I’m pleased to report that I have been nominated by the UUA Nominating Committee to run for the UUA Board.
I hope you’ll consider voting for me. Here is a link to my campaign page!
I’m pleased to report that I have been nominated by the UUA Nominating Committee to run for the UUA Board.
I hope you’ll consider voting for me. Here is a link to my campaign page!
Do you remember the movie An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore? It came out ten years ago. Do you remember how scary the predictions were? Things haven’t gotten better.
I got my Science News Magazine last week and the lead article on this tenth anniversary was titled, “More Truths, Still Inconvenient.” None of the threats Al Gore talked about in the movie have abated. Most continue to get worse.
The average global temperature continues to rise. On Wednesday, the Times Union reported we’ve set records for temperature eleven months in a row – a record all of its own. March was 2.2 degrees warmer than the average temperature for the 20th century, partly due to El Nino. Still, it has been 99 years since a global cold record has been set.
The effect of these rising temperatures may or may not show up in daily fluctuations in each part of the globe. They become obvious as glaciers recede. The Science News update noted that 90% of the world’s glaciers are retreating right now. Their mass has been decreasing rapidly since the 1970’s. If you want to see one (so you can tell your grandchildren about it) I wouldn’t wait too long.
Global warming is also dramatically shrinking the Artic sea ice, ironically opening up opportunities for prospectors to look for new oil reserves. The Antarctic Ice Sheet is carefully watched because it stores an enormous amount of water. The loss of just a few ice shelves in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could destabilize the whole region. That destabilization could trigger a chain reaction of melting that could not be stopped.
After Antarctica, the second great reserve of ice is Greenland. It too is melting. Many scientists who study ice melt in Greenland think it will only take a 3-5 degree rise in surface temperature to cause the whole thing to melt. If that were to happen, sea level is estimated to rise about twenty four feet. That would submerge most of Florida.
Scary as that is, what frightens me even more is the acidification of the oceans. About a third of all the carbon dioxide we put in the air dissolves in the oceans. That process acidifies the ocean. It may already be contributing to the bleaching of corals and interfering with baby sea-life creating their shells. (note that spraying sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere to block out the sun and cool the earth will not stop this problem)
Another effect of climate change we’ve had a little breather from here is increases in hurricanes and strong storms. But other places are suffering even if we currently aren’t. The downpour in Houston this past week is just one example. With warmer temperatures, air can hold more water increasing the amount of rain and the severity of storms.
One very unexpected result, over the past ten years, has been the rapid increase in the denial of these observations. The climate change deniers have taken over the Republican Party and a vast swath of the American public. Their unwillingness to face the reality of climate change has undermined our government’s ability to respond with forward looking, progressive change.
And yet, the pressures for radical change haven’t let up, they only increase. Not only do they increase, they become urgent as we better understand the terrifying forces we are amplifying by dumping ton upon ton of carbon into our atmosphere.
Last Sunday, our guest speaker at our joint service, the Rev. Fred Small, made a plea for radical hope. I certainly enjoyed and appreciated his message and his powerful presentation. Yet, I struggle mightily with being hopeful about our future. Remember the 350 challenge? Stop the growth of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million? That limit is now in the rear view mirror as we have surpassed 400 parts per million and zooming up exponentially.
Rev. Small said we are past the point when small personal changes like taking the bus to work, putting solar panels on your roof and recycling soda cans are going to make much of a difference. We need those changes AND big changes that are driven by government policy and corporate practices. We need changes at the level of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to deal with greenhouse gases emissions mitigation. It was adopted in December and signed on Friday. Much as this agreement was celebrated at the time, it doesn’t have binding commitments.
The problem with trying to stop climate change is those changes threaten the foundations of developed civilization itself. Our way of life is built on extractivism. If we are to save developed civilization, we will need to find a way to stop being extractivists and convert to regenerativists.
I’m indebted to Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, for her insights into extractivism and its harmful results. I already knew it was a problem. We can’t keep drilling oil wells forever. And it takes more energy to extract the hard-to-get fossil fuels. At some point you cross the bar when it takes more energy to extract the fossil fuel than you get from burning it and you are done.
Klein points out what really shook everything up was the invention of the steam engine by James Watt in the eighteenth century. That one change, changed everything. Before that time, energy came from renewable sources. The fabric and flour mills were run by water power. Ships crossed the ocean using wind power. Animals hauled cargo and people. There were natural limits to how much power could be harnessed by their technologies.
The steam engine changed that by decoupling the production of power to natural processes. Engines could provide power by consuming fossil fuel. Fossil fuels are not naturally occurring. They must be extracted from the ground. They are banked energy stored away over millions and millions of years that can be recovered, until they are used up. But in the eighteenth century, that was a long, long time in the future.
Take a little fuel out of the ground, there isn’t a lot of disruption to the eco-system. Take out a lot and you get the kind of devastation we see in Alberta with tar sands mining: mile upon mile of open pits and toxic tailing lakes in which nothing can live. Fracking risks water and air contamination. Coal and metal strip mining are notoriously destructive. These locations are called sacrifice zones. The privileged willingly sacrifice poor, rural and indigenous people’s land to extract the resource they want in exchange for dollars. And when that resource is gone, they move on to the next sacrifice zone, often leaving a mess for someone else to clean up.
Sadly monocultural farming has been done in this same way for many years. The rows of crops extract nutrients from the soil that must be replaced with chemical fertilizers that are mined from the earth. Caging animals for meat, eggs and milk depends on extractive agriculture and generates toxic concentrated waste that cannot easily be absorbed back into the ecosystem.
Basically, much of our modern way of life is built on extractivism. And a civilization based on extraction cannot be sustainable on a finite planet. To have any hope of decreasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and regulating our climate, we need to renounce extractivism. We need to return again to renewable sources of energy our ancestors used, the wind, the sun, and the water as our sources of power.
But is this possible? Can a civilization like ours that is so energy intensive stop extracting fossil fuels from the ground? We’ve seen the folly of turning corn into ethanol that drives up food prices. Damming waterways has all sorts of problems as is seen with salmon runs disturbed. Wind turbines have not been kind to migrating birds in their flyways. Ending extractivism will have far reaching effects. And there are those, like the military, that depend of gasoline and jet fuel to power their machines of destruction that they are very unlikely to want to give up. I don’t expect our military to give up their machine guns and helicopters and go back to bows and arrows and horses any time soon.
But resistance may come from other places. Resistance to extractivism may come from the sites of extraction and consumption of fossil fuels. Resistance to fracking here in New York State was intense. If the governor hadn’t stopped it, we’d be embroiled in a major battle against drilling with massive civil disobedience and people getting arrested. We’ve seen here how resistance to the natural gas pipeline near Burden Lake as energized fierce opposition. Once the sacrifice zones begin to get close to rich, white people, they wake up and realize they don’t want to pay the price required of living an extractivist lifestyle. One of the reasons China is willing to consider curbing coal burning power plants is the terrible smog choking their cities. Chinese citizens are no longer willing to sacrifice the health of their children for economic growth.
And when enough people mobilize in sustained opposition, that changes everything.
Still, the pressures to keep extracting and keep sacrificing the earth to maintain our status quo are very, very powerful. That force of consumption has been systematized into the publicly held corporation. The corporation is extractivist to the core. It must extract resources then transform them and sell them at a profit, getting bigger and bigger every year, or decline and die. Shareholders will not accept the shrinking of the value of energy corporations. They cannot write off all the reserves of fossil fuel they use to value their company. This kind of corporate wealth creation system that depends on endless growth cannot thrive in an economic model that prizes sustainability.
I’m sad to say, I don’t know how we’re going to end extractivism. I only know we have no realistic other choice. I also know many people are enthusiastically exploring all kinds of alternative renewable energy sources and sustainable regenerative farming practices that will be the foundation for a new civilization in the future.
I do know one important component of the change that is very relevant to our congregation. We don’t need to know the solution to climate change. We do need to know what is wrong with the current system and demand an end to unjust and immoral practices.
We already know extractive energy companies have been poisoning the air, water and soil around their wells and all over the world. The Alberta tar sand mining and the drilling in the Niger delta have been horrific environmental catastrophes. Rather than respond to protests and requests for redress, extractive corporations and their police forces have suppressed opposition brutally.
We know if we want to move away from extractivism, we don’t need any more fossil fuel infrastructure. We need to gradually dismantle it as renewable power takes its place. We don’t need to put communities like ours at risk with the bomb trains rolling through the city on a daily basis. We don’t need another natural gas or oil pipeline ever.
If we want countries in less developed parts of the world to keep their carbon underground, we have a moral obligation to offer them support to build a non-fossil fuel based economy. This is a fairness issue because Western nations have been pumping our carbon into the air for hundreds of years. We have already far exceeded our allotment of carbon dioxide pollution. We have taken away the less developed countries’ opportunity to develop using fossil fuels the way we have. Thus, we are morally obligated to pay developing countries to keep their fossil fuels in the ground, so argues Naomi Klein and leaders in the Southern Hemisphere.
These moral issues are clear and present ways to work to slow down climate change. Yet they will not be enough. Personal changes to reduce our demands for fossil fuels are important too. Yet they will not be enough. Curbing militarism and wars around the planet that are intense consumers of fossil fuels would be very helpful. Yet that will not be enough.
We are dealing with a problem that many of us will not experience the full effects in our lifetimes. We are worrying about a problem that will afflict the children and grandchildren of those who have yet to be born most severely. And preventing a good number of those births would go a long way to mitigating climate change.
What we can be confident of is each part per million of increase in carbon dioxide in the air will make things worse. And one of those increases might trigger a catastrophic event that will make things horribly worse. We just don’t know when or what will happen.
What we can do today is work to interrupt the process of fossil fuel extraction by using moral arguments. As a religious organization, this is one of the powerful tools we have to contribute to the movement toward a sustainable and renewable future.
Let us stop sacrificing people, the earth, and the future of children yet to be born, to the god of endless profit. The time to stop is now. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. The tide is rising and so are we. This is where we are called to be.
“The Tide is Rising” by Shoshana Meira Friedman and Yotam Schachter
The tide is rising, and so are we! (3x)
This is where we are called to be, (2x)
Verses: The task is mighty…, The land is holy…, The storm is raging…
The sun is shining…, The world is ready..
Let us close with these sober and inspired words of Martin Luther King in his speech against the Vietnam War in 1967:
We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin to shift from a ‘thing oriented society’ to a ‘person oriented society.’ When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
That mission of a person oriented society is ours too.
from This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
After slogging through a lot of very depressing chapters, when I finally got to the conclusion, there was this glowing section of text that offers a sliver of hope. Please savor it with me now:
In December 2012, Brad Werner, a complex systems researcher with pink hair and a serious expression made his way through a throng of 24,000 earth and space scientists at the Fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco… [The title of his talk was] “Is Earth F**ked?”…
Standing at the front of the conference room, the University of California, San Diego professor took the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that rather direct question. He talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations, and a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient, and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When a journalist pressed Werner for a clear answer on the “Is Earth f**ked” question, he set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”
There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner described it as “resistance”—movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture.” According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by Indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups.” Such mass uprisings of people—along the lines of the abolition movement and the civil rights movement—represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control.
This, he argued, is clear from history, which tells us that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on . how the dominant culture evolved.” It stands to reason, therefore, that “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamics.” And that, Werner said, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem.”
Put another way, only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed. We also know, I would add, how that system will deal with the reality of serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering, and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on. The only remaining variable is whether some countervailing power will emerge to block the road, and simultaneously clear some alternate pathways to destinations that are safer.
If that happens, well, It changes everything.
To that I’ll add: That change can be us!
I 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:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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):
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.
I like eggnog. I make it for myself from time to time. It tastes good but I don’t crave my homemade version. Normally, I can’t buy commercial egg nog in the store during the holidays because I am lactose intolerant. But about a year ago, I noticed Lactaid was making eggnog during the winter holidays in quart size containers.
Having to abstain from foods you like over and over again can create some pent up desire. So when I saw it in the cooler, I had to try it. It was good. Really good. I drank the whole carton and went back the next day for more.
I tried to moderate my intake. I’d pour half a glass … then go back half an hour later for another half of a glass … several more times.
Then came January first and they stopped making it. I was beside myself. I visited several grocery stores hoping to find it.
It was then I knew how much I was really craving the stuff.
I’m going out on a limb using the word ‘all.’ All of us know the experience of craving. I noticed myself inspecting the shelf in the refrigerated section where I first found Lactaid Eggnog, every time I passed by it in the Price Chopper near our house … for the next six months, hoping some might appear.
As someone well versed in the theory of Buddhism, I recognize my inner experience in the Pali term ‘tanha.’ The literal translation of the term is ‘thirst.’ Every time I saw the shelf was empty, I felt a tiny bit of sorrow, of what the Buddha called ‘dukkha.’ It was obvious to me that my thirst or craving for egg nog was causing me unhappiness and suffering. My yearning for Lactaid egg nog rubbed my nose in the Buddha’s first and second Noble Truths: We are frequently dissatisfied with the way things are. The source of that dissatisfaction is our wanting what isn’t and rejecting what is.
The Buddha taught the middle way, the path of moderation, releasing craving and aversion and cultivating equanimity and acceptance. I’d like to discuss another way to look at this process that is science based. It is the science of homeostasis.
Coined by Bradford Cannon in 1926 and originally described by Claude Bernard, they used the term to describe regulatory processes in living organisms. If our body temperature goes up or down too much, we get sick. If our eyes feel dry, we blink unconsciously to keep our corneas moist to prevent blindness. If our blood sugar isn’t carefully regulated, it can be life threatening. Many, many processes in the body have intricate feedback loops to keep us healthy and happy. Those many interlocking processes are finely tuned to support our experience of being “normal.” I’m awed they all work together as well as they do!
Those inner processes depend on our brain and senses to regulate what happens outside our bodies. When we are hungry, we need food. When we are thirsty we need water. When we are tired we need sleep. When we are cold we need warmth. If we don’t get enough food or water or sleep or warmth, we may die. And if we get too much food, too much water, too much rest or warmth,that too may imperil us. We need just the right amount, when we need it, to maintain our homeostasis.
When I drank my first half-glass of eggnog, if I needed food and water, that need was likely small and easily satisfied by the first couple of sips. Something else besides the forces of homeostasis got me up for the second half-glass.
Craving interferes with the process of homeostasis and unbalances the system. Thankfully our bodies have all kinds of other mechanisms to stop the process of desire from over regulating ourselves. One of those processes is a sense of being full. I might have had that sense of being full after the second half glass. But it didn’t stop me from getting up for the third half-glass.
You see, I might have had a little self-judgment about not being able to stop with just one half glass of egg nog. That might have caused a drop in my endorphins and initiated a blah feeling. Or the sugar rush might have been starting to wear off as the spike in insulin to cope with all the high fructose corn syrup I’d just consumed caused my blood sugar to drop. This might have engaged a second regulatory process to increase endorphins and blood sugar by having another half glass.
Now magnify and intensify this process and replace it with alcohol, methamphetamine, cocaine or heroin. These substances have far greater impacts on our bodies and create much greater disruption of our homeostasis.
As research has shown, those prone to become alcoholics metabolize alcohol in a special way that produces a strong pleasure response. This is not true for everyone. I know it doesn’t happen for me. I intensely dislike the feeling of being inebriated, which doesn’t take more than two or three drinks. I know for others, after two or three drinks is when they start feeling good, and want more of it. The inner experience is quite different but the biochemistry of the effects of alcohol on our homeostasis is the same. Not good. It’s a poison.
So the addiction process starts out harmlessly enough. Addicts use a substance to regulate their emotional homeostasis, often to feel normal. They habitually use the substance to regulate their mood, often when they are feeling down, to elevate it again. This may work long enough to condition the habit deeply and powerfully.
Then the emotional regulation process begins breaking down. Tolerance develops and more and more of the substance is needed to get the same effect. Meanwhile the toxic effects of the substance begin to accumulate. The more the substance is used to make the addicts feel better (the way they remember it working) the worse things get. Stopping using makes everything feel even worse. This leads to a complete breakdown of homeostasis, the very process the addict is trying to fix with the substance. And given the mental impairment that goes along with substance abuse, the brain can’t correct the errors in understanding how to bring the system back into balance.
The addicts feel trapped. They don’t know how to fix themselves by themselves. They need help … but often don’t know it or resist the idea that another can help.
I hope you heard in the readings from the Big Book and the Small Book that there is no one right way to deal with addiction. Each person’s biology is unique. The ways addiction manifests for each person is different. Each substance has its own unique aspects too. Just because one person can quit cold turkey and never have another drink doesn’t mean another person can do it too. The Anonymous approach works for many, many people … but doesn’t work for everyone. Rational Recovery using Rational Emotive Therapy might work for some people but not others too. Let us be grateful for the variety as it helps more people abstain from substance abuse and live healthier, more satisfying and productive lives.
What interests me as a minister and religious leader is the higher power concept. Alcoholics Anonymous created this concept as a way to point at God without using the term God. Is Higher Power just a stand-in term that points at God … or did AA stumble inadvertently on something else? And why does even a willingness to consider believing in a Higher Power, “get results?” Why does believing in a Higher Power have anything to do with being able to stop drinking anyway? Lots of God loving and believing priests are active alcoholics.
Alcoholics Anonymous is based on the Christian conversion experience that has been universalized as a spiritual process. Though the Christian elements haunt some AA meetings, great effort has been put into keeping the Higher Power concept non-Christian. But without a doubt, the Higher Power concept does have a strong faith component. It is faith in the Higher Power that supposedly does the inner transformation work and liberates the addict from craving.
If you read the Big Book, it is pretty clear that faith is shaped like a Christian conception of God even if those terms are not used. AA lowers the faith barrier to the experience in that conception with the Higher Power language.
What captures my attention and interest in the whole process that AA describes through the 12 steps is the reliance on experience. Believing “gets results.” If it didn’t then why do it? AA is arguing for an experience based approach to spirituality. You try believing then you get results which then reinforces the process of believing. And believing in what? A power greater than yourself.
I am a true believer in a lot of powers greater than myself. Every time I board a plane and defy gravity by climbing to 37,000 feet inside a metal tube of compressed air, lifted by wings, I heavily believe in powers greater than myself. There is no way I have the power to get that plane off the ground by myself. I believe in using stop lights to regulate traffic. I believe in the medical system to offer me care to support my health. I believe I can buy safe and healthy food when I shop at the store, trusting many powers greater than me that regulate the food supply. I continually marvel at all the fresh food waiting for me any time I walk into the market.
For me, I find it very easy to believe there are forces much greater than me into which I can tap for assistance. In seconds I found out who created the idea of homeostasis by checking it out on wikipedia, clearly and without a doubt, a power of knowledge greater than me. I carry a phone in my pocket that gives me power far greater than my simple little brain.
You see, the Higher Power concept is a very simple, yet effective way for us to begin to recognize the limits of our own ego, our own sense of self. When we are willing to see that we are not alone in the world; when we are willing to see that we are tightly bound into an interdependent web of existence of which we are a part, everything begins changing. The Buddha talked about this as anatta, as non-self. Jesus pointed to it with the words, Realm of God. What is really real is we are a very small part of a much, much greater whole. The self-aware experience of being part of that whole can be an experience of love without an object, what the Greeks called agape. And agape can overcome craving.
So, I’m good with the Higher Power concept. But I’m also good with the No Higher Power concept. Sometimes people are so locked up in negative associations with the word God or theological conceptions that they disagree with or have suffered for not believing in them that they can’t get to a place to see them as metaphors for real living processes. And there are effective ways to use reason to alter how your brain works that reestablishes the process of homeostasis again. Both are fine, depending on which one works better for you.
And this wonderfully parallels what Unitarian Universalism is trying to do. We don’t pick sides. If faith works for you great! If reason works for you great! I know I love them both and affirm them both. I don’t see them as contradictory but as two different lenses to view reality.
What matters in addiction is stopping the substance abuse. What matters in Unitarian Universalism is connecting to our core values, affirming them and taking the values we cherish and living them in the world. However we come to affirm those values, either by faith or by reason will work and get results.
All this matters because we live in a world addicted to material progress and it is killing us and killing the planet. Many of the humans who are destroying our world are poisoned by craving and don’t know it.
Whether by faith or by reason, let’s get better and help both ourselves and the planet get back to homeostasis.
One of the best parts of the AA program is the catchy quotes and slogans. I’ll conclude our service with a few of them.
“When I stopped living in the problem and began living in the answer, the problem went away.”
“From experience, I’ve realized that I cannot go back and make a brand-new start. But through A.A., I can start from now and make a brand-new end.”
“The program works, if you work it.”
“Let go and let God … One day at a time.”
“Easy does it, but do it!”
“Keep coming back!”
from The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, Chapter 4, titled “We Agnostics” (fourth edition)
Many times we talk to the new man and watch his hope rise as we discuss his alcoholic problems and explain our fellowship. But his face falls when we speak of spiritual matters, especially when we mention God, for we have re-opened a subject which our man thought he had neatly evaded or entirely ignored.
We know how he feels. We have shared his honest doubt and prejudice. Some of us have been violently anti-religious…We were bothered with the thought that faith and dependence upon a power beyond ourselves was somewhat weak, even cowardly. We looked upon this world of warring individuals, warring theological systems, and inexplicable calamity, with deep skepticism…
Yes, we of agnostic temperament have had these thoughts and experiences. Let us make haste to reassure you. We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God…
We needed to ask ourselves but one short question. “Do I now believe, or am I even willing to believe, that there is a Power greater than myself?” As soon as a man can say that he does believe, or is willing to believe, we emphatically assure him that he is on his way.
from the Preface of The Small Book by Jack Trimpey
The Small Book is a primer to help recovering alcoholics and other substance abusers to become their own therapists and achieve the “unmiracle” of No Higher Power sobriety…
I have a fundamental respect for Alcoholics Anonymous. When I reached out for help with my own alcohol dependence, it was there—a fellowship of concerned human beings helping themselves by helping others. I have been to many of their meetings and I learned some important information about alcohol dependence. I have friends who still attend AA. It does much good for many people, and I know it. I also know that there’s a lot that is rational within AA.
But thousands leave AA each year, disgruntled and ripe for relapse, unable to make use of a very good program…most leave because the 12-step program is faith-based. As a means of survival, people in AA have faith in something other than, or greater than, themselves, and they implore newcomers to share that faith. This is well intentioned, for it has been an effective way for some to halt the self-destruction that results from alcohol or drug dependence. AA veterans, the refore, will be very persuasive in urging newcomers to surrender reason to faith. In AA, one’s attempts to reason are commonly regarded as “part of the disease of alcoholism” in the sincere hope that, by surrendering to some higher authority or group mentality, one will change for the better.
AA is not a wrong program, but for those who examine it and find it unhelpful, irrelevant, or disagreeable, it is the wrong program. This is a book for those people—a vindication of their point of view and the power of reason, and at the same time a challenge to them to overcome the ideas of dependency and powerlessness that have been so destructive.
This meditation is a creative composite of the poetry which introduces each chapter of the book “Restored to Sanity: Essays on the Twelve Steps by Unitarian Universalists” recently published by Skinner House press:
O Great Spirit of Life and Love,
For defeat, For being licked,
For being sick and tired of being sick and tired,
For giving up, for enough finally being enough,
For the path of descent that finally reaches
The place known as the bottom,
I am profoundly grateful.
I know I cannot do this alone.
I need a power that is greater than myself
To restore my life to sanity.
O thou Love, that has carried me through the
Most difficult of times,
The stories of struggle have touched me,
The practice of the twelve steps has changed me,
The goodness of sobriety has held me…
And I have found contentment at last.
For I now live not for myself alone, but for others
For all the pain which cannot be fully repaired,
Dedicated to the service of others.
May the result of my practice, be a life transformed,
May this spiritual awakening continue on,
Until the dayspring breaks,
And the shadows of addiction, flee away.
Judging from the morose Facebook posts I’ve seen, I’m sensing more than a few here today are still hurting from the election results Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. As a liberal Democrat myself, I could only stomach a little of the chatter Tuesday night and had to turn it off. With Republican controlled Senates in Washington DC and in Albany, I doubt Interfaith Impact will be able to move the living wage and women’s reproductive rights initiatives many of us support.
Now, I also want to recognize the Republicans in the congregation who are celebrating getting control of both houses in Washington and one here in New York. I do hope we can work together on social issues that really shouldn’t be Democrat or Republican issues anyway. They are at root freedom and fairness issues before they are partisan issues. And I dearly hope we can move forward on preventing climate change getting any worse than we know it will be.
Be that as it may, a reversal of political fortunes and access to power pale before the death of a child. You may have read in the paper about the death of 21 year-old Benjamin Van Zandt in solitary confinement. I ended up leading his memorial service at the request of his parents on Friday afternoon. Sitting with their grief in my office Wednesday afternoon temporarily erased my worries about politics. My heart goes out to them for their loss and I hope the service provided them with some comfort for the long grieving road ahead. The death of a child is at the top of the grief list for most difficult losses.
Bereavement like theirs can be a significant test of any theology of grace. Where was grace in their loss? Ben took his own life. Why didn’t God reach out and lift his spirits, stay his hand?
And what about the election? Where was grace in that? I may not have an answer for Ben but I do have an answer about the election. Anne Savage was elected to the School Board! I hope both Democrat and Republican can celebrate the election of one of our members to office.
