Liberation through Sacrifice

An African Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey to the enthusiasm of the crowdI wonder what really happened when Jesus entered Jerusalem. He can’t have had that many followers traveling with him from Galilee. He might have had some followers in Jerusalem but I’d expect their numbers to be small as he wasn’t a regular visitor or teacher there. For him to stage an impressive entrance into Jerusalem with big crowds of people seems unlikely.

There may have been a large crowd of people there for Passover. That crowd may have been drawn to the spectacle. I wonder if maybe a crowd had gathered to honor another dignitary.  Maybe Jesus got there first riding on his borrowed donkey.  If so, he might have excited the people near the gates with his parody of a triumphal entrance into Jerusalem of a warrior-king on a magnificent steed.  Whatever happened, it makes for a good story with a meaningful message.

What the gospels agree about is Jesus appeared in Jerusalem to criticize the powerful. Clearly, Jesus wanted to announce his presence to the authorities. What scholars tell us is Jesus’ behavior is modeled on the tradition of Jewish Prophets. He most likely came to Jerusalem to announce the coming Kingdom or Realm of God on earth. In the tradition of the Jewish Prophets, Jesus was painfully aware of the betrayal of the Jewish people, especially the poor, by the Jewish leaders and by the Roman overlords. In Jesus’ eyes, they had broken their covenant with God.  They needed to be called back to restore that Covenant.  The center of the Jewish universe was the Temple in Jerusalem.  The holy days of Passover were a time when the many Jews would be there.  It would have been an excellent time to be in Jerusalem to speak prophetically to the powerful.

So what was Jesus’ Prophetic message? We find it stated right at the beginning of Luke as Jesus worships in his home town of Nazareth and reads from Isaiah 61:1-2:

The spirit of the Lord is on me,
And anointed me
to bring good news to the afflicted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim a year of jubilee.

These words describe the mission to which Jesus was called, called to announce the Realm of God to be established on Earth.  Jesus announced this message not just to recommend this way of being as a hypothetical. He was right there saying it was going to happen very, very soon; within the lifetimes of those hearing his voice. God was sick and tired of the way things were and was going to do something about it.  Jesus was, in effect, saying, “Get ready for some big changes folks!”

Jesus knew who was hungry to hear this message. Jesus had been meeting and healing those who were excluded from the Temple by their illnesses that made them unclean. Roman oppression meant that people were being unfairly imprisoned. Jesus knew people who had lost their inherited family land due to being unable to pay heavy Roman and Temple taxes. Farmers couldn’t support themselves or their families without any land to grow food.  They didn’t have progressive income tax nor did they have earned income credit. Pay your taxes … or perish. A year of Jubilee would forgive all these debts and burdens, allowing people to have a second chance.

So Jesus was on a prophetic mission from God proclaiming an immanent reversal.  The high and mighty will brought low and the low shall be lifted up.  This reversal will be a blessing to the poor in spirit, to the meek and gentle, to those who mourn, those who are persecuted and those who hunger and thirst for uprightness and righteousness.  The merciful, the pure of heart, and the peacemakers will get the recognition they deserve.

And sooner or later, Jesus was going to have to go to Jerusalem to speak this truth to power, maybe even triggering the reversal itself.  Yes, he taught and healed as he traveled from town to town, but his primary mission was to proclaim this good news.

So, given his passion for this mission, the question arises, did Jesus go to Jerusalem to do his prophetic duty for the benefit of the suffering Jewish people or did he go anticipating he would be killed then rise again and sit on the right hand of God ready for the last judgement after the apocalypse?

Two of my favorite Biblical scholars think he had hoped to continue his ministry and mission. They think he probably wanted a triumphant exit as well as an entrance from Jerusalem after Passover was complete. Sure, he must have known he was taking great risks by what he was doing, especially turning over the tables of the money changers. Maybe he hoped for and expected a change of heart by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders, as happened when Jonah went to confront Nineveh and all the people repented.

Liberal Catholic scholar John Dominic Crossan notes that Jesus was protected by a crowd who came with him from Galilee but also by “others who had invited him to bring his message of God’s Kingdom-on-Earth to Jerusalem for maximum publicity precisely at Passover.” Every night Jesus would withdraw out of Jerusalem to the relative safety of an area of supporters on the Mount of Olives and Bethany.  Crossan sees in these precautions that:

Jesus was planning, despite those dangerous demonstrations, to leave Jerusalem without getting himself killed. And he almost made it — until Thursday. (source: link)

Scholar Bart Erhman agrees with Crossan, not expecting that Jesus came to Jerusalem to get killed. The problem was, Jesus wasn’t just criticizing the Roman rule.  He had some harsh words for:

the Jewish aristocracy and the priests running the Temple cult in Jerusalem. Jesus saw them not as the representatives of God on earth, but as God’s enemies. When he arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus proclaimed that God would destroy the Temple and wipe out those who were in control of it (the power players in Jerusalem: the high priest, the chief priests, the Sanhedrin, the Sadducees) (source: link)

I think we can be confident that this didn’t make the Jewish authorities friendly to him.  They would be happy to hand him over to the Roman authorities for execution if they got the chance. Pilate would have surely seen him as a problem and it takes no stretch of imagination to expect him to crucify Jesus “as a public example of what happens to those who stir up animosity to the ruling authorities.”

At some point during Jesus’ week in Jerusalem, he must have realized the authorities were planning to capture and kill him. What we have is a story of him in the Garden of Gethsemane, agonizing over the cup of poison that was being handed to him. He could have gone back to Galilee and escaped. He didn’t. Whether or not he came to Jerusalem expecting to die, at the moment he allows Judas to kiss him and betray him, he chooses to sacrifice himself for his hoped for liberation of the Jewish people.

Jesus is hardly unique during this period of time putting his life on the line. There were a number of other prophets who appeared and were killed or banished. Jesus was different. Jesus either survived the ordeal (which is highly unlikely), or somehow his spirit or presence or message was able to survive his death that led to the reconstituting of his community that preserved and carried on his mission.  Whether or not he physically returns from the dead after three days, his prophecy does not die with his body.

While most Unitarian Universalists embrace the ethical teachings of Jesus, we are suspicious of the idea that Jesus sacrificed his life, the way Jews slaughtered animals in the Temple during those days, to atone for sins. We resist the idea that God can only be reconciled with sinful humanity if Jesus offers his own life up as an atoning sacrifice. Some of us find that kind of an ancient God appeased by the shedding of human blood repugnant.

Here is another way to hear the story of Jesus’ sacrifice in the context of the sacrifice of his life for his prophetic mission rather than our personal redemption. Jesus puts his life on the line to show his commitment to that mission. It is a mission that can only go so far during his lifetime, given the Roman occupation of Palestine. But, if his mission outlives him and is taken up again by his disciples and followers, then his death will not be in vain. His hope for the liberation of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized, continues.

So when we recognize and honor Jesus’ sacrifice, when we align with Jesus’ prophetic mission, he can live again in us and in our actions. We become part of his sacrifice for the liberation of humanity, work far from complete.

That work of liberation remains undone partly because Jesus was wrong.  He expected the Realm of God would be established during the lifetime of his disciples. That part of his prophecy is clearly wrong, even disastrously wrong. In the lifetimes of his disciples, things go from bad to worse with the eventual destruction of the Temple by the Romans.  God doesn’t reverse anything and the Jews suffer even more not less afterwards. Jesus’ message probably would have disappeared too, except for Saul from Tarsus who stopped persecuting Christians after having Jesus appear to him and question him about that persecution. So much of the Christianity we have today is colored by St. Paul’s Romanizing influences to make Christianity attractive to them. (Especially removing the requirement for circumcision)

But his followers didn’t give up on the idea that the Realm of God was coming. Christians have been expecting the second coming to be imminent for the last two thousand years.  Thanks to Wikipedia, here are some of the more entertaining predictions that haven’t come to pass:

  • Irenaeus believed Jesus would return in the year 500. One prediction was based on the dimensions of Noah’s ark.
  • Pope Sylvester II expected the Millennium Apocalypse at the end of the Christian Millennium, January 1, 1000. Various Christian clerics predicted the end of the world on this date.
  • Mathematician Michael Stifel calculated the Judgement Day to arrive on October 19, 1533 at 8am.
  • Emanuel Swedenborg thought it had actually happened during his lifetime in 1757 except that it had happened in the spiritual world. He also believed he had daily visions of Jesus over the course of 30 years.  Jesus’ return was not in the flesh, but in His Holy Spirit.
  • The most recent failed expectation was September 28, 2015 by Mark Biltz when there was a lunar eclipse. This comes from the Blood Moon Prophecy of John Hagee.

If you’d like to mark your calendar for the next prediction, psychic Jeane Dixon thinks it could happen as early as 2020.

I say, don’t bother. Jesus was wrong about predicting the coming Realm of God as a moment in time. What Jesus might not be wrong about is he participated in initiating a change in consciousness about how people should treat each other that is gradually changing the world.

Unitarian Universalist values as written into our Principles align well with the essentials of Jesus’ vision of the Realm of God.  Jesus’ radical and uncompromising love we express in our first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Jesus’ demand for justice we express in our call for justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Jesus’ vision of world transformation we show through our goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

These values are not just found in Unitarian Universalism but also today in contemporary Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and other world religions as well as earth centered traditions.

And still the work of liberation initiated by Jesus’ sacrifice isn’t done.

So as this holy week begins, may we reflect on how Jesus’ prophetic mission has touched our lives and moved us. If we are so moved by him, may we align with the good news he claimed from fellow prophet Isaiah. I’ll close by repeating the verses:

The spirit of the Lord is on me,
And anointed me
to bring good news to the afflicted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim a year of jubilee.

Benediction

Go out with these words by Dag Hammarskjöld,

“Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who ‘forgives’ you–out of love–takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness, therefore, always entails a sacrifice.

The price you must pay for your own liberation through another’s sacrifice is that you, in turn, must be willing to liberate in the same way, irrespective of the consequences to yourself.”

Reflections on Middle East: Not Making It Worse

Recently I’ve been reading many expressions of fear and anxiety in the social media universe. I’ve read reports that Americans are more on edge than they have been since 9/11.  Although the media seems to have become desensitized to having a mass shooting at least once a day, the attack in San Bernardino has touched a nerve.

The site of the attack is what I think is so disturbing.  The target, a social service organization having a Christmas party, has a randomness to it.  A potential next attack could be almost any target.  I read messages expressing a new awareness that if people are in a movie theater, the mall, in a big box outlet or a grocery store, they are in a space that could be a target. We are starting to get a taste of what it is like in many parts of the world where a trip to a public marketplace could mean encountering a suicide bomber and death.

This anxiety is increasing our attention to what is happening in the Middle-East.  ISIS is no longer focused on attacks in just that region. Now that they have attacked the French, they have declared their intention to come after Americans as well.  Suicide bombings and indiscriminant mass violence mean their followers are willing to die for a cause many of us don’t understand or appreciate.

So, what do the people who form the leadership of ISIS really want?  They declare they are creating an Islamic state that will encompass all Muslims worldwide (except Shia Muslims they consider rejecters or “rafida”). To do this, they are planning the overthrow of all the existing governments in the area and establish a “caliphate.”

This isn’t a new idea, one called the Abbasid caliphate existed from 750 to 1258 C.E. Khaled Diab in an op-ed piece in the New York Times described this as a time of relative diversity in the region, as well as dramatic advances in science and mathematics – in sharp contrast to ISIS’ violent fundamentalist version of their own imagination of a caliphate.

Diab thinks the appearance of ISIS is the result of many failures of European diplomacy that started with the destruction of the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago.  These failures cleared the way for the emergence of a nihilistic fundamentalism.  They rejected the sinful ways of the Western unbelievers, and corrupt, oppressive Arab states.  They advocated a return to a vision of a pure Islamic state as outlined by the Prophet himself.

As Muslims have not rallied behind them in the last year, and they have come under heavy military resistance from the West, ISIS has become more radical, and more extreme, further isolating them from the international community … which might explain their increasing focus on end times thinking.

ISIS believes a meadow outside a small village in Dabiq, Syria, will be the site of a decisive battle described in a prophecy attributed to Muhammad.  The prediction they revere describes that meadow as the place Muslims will defeat Rome and trigger the Day of Judgment.  If you can’t defeat your enemy militarily, then, at least you can set up the circumstances for God to be recruited to do the work for you.

Part of me wants to just dismiss this kind of crazy talk.  Why would this insignificant bit of real estate matter that much in the grand scheme of things except to the hapless people who live there?  Sadly, this kind of apocalyptic thinking is hardly unusual in world religions.  It even has a name: eschatology, the description of the end of history when the Day of Judgment comes, the righteous finally triumph over evil, and God evens up all the scores. In these prophecies there is likely to be a place identified where an epic battle takes place and finally brings history to an end.

A few signs in the Quran that the Judgment Day is coming include: the Splitting of the Moon, a time when honesty is lost, when a wicked member of a tribe becomes a ruler, and the sun rises in the West. I expect most of us are aware of Christianity’s version of this that happens after the second coming of Christ.  There is a whole book of the Bible called Revelations that outlines some of the disturbing events that will happen when the four horsemen of the apocalypse appear to begin the battle.  Both Christianity and Islam find their thinking rooted in Jewish tradition.  Jews also wait for the Messiah to come, fight that final battle, set things right again and end all oppression.

Because eschatological thinking can be found in just about every religion, I wonder if it is baked into our genetic code somehow.  When times are tough and injustice and oppression reign, I wonder if it is deep human urge to want to project the resolution to suffering out to some glorious time in the future when the wicked will be punished and the righteous shall be victorious.

I wonder if this kind of thinking got world leaders to a place they would be willing to unanimously commit to the Paris Climate Accord.  This is really a landmark moment in dealing with humanity’s impact on the environment to celebrate.

But dangers still loom ahead as we are already in dangerous territory with the current level of carbon dioxide in the air.  The effects at 400 parts per million may not follow linearly at 450 or 500.  They be far worse or may not be linear at all.  What we can be fairly sure of is things will be different than they are today.  And buying real estate in Florida is a risky long term investment.

We’re even seeing this kind of end-times thinking in the high tech world with talk of a “technological singularity.”  This singularity, that could happen in the lifetime of some younger people here this morning, might happen when intelligent machines develop recursive self-improvement methods, that surpass human intelligence.  Google is on the fast track that direction right now with Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana in hot pursuit.  Machine intelligence could then outstrip our intellectual capacity as it continually improves maybe at an exponential rate.  These super-intelligent machines may then decide they don’t need us anymore and eliminate humanity as a troublesome artifact.

So far, Unitarian Universalists haven’t indulged much in eschatological thinking.  We certainly are not going to take the Abrahamic religion’s sacred texts literally.  We are hardly immune to gloom and doom thinking however.  The second half of the twentieth century after the first atom bomb explosion was terrifying.>>>

As the Soviet Union and the United States built more and more nuclear missiles and had B-52s on constant alert, World War Three seemed just around the corner with a full exchange of thousands of these bombs almost inevitable.  Anyone remember the discussion of Nuclear Winter that might result from such an exchange?  (Possible solution to climate change?  Maybe not …).

Thankfully the seventh principle, the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part, has become our frame for envisioning the future.  Rather than seeing ourselves dominators and domesticators of nature as our ancestors did when they encountered wilderness, more and more, we see ourselves as moving toward the future as one interdependent part of a healthy ecosystem, without which we cannot survive.

We also have a vision of the world we want to create that is in our Purposes and Principles: The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.  Rather than seeing one civilization triumphing over all the others and being blessed by God with a millennium of peace and prosperity, our vision is of a pluralistic world of diverse people worshipping many different Gods or none at all living together in peace with mutual respect and appreciation sharing in harmony the bounty of our planet without taking more than is sustainable.

I’m happy to report that this same vision can also be found in other religious traditions as well.  There are Evangelical Christians to take seriously being stewards of the Earth.  Liberal Protestant Christians also take sustainability seriously as a goal as we build the Beloved Community on Earth as it is in Heaven. The Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change is a rich source of interfaith work. There are many values we share to be found in that document. I would dearly like to make common cause with the Catholics to work on Climate Change as they are a mighty force who might be able to change hearts and minds in places of power around the world.

In the Islamic world we have many potential partners for building a sustainable world. Allah commands human beings to avoid doing mischief and wasting resources. These acts cause degradation of the environment. Muslims believe the privilege to exploit natural resources was given to humanity on a guardianship basis.  This implies the right to use another person’s property, collectively viewed as God’s property, on the promise that it will not be damaged or destroyed… According to the Qur’an, environmental conservation is a religious duty as well as social obligation, and not an optional matter. The exploitation of a particular natural resource is directly related to accountability and maintenance of the resource. (source: http://www.ecomena.org/sustainability-islam/)

Judaism also is a rich source for sustainable thinking and action. Mirele Goldsmith expresses this eloquently, when she writes:

Jews may disagree about the application of Jewish ethical teachings to various problems, but all streams of Judaism hold fast to a few key moral principles; that life is sacred, that every person has dignity and value, and that it is our human task to contribute to the redemption of the world. There is a purpose to Jewish life that goes beyond pursuit of our self-interest as individuals and even as a collective…

Jewish text and teachings implore [them] to:

work toward a sustainable future for all humanity by living out the values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedek (justice), derekh eretz(civility and humanity), chesed (mercy and kindness) and others. (both quotes – source: http://jpeoplehood.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/peoplehood14.pdf)

Cultures under stress and experiencing oppression are much more likely to retrench in their eschatology. Without a vision of redressing the grievances of today and finding a better life in the here and now, they are more likely to project hope for resolution of injustice into the future. And that abandonment of a better life today makes people more willing to sacrifice their lives in a ball of fire.

The real enemy is disrespect, marginalization, and hopelessness. So much of Western policy in the last 100 years has created the situation we find ourselves in.  The partitioning of the Middle-East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and then the creation of the state of Israel, laudable and reasonable as it has been to the rest of the world, was imposed on these areas against their will. Many of the problems there have their roots in politics rather than religious differences. Religious extremism can arise as a struggle for meaning and hope where other avenues have been cut off.

What can we do now? We certainly can’t condone ISIS’ extremism that has no respect for universal human rights.  The oppression of minorities and women goes against all that we hold dear in the charter of the United Nations and our vision of world community. The nations of the world are obligated to resist them and assist the development of a more just and tolerant form of governance to replace them in the region.

And that also goes for what is happening in Palestine too. There is a lack of respect and appreciation of human rights in that conflict as well.  While the issues are deep and complicated, the nations of the world cannot accept the status quo there either. Both sides must be driven to continue a peace and resolution process that results in a solution that respects the human rights of all people involved and brings about a solution both sides can live with.  We can’t know what that solution will be, but we can know that the current state of affairs isn’t acceptable either.

Most important of all we need to be clear that we care about the people first, their security and health concerns, and a fundamental respect for their religious values and beliefs. Most of the people in the region, I believe, do have an appreciation that a level of religious tolerance is critical to any solution in the region.

We must energetically support our evolving eco-centric sustainable vision of the world because it will address the security concerns of every nation through a focus on sustainability rather than exploitation.  Just that change of commitment could change everything about the way nations relate to each other, if we see ourselves as part of a whole rather than as a self-interested region. The religious vision we are incubating in our congregation is a vision of how the world might be able to create a viable future.

And, thankfully, it is one way forward that probably will do the least harm, and not make things worse.

Meditation for December Holiday Stress

 

A Meditation for December Holiday Stress

May we let go, if only for this moment, of mentally juggling our to-do lists.
May we put aside, just right now, any obsessions with planning and preparing.
May we also hold back desires and expectations, fears and anxieties,
and just be present to this moment right now.

While the holiday preparations and festivities may be keeping us busy,
they need not occupy all of our lives,
to the point of threatening our well-being.
Let this moment be one of rest, release and relaxation.

As we enjoy the escape, for the moment, from snow and ice,
and delight in spring-like temperatures,
while the West Coast gets some of the rain and snow they need,
May we connect to the spirit of the holidays within.
May we remember that spending and consuming is secondary.
May family, friends, co-workers and the renewal of relationships
be as important as the decorating, shopping and wrapping.

In the coming silence:

Let us rest, just for a moment,.
Let us honor the pregnant emptiness before creative emergence.
Let us discover the peace and ease that are already here.

A Season of Anticipation

Yes, the time is near for decorating the house, lighting candles, hanging ornaments on a tree, making festive foods, and celebrating.  Rather than fairies and sugar plums, new electronic games, cell phones and action figures are occupying today’s children’s heads.

Adults can have their own anticipation that goes beyond what gifts might be coming their way.  They hope for joyous emotions to be the result of their preparations whether throwing a holiday party, or finding the right gift.  Our merchants encourage the belief that the perfect gift will open the heart of the receiver and fill them with joy and happiness.

Seasonal wisdom comes to us through our pagan ancestors to cope with the lack of sun and the cold weather.  They knew that transforming the anticipation of the longest night into a celebration of light, generosity and food would ease our minds and carry us through to new hope in the new year.

We are hardly strangers to the pleasure of anticipation.  Novelist Iris Johansen says it well in the observation, “anticipation makes pleasure more intense.” When I was a boy, I remember waiting for a Schwinn ten speed bicycle.  I saved my allowance and the money from odd jobs my parents were willing to pay me to do.  That Schwinn was my ticket to freedom from my parents’ control.  When I got that shiny, green bike, I day-dreamed, I’d be able to go wherever I wanted to go whenever I wanted to go.

Half the fun of vacations, at least for me, is the planning stage.  I love looking through the travel guidebooks deciding where I want to go and what I want to do.  I enjoy the careful planning so there is enough time, but not too much, to spend at each site of interest (with adequate travel time).  And there needs to be time for the spontaneous activity too that comes up – especially places to eat.  It is hard to anticipate the smell, or attractive setting that pulls us into a restaurant.

Anticipation is a big part of the experience of pregnancy.  It is eight months of wondering who this little being growing in the womb will be.  Each movement or kick becomes a source of speculation.  A space is lovingly prepared for this new being to occupy as space is made in the lives of the parents to provide the anticipated care.

Yet anticipation can also be quite difficult and unpleasant.  I remember the day my application to Starr King School for the Ministry was being considered.  I took the day off from work because I couldn’t concentrate.  I took a hike in Muir Woods among the ancient redwood trees north of San Francisco to calm my mind.

The biggest source of anticipation for Unitarian Universalist seminarians is seeing the Ministerial Fellowship Committee.  This Unitarian Universalist Association committee reviews and decides who will become a credentialed UU minister.  After a one hour interview, they decide if the candidate will be accepted into fellowship … or not.

The tension of applying to a school, waiting for grades to be posted, waiting for an employer to respond, waiting for the result from a medical test or scan, making an offer on a house, or proposing marriage are examples of life events almost all of us have endured. And those of us with children know the excruciating anticipation of childbirth waiting for that little being to appear.

Sometimes that anticipation isn’t rewarded.  Acceptance isn’t offered, the grades are lower than expected, the job isn’t offered or the test comes back positive (… which is negative) or the proposal isn’t accepted.  And sometimes the pregnancy is lost.  What makes these situations so much more difficult is the emotional energy we’ve invested in the anticipation process and our hope for a good outcome.

One way of understanding anticipation is as a consequence of the process of creating expectations.  In our “live in the moment” world today, expectations have gotten a bit of a bad rap.  Eckhart Tolle declares, “People don’t realize that now is all there ever is; there is no past or future except as memory or anticipation in your mind.” I hear that contemporary critique in Stoic philosopher Seneca saying, “Expecting is the greatest impediment to living.  In anticipation of tomorrow, today is lost.” I hear that critique in Anne Lamott’s quip, “Expectations are resentments under construction.”  The message is, lower your expectations and you will not be disappointed.

This is especially true of marriage relationships.  I caution couples in the preparation for their weddings about the transition from courtship to matrimony.  During courtship, expectations hide in the subconscious knowing they are not particularly attractive to the other person.  After the wedding, however, expectations suddenly appear that each partner sometimes didn’t know they had.  They appear first as emotional reactions before they are recognized as expectations.  This is especially true for new parents.   A great deal of the strife in marriage comes as a consequence of unexpressed and negotiated expectations.  This is one of the downsides to eliminating gender role expectations – everything has to be negotiated.

Yet expectations can be very good too.  I doubt any of us would want a job without a clear job description.  (This turns out to be one of the more challenging aspects of ministry) We want to know what standards and expectations will be used to evaluate our performance. Setting expectations of our own performance can stimulate the attainment of our goals.

This has become a source of controversy when it comes to parenting.  The “tiger mom” approach is to set high expectations and drive children to achieve them through intimidation, fear and punishment.  The more liberal approach has been to set “effort” expectations, negotiated with the child to stimulate their adoption of the expectation.  However expectations are introduced, just about every parent knows that teaching children how to set expectations of themselves and follow through to achieving their goals will support their success in life.

Religions have traditionally had the role of shaping us toward social ends by setting expectations of our behavior.  Judaism stands out in this regard by giving Jews 613 mitzvot or commandments collectively known as the Law of Moses.  There are 365 things an observant Jew should not do, one for every day of the year.  And there are 248 things an observant Jew should do, one for every bone and organ in the body.  Thanks to Wikipedia, I had a chance to look through the list (ranked from most important to least) this week.  Some I’m sure we’d all agree should be avoided like lying, killing and stealing. There were a few others that seem questionable, like “To break the neck of the donkey if the owner does not intend to redeem it,” and to refrain from “crossbreeding animals,” and wearing “a cloth woven of wool and linen.”  I do like this one however, “Not to appear at the Temple without offerings.”

Christianity is lighter on the rules but still sets the expectation of following Jesus’ example.  That in and of itself can be pretty difficult.  I think there are often better options than getting oneself crucified.  I’m not sure turning the other cheek is always the right answer either, especially in the case of domestic violence.  But the spirit of Jesus, to make love the foundation of a community and the way we strive to relate to one another is a very worthy expectation.

Rather than setting rigid rule based expectations, Jesus was more interested in motivations. Our inner motivations matter as much as what we actually do.  Not just the act of murder is wrong. Being angry at your brother and insulting him can bring the expectation of judgment. One who looks lustfully has already committed adultery in the heart.  Fasting and charity should be done in secret without the expectation of public reward.

What about expectations and Unitarian Universalism?  We’re probably the lightest on imposing rules and expectations on our members.  Currently, when one decides they would like to become a member, we ask three things of them (which is clearly stated on our Intent to Join form):

  1. Participation on Sunday morning;
  2. involvement in and helping with our activities;
  3. Financial support of the congregation.

There are no beliefs, dogmas, doctrines, rituals or rules that are required of being a member here.  Even the Purposes and Principles that guide our congregational life are optional on the personal level.  You don’t have to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  You are not obligated to follow a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  You don’t have to subscribe to the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all or the use of the democratic process.  You can stay off the interdependent web if you don’t want to get stuck there.  This congregation takes the offer of the free search for truth and meaning very seriously.  So do I.

The problem this kind of individual freedom creates in a liberal congregation like ours is a bit of a crisis of expectations.  We don’t demand a great deal in exchange for being welcomed into this community.  Participation, involvement and financial support doesn’t necessarily create a strong, caring, committed and visionary congregation. How do we, therefore, bond with each other as a cohesive community rather than being atomistic billiard balls bouncing off one another?

Just because we don’t impose expectations on each other, doesn’t mean we don’t invite people to make commitments to one another.  The difference is we choose our level of commitment voluntarily.  One can be a lightly committed member here as well as a deeply committed member.  The choice is ours to make individually. We commit ourselves to expectations voluntarily by saying yes to them.

We find a deep sense of meaning and belonging by finding common connection between our identity and the values of this congregation. We also grow, develop and create our own identity in tension with the identity of our congregation. And over time, both the congregation and each individual continue to grow and develop in an evolutionary process. Unlike a revealed religious tradition that cannot adapt to a changing world, our approach responds to the advance of knowledge and understanding driven by reason and scientific discovery.

That process though doesn’t happen all by itself.  Each person must be engaged with that growth and development process.  That happens through the stimulation from and reflection on the message from the pulpit on Sunday morning. That happens in growth oriented small groups like Meaning Matters, Small Group Ministry and Wellspring.  It happens in our religious education program for children, youth and adults. It happens in our many discussion groups like our Philosophy Group, book discussion groups, All Sides Considered, and most recently, our White Privilege Study Group, and our different Social Responsibility groups and task forces.  We create many ways for people to get involved and to challenge their limits.

Rather than conforming our inner life to a revealed perfection, both our congregation and each individual grows and develops toward a greater wholeness and integration. Each person is discouraged from standing on the sidelines.  All of us grow, develop, create and transform our congregation through mutual effort. I can’t do it by myself, the UUA can’t do it by itself, our visionary leaders can’t do it by themselves, no individual UU no matter how brilliant can do it by themselves. We are part of an organic process of spiritual evolution, not knowing where we came from or where we are going.

But for now, we can sense the right direction and follow it, knowing future generations may reap the reward of our efforts.

That is my challenge for you this morning.  Don’t stay on the sidelines. Get engaged in this vitalizing growth and development process.  Wrestle with the parts of our tradition you don’t like but also support the parts with which you find affinity.  Let us be about creating this living tradition together … and by doing so, fulfill the highest expectations of what a liberal religious tradition can be.

That is what I anticipate we can do together.

A Sensual Faith

GoetheLike to go to Art Galleries?  I do.

When I was in Europe this past spring, I visited a lot of them.

Second question.  Do you appreciate every painting you see in a gallery?  Probably not – some attract us and others will not.

I was thinking about this in some of the major galleries I visited.  I waited in a long line to get into one famous gallery in Frankfurt, Germany.  They had on display many well-known masterpieces.  I was delighted to get to see them in person.  I also noticed there were paintings that I didn’t like and didn’t want to give more than a passing glance.  I wondered about my neglect of them, thinking I was probably missing something.  The curators who selected them out of many others they could have put up must have seen something in the work I wasn’t appreciating.

After all, I’m not an art connoisseur. This summer, I was reminded of my lack of artistic sophistication visiting the National Gallery in Washington DC with a childhood friend who teaches Art History.  She helped me recognize dimensions of meaning in what we were seeing that I had missed.

That said, I’ve also noticed some paintings and sculptures have more universal appeal.  Like that strange smile on the Mona Lisa’s face that fascinates people, some of the works I saw on my travels had people gathered around studying them, sitting nearby and contemplating them.  These works had a dimension that the other ones didn’t seem to have;  a dimension that spoke to something deep within them.

Whether a painting or a beautiful song, an other-worldly meal, or a smell that awakens powerful memories, our senses can give us access to the depths of our being; access to the sources of our faith through direct personal experience.

With Joann Wolfgang von Goethe’s help,  we’ll explore this process with a quote from his writings:

Simple Imitation, Manner, Style by Goethe (1789)

Imitation

Assume that an aspiring artist with some talent begins to paint natural objects after only brief preliminary training in basic techniques.  He copies forms with care and diligence and imitates colors as closely as he can, taking pains never to deviate from nature, beginning and completing every picture with an eye to nature.  This person will always be an estimable artist because he will necessarily achieve an incredible degree of accuracy, and his works will be assured, vital and diverse.

If we analyze such a course of development carefully, we are led to the conclusion that this method is suitable for a capable but limited talent in treating pleasant but limited subjects…This type of imitation would, then, be pursued by calm, conscientious persons of moderate talent who paint still-lifes.

Manner

However, such a technique is usually too pedantic or inadequate for the artist.  He perceives in a multitude of subjects a unifying harmony which he can only reproduce in painting by sacrificing details.  He is impatient with drawing letter by letter what nature spells out for him.  He invents his own method, creates his own language to express in his own way what he has grasped with his soul.  As a result he gives a distinctive form to an object that he has often copied, without now actually seeing it before him or even recalling exactly what it looked like in nature.

Now his art has become a language that expresses his spirit directly and characteristically.  And just as anyone who thinks for himself will order and formulate his ideas on moral issues differently from others, so any such artist will see, apprehend and imitate the world differently.  He will approach the things of the world with a greater or lesser degree of deliberateness or spontaneity and will accordingly recreate them with circumspection or with casualness… [Individual] elements must be sacrificed if the general character of the whole is to be adequately expressed, as for example in landscapes…

Style

Through imitation of nature, through the effort of creating a general language, through painstaking and thorough study of diverse subject matter, the artist finally reaches the point where he becomes increasingly familiar with the characteristic and essential features of things.  He will now be able to see some order in the multiplicity of appearances and learn to juxtapose and recreate distinct and characteristic forms.  Then art will have reached its highest possible level, which is style and equal to the highest achievement of mankind.

While simple imitation therefore depends on a tranquil and affectionate view of life, manner is a reflection of the ease and competence with which the subject is treated.  Style, however, rests on the most fundamental principle of cognition, on the essence of things.

Sermon

I enjoy taking photographs.  I’ve enjoyed photography since I was a small child when I got my first brownie box camera. I did video production in high school.  But I neglected this interest after I graduated and through the 1980’s.  I got back into taking pictures after our son Andrew was born in 1992.  I got a fancy Sony 8mm video camera and recorded a great deal of his early life.  Sadly, art is often in the eye of the beholder. Much as Philomena and I get teary eyed watching these videos, our son Andrew is far more jaded.  I’m not sure if he will want to keep them after both of us are dead.  This is why we need grandchildren, at some point, who, I hope, will be interested in them and want to save them for posterity.

I spent a little time looking back over my collection of photographs this week looking for some stellar ones I might be able to show you that are magnificent works of art.  Can’t say I found much that might meet Goethe’s standards unfortunately.  Still, as I looked through the pictures, I noticed some had more depth and power than others, beyond stimulating my sense of sentimentality (which is pretty strong by the way).  The ones I found the most interesting were the ones of people, particularly those who are no longer among the living, especially the pictures that expressed, in some way, a distinctive element of their personality.

Another factor, however, in my response to viewing them, might be an experience of looking at my old pictures with new eyes.  That new way of looking started with my visit to Goethe’s house in Wiemar, Germany during my sabbatical time in Europe this past spring.  Because I don’t speak German, I discovered the easiest way for me to learn about and appreciate German culture was by experiencing German art, sculpture and architecture.

My sister lives in Jena which is the next small city over to the east from Wiemar, both in what was the former East Germany.  Wiemar has a long and interesting history including being the home to the Bauhaus movement.  Goethe arrived there in 1775 at the invitation of the young Duke Carl August, prince of the Saxony-Weimar city state.  The Duke became a patron of the young artist/poet/lawyer whose first novel titled The Sorrows of Young Werther had recently become an overnight sensation.

Goethe collected an enormous amount of art for the Duke and himself, some of which is on display in his house.  During the tour, we walked past plaster replicas of famous Greek and Roman sculpture.  The tour guide explained that Goethe was so taken with the classical art he saw on a trip to Italy, that he wanted to have them in his home so he could contemplate them.  By seeing the art again and again, he could discover more and more about the art and deepen his appreciation and understanding of the pieces.  For Goethe, access to the divine, to the eternal, could come through being an art connoisseur.

This approach to art both surprised, interested, and challenged me.  As someone who has not spent a lot of my life contemplating or creating visual art, the manner and style aspects that Goethe wrote about wasn’t familiar to me.  So I set about looking for more information than the tour guide could offer or was supplied in the museum next to his house.  This search hasn’t been very easy as Google didn’t give me what I was looking for.  I’m grateful to have a good university library here that did help me discover what I was looking for.

The piece of Goethe’s writing I found I’d like to share with you is a dialogue between an artistic advocate of innovative approaches to theater scenery and a resistant spectator who wants the scenery to appear true to life.  After all, the spectator observes in the dialogue, great pains are taken to create the scenery and costumes to recreate a particular period and setting to transport us through the realism.  The advocate challenges the spectator to think about going to the opera.  Yes, realistic scenery and costumes might suggest a time and place … but in real life, do people walk around singing all the time?  Do they fight singing and die singing?  That is hardly realistic. >>>

Yet, rather than feeling deluded, real emotions and familiar situations are communicated that feel authentic and transport us into the story, to the point of rapture if the production is done well.  So, even though outwardly the art may not be true to life, it communicates an inner logic we recognize as a great work of art.  Goethe makes his point in the closing words of the advocate:

“A great work of art is a work of the human mind, and thus also a work of nature.  But because the work of art treats its diverse subject matter as a unified whole and reveals the significance and dignity of even the most ordinary subjects, it goes beyond nature.  A work of art can only be comprehended by a mind that has been formed and developed harmoniously, because only such a mind can relate to what is excellent and complete within itself.  The average art lover has no concept of that.  He treats the work of art like a piece of merchandise.  But the true connoisseur sees not only the realism of what is imitated but also the excellence in the selection of subject matter, the imaginativeness in composition, and the supra-natural spirit of this micro-world of art.  He feels that he must rise to the level of the artist in order to enjoy the work, that he must focus his scattered energies on the work of art, that he must live with it, must see it again and again, and thus achieve a higher level of awareness.”  (from On Realism in Art 1798)

Only through the highest artistic development of style, as described by Goethe in the reading, do we achieve a quality of art that gives us access to the greater depths of reality, to truth, goodness and beauty, that are expressions of the divine in forms comprehensible to humanity.  Yet not everyone can recognize these deeper dimensions.  Some can only see the surface appearance of the art, take pleasure in the resemblance to reality and miss the rest.  Others go inward and notice the effect the art has on them and begins to see the connections between the parts.  Only the educated connoisseur of style can use the art as a doorway to the divine, to the infinite depths of meaning embedded in a masterpiece.

Of course the visual arts need not be the only way to access these artistic depths.  Many of us have musical pieces that we can listen to over and over that continue to speak to us in novel ways. Sacred church music, like some classical requiems, and masses can do that for me.  I know others of you have favorite operas that connect you with eternal themes of living and dying.  Great architecture that we experience again and again can also speak to our depths.  Even flavors of a masterfully prepared meal can transport us to a higher level of being.

Another, more immediate artistic expression comes to us through movement.  From the outer beauty of dancers in perfect synchronization to the inward journey of self-discovery in a yoga pose, the body can express our inner life more effectively than words can.  This past week, I was at a workshop for UU ministers learning to move with coaching from an acting instructor.  The way he moved his body as he worked with us, enthralled me with its expressive power, cultivated, I’m sure, over many years of training.  He was able to move in a way I didn’t need to hear his words to know what was spontaneously happening inside him.

Okay, so if art, music, and movement are such engaging ways to connect with the depths of existence, why are sermons the central focus for our Sunday services?  Why are we so dependent on words to reach for the ineffable?

Unitarian Universalism has inherited a discomfort with religious artistic expression through our Protestant heritage.  A big part of the schism with Catholicism 500 years ago was over how we should be in relationship with the divine. Should it be through the Church … or through the Bible?   These reformers rejected Catholic sculpture, art, architecture, sacred music and liturgy for the revealed word.  “Solo Scriptorium,” Scripture alone they cried.  All we need to be saved and serve the Lord will be found in the holy word.  People shouldn’t get their religion from statues, stained glass windows and Stations of the Cross.  They need to learn to read it for themselves and have unmediated access to truth; access not manipulated to serve the Church’s agendas, say selling indulgences to get your dead relatives into heaven that then financed opulent splendor in Rome.  In that context, art became a tool of oppression against the masses.

Institutionally, Unitarianism and Universalism inherited this suspicion of sacred artistic expression.  Our Puritan forbears whom we rejected, weren’t the greatest art lovers – more the opposite.  They were fearful of art’s ability to stimulate lustful feelings and intemperate behavior.  Puritans wanted their followers to focus their minds on God rather than the sinful world.  While we changed our theology, we only started questioning our reliance on words in the twentieth century.

My purpose today is not to criticize or denigrate the power of words to inspire us.  My purpose is to expand our appreciation for the arts as a way to enrich and enliven our religious life.  Matt, Leah and I worked together with Thandeka a couple of years ago to enhance our access to emotion during our services.  I’m wondering this morning if our austere Puritan heritage is still hanging on to us.

I wonder if we honor our senses enough as sources of inspiration.  While we still value worship spaces like this one for their ability to lift up our spirits, today many of us would be happy to worship in a quiet forest or on a beach or on a mountain top as well as we might here in Emerson Community Hall.  A candle lit bedroom with soft music playing as two lovers embrace can be as holy a space as a high pulpit.  And religious ritual, in a spacious cathedral filled with iconic art and sacred music, can stimulate erotic, ecstatic feelings that make us feel a sense of being one with the holy.  We need not make a division between the sacred and the secular

That said, I’m wondering today if others of you, like me, have neglected the role of art as a doorway through which we can develop our religious lives.  That visit to Goethe’s home woke me up to a sensual dimension of my faith I was neglecting. What I’ve noticed looking around the walls in my office is the need to change what I’m displaying that is not inspiring me as I look at the pictures….  Not that there is anything wrong with my art on the office walls mind you.  They just don’t have the quality of style that Goethe talks about.

If you look around your walls at home, you may have the same experience.

So my challenge for you today is to reflect on your relationship with the arts, particularly the visual arts.  Do you relate to it as mere ornamentation or representation? Or does it function in a deeper way in your life; in a way that could feed your growth and development?  What kinds of changes might introduce this artistic dimension to your life?  Something as simple as putting some great art on your computer desktop; adding a provocative painting to your wall; possibly finding a spot for a replica of a great classic Greek or Roman Statue might be a way to begin to contemplate it and explore the deeper meanings art could have for your life.

Whatever you do or don’t do, remember that our spiritual lives are nourished by far more than words alone.   All the world’s scriptures are not enough.  We need our senses too, to nourish our faith.

Benediction

I close with this Goethe quote:

One who possesses art and science has religion;
One who does not possess them, needs religion.

May our appreciation of art
as the highest development of our senses
Help guide the growth and development of our faith.

Unitarian Universalist … Brand Identity?

In February, the Unitarian Universalist Association Headquarters, in its final days on 25 Beacon Street in Boston, announced a new logo for our Association. It replaced the star burst chalice, that has been used for the last nine years as the UUA’s logo. It replaced the first logo we used for 20 years starting in 1985. Many of us will continue to identify that one as our Unitarian Universalist symbol that will be different from whatever the UUA cooks up as its logo today and in the future.

In announcing the new logo and the new look for the UUA web site, the press release talked about “brand identity.” Those are fighting words. Here is what was written:

We asked UUs from across the country, of all ages with various levels of involvement in our faith, to answer three questions: Who are we? What do we do? And why it matters? From these conversations, and more, we began to form our brand identity for the future of our religious movement.

Using marketing style focus groups to develop our “brand identity” and introducing us to a very different looking logo sent shock waves through the small pool of UU’s who pay attention to what the UUA does. The commenters on Facebook and the UU blogging community went wild with offense and criticism. “What have they done to our chalice?” “And what is that odd shape that holds the flame?” “And just who do they think they are defining our identity for us?” Messing with our identity and putting it next to the word “brand” was enough to get UU ministers hot and bothered too.

This humble minister was not one of the nattering nabobs of negativism. Now I do of course have reactions and opinions. I just sympathize with what the UUA is trying to do. As the chair of the UUA’s good governance committee, I’m a close observer of both the UUA Board and Staff. I know many of the leaders personally, and appreciate their struggles and intentions. And my Insight meditation practice has cultivated in me a little institutional compassion.

This brand identity language I think comes from our UUA President, Peter Morales, who worked as a newspaper editor and publisher. He is very aware of the advertizing and marketing world. I sympathize with his position. The UUA Board has charged him with growing the membership of our congregations, something he doesn’t have a lot of control over. He must regularly report to the Board about how he is succeeding or failing at achieving this “end” (or goal – see 1.0.1.2-g). Being someone who has worked extensively in the business world, Morales knows if more visitors show up (and be welcomed and included effectively) in our congregations, they are more likely to grow. One way to increase that traffic is to market Unitarian Universalism more effectively. In business, this is referred to as developing recognition, identification and loyalty to your brand. It is the one thing the UUA can do nationally that we can’t do locally.

The problem is, they talked to something like 50 Unitarian Universalists in focus groups around the country to decide how to put this campaign together. For the UUA to sit in Boston consulting with their “top-notch branding agency” to assess what identity they want to project as Unitarian Universalism is a little presumptuous. I understand why they think they can do it. From where they sit, they have the bird’s eye view of what is happening in our congregations all across the country. They see trends in our movement that we in our congregations don’t see. Our congregation here in Albany, New York, looks and feels very different than the congregation in San Diego, California or Columbus, Ohio. I get that sense by reading their mission statements and knowing their ministers. Leaders in each congregation may think they know who and what Unitarian Universalism is and is not … without seeing the larger view. This is especially true of our ministers who talk about our identity in the pulpit every week.

Here is the disconnect. Individual congregations reserve the right to define ourselves rather than have any other congregation or our association of congregations tell us who we are, what we do, and why it matters. That fierce congregational individualism is what the term “Congregational Polity” is all about.

This identity tension between individual congregations and the larger association has been going on from the very beginning. Yet reviewing our history reveals consistent patterns. Historian Earl Morse Wilber’s analysis of Unitarianism came up with this conclusion. What defines us is a commitment to freedom, reason and tolerance. These three words are a very useful way to capture important qualities about our identity but they are far from complete.

We have an independent, elected committee within the UUA called the Commission on Appraisal charged with taking a bird’s eye view of our association, analyzing it and making reports to us. They decided to study our theological diversity to see where we had agreement and where we had disagreement, looking for the common core that binds us together. Not surprisingly, they found both agreement and disagreement in their 2005 report to our annual meeting of our Association called General Assemby at the end of June. Their conclusions were very interesting.

We do have quite a lot of agreement with each other that identifies a common core.

We agree:

  • All human beings have worth and dignity that deserve respect;
  • Our welcome should be widely inclusive not restrictive;
  • Though we are optimistic about our capacity for goodness, we are also capable of evil;
  • Wisdom and inspiration come from many sources;
  • Our perception of truth is incomplete and evolving;
  • Reason is a necessary part of religious inquiry;
  • Awe, wonder and love are also necessary and
    healthy parts of our religious journey;
  • Each individual ultimately gets to decide
    what to believe and not believe;
  • Each individual member gets one vote in
    democratically controlling congregational business.
  • The natural world is a continuously evolving web of interdependence of which we must be a respectful part.
  • Humanity is responsible for creating a just, sustainable and peaceful world;

Now think how other religions would affirm or reject these statements and you begin to see our unique identity emerging. We have lots of disagreements to be sure. We don’t agree about the nature and existence of God; the value of spirituality, spiritual practice and prayer. We disagree about the degree individual conscience should be informed, inspired or critiqued by tradition and community. Still, our vitally important agreements are enough to bind us together as a unique religious tradition.

At General Assembly, representatives of our congregations can democratically endorse these agreements to define how our congregations will work together. They cannot tell individual congregations who we are, what we do and why it matters. Only our individual congregations have the privilege of putting our member’s agreement into words that identify, define and bind each congregation. We’re bottom up, not top down.

The problem is, many congregations aren’t diligent or skilled at putting our agreement into clear, concise and beautiful language. Our congregation’s Board has decided we might have this problem. Times change and members change. Our mission was written over 20 years ago. Recognizing we might have a problem when I arrived here in 1999, I recast our mission statement as the chalice lighting we use every Sunday. I took more than a little interpretive license with the meanings that may or may not be part of THIS congregation’s member’s locus of agreement. After looking at other congregation’s beautiful mission statements, maybe you will agree that we could simplify and clarify it too.

Knowing we’d be considering such work, I asked Douglas Taylor, minster of the UU congregation in Binghamton, New York, to lead a workshop here a month ago on our shared theology. He gave an inspiring sermon on this theme the next day. In it, he used some high powered theological jargon to describe what a religion needs to do for its members. The three words he used were intimacy, ultimacy and efficacy. Let me translate for you.

We all face the existential condition of being alone, helpless and insecure. We experience ourselves as separate, limited in our ability to control our bodies and environment. We are all vulnerable to injury, sickness, old age and death. These are inseparable from being alive. Religions provide answers, responses and ways to cope with this existential condition. They provide a way for people to feel part of a greater whole, be it relationship, family, community or congregation. They provide a way for people to feel valued as part of that whole and useful to that whole. They support each person declaring:

I belong.
I matter.
I make a difference.

That is what the identity and the purpose of our congregation, communicated through our mission statement needs to do. The clearer, more concise and more beautiful the language of that mission statement, the more attractive, powerful and effective our congregation can become.

An example of that kind of clarity of mission happened for the UUA in Phoenix, Arizona in June of 2012. Arizona had passed SB 1070 which enabled discriminatory practices by police officers against people who appeared to be Hispanic or Mexican. The first impulse of our General Assembly representatives was to express our disapproval and move our yearly meeting to another location. But those affected by the law encouraged us to come and take a public stand against it. So we did that by organizing a symbolic action deeply rooted in our mission, a protest at night outside the Mariposa detention facility where undocumented immigrants were being held unfairly. Thousands of UU’s got on buses from the Convention Center to that demonstration in 90 plus degree heat. We listened to speeches, sang songs and chanted loud enough to be heard inside the facility. Thousands held up battery-powered candles in the darkness. Those torches, those beacons, moved many of us who were there as an expression, a visual symbol of our commitment to justice.

Here are the words Chris Walton, the editor of the UU World, used reflecting on that memory and the new chalice:

The flaming chalice is an interior lamp, a flame to light indoors in the particular context of worship. As an emblem, … it’s a symbol of our religion as practiced in sanctuaries and homes. But it has a cousin in our symbolic tradition that is a flame lit in the public square: the beacon lit in times of public crisis, the candles held up in vigils, the lantern in the steeple.

We too have a relationship with the word beacon. Architect Scott Knox worked with us to come up with a phrase to guide the design of Emerson Community Hall that also expressed our identity as a congregation. What we came up with was, “beacon of light.” Look around this space now, to see how we’ve made those words beautiful in glass, wood and stone. Our success, helped put the words “be a beacon of liberal religion” into our strategic plan in 2009.

Now look back at that new logo and see how it strives to hold together the image of beacon and chalice, both cherished parts of our heritage and vision of our mission in the world. I think it does it beautifully.

The effort the UUA put into crafting that new logo and the result suggests the kind of inspiration and beauty that a well crafted mission statement can offer. It can organize and prioritize what we do. It can attract people to us and express our identity and purpose. It can guide us advocating for and building a just, equitable, and sustainable community here and around the world. I hope you see the beautiful results of that effort expressed in some of the mission statements I’ve listed for you below.

Now its our turn.

I can’t craft the language by myself. None of our members individually can do it either. Only this congregation working together can find those beautiful words that communicate who we are, what we do and why it matters.

We need your help!

Select, copy and paste to an email the text below to the end. Mark the mission statements with Bold, Italic, or Underline as indicated. Then answer the five questions after the last mission statement. and send it all to fuusa-mission@albanyuu.org.

If that doesn’t work for you, print out the next section, fill it in then mail to Mission Task Force, c/o FUUSA 405 Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12206.

Unitarian Universalist Mission Statements

 Mark in bold/circle the words/phrases that express core values of our congregation. (Optionally, underline/cross-out the word/phrases that don’t)

Welcoming all, we worship together with loving hearts and open minds, promoting peace, equality, and respect for the Earth. Questioning, reflecting, learning, leading . . . we change ourselves as we change the world. – Monterey, CA

Joining hands and voices for justice and peace, we inspire lives of joy and spiritual integrity, growing an inclusive community of courage and caring. – Denver, CO

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder will become a beacon of liberal religion, committed to: (1) Nurturing the spiritual growth of our diverse and multigenerational religious community (2) Fostering ministry and hospitality between and among our members, friends and visitors (3)Actively promoting Unitarian Universalist values here and in the wider world (4) Sustaining these efforts through our culture of social justice and generosity – Boulder, CO

As a Unitarian Universalist faith community, we nurture individual search for meaning and work in community for freedom, justice and love. – Asheville, NC

Listen! Open! Serve! Creating connection by listening to our deepest selves, opening to life’s gifts and serving needs greater than our own -every day! – Rochester (Unitarian), NY

We are here: (1) To learn and practice true hospitality (2) To revere the reasoning mind and the generous heart (3) To claim our diversity as a source of our strength, and (4) To relinquish the safety of our unexamined privilege for the freedom to engage in transforming justice. – Columbus, OH

We are a caring, religious community inspired by our Unitarian Universalist heritage. – Bellevue, WA

UUC is a community that covenants to awaken spirit, nurture hope, and inspire action. – Seattle, WA

Welcoming, Growing, Leading Welcoming everyone; Growing in mind and spirit; Leading in social justice. – Appleton, WI

The mission of this church is to carry forward the cherished legacy of the free faith tradition, to own the brilliant, boundless mind of Unitarianism and the fearless, grateful, loving heart of Universalism – to recognize that these legacies of the radical Reformation continue to evolve in history, and we will have a hand in their evolution before we hand them on to young people who will come later, to shape of this inheritance a religion of hope, reverence and love. – Mahtomedi, MN

Guided by Unitarian Universalist principles and powered by the energy and resources of its members, Jefferson Unitarian Church acts to nurture our spiritual community, grow Unitarian Universalism, and transform the world outside our church walls. – Golden, CO

Fostering community through love, spiritual growth, and social justice. – Oak Park, IL

Our mission is to create community, to nurture spiritual growth, and to act on our values to help heal the world.

Nuestra misión es crear una comunidad, fomentar el crecimiento espiritual y actuar en nuestros valores para ayudar a sanar el mundo. -San Diego, CA

We gather in community to nourish souls; transform lives; and do justice. – Austin, TX

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What are strengths of FUUSA and most valued by our members?

  2. Look at our mission statement below. What parts are critical to preserve (bold/circle)? What could be reworded (italics)? Removed (underline)?

    We welcome all men, women and children who seek a religion based on the inherent sanctity of every person’s free and responsible search for truth and meaning. In keeping with our distinctive, non-creedal religion, we strive to excite the human spirit and inspire its development; to respond to moral and ethical issues in our local, national and world communities; and to sustain a vital and nurturing congregational life.

  3. What is missing from our mission statement?

  4. What differences should FUUSA try to make in Albany, the Capital Region and the world.

  5. What slogan would most FUUSAns be proud to wear on a T-shirt?

    Please put any additional comments and responses below (or on the back)

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. 

Living With Purpose

A house called The Person surrounding a smaller house called various life rules surrounding a heart in the center titled Life PurposeI grew up surrounded by people driven by inner purpose. Barbara wanted to be an excellent flute player so she practiced, tried out for the orchestra at Newark High and got picked as first chair. My friend Nick with a beautiful baritone voice auditioned to be one of our high school madrigals. Matt had a dramatic flair that he took to the stage for lead roles in our high school plays. Steve loved to play football became a first string offensive lineman. All of these friends found an inner drive that they translated into a purpose.

How well I remember taking a class on numerical methods as a freshman at the University of Delaware. As part of that class, I wrote my first BASIC program on a 300 BAUD DECwriter terminal connected to a Digital PDP-8E computer. That experience of typing a line of text, hitting return and having the computer respond deeply excited me. It felt like there was something alive on the other end talking to me! Young people today take the enormous power of an iPhone or an iPad for granted. For me back then, my passion for these amazing machines formed a strong purpose in me to understand how they worked and explore what they could be programmed to do. This purpose drove the next ten years of my life.

But before that purpose had run its course, a new and unexpected purpose started shaping me as I finished my electrical engineering and computer science degree at UC Berkeley. This new life purpose drove me to open my heart and develop my capacity for insight and wisdom. Instead of being concerned primarily with my interests and needs, now I was driven toward developing virtue and serving ethical principles. My religious life began to dominate my personal life.

Religion has long served as a dominant purpose to organize individual and communal life. In traditional societies, one’s religious life completely structures one’s personal life. Observant Jews are constantly reminded of their relationship with God by offering prayers throughout the day, following rules of behavior and consumption. Muslims surrender to God, don’t eat pork and pray five times a day. Christians strive to love God and love their neighbors. Buddhists vow to save all beings and abstain from killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct and the use of intoxicants. If you claim a religious tradition, it claims you too.

Unitarian Universalism isn’t quite like that. We take responsibility for our own search for truth and meaning. We support each other in that search, but we may not find the same truth and meaning. We strive to appreciate what others find but do not feel bound to another person’s moral code of conduct. We are not all vegetarians, vegans or carnivores. We do not all agree on the same child rearing practices or philosophies of education.

What we do have are shared purposes and principles within our association of congregation. The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all is a purpose most of us share. Respect for the interdependent web is a looser purpose that does prod us toward serving the whole rather than just ourselves. Honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person, maybe even every being, is a noble purpose that could organize one’s whole existence.

Purpose points toward the Spirit of Life itself. On a deep level, the source of unique expressions of purpose are mysterious and amazing. The purpose that drives someone to keep going, even in agonizing pain, to run a marathon for the first time is a marvel to me. The scientists and engineers that train their minds for years and years to master their field impress me. Watching the graceful movements of a gifted dancer, listening to the ethereal sounds riding on airwaves from a virtuoso’s instrument, gawking at the stunning reproduction of light on glass in oil on canvass , fill me with awe and wonder.

The Spirit of Life is not a neutral, chaotic process seeking rest. It has purpose and that purpose is imbued with meaning. Our challenge is to recognize it’s energy in us and find purposeful ways to bring it to life.