected from his congregation and its programs. I was interested to hear how he understood what was going on and what his solution was. He saw the movement away from his church as people participating in sin. If his members were disaffected and hadn’t talked to him or his staff, if they got critical and judgmental, they were moving away from God. They were allowing themselves to become alienated.

I enjoy listening to these kind of traditional religious messages because sometimes they have practical value that is independent of their theological perspective. I think he has a part of the truth when he points to our participation in the process of disconnection and alienation. And we know it emotionally.

When we participate in disconnection and alienation, it leads to unhappiness, inner turmoil, and unrest and can lead to meaninglessness and dehumanization. But when we participate in connection and experience unity, it leads to happiness, calm, and peace, and can lead to meaning, a greater sense of humanity and fulfillment. One direction feels good, the other bad.

Whether by recognition or by feeling, becoming aware of the disconnection and sense of alienation moves us out of reactivity. In Buddhism, this is called a moment of mindfulness. There is a recognition of the mental and emotional processes that are happening inside us. It is the difference between being absorbed in an experience and stepping outside it and seeing it as a mental and emotional process. It is like the moment in a movie theater when someone coughs and you are jerked out of the trance and recognize that you are in the audience and not part of the movie.

When we are in this mindful state, we have the freedom to evaluate the situation and make a choice. In the recognition of being disconnected, there is space in the mind to know that what we are doing may not be healthy or wholesome. The choice is ours to remain disconnected and alienated or to renounce that path and choose another one to reconnect and seek unity. Choose a path that potentially leads toward reconciliation.

That moment of mindfulness happened for me first when one of the missing participants in our group sent an email apologizing for not posting because of the overwhelming success he had had signing up people for his small groups. He had been struggling to train more facilitators and keep up with that success. Then the second missing person posted an email to the group apologizing as well. He had been leading an international trip and all of his time and attention had gone into that project. Both reiterated their commitment to our common experiment.

Reading those emails, I became mindful of my resentful feelings just below the surface of my awareness. I regretted that I’d allowed those feelings to take root in me and not checking with them to see what was going on. I rejoiced to renounce that resentful attitude and reconnect with both of them. This joint project may sink or swim in the future, but I don’t want that success or failure to disconnect me from these beloved colleagues.

As Anne Lamott puts it, in her book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, Alone we are doomed. Yes, people are impossible, often damaged, prickly and set in their ways. It may be comfortable to be invisible, disconnected, and intoxicated with our superior thoughts but it isn’t where we discover hope. Only together do we come through unsurvivable loss.

So as we approach the Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa and the New Year, may we use these holidays as a wake-up moment to take our emotional temperature and see how we are doing. If we are sensing a feeling of disconnection, to pause and explore it, then decide whether you want to do anything about it. My hope is you will seek a way to reconnect with the sources of value in your life, including the opportunities we offer here.

There is much love in this place already.
There is always room for more.
It comes into being when we choose to make connections.

Managing Connectivity

I’m old enough to remember what life was like before email and FAX. When I moved to California in 1977, the only way I could communicate with my family and friends was using the telephone and by sitting down and writing a letter. People felt very, very far away back in Delaware. In those days, I felt isolated and lonely for old friends I hadn’t seen or heard from in a long time. My connectivity was slow and sparse.

Contrast that to today when my connectivity is very fast and furious. I have over 840 “friends” on Facebook. Some of these people were kids I went to grade school with. Many are UU ministerial colleagues across the world. A number of them are my wife Philomena’s huge extended family. I can virtually visit with old friends at any time by checking out their Facebook time line.

Like many of you, I connect with many people using email. I’m also on Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google+, and have tried other emerging social networking sites. I’ve got 50 meditation buddies who use the same meditation timer (Insight Timer) application for my smart phone. I exchange a couple of supportive messages with them in the morning after my meditation. And then there are the face to face relationships I have within circles of Unitarian Universalism, the Capital Region, of course FUUSA and then Buddhist and meditation connections.

I’m similar to many people younger than I am who are even more widely connected. At any moment I could reach out to probably virtually touch a 1000 different people. And 100’s of people every day are striving to get my eyes on their emails, status updates, and alerts.

It can all be just a little overwhelming. And it only seems to multiply. I remember 15 years ago feeling overwhelmed by just the email I was getting. The idea I could add to that seemed unthinkable. And yet I’m checking (briefly) other social networking sites pretty regularly.

So for many of us, the challenge isn’t so much getting connected as managing the vast networks of connection we already have and making room for new relationships and connections.

One of the valuable lessons I learned from community organizing was to differentiate public and private relationships. We can only sustain a small number of intimate private relationships with a spouse, children, extended family, and close friends. These are the people who can call you up in the middle of the night and you’ll willingly take their call. Most of my Facebook “friends” do not fall into this category.

Whereas we can only have a small number of close private friends because of the time it takes to maintain these kinds of personal ties, we can have many, many public friends. Many of the relationships we have with each other at FUUSA fall into this category. We know some of each other’s personal story. We’re happy to help each other out on a project for the congregation. We might even offer some support to each other. But the level of expectation of personal support from the relationship is limited. Understanding the distinction between public and private relationships can be every helpful to contain the social burden added when widening one’s social network.

A useful tool that is essential for managing the huge amount of communication that comes with having a wide network of connection is filtering. I have over 100 email filters that sorts my email into different mailboxes. That allows me to follow threads of conversations in sequential emails in that mailbox. I dip in and out of these mailboxes, monitoring discussions using subject lines and key words so I filter out what doesn’t interest me or doesn’t require my immediate attention.

One of the most important lessons though of electronic communication is when not to use it and pick up the phone. When I feel some strong feelings come up in response to an electronic message and am tempted to respond passionately to it, I now know to stop, take a breath and look for a non-electronic way to respond. Electronic communication can be so easily misunderstood or the emotional tenor so easily misjudged.

Overall, I am much happier being highly connected as long as I take control of moderating how much I do and when I do it. Self-discipline makes the difference.

Acts of Gratitude

If you follow the positive psychology movement, you’ll see that gratitude gets a lot of positive press. The researchers have developed measurements to separate people into grateful and ungrateful types. (You can reflect for a moment as to where you think you might fall)

Here are a few characteristics of grateful people. Grateful people:

  • Have positive outlook independent of the events of their lives (could be dying of cancer and still feel grateful)
  • Focus on the blessings and gifts in their lives rather than slights and deficits.
  • Tend to compare their situation with those less fortunate and feel lucky rather than those more fortunate and feel envy
  • Notice pleasant sensory experiences, like a sunset, the smell of freshly baked bread, a breeze on the skin, the sound of sweet bird songs … and savor them.
  • Embrace a difficult experience as a learning opportunity, and
  • Appreciate and acknowledge the contribution to their lives of family and friends.

Researchers notice those people who are grateful types, statisically speaking, tend to be healthier. They have fewer strokes and heart attacks. They live longer. They are much less likely to suffer depression and other forms of mental illness. They have happier relationships and fewer divorces. On the whole, people who are grateful types turn out to be happier people.

The good news is that one can become more grateful by nurturing this quality.

Almost every religion focuses on stimulating gratitude in its adherents. They do that by asking people to be grateful to God. Expressing praise and thanks dominates the purpose of worship. I suspect though, that the positive effects of loving, praising and thanking God may not be paid back by the deity as a reward for being faithful. More likely, to my mind, the benefits come from cultivating the inner climate of gratitude that then generate the positive effects I just mentioned. Whether you believe in God or not isn’t as critical as acting authentically grateful.

What is clear from the research is the importance of both feeling and expressing gratitude on a regular basis. So today, I’d like to explore ways to act grateful. The research also suggests that just acting grateful even when you’re not fully there can stimulate the experience of gratitude to develop.

I learned this at the first meditation retreat I attended. The seven day retreat didn’t cost very much money. The registration only covered food and lodging. The teachers offered the teachings without charge … just as they had been offered for the last 2500 years. We would have the opportunity, at the end of the retreat, to make a donation for the teaching but didn’t have to give anything if we didn’t want to. “Great,” I thought, “I can get enlightened on the cheap and save my money for other things!”

The problem was, every day of the retreat we did many different practices of gratitude. We honored each other through keeping the silence. We helped run the retreat with different yogi jobs like sweeping the floors, chopping vegetables, washing the dishes, and cleaning the bathrooms. People were so nice to each other, like making sure that there was enough food for everyone by taking smaller portions of special desserts. The teachers were very helpful and supportive. Being the recipient of so much generosity and feeling gratitude for the quieting and sharpening of my mind and the heightening of my senses, by the last day I was feeling very generous, ready to give far more than I had originally thought I might give.

The idea that a sense of gratitude, developed by receiving freely offered gifts, will stimulate generosity is one of the underlying principles of the gift economy. Gift economies are a controversial area of social research as scientists strive to understand the nature of gifts as a social transaction and the degree of expectation of reciprocal response. Gift economies, unlike exchange based economies, theoretically do not include the expectation of anything in return. All the gifts are given altruistically. In an exchange economy, a goods or services transaction would be evaluated based on fairness of the exchange. Did I get my money’s worth or have I been cheated? Gratitude is unlikely to be evoked.

Eating at Karma Kitchen however, is not like this at all. At Karma Kitchen, you are seated at a table for lunch. A server takes your order just like a regular restaurant. The server delivers your food and you enjoy it. Then your server delivers you the bill that says, You owe ZERO dollars. Your meal has already been paid for by other diners. You are then given the opportunity to buy a meal for someone else and offer any amount of money you choose.

All the staff running the kitchen and serving the food are volunteers. They freely give their time once a month. They are inspired knowing that for a poor person, this may be their only opportunity to have a nutritious meal prepared for them and be treated like any other guest.

The Karma Kitchen in Berkeley California rents a regular restaurant for $750 from noon till 3pm on Sundays. It is a popular destination so you’ll need to come early to get a seat. They started doing this in 2007 with the idea that the meals should be entirely supported by donations and volunteer labor. If the donations didn’t cover their costs, they’d just stop doing it. So the fact that they’ve been in continuous operation for the last six years says a lot about the model.

Panera Bread corporation has picked up on the idea. In the spring of 2010, they tried a similar experiment in Clayton, Missouri, near St. Louis, called Panera Cares. They set up a store where, when you get to the end of the food pick up line, there is a donation box for you to pay what you want. Some of the workers in that first store were at risk youth getting on the job training. That same year, they opened two more stores, one in Dearborn, Michigan and the other in Portland, Oregon. In 2013, they opened one in downtown Boston that I saw when I was visiting to participate in the UUA Board meeting.

As a provider of high quality food to the public, they see this effort as a way to give back to the community in a novel way. They want to make sure everyone who needs a meal gets one that is of high quality. They do list suggested donation levels but guests can also volunteer to work as a way to offer payment for their food. They see this as a way of offering a hand up rather than a hand out.

And what is interesting is the result. I’ve heard that people are often generous in response to their donation for food policy. People are so generous, that the non-profit stores are the most profitable of the chain!

If we are talking about food donation however, right now one of the most amazing donation programs in the capital region is happening: the Equinox Thanksgiving dinner. Every year 3500 volunteers come together at the Empire State Plaza over several weeks to take donations of over 11,000 pounds of turkey, 400 gallons of gravy, a ton of green beans and two tons of potatoes and yams and 1200 pies to assemble 10,000 thanksgiving dinners. 500 are served at First Presbyterian in Albany and the rest are delivered to needy people’s homes. Equinox started this 40 years ago to feed 200 students from SUNY who weren’t going home for the holiday. It continues to grow today, all based on gifts.

(This is how I finished these words on Sunday – If you’d like to sample one of my delicious muffins, put the Sunday before Thanksgiving on your calendar for next year for a visit to our congregation!)

So if hearing about these acts of generosity hasn’t yet stimulated your sense of gratitude, I hope to inspire you in a few moments with and act of gratitude, a gift of food from me: a corn muffin. All are lactose free and some are gluten free. I made them all this morning for your enjoyment. I hope this small act of gratitude for the opportunity to serve as your minister, will inspire your gratitude to help start off a restorative week of thanksgiving.

Shramadana

“We build the road and the road builds us.” – Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement Slogan

I’m dedicated to Buddhist mindfulness meditation and social justice work to address the ills of society. I’d like to be happy and peaceful and I want others to be happy and peaceful too.

Sometimes people think of Buddhists, however, as navel gazers who want to escape the world rather than helping save it. In Southeast Asia, it is common to see monks who like to stay in their temples, accept donations and appear not to be doing much for others. They meditate a lot with the goal of becoming enlightened and escaping being reborn again in this world.

One of the positive aspects of the contact between Buddhism and the West is a movement called Socially Engaged Buddhism. Preeminent in that movement is an organization called Sarvodaya Shramadana in Sri Lanka.

Given my interests, I’m embarrassed to say, I hadn’t noticed them before listening in May to a podcast by an American Buddhist activist named Joanna Macy. In 1980, she spent a year in Sri Lanka studying Sarvodaya and then returned home and wrote a book about them. Between what she said in the podcast and reading her book, I felt strongly attracted to this movement.

My goal for this service is to excite your interest in this organization that has been transforming village life in Sri Lanka for over fifty years. I think they have some great lessons for us that we may find enlightening as we join together this morning in the celebration of life.

Spoken Meditation

An adapted translation of a traditional Metta Meditation from the Buddha

The embodiment of loving-kindness
begins with the practice of morality.
It requires uprightness and being straightforward
being gentle in speech,
being humble and not conceited or demanding.
Being contented and easily satisfied.
Be not burdened with duties but
Be peaceful and calm,
Be wise and skillful.
Be careful in action and above reproach.
To embody loving-kindness,
May your intention be
with a feeling of gladness and security

May all beings be at ease.

Whatever livings beings there may be
Those who are weak or strong
omitting none.
Those who are great or mighty,
non-distinctive, short or tall,
Those seen and those unseen,
Those living near and far away
Those born and yet to be born
May all beings be at ease.

Let none deceive another,
nor despise any being in any state.
Let none, through anger or ill-will,
wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;

Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upward to the skies,
and downward to the depths;
Outward and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking,
seated or lying down,
Free from drowsiness,
Let us remember and sustain this beautiful intention.

Reading

From: Collected Works of A.T. Ariyaratne, Volume III, pages 55-56

The type of human being we need for the world today is one which has the courage to reject [the] dreadful systems of organized evil which have made us decivilized; we need the type of leadership which will strive to re-build a new person who has the strength of character to harness the good that is in all of us. This new person in turn shall re-build our human society and a new human civilization on more abiding values.

The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement (USA branch) is determined to build a new person and a new society. In Sri Lanka we started this process by enabling human beings to come together to share their time, thought and energy for the awakening of a process of sharing which is called Shramadana.

We selected several of the poorest of the poor villages in Sri Lanka and while living and working with the villagers, together we evolved a series of concepts and a methodology to improve their quality of life by their own efforts. Self Reliance, Community Participation and a Planned Program to satisfy their basic human and community needs were three important ingredients in this self-development process.

Sarvodaya defines development as an awakening process. An ever increasing accumulation of goods and services created to feed greed in man is not development. On the contrary development is an awakening process taking place within individuals, families and communities in which their needs are first satisfied without polluting the mind, poisoning the body, destroying the ecological balance, violating the cultural boundaries, widening prevailing disparities or demeaning human nature.

Development in a true sense should enrich people both materially and spiritually so qualities of sharing, brotherhood and peace ennoble all people.

Sermon

Unitarian Universalists value the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. As we well know, that value isn’t universally embraced around the globe. It isn’t embraced right here in Albany for that matter. This becomes abundantly clear by spending some time on the North side of Central Avenue, east of Henry Johnson Boulevard and south of Delaware Avenue. As someone who has done faith based community organizing in these areas, I have some awareness of how difficult making a positive difference can be. So, discovering an organization that has had significant success at this kind of transformation in 15,000 villages in Sri Lanka for over 50 years got my attention.

The backbone of Sri Lanka is small, rural villages; about 23,000 of them. With lush vegetation and fertile land, carefully cultivated with an intricate water storage and irrigation system developed over a thousand years ago, the country has a proud heritage as being the the breadbasket of the region. Buddhism came to the island 2300 years ago and today is the religion of 90% of the population. They preserved many of the earliest Buddhist texts and have a proud heritage of being a light of the Dhamma in Asia.

That proud identity and heritage suffered greatly under four hundred years of colonial domination, first by the Portuguese, then by the Dutch and finally by the British. That domination had a devastating impact on those villages. The tea and coconut plantation system took away their control of their land. Their culture, traditions and religion were diminished by the Europeans in comparison with their culture. Over the years, that oppression turned into a self-destructive, downward spiral of disease, stagnation, poverty, harsh speech and conflict in the villages. That social disease infected the villager’s spirit with the negative spiral of ill-will, disunity, ignorance, possessiveness, competition and egoism.

In the glow of independence from Britain in 1948, a new generation of leaders sought to address this damage. The misery in the villages was much on the mind of a young science teacher, named A.T. Ariyaratne, or Dr. Ari as he is commonly referred to today. In the 1950’s, he and others were wondering how to restore the pre-colonial greatness to their country.

One of his inspirations was a prominent follower of Gandhi in India named Vinoba Bhave. Vinoba is known today for starting a land reform movement called Bhoodan. It encouraged plantation owners in the early 1950’s to share, without rent, a little of their land with landless peasants for them to grow their own food. How Vinoba started this program is worth retelling because in the story are the seeds of Dr. Ari’s later work.

In 1951, Vinoba, already a respected figure committed to non-violence, stayed overnight in a small village in an area of communist military activity. Two thirds of the villagers were landless, many of the untouchable caste. He asked a group of them why they had taken up arms. They told him the communists promised them land. He asked if they would lay down their arms if they could get land non-violently by asking for it and farming it cooperatively. They agreed. He wanted to go to the government with this request but the villagers urged him to make the request at a local meeting that included landowners especially a man who was known to be a generous fellow. At that meeting, “to everyone’s surprise, that landlord, Ram Chandra Reddy, got up and said in an excited voice: ‘I will give you 100 acres for these people.’”

In this story, I believe Dr. Ari became aware of two very important truths that have guided his work. First, the people already knew what their problems were and what they needed. Second, the people collectively had wisdom about how those needs could be met. What was needed was getting people to talk to each other and work together for the good of all.

But how to translate these ideas and methods from India to Sri Lanka? Dr. Ari looked within Buddhism for the principles that paralleled the Gandhian ideas that Vinoba used. Attracted to Gandhi’s “uplift for all” movement he titled Sarvodaya, he realized that another way to translate that word could be “awakening for all.” The Buddhist goal of enlightenment could join social welfare with spiritual development.

A friend of Dr. Ari’s had participated in post-World War Two work camps sponsored by the Quakers. Dr. Ari borrowed the work camp idea for his first attempt to make a difference in a village in 1958. A group of 16 and 17 year old students from his high school spent two weeks in a poor rural village working side by side on projects that the villagers guided them to do.

Sarvodaya’s first Shramadana was born.

Shrama or labor and dana or donation, together name the engine that powers the Sarvodaya train. The very first step for organizing one is to bring villagers together for what they call, a “family gathering.” These gatherings always begin with prayers from the villager’s religious tradition, multiple prayers if more than one faith is represented so everyone feels included. They also include silent meditation to establish that universal spiritual practice to join people together. Then the conversations begin about the problems and the needs of the village. The ideas for work projects come from the villagers themselves rather than from the Sarvodaya leaders. They use familial address calling each other brother and sister, mother and father, to counter any inequality of social status, so all voices are valued equally.

A common initial project that people can get behind who are unfamiliar with working cooperatively is cleaning and making improvements to a temple or church. This is an attractive project in a Buddhist community because of their understanding of dana. Every Buddhist knows that they can individually get a lot of merit for a better rebirth by giving to monks. Monks eat based on the generosity of the villagers who offer them food every morning. What they may not know is the joy of a group of people coming together for a joint work project. Other common projects are building access roads, cleaning irrigation canals, digging latrines and building schools.

The next step is to canvass the community for resources for the project. Typically, food and materials are donated for the camp. The goal is to get as many people involved in the project as possible.

Once the resources have been promised and pooled, the shramadana can begin. The work is structured so people of all ages can participate either in the work itself or in meal preparation and other kinds of support. Family gatherings start the work camp with chants, prayers and ritual. Communal meals are served morning, noon and night where the discussions continue. A celebratory atmosphere is encouraged, particularly in the evenings when there may be singing and dancing. A work camp could be a single day or go on for a week or more.

In parallel with the project, sub-groups will be organized. Youth and young adults, mothers, elders, farmers, and other sub-groups find common interests for continuing shared labor. One very common project is to build a preschool. The government will pay for a teacher but not to build a classroom. Economic development through micro-loans are another common project to support the development of the village using appropriate technology.

The foundation of their shramadana methods are spiritual, the awakening, the liberation of all from suffering, stress, dissatisfaction and misery of every kind. While this goal comes from Buddhism, it resonates with Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, the other predominant religions in Sri Lanka. Sarvodaya is intentionally interfaith and non-partisan. Their focus is on bettering the lives of people rather than promoting a religion or political party. Their constructive activity supported by sharing and cooperation, lead to pleasant speech, equality, love and selflessness. The resulting unity leads to organizational development, greater health, and spiritual and cultural development which supports education and economic development.

The first awakening that Sarvodaya encourages is to interdependence. Together people can do what it would be difficult for anyone to do by themselves. The disunity and downward spiral of oppression is reversed through cooperation. Mutual care for each other is encouraged through the cultivation of qualities of heart described in Buddhism as the four heavenly abodes, loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and an equanimity to the ups and downs of life. Shramadana gives participants, a direct experience of those four abodes through the skillful organization and execution of the work project.

Both interdependence and self-reliance are developed using shramadana. Again rooted in Buddhism, one’s progress toward liberation comes through one’s own efforts. The value of each person’s individual involvement in the common work is stressed from the very beginning. This means speaking up with one’s ideas in the family gatherings. Each person’s contribution to the joint effort is honored and appreciated. Each person’s ethical practices, such as gentle speech, generosity, social equality, and constructive work build both self-reliance and interdependence.

Sarvodaya believes what they are doing is more than village transforming and awakening. It is nation and world transforming as well. It envisions the goal of development very differently than the predominant corporate globalized vision of increasing material prosperity through endless growth in consumption. Sarvodaya presents us with a model of sustainability that puts human happiness and the well-being of all life as its central purpose. They build a new order from the bottom up rather than the top down. Interdependence and self-reliance are the methods that lead to the awakening of all.

I’m bringing you a little taste of this organization that most people have never heard of because they are one of the most extensive and successful efforts to date in socially engaged Buddhism that I believe could also have much value for Unitarian Universalism.

This weekend is a fine example of our own version of a Shramadana project, the Holiday Bazaar! People have come together numerous times to create items for sale. There was a gathering to make dry soup mixes. There was a gathering to make holiday pies. There was a gathering to set up Emerson Community Hall. Randy’s kitchen is another joint effort. And beyond this weekend, there are the gardening work parties to care for our grounds. People coming together to cook for the homeless shelter. Volunteering at Sheridan prep to read to students. Some will remember our joint work to build a Habitat for Humanity house. I remember our gathering to hit the streets to register people to vote in our neighborhood. These are just a few of the joint ventures we do regularly … but probably could learn to do more skillfully by studying Sarvodaya.

Our congregation is, in one way of looking at it, a virtual village. We pool our resources of time, talent and treasure to create this community. We network with other congregations to build a world-wide movement to support and promote our values. The values and methods of Sarvodaya have a lot of overlap with our principles. The core Sarvodaya interfaith spirituality that is self-reliant and interdependent parallels our evolving Unitarian Universalist religious development. Both serve to reverse racism and oppression while creating a sustainable world community that meets everyone’s basic needs while striving for peace, liberty and justice.

With a new mayor in Albany, there are some great opportunities for systemic change in our distressed neighborhoods. What we can learn from Sarvodaya might be very helpful in that process. The dysfunction in some Albany neighborhoods parallel Sri Lankan village dysfunction that may be transformed through their bottom up methods.

For these reasons, I’ll be traveling to Sri Lanka January 13 to immerse myself in Sarvodaya for three weeks, participate in a shramadana, and see for myself if Sarvodaya is as good as they appear to be from my research and from my conversations. By turning the tables and going to the developing world and bringing home their ideas for our use, perhaps we can help restore some balance to this world so far out of balance.

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement has articulated and is practicing a compelling vision of how to bring awakening to villages that could be of great value in the developed world too. May we benefit from their wisdom and adapt their methods to support our common work of building community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

Benediction

I close with these wise and generous intentions offered by former Sarvodayan regional director Dr. Herat Gunaratne:

May all beings be well and happy.
May no harm fall on anybody
May we look only at the good of others
May nobody suffer because of my actions.

Taking a Stand

Call to Celebration

What does it mean to be courageous and what are the challenges?

Theodore Roosevelt (not Franklin) spoke some wise words on the subject in a speech he gave at the Sorbonne in Paris over a hundred years ago. It is sometimes referred to as “The Man in the Arena” speech. This passage made it famous:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,

because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions;

who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.…”

May we consider this morning what it means to dare greatly by taking a standas we join together in the celebration of life.

Sermon

We all know courage when we see it don’t we?

Philomena and I saw the movie about Captain Phillips last Friday. It’s the story of a cargo ship boarded by Somali pirates with the purpose of ransoming it for millions of dollars. Captain Phillips cleverly and courageously managed to get the pirates off the ship and into a life boat with him as the only hostage. The whole movie has you on the edge of your seat as the captain takes risk after risk. We also saw the movie Gravity that showed a lot of courage, but in this case, the kind of courage it takes just to survive in space. I think I’m going to avoid boating off the Somali Coast or space travel from now on.

In the 1960’s, there were many examples of courage during the struggle for civil rights. Those courageous souls who faced police dogs and fire hoses. The Freedom Riders who were attacked and assaulted. All these people put their lives on the line for freedom and justice.

I’m grateful for the inspirational record of courageous action in our Unitarian and Universalist histories. The Boston abolitionists who upset the manufacturers and merchants who were profiting from slavery. Unitarian ministers like Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Theodore Parker. Higginson actually served as colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally authorized African-American regiment, from 1862–1864. Julia Ward Howe and Susan B. Anthony were courageous in their fight for women’s rights.

I’d like to call out another group who have been and continue to be examples of courage. Those who challenged the dominance of Christianity and questioned its doctrines and beliefs. The one who comes to mind for me from the latter half of the nineteenth century is Robert Ingersoll. Within Unitarianism, John Dietrich and Curtis Reese were early humanist ministers. On the Universalist side, Ken Patton distinguished himself. They challenged theism to make room for a non-theistic approach to religion that is common in our congregations today.

This only begins to identify the many courageous people who have been leaders within our religious tradition. Institutionally, we have a lot of pride about the ways we, as a movement, have both participated in and led social change that has brought more freedom and fairness to the world. And there is plenty more to do.

I was just at the October Unitarian Universalist Association Board meeting doing a presentation on good governance procedures for our Association. I chair a UUA committee that monitors our Association’s openness and transparency. At the meeting, I learned more about the high level of commitment by the leadership of our Association to be an anti-racist, anti-oppressive force in society as well as encourage that commitment in our congregations.

Closer to home, our Green Sanctuary Committee reminds us of the urgent need for the whole world to temper our insatiable appetite for consumption and transition to living sustainably on our planet. They have proposed a statement against fracking that our congregation will debate and hopefully pass so our congregation can take a stand on the issue.

These are a few examples of opportunities to take stands as individuals and as a congregation that may take courage to accept … or resist. And here is the rub. Will we have the courage to take a stand for or against… or will we let the opportunity pass by?

If we believe that you have to be a heroic figure like those Unitarian and Universalist luminaries I’ve mentioned to do this work, you might be a little discouraged. What is an ordinary person to do just trying to keep food on the table and take care of their families? I can’t put aside my responsibilities or risk my security or my relationships tilting at windmills.

Yet, maybe I could be MORE courageous than I am. So what holds me back?

The philosophers separate courage into two types. The first, physical courage, is the capacity to face fear, pain, danger, intimidation, uncertainty and death. These are potential physical assaults on the body. The second is moral courage, the ability to do the right thing when the right thing isn’t popular. Maya Angelou says of courage:

Courage is the most important of the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.

And there is also a quiet dimension to courage, we might miss. This is the courage of questioning one’s own beliefs and opinions in the search for the truth. I like how Winston Churchill put it:“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

Bryan Stevenson is a wonderful example of quiet wholehearted courage. The origin of the word courage is: to have heart. Stevenson is:

a public-interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. He’s the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based group that has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent prisoners on death row, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.

The message he brought to the TED audience was an agitation to care about injustices in our criminal justice system. He pointed out that if plane flights crashed every one out of ten time no one would buy a ticket. Today we tolerate one innocent person out of ten being executed. Many are silent in response to this error ratio.

Speaking in Germany, he talked about this error rate and the very high proportion of people of African descent who are incarcerated and put on death row. One of the Germans responded that they don’t have the death penalty there and could never have it because of their oppressive history. Stevenson reflected on what this might mean if they did have the death penalty and most of the people being executed were Jews. That would be unconscionable. Yet, here where we have a history of oppression of people of African descent, in the old south, a defendant is 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim was white than if the victim was black. The defendant is 22 times more likely to get a death sentence if they are black.

I was moved by Stevenson, as I hope you will be too if you watch the talk. He modeled taking a stand in a non-alienating way that moved the heart – something many effective activists strives to do. And he moved us, because he was willing to be vulnerable on stage.

The key to moral courage is being willing to be vulnerable. When one is courageous, one is open to attack and capable of being wounded. Vulnerability is where courage and fear meet. The researcher and writer, also made famous by a TED talk in 2010, who researches vulnerability is Dr. Brené Brown. She points out that being courageous requires vulnerability. Without a sense of risk and exposure, no courage is needed.

So here we have the center of the problem. We admire and respect people who are courageous, am I right? And how many of us like being vulnerable? Notice that gap? If we want to be more courageous, we need to tolerate being vulnerable.

Brown’s research helps us understand what makes being vulnerable difficult. What often underlies an unwillingness to be vulnerable is shame.

At its core, shame is a self-inflicted wound to prevent a loss of connection. Brown asserts that shame is unavoidable if we want to be a person who loves and cares about others and wants love and care and a sense of belonging in return. Shame is based in the fear of disconnection. We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. I suspect shame evolved as a powerful way to keep groups together by stimulating internalized submission to dominance.

So if we want to be more courageous, and tolerate vulnerability better, we need to become shame resilient. Brown suggests we can’t become resistant because of our social needs. “As long as we care about connection, the fear of disconnection will always be a powerful force in our lives, and the pain caused by shame will always be real.”

Here is how Brown describes shame resilience as:

the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it. Shame resilience is about moving from shame to empathy— the real antidote to shame.

Shame is different from guilt. If I do something harmful to someone, there are two predominant ways to respond. The guilty response would be to regret the behavior and resolve to not repeat it. The shame based response would be to think I’m a bad person for doing such a bad thing.

Shame has within it a belief in one’s self as depraved and unworthy. Recognize any Calvinism here? Thinking of oneself as depraved and unworthy undermines one’s sense of self-worth and creates internalized oppression. The king, the dominator, the master crawls inside our head and enslaves our minds with self-judgment and self-doubt.

This is where Unitarian Universalism comes to the rescue. We completely reject this view of the depravity of humanity. Yes, we do bad things. Yes, we do really wretched things. But we have inherent worth and dignity too. We have goodness in us that cannot be removed. In our faith, we have tools to support and build shame resilience.

What shame thrives on is silence. Brown learned a powerful technique to break the mesmerizing grip of shame. She suggests we just speak out loud, “pain, pain, pain, pain, pain” until it’s grip begins to loosen. She observes that when shame descends, it hijacks the limbic system, the prefrontal cortex shuts down and the primitive fight-or-flight reflex is activated. Reactivating critical thinking skills through verbal activity helps us regain rational perspective.

But probably the most effective way to counter the experience of shame is to reach out. Again, this is another source of support we have here: community. But we are special kind of non-judgmental community that will allow us to try on new ideas and ways of being. In Brown’s words:

We need a hand to pull us up off the ground when we get kicked down in the arena (and if we live a courageous life, that will happen). Across the course of my research, participants were very clear about their need for support, encouragement, and sometimes professional help as they reengaged with vulnerability and their emotional lives. Most of us are good at giving help, but when it comes to vulnerability, we need to ask for help too.

Without supportive friends and community, I know who will be there to knock you down again. It will be the critic, the authority, the judge, the master, the naysayer, the one who doesn’t see you as a human being. It will be the one who sees you an object to control and extract work.

It takes courage to face the dehumanizing forces in the world. It takes courage to face the forces that treat our planet as an object to control and from which to extract useful resources. If we want to make a difference in this world and counter these forces, we must be courageous. We must learn how to stand together against some pretty strong headwinds. If we can build our shame resilience together, we’ll have the strength to be vulnerable. If we can be vulnerable, we can be courageous. And if we can be courageous, we can become real.

Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse of the Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.”

Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.”

Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Benediction

I’d like to end with the words Bryan Stevenson ended his TED Talk.

I believe that many of you understand that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. That we cannot be fully evolved human beings until we care about human rights and basic dignity. That all of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone. That our vision of technology and design and entertainment and creativity have to be married with visions of humanity, compassion and justice. And more than anything, for those of you who share [my vision], I’ve simply come to tell you to keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

 

Notes:

The Brené Brown quotes are from:Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (2012-09-11)Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition. 

Celebrating the Wheel of Life

Circle with six pictures of a tree throughout the yearWheels and circles are very helpful. They give us a picture of what a cycle looks like. You start at one point. You follow the outline of the circle so that it continues to get further and further away and then it starts getting closer again until you get back to the beginning. Out and back. Out and back.

Life is full of these rhythms of moving away and returning again. If you feel your breath, it goes out and comes back in. Touch your wrist and you can feel your pulse as your heart beats. The blood goes out from your heart to the tips of your fingers and toes in your arteries then finds its way back again to your heart through your veins. Each day we get up, move around and do things. Towards the end of the day we get tired, crawl in bed and fall asleep.

The cycle of each day has many repeating parts. Every morning when I get up I go downstairs to the basement and sit quietly in meditation. I like to do some exercises then make a pot of tea and have breakfast. Just about every morning I sit for a little while with my wife Philomena on the couch as we watch a recorded episode of the Daily Show from the night before.

There are bigger cycles that happen every month. I pay the electric and gas bill every month. I pay my cell phone charges every month. I pay our mortgage and my car loan every month. I send a donation to FUUSA and some charities every month. I write my newsletter column every month too. For youth and adults with jobs, there is happiness at least once a month and usually twice a month when we get our paycheck.

We make our lives this way because we have great comfort with cycles and wheels. They help us remember that if there is a part of a cycle we don’t like, it will end soon and we’ll have a break from it until we have to do it again.

I do a lot to take care of my teeth beyond brushing them because I want to keep them for a long time. Every night before I go to bed, I floss them, brush them and clean between my teeth with a special tiny brush. Sometimes I don’t want to do one of these things or use mouthwash to kill germs that try to sneak under my gums. Knowing that once its done I will not have to do again for a while makes it easier.

What causes us unhappiness is when cycles stop. If we get too much rain, we want the sun to come back. If we get too much sun and everything dries up, we want rain. When the wind is really strong, we desire calm. But if we are sailing, we don’t want calm we want a brisk breeze. When gardeners plant their zucchinis, they get excited with the first flower turns into the first zucchini. Then there are suddenly many more zucchinis than one family can eat and they need to be given away.

When a puppy or kitten is born, we have great joy. Philomena and Andy and I visited my Aunt Lois who has two little kittens named Socks and Licorice. They are adorable and reminded me of when our two cats Shakti and Bodhi were kittens. When we enjoy being with them, we don’t think about the day when they will eventually get very old and die, as both Shakti and Bodhi have done. This is the sad part. When the cycle ends, almost like the wheel breaking.

Our minds don’t want to believe that the cycles will come to an end. I didn’t want Shakti and Bodhi to die but I couldn’t stop that from happening. With birth there is joy and with death there is sadness and loss. The sadness I feel for Shakti and Bodhi remind me how much I loved them and cared about them. Yet that sadness didn’t stop me from feeling joy when meeting Socks and Licorice. Knowing that someday I’ll be sad when they die, didn’t interfere with my joy.

I find comfort knowing that the joy I felt when Shakti and Bodhi were kittens didn’t come to an end forever. I could feel it again for Socks and Licorice. Not exactly the same mind you. Shakti and Bodhi had different personalities than Socks and Licorice. But the feelings of joy were very similar.

All cycles operate in a similar way. Each day we live is different yet there are many things that are the same. Even each breath is different if we watch them carefully enough, which is what people do in meditation. Certainly the events of each month are very different but October of 2012 isn’t at all like the October of 2013 and will be very different from the October of 2014. And each of those months started with green leaves on the trees and ended with brown leaves on the ground.

Even the biggest cycles we care about operate this way, the cycle of birth and death. There was a time when we were not. Then we were born. There will be a time when we are not. We will die. And for each of us, I hope that is a long time away. A man named Ernest Becker thought it is very important for our well being to think that way. The leaf shudders as it sees other leaves fall from the branches around it this time of year, not knowing that new leaves will appear next spring.

What helps a lot, if we do worry about dying, is accepting that we are part of cycles, circles if you will, that are much bigger than we are. A fundamental problem of how our brains work is worrying we are somehow separate from all the cycles and circles. It makes us think we are all alone.

Resolving that problem is what religion is all about. As Unitarian Universalists, we say there are many ways to fix this problem rather than just one. Each of us will discover some religious tools will work better than others. But no matter how we work out this problem, we believe that we all have goodness in us. We are part of a interdependent living process and belong in it. Each of us will work out our own solution to the problem of feeling separate and alone. Unitarian Universalism tells us that however we solve the problem, our lives have value and can be meaningful, even when we struggle and forget.

We are part of the circle of life. That circle didn’t begin with birth. That circle will not end with death.

Let us be grateful that we are part of that endless circle.

The Courage … To Be Wrong

I didn’t discover the courage to be wrong until I was married.

Oh, I’m sure I was wrong lots of times before that. My parents corrected me many times. My sister pointed out my wrongness without timidity. But I fought off being wrong rather aggressively. After all, I had my father as a model. He was fond of saying, “When have I ever been wrong?” His lack of humility was compounded by his evasiveness. My sister and I would carefully watch for his mistakes so we’d be armed. Then we would attack him after he asked that question and itemize the times he was wrong. He would then artfully manipulate our evidence to obfuscate the facts. This could make for some heated arguments with my mother irritatedly telling us to stop it.