Another answer to the “Where was Grace?” question I’d like to consider this morning is, grace might have been there but the message wasn’t received.
ABC news did an interesting experiment a few years ago. They hired several seven year old child actors to stand on a New York City street corner looking very distressed to see who would stop and help. They were careful to have plain clothed police officers observing the scene and their parents watching from a remote viewing station. Being actors they did a wonderful job of looking very distressed, but almost no one stopped to ask what was wrong. Out of 1600 or so people who walked by about 50 stopped to help.
I bet if they ran that experiment here, more people would stop. I’m sure many of us have walked the busy streets in New York City. People mind their own business, and don’t pay attention to each other, hardened by being scammed by creative beggars and con-artists. Still, it is a sad commentary that so few stopped.
ABC news asked people who didn’t stop if they noticed the actors. Many said they did notice the child, sensed their distress but decided it wasn’t a situation they felt comfortable addressing themselves. A few stopped a nearby police officer and pointed the child out to them. Still most chose to ignore the inner urge to respond.
As we know from the story, the Samaritan did respond to the injured man on the road. The order of service cover gives you an artistic rendering of that encounter. Alyssa finds great art for the cover doesn’t she? When we read or hear this story, we mostly think about the Samaritan as a model for us rather than the two who pass by and don’t want to get involved. Today, just for a moment, I encourage you to take the perspective of the robbed and injured man on the road.
Lying naked and wounded, half dead, he is probably thinking he just might die from exposure and his injuries. If anyone needs saving, it would be him. When the Samaritan stops to help him, his prayers are answered many times over. I’d argue for him, the Samaritan is an agent of God’s grace. Compassion moved the Samaritan to take the risk of robbers still lurking ready to attack him as well. That compassion might have moved the other two to act … but it didn’t. Why one rather than the others? Chance? Conditioning? Fellow feeling and appreciation? Much to ponder that remains unanswered in the story.
Now for a completely different kind of grace story that almost seems too ordinary to qualify. But I wonder if it does.
Some of you may know I tried a different dental group a couple of years ago. The hygienist shrank in horror looking at my mouth as I have some gum recession and bone loss from a time in my life I deeply regret when I wasn’t taking proper care of my teeth. She got me to do my first deep cleaning to see if my gums might attach a little better. It wasn’t much fun as many of you already know.
This focus on the pockets in my gums where bacteria can breed got me to buy a fancy sonic toothbrush and clean up my dental act. But I was still having some problems. I don’t remember why it came up in conversation but Kiva Sprissler, Amy Lent’s daughter and the woman who gives me regular therapeutic massage to help me manage the damage to my body from old injuries, told me about an unusual kind of toothpaste from Asia called Neem (I buy it locally at Parivar Spices & Food 1275 Central Ave, Albany, NY). She reported to me her friend had tried the stuff and had amazingly positive results. So I decided to try a tube.
Your mileage may vary but I found the stuff to be amazingly affective at tightening my gums and reducing my tooth sensitivity. I saw the dentist on Monday. He looked at my mouth and asked what I change I’d made. I explained the toothpaste change and he said, “Hmm. Seems I heard something about it before, where can I buy some.”
Here is another potential grace story for you to ponder that is unfolding as we speak.
After I got my first Android phone a little over three years ago, I downloaded an app called Insight Timer. All it originally did was play nice bells at the end of a timed meditation period. Then they added a social media feature. You can see who else is meditating at the same time you are. You can see their picture and a little tag line under their picture of up to 50 characters, kind of a meditation tweet. Mine is: “Keep calmly knowing change one breath at a time” You can friend these other meditators and sit with them virtually because you can see who of your friends are meditating at the same time you are. As I sit at the same time each morning from about 5am to 6am, I see many familiar faces. I carry on supportive exchanges with a couple of people in different parts of the world. I love being part of a worldwide meditation community.
The latest version of the app shows a collage of tiny little pictures of the people who have just completed meditation sessions the same time you have who are not currently your friends. At any given time hundreds of people are using the timer app. I like to randomly click on the pictures to discover who these people are. Many of the more experienced meditators are very interesting people. You can list a web site on your profile and these have been fascinating finds too.
I was drawn to one such fellow by his tag line, “Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists.” So we exchanged a few messages. I suggested he sounded like a UU. Turns out he is in seminary and a follower of a woman named Regina Dawn Akers. I’d never heard of her so I of course Googled her, watched a video of her, checked her out on Facebook and friended her. She seems like an interesting religious teacher who has been inspired in her work through a series of moments of grace. She could be a nut or maybe she might be a sincere person who has a teaching for me and my ministry, maybe even a gift for teaching non-duality. We’ll see. We are planning to have a chat next week.
So in the toothpaste example and the Insight Timer App example, people I connected with became mediums through which I came across things and people that are actually and potentially helpful to me. I know some who would say that God used those two people as mediums of communicating grace to me.
As a reality based religious professional, it is easy for me to be skeptical that God is communicating with me this way. On the other hand, if I understand grace as a freely given opportunity I can accept or reject, grace is happening all the time.
And being in a wide network of relationships increases my access to grace.
If you use this understanding of grace, being a member of a religious community increases the odds of a graceful moment tremendously.
Over the fifteen plus years I’ve served here, I’ve seen this congregation be the agents of grace for a number of people. Whether it is the Caring Network stepping in during a crisis; the Pastoral Care Associates providing empathy; listening and support for someone going through a difficult transition; the Economic Distress Support Network keeping the lights and heat on for someone; to even providing a place to stay in several cases I know of. We’re of course not perfect at doing this but there is a lot of support that goes on behind the scenes you’ll never know about.
I recently talked to a ministerial colleague who had served in one location for about twenty-five years whose child was in a terrible bicycle accident a few years ago. The boy’s face was severely damaged and required extensive and expensive plastic surgery that the insurance company refused to pay. The family was left with 65,000 dollars in medical bills. My colleague talked about being deeply moved that non-members in town came through with 30,000 in donations to help pay that bill. That generosity was completely unexpected and very gratefully received.
When grace really happens though, is when people gather for a memorial service to share the pain of a significant loss. The love that the family of the twenty-one year old young man received at the service on Friday, I know, made a big difference in their grieving process. When saying goodbye to the body of your child for the last time, it makes a big difference to have friends and family around to hold you up. I was honored to be there to help, perhaps by the grace of God.
The truth is, we are not alone. If you are feeling alone, speak with me. I can help you fix that problem. In a community like this one, there are many, many opportunities for connection. And in those connections, grace happens. Not every day, not maybe when you expect it, but it will happen. In my experience the key is paying close attention to the moment, as these opportunities can easily slip by without being noticed. And many of these opportunities are not moments to get something, but moments to give something. For the greatest grace I experience is when I notice the opportunity to give of myself. I almost missed the one to do the service for the family. It took Bobbi Place calling me and saying, pay attention.
May you too, attend carefully to the graceful moments coming your way and receive the gift.
Anne Lamott humbly said it well:
I do not at all understand the mystery of grace –
only that it meets us where we are
but does not leave us where it found us.
May we be attentive to the opportunities grace presents and
have the courage to bring them to life.
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)
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
Elephant slavery begins when they are small babies. One ancient training practice is to chain the elephant’s leg to a stake in the ground. This limits her ability to freely roam around. As the elephant grows bigger and stronger, she could easily pull up the stake and go foraging for food. She doesn’t. Even with the hawser unconnected and visibly lying on the ground, the feeling of the manacle around her leg is enough to restrain her, as if connected by an unbreakable invisible chain. This highly intelligent creature remembers the feeling of restricted movement and simply stands still whenever the shackle is in place. Bound by invisible chains to habits, behaviors and attitudes we too learned at an early age, how different are we from this elephant in our actual behavior?
In 2002, eleven-year-old Shawn Hornbeck was out riding his bike in his rural Missouri hometown. Shawn was abducted by Michael Devlin, a 41-year-old pizza parlor manager who was generally known as an innocuous, nice enough kind of guy. Devlin abused and tortured Shawn … with a very strange twist, Devlin acted out a fatherly role pretending Shawn was his son. He even gave Shawn the freedom to go outside. This all happened in plain view of his neighbors and only an hour’s drive from where he went missing. Shawn even assumed his abductor’s last name. Shawn made friends, played video games and even used the Internet freely-yet he didn’t attempt to escape. His captivity was finally discovered four years later when Devlin kidnapped another boy, Ben Ownby, who was discovered with Shawn four days later.
This kind of identification with and sympathy for abductors got a name in 1973 during a six day long bank robbery in Stockholm. Those held captive by the robbers started defending them, even after they were let go. What is now referred to as the Stockholm Syndrome has deep roots in our sub-conscious mind. The longer someone is held, the more likely it can happen. Some may remember the heiress Patty Hearst joining up with the Symbionese Liberation Army who had kidnapped her.
Why does this happen? One explanation that makes sense to me arises out of evolutionary theory. If you think back across the enormous span of human development, our ancestors mostly existed in small tribes. What anthropologists have observed, and recorded history confirms, is when neighboring tribes go to war with each other, the winners often enslave the losers, especially the women. Even without war, abductions from neighboring tribes, especially of attractive females, has probably been going on for a very long time. The ones who resisted were likely killed and didn’t leave behind any ancestors to contribute to our contemporary gene pool. But those who were compliant, adapted to their new setting and produced children, contributed genes that selected for that behavior. In this way, some researchers think submission to authority has been baked into who we are, setting up the development of larger scale civilization, and interfering with our yearning for individual freedom.
While being submissive may have value for scaling up civilization, it can be a huge liability in relationships. The attempt by one person to control another can easily degenerate into emotional, psychological, and physical abuse. Mostly it is wives who are abused by husbands. Quite often the women do not leave these situations, sometimes defending their abusers even after suffering bodily injury. From the outside of the relationship, this willingness to stay with an abuser doesn’t make any sense. An explanation may be the evolutionary glue that keeps people together long enough to reproduce and raise children embedded in our tribal development.
And, like slavery, helplessness and hopelessness can stop the process of resisting abuse.
