Posts Tagged Universalism
There’s an old joke about the theological difference between Universalists and Unitarians before our merger in 1961. I’m not normally keen on making jokes about our religious heritage, we’re not taken seriously enough in the mainstream (and sometimes not taken seriously enough by ourselves) so I’m not sure we need to take ourselves down a notch in that way, but this joke is pretty theologically revealing. It’s on the nature of Hell. Universalists believed that God was too good to condemn anyone to Hell. The Unitarians believed they were too good to be sent to Hell.
It’s based, in a way, on an internalization of the conservative Christian critique of liberal Christianity. Religious conservatives will argue that religious liberals don’t take sin seriously enough in the world, and think faithful liberals are too easy on themselves, that religious progressives think too highly of themselves. I tend to see it differently. For those of us who believe in God, we tend to lean toward a compassionate being, or a creative Force that is life-centered – not punishment centered. And for those religious progressives who are not believers, it’s less about getting what one deserves, and more about living a life that reflects the gift we’ve been given in this singular life. We can choose to squander that gift in greed, or ego or hate, or we can live fully into that gift with openness, mindfulness and a fair bit of reverence for its preciousness. In either case, it’s remembering that sin, or evil, or harm happen in the world, and we have an obligation to address it with responsibility, and sometimes with culpability.
How many folks remember the classic TV show, Mash from the late 70’s to early 80s? It was a great comedic retelling of the Vietnam War. It’s hard to imagine war could be retold comedically in a way that so many folks would love the story, but it was masterfully written. There’s a short scene between two characters I want to briefly quote from between a soldier named Hawkeye and the chaplain, Father Mulcahy, that explores the nature of Hell.
“Hawkeye: War isn’t Hell. War is war, and Hell is Hell. And of the two, war is a lot worse.
Father Mulcahy: How do you figure, Hawkeye?
Hawkeye: Easy, Father. Tell me, who goes to Hell?
Father Mulcahy: Sinners, I believe.
Hawkeye: Exactly. There are no innocent bystanders in Hell. War is chock full of them – little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for some of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.”
Good writing. This traditional view of Hell is almost comforting in an odd way. We imagine a place that has neat lines. Where right and wrong are clear. Of course, what’s morally wrong conveniently matches our own views of right and wrong. Theologically, I don’t believe in Hell because I have faith in an all-loving God. Intellectually, I don’t believe in Hell though for that psychological reason; too often it’s wielded as a club to beat down on anyone who have differing social values. I distrust theological arguments that lift up one’s closed view of the world, one’s sense of ego or self, above the worth of others. Loving the Hell out of this world, isn’t about wishing a metaphysical bad place to be gone, it’s about loving this world in such a way that we don’t create hells on earth ourselves.
If the character Hawkeye is right, War is just War. It doesn’t have the clear cut lines of right and wrong we imagine with Hell. There are times when it’s tragically necessary. And there are too often times when it expediently fills the appetites of greed, or hate.
This week is another example of why I try to avoid predicting my sermon topics far in advance. War was not supposed to be the focus. Yet, sadly this past week has seen an insane escalation of violence in Palestine. Syrian’s are still trying to receive aid from what amounts to a genocidal government. And we are recommencing air strikes in Iraq, along with food and water drops, to protect religious minorities in the country from ISIS. War is not Hell, it affects innocent bystanders.
There are aspects of each of these tragedies that appear to require the use of force to protect innocent bystanders. There are aspects that are grounded in a history that has brought us to these horrid places. As a Fellowship that is designated a Peace site, I want to focus us on the cyclical nature of violence. It’s often easy to point at those religious extremists over there with their rage and violence fomenting rhetoric and pretend that it arises in a vacuum. That Hell doesn’t exist, except for how other people make it. It’s comforting to believe that. I’m not sure it’s entirely true. And I don’t say this to exonerate murderous violence. Those that perpetuate such acts, own their responsibility. However, when we think of these horrors as black and white, or us versus them, we only feed their hold on the people in their grasp. Even if we save the victims, we enshrine the world view of Good versus Evil. When we anticipate wrongness in others, perpetually, we create that wrongness.
I’d like to give a couple of examples. Last year there was a twitter post where a white young man wrote, “Am I racist if I feel uncomfortable about a guy with a turban on my plane because this isn’t ok with me.” Just this past week, Asishpal Singh replied, “Ugh I know what you mean, I get really uncomfortable whenever I see a white man walk into a movie theater or elementary school.” Racism, artfully responded to, in 140 characters or less. There are very real problems in the world. International terrorism does happen. Domestic terrorism does happen. But when we neatly and uncritically lay the blame at the feet of certain people, who of course are very different from ourselves, we worsen the problem. At the very least, we’re not allowing our senses to accurately deal with the tragedies before us.
If you think I’m reaching when I say this, there was a report this past June showing that CNN revised its own data to appease gun rights advocates. They initially reported that there were 74 school shootings in the prior 18 months since Newtown. They later revised those numbers down to 15 under pressure from gun rights advocates to “redefine what a school shooting was.” Instead of dealing with the tragic facts of a situation, let’s play word games so that our individual opinion isn’t at stake.