Living with housemates in college also presented me with opportunities to be corrected for being wrong. I’ve been fortunate to live with people that I got along with fairly well so we didn’t get into the right/wrong struggle too much. Or maybe I was compliant enough not to get into too many arguments with them.

The first time I had to deal seriously with being wrong was with a former partner I lived with before entering seminary. She was clear that I was wrong about the way I didn’t express my feelings. Because I loved her and wanted to please her, I agreed she was right and I was wrong. I strived to be who she wanted me to be, going to different therapeutic groups trying to fix myself. I asked her to marry me several times and when our third engagement period ended without getting to the altar, I suggested we separate. I didn’t have a problem expressing those feelings.

Intimate relationships can amplify differences. And the closer people get to each other, the more intense those differences can be. The closer we are, the more vulnerable we are. That vulnerability can also make those differences that much harder to deal with. “How can you say you love me and still leave dirty dishes on the counter!”

One of the joys of marrying Philomena was discovering that the way I expressed my emotions wasn’t a problem for her. This was a great learning for me, discovering a new constellation of issues in our relationship very different from my previous ones.

But, at times, I was still wrong in Philomena’s eyes.

What has made the most difference when this happens, is cultivating courage. In the face of her disapproval and in the certainty or uncertainty of my own position, sensing the danger to the well-being of our relationship, I take a breath and strive to be present to what is happening. If I feel discouraged, shamed, or threatened, I strive to stay put and not attack or run away. I also resist the urge to defend myself. For me, courage requires examining the flood of chemicals being pumped out by the amygdala, honoring their primitive intention to protect my body from harm, and allowing them to calm down before acting.

Amygdala driven conversations tend to end badly. But courageously pausing until I am able to remember my love and care for my partner before continuing the conversation can make a world of difference. The solution to most relationship conflicts will not be found in establishing who is right or who is wrong. It will be found in comprehending what each party is feeling, then examining what unmet universal human needs are driving those feelings in that moment. Once we both understand the needs that motivate our feelings and actions, we can, with care for each others needs, explore ways to resolve the conflict.

When my focus moves away from being right or wrong but toward respect, caring and the desire to understand, a foundation for trust and mutual commitment can be built and reinforced. That takes courage. The courage to look at one’s own reactivity and the sources of it. The courage to attend to the hormonal soup sloshing around in the brain stimulating that reactivity and to question its impulsive conclusions. The courage to put aside temporarily one’s truth claims to better comprehend the other and their claims.

The peace we seek in the world requires us to have the courage to nurture and to develop peace in our hearts, minds and spirits.

Higher Purpose

Readings

No fear Shakespeare version of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy.

The question is: is it better to be alive or dead? Is it nobler to put up with all the nastiness that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all? Dying, sleeping—that’s all dying is—a sleep that ends all the heartache and shocks that life on earth gives us—that’s an achievement to wish for. To die, to sleep—to sleep, maybe to dream. Ah, but there’s the catch: in death’s sleep who knows what kind of dreams might come, after we’ve put the noise and commotion of life behind us. That’s certainly something to worry about. That’s the consideration that makes us stretch out our sufferings so long. After all, who would put up with all life’s humiliations—the abuse from superiors, the insults of arrogant men, the pangs of unrequited love, the inefficiency of the legal system, the rudeness of people in office, and the mistreatment good people have to take from bad—when you could simply take out your knife and call it quits? Who would choose to grunt and sweat through an exhausting life, unless they were afraid of something dreadful after death, the undiscovered country from which no visitor returns, which we wonder about without getting any answers from and which makes us stick to the evils we know rather than rush off to seek the ones we don’t? Fear of death makes us all cowards, and our natural boldness becomes weak with too much thinking. Actions that should be carried out at once get misdirected, and stop being actions at all.

from “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better or worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground that is given him to till…

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. …

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think…

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude…

The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal Self, on which the universal reliance may be grounded? …

The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. In that deep force, that last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin.

Sermon

Poor Hamlet, such a troubled character.

The recent death of his father, the king of Denmark, and the hasty remarriage of his mother Gertrude to Claudius, his father’s brother, paralyzes him with grief and anger. Yet, he has no focus for that anger until he meets his father’s ghost and learns of his mother’s betrayal and his father’s murder by Claudius’ hand. As Sir Walter Scott put it so well:

Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!

The ghost of Hamlet’s father, stuck in purgatory because he died before he could confess and be absolved of his sins by the church, wants revenge and his son is the one who needs to step up and even the score.

Sadly, Hamlet isn’t quite up to the task, and partly because he has been infected by the changing attitudes of his time. The “to be or not to be” soliloquy reveals his reluctance, perhaps born of exposure to the Calvinist view of eternal torment or a flirting consideration of Greek philosophy that reemerged during the Renaissance. What is the meaning of life anyway?

Hamlet’s sense of being ungrounded in a changing world, feels so true to our time as well. Remember, only a few hundred years have passed since our planet has gone from being the center of the universe to an insignificant speck of dust on the outer rim of a galaxy in an incredibly large, expanding universe on its way to fizzling out some short billions of years from now.

Science robbed humanity of ultimate significance by showing us how small we are in the greater scheme of existence. The forces that shape stars, planets and solar systems operate at a scale that minimizes our importance.

Listen to how William Lane Craig, author of Reasonable Faith puts it:

“If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution. There is no God, and there is no immortality. And what is the consequence of this? It means that life itself is absurd. It means that the life we have is without ultimate significance, value, or purpose.”

The philosophers who’ve expressed this angst well are the Existentialists. The world can only be approached as absurd, lacking inherent order and value, unsound and devoid of rationality. French philosopher Camus, used the Greek myth of Sisyphus to express the ultimate futility of human existence. King Sisyphus was a very crafty fellow. He promoted navigation and commerce but was avaricious and deceitful. He offended Zeus by killing travelers and guests, a violation of hospitality, to maintain his iron-fisted rule. Sisyphus even tricked death, the god Thantos, and locked him up with his own chains. Zeus condemned Sisyphus for eternity to roll a huge stone up a hill then watch his efforts made meaningless as the stone then rolled back to the bottom each time.

Camus thought Sisyphus was still able to make meaning of his eternal punishment. Remember Sisyphus was a crafty fellow. He still could make meaning in the act of rolling the rock up the hill rather than the achievement at the end. After all, time will eventually wash away all of our achievements anyway. Who remembers who invented the wheel after all.

This parallels the central proposition of existentialism, that existence precedes essence. In other words, the fact our individual existence is more important than the preexisting forms into which society may wish to mold us, be it labels, roles, stereotypes, and categories. The life we make for ourselves individually creates our essence, rather than a preexisting form that we must shape ourselves into. We are free to create our own values and determine our own meaning and purpose, not submit to one imposed upon us by society, religion or the state.

But that freedom to shape oneself is a heavy burden as we see Hamlet waffling about what to do. In an earlier age, he would have taken up his sword and avenged his father’s murder without a second thought. Polonius, the duplicitous courtier hoping to marry his daughter Ophelia to Hamlet and set her up to be queen, is killed by Hamlet while hiding behind a curtain spying on him for Claudius. Laertes, his son, doesn’t hesitate after hearing of his father’s murder. He returns from France, hot headed and ready for revenge. But Hamlet would rather hold the skull of Yorick the clown and blather on to his faithful companion Horatio, about how many times he kissed his lips as a child. Hamlet will not step up and claim his essence, claim his purpose.

For better or worse, many of us, at times, are like Hamlet. We too are driven by events and opportunities. We are rarely able to stand apart from the onrushing rush of life’s demands and calmly make a free and reasoned choice. Being born in the Hamptons will shape vastly different opportunities than being born in Outer Mongolia. The good or bad fortune of our birth, the good and bad parenting we received, our genetic aptitude for hand-eye coordination, talent of ear and eye, ability for clear thought, to reason and analyze, the fitness and health of our body, all these factors cast the die before we are ready to choose a direction and form a purpose. And the circumstances around us may vastly limit our options. None of us can conjure genius out of the skillful use of learning styles. Mozart was born not made.

So we are far less free to create ourselves than we might like. And those who rise to greatness often have uncommon advantages.

But whatever our limited choices might be, we still can choose the higher purpose over the lower one. Discerning that higher purpose and choosing it imbues our lives with meaning.

Here are four qualities a higher purpose has to assist you in that discerning process.

First, a higher purpose isn’t self-serving, it transcends the self. The Biblical Prophets were not arguing about the size of slice of the pie they should be getting. They spoke God’s anger at the violation of God’s covenant. The authors of the Declaration of Independence were not doing a cost-benefit analysis of what they would get by rejecting British rule. Give me liberty or give me death. Malalai Joya, the Afghan woman who I heard speak here on Wednesday about the crimes going on against her people, especially women, by the warlords and fundamentalists who’ve been backed by the faith and credit of the US Government, doesn’t advocate to advance her personal wellbeing. She has survived seven assassination attempts made against her. She is working for a greater vision of justice, equality and democracy than the Afghanis knows today.

She is an example of the second quality of a higher purpose. A higher purpose serves the good of the whole rather than any person or group. I’d put all the work being done to stop dumping sewage and toxic waste products in our rivers and landfills in this category. I find the movement to get to zero waste, in which chemist Paul Palmer was an early leader, terrifically exciting. Engineering manufacturing processes so well that the effluent leaving a plant is cleaner than the water that came in, is example of that vision we desperately need for every industrial facility.

A government dedicated to serving a higher purpose would look for ways to care for all people without endangering the ecosystem upon which we all depend for life. It would treat all the peoples of the world without prejudice assuming their inherent dignity and worth. Now that humanity dominates this planet, we must take responsibility to care for its future. The greater good of earth is in our hands right now. I believe we can both love people and live sustainably on this planet.

The third quality of a higher purpose is its timeless nature. A higher purpose will have the same value it had in Sumeria, Greco-Roman times, Biblical times, in Medieval times, the reign of Asoka in India, the Han and the Ming Chinese dynasties, the Kofun and Shogun periods of Japanese history, during the Renaissance, during the Victorian era as it does today. The care for and preservation of life has a timeless quality. Honesty and respect have a timeless quality. The pursuit of knowledge, truth and meaning has a timeless quality. Forming community and connections has a timeless quality. Generosity, compassion and wisdom have timeless value.

Which leads me to the fourth and last quality of a higher purpose I’ll mention: it must, in one way or another, be a creative expression of love. Every higher purpose points us to the greatness of which we are made and have our being. For some that love is identical with God, but that word cannot convey the lived reality, the water in which we swim. What I know is that love is more real than what our senses can report to us and our mind can conceive. The best we can do is ponder it with awe and wonder … and give our lives to its service. I love how Emerson puts it in the Oversoul which we read quotes from this morning together:

When it breaks through our intellect, it is genius, when it breathes through our will, it is virtue, when it flows through our affections, it is love.

For all Hamlet’s angst about what to do, he is very fortunate to have faithful Horatio by his side. Horatio is the hidden-in-plain-sight model of virtue for us to observe and appreciate. From the first scene, Horatio embodies rationality, and calm. He is fearless in the face of the ghost as he demands to know it’s purpose. Hamlet praises Horatio for his virtue and self-control. His stoic bearing, a model of ancient character, doesn’t waver, inspiring Hamlet’s confidence and trust. Yet Horatio feels deeply and loves Hamlet with all his heart.

At the end of the play Horatio, moved by duty and honor, is eager to drain the last poison from the cup that has killed Gertrude so he may accompany Hamlet in death. Hamlet must forbid him this act so Horatio may live to tell his story to the world.

As we see in the contrast between Horatio and Hamlet, discerning a higher purpose is not the same as acting upon it and living it in the world. And many of us do not follow just one higher purpose but have several of them that sometimes compete with each other. My calling to ministry sometimes conflicts with being a husband and father. And those may not square with taking a week of time to do a meditation retreat. Walking the Buddhist Eightfold Path may not always dovetail with a western lifestyle. Our hardest struggles can be to reconcile seemingly conflicting higher purposes.

This is why we need some source of inner guidance to bring it all into balance. Emerson suggests that source, one’s intuition brought to life and refined by being passed through the fire of thought.

In that refining fire, can emerge a common thread. In Emerson words:

One tendency unites them all. The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. (from Self Reliance)

As the late, Rev. Dr. Forrest Church put it:

Is Shakespeare right? Is all the world a stage, with all the men and women merely players? Not exactly. Remember, we help write the play in which we are featured. This is a challenge, because we don’t control our own material. The curtain may fall before we have a chance to perform our monologue or sing our swan song. On the other hand, we needed to follow the script. We can improvise, try out lines, strike poses, experiment while discovering, as best we can, what the play in which we’re featured, is all about. (from Lifelines)

What I know, from the time I’ve strutted on this stage, is the satisfaction and meaning I’ve found, following my intuition and translating it into genuine action. To follow my example, though, would be folly. However, to follow your own inner light, passed through the fire of your thought and your experience, can be an excellent path to finding and fulfilling your higher purpose.

May this congregation be an excellent resource and support for you as you walk that path toward meaning, satisfaction and fulfillment.

Benediction

I close with words by Dostoyevsky

The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”

May our lives be guided by both higher purpose and high resolve to work for the benefit of all beings.