Reading Frederick Douglass’ autobiography (I have an excerpt at the end to look at) opened my eyes to the demoralizing and dehumanizing effects of captivity. The mind numbing suffering field slaves experienced is captured in these words:
If at any one time of my life more than another,I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of [his harsh] discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished … the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me ; and behold a man transformed into a brute! p.63
Douglass’ servitude was real and unchosen. Yet what broke him was Mr. Covey’s ability to activate his capacity to submit. This willingness to submit rather than resist, to allow invisible chains to hold us and interfere with seeking freedom, also operates in far more subtle and insidious ways in the human mind, Think of compelling habits exhibited in the way many of us consume unhealthful food and unwholesome media to which we submit. What about the prejudices we unconsciously act out with our eyes and our attention. And then there are the life denying and self-limiting beliefs we’ve developed to lock ourselves in the prison of our own design. “I can’t do this. I can’t do that.”
Well, today I declare that we are capable of breaking the bonds of submission. We have the inner power to unlock these invisible manacles and move toward freedom. As Walt Whitman put it:
Great is Liberty! Great is Equality! I am their follower, … Yours is the muscle of life or death – yours the perfect science – in you I have absolute faith.
Our minds, the gift of consciousness, can lift us from being brutes. Reading opened the door to liberation for Douglass. Through reading his awareness grew to help him see his own inherent dignity and the corruption of slavery. Before reading he knew the oppression of slavery in his body. The physical hardships were terrible to him, but he didn’t understand the evil of the institution itself. Reading the abolitionist arguments opened his mind to the moral injury of slavery and hardened his defiance.
That defiance took the form of resisting the inhumane abuse of his master, Mr. Covey by striking back. This could have easily gotten him killed but luckily for him it didn’t. After fighting his master for two hours, finally exhausted Mr. Covey left him. Douglass describes the effect of successfully defending himself from abuse:
This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force-the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, how ever long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me. p. 73
It thrills me to read this to you because in it we see the flowering of the dignity of the human spirit. This is the awareness of freedom that begins to lead us out of bondage.
Yet this moment of fortification of spirit is not enough to secure one’s freedom. The flush of courage can be washed away by the fear of consequences. It can be mighty hard to sustain the drive for freedom. Just a little hunger and thirst in Sinai had the Jews wishing they had stayed in Egypt by the fleshpots over the fire and not followed Moses through the Red Sea to freedom.
Because our courage and new understanding can be tender and easily shaken, we need others who can support and encourage us. Douglass needed a network of abolitionist support to plan his escape. Domestic violence shelters, like Equinox here in Albany, can support the inner growth and fortification of the spirit to stand up for oneself and one’s children and begin to end their abuse. Peer support groups are some of the best ways to deal with substance abuse and addictive behavior patterns. Groups like Weight Watchers have been perfecting the psychological methods and techniques to help people establish healthier eating patterns. Evolution has also selected for group bonding that can be harnessed to seek freedom.
Yet, no matter how well we recognize those invisible chains and how many people are around us supporting us, we still have to choose freedom. And not just once. We need to continue to choose freedom to follow our own inner guidance rather than be compelled by our past conditioning and habit. That takes patience and persistence … and risk.
The safer thing to do for Douglass was to remain a slave and not try to escape. Like the elephant allowing the manacle to bind him, many slaves did a rational analysis and decided it would be safer, not more pleasant by any means but safer, to not run away and risk death or recapture. Recapture could mean being sold to a plantation in the deeper south where they imagined their suffering would be far worse. Better to just stay with the devil you know.
This choice of freedom over security is huge for most of us even with our far more comfortable lives than what slaves endured. The consequences of our choice of freedom are unknowable in the moment the choice is made. And often we are not making it for ourselves alone. Our families and friends will have to deal with the consequences of our actions.
Before he departed for freedom, Douglass wrote about the sadness he felt leaving his friends behind. He writes:
I had a number of warm-hearted friends in Baltimore,— friends that I loved almost as I did my life,—and the thought of being separated from them forever was painful beyond expression. It is my opinion that thousands would escape from slavery, who now remain, but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their friends. p. 106
And sometimes we can do no other than to choose freedom. It was that for Douglass or die trying. Douglass writes about how he felt when he made it to New York City:
It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate. In writing to a dear friend, immediately after my arrival at New York, I said I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions. This state of mind, however, very soon subsided; and I was again seized with a feeling of great insecurity and loneliness. p. 107
Choosing freedom is a moment that creates the next moment. There is no final ending choice but one that conditions the next moment of choice. It is a path to be walked every moment of every day. And some days we veer off the path, and later find our way back.
What I can testify to from my own choices to move toward freedom is the inner satisfaction and sense of creating meaning for my life those choices have yielded. And Unitarian Universalism celebrates and prizes those free choices. May we be so emboldened to choose freedom, not just for ourselves but for the good and benefit of all.
from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass
Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, ” If you give a negro an inch, he will take [a yard]. A negro should know nothing but to obey his master, to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best negro in the world. Now, said he, “if you teach that negro (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty, to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment,I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. p. 33
I was now about twelve years old, and the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon my heart. Just about this time, I got hold of a book entitled ” The Columbian Orator.” Every opportunity I got, I used to read this book… I found in it a dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave was represented as having run away from his master three times. The dialogue represented the conversation which took place between them, when the slave was retaken the third time. In this dialogue, the whole argument in behalf of slavery was brought forward by the master, all of which was disposed of by the slave…
What I got from [this book] was a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights. … The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers. … As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which [my master] had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out. p. 40