Spiritually, what’s going on? We once again place our ego at the alter of idolatry. We have an opinion that one race or class or gender or sexuality of people is bad, and we maintain our fear so that we don’t need to challenge our views – we don’t need to check our ego. Our precious ego stays safe in its cultural enclave. We also make it impossible to address the problems of the world as they actually are, because in order to address them as they actually are, we would have to refrain from worshiping our sense of rightness.
I read a recent article by Rabbi Jill Jacobs in the Washington Post. She is the Executive Director of T’ruah, which mobilizes 1,800 rabbis, cantors, and their communities to protect human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories. She spoke of a time when she was part of a delegation of U.S. faith leaders to Indonesia discussing religious pluralism. The group was welcomed with a poster that indicated how much money this local Muslim Community center had raised for Palestine, “and prayed for the health and safety of all Muslims . . . and for an end to “the Zionist entity.” Her article goes on to report how one attendee asked during the Q&A, “‘I have a question for the rabbi,’…“Why do Jews kill Muslim children?”’
The Rabbi replies, “Heart pounding, I stood up. I spoke of my pain at the loss of life among Gazan civilians, tragically including so many children. And then I took a deep breath. “I noticed the poster in the entranceway,” I began. I praised the group for raising money for humanitarian relief. But, I continued, “When you call for an end to the Zionist entity, I want you to know that you’re talking about my family and my friends and my people.” [The Rabbi] spoke of [her] own commitments to Israel, of the significance of Israel to the Jewish people, and of [her] firm belief that a two-state solution will allow both peoples to live securely and peacefully.”
The Rabbi ended her recounting with this, “To [her] shock, the audience applauded. Afterwards, many of those present told [her] that they had never before thought about who might live in Israel. That they had never thought a two-state solution to be possible. That they had believed that Jews wanted only to kill Muslims. And they crossed out the final line of the poster.”
…Religiously speaking, we are not likely to be the people that broker peace in the Middle East, or end our own nation’s cycles of perpetuating war. However, we do have control over how we view, react and respond to our assumptions and our experience in the world. I belief managing our own views begins to process of changing a nation’s culture. We always must begin with the one person we actually have control over their views and actions – and that person is ourself.
All the Rabbi accomplished, which is amazing in itself, is two-fold. Firstly, she showed compassion for the violence that has affected innocent bystanders in the world while admitting that violence is wrong. And then helping people realize the world is more complex than us versus them. That there are families on every side imaginable. That each side is not monolithic. Life is not a game of Risk where it’s the yellow pieces versus the Red pieces.
Just last month, 100 Imams in the UK issued a joint statement. “In the open letter released to coincide with the holy month of Ramadan, they said: “As the crisis in Syria and Iraq deepens, we the under-signed have come together as a unified voice to urge the British Muslim communities not to fall prey to any form of sectarian divisions or social discord.
“Ramadan, the month of mercy, teaches us the value of unity and perseverance and we urge the British Muslim communities to continue the generous and tireless efforts to support all of those affected by the crisis in Syria and unfolding events in Iraq, but to do so from the UK in a safe and responsible way.”
One Imam responded to the BBC saying, “”I think a lot of work needs to be done and it is not only the responsibility of the Muslim community or the imams.
“It is law enforcement, (and) intelligence services who all need to work together to make sure young British Muslims are not preyed upon by those who want to use them for their own political gains.”
That last response is so relevant for us here in the States as well, regardless of individual religious persuasion. We need to work together to make sure our people are not preyed upon by those who want to use them for their own political gains.
The major religions of the world, that have stood the test of time, may have some very different theological beliefs or assumptions. But each has at their core a deep valuing of mercy, compassion, and community building. When one faith strips another of their ties to mercy, compassion and community building, it’s a clear sign that the perpetrators are worshiping their own ego’s as small gods unto themselves. When adherents of those same faiths do it themselves to their own religion, likewise, they are worshipping something other than what their scriptures indicate. We conflate our importance, our need to be right, our need to lift up own own selves above others – and we do so by calling for the opposite of mercy, compassion or community building. We are guilty of inverting the cornerstones of faith.
And we do it by anticipating the worst. Our theme for the month is this very word – anticipation. It can be positive or negative. Today we hear it in it’s negative form. I know how that other side is going to think, or act, or believe. I know what their real motivations are. I know they’re going to be really different from me which means we can’t find common ground. Holding onto that stance makes it nearly impossible to love the Hell out of this world. Though it becomes increasingly easy to sow the seeds of discord, violence and hate – the very foundation of what we imagine Hell to be about.
Let’s take this down a notch to the everyday. We live in a country where certain kinds of violence are exceedingly rare, and other kinds are all too common. We live in a nation that extolls the virtues of the American Dream, including a history of immigrants making it here, yet we have at least one Governor who will send the National Guard to block children from fleeing rape and gangs because those kids seeking asylum don’t have the right paperwork – right paperwork I might add that my own great-grandparents never needed when they came here from White nations of origin. And just a few weeks ago we had another form of religious terrorism happen to one of our congregations in New Orleans. During a regular Sunday service, while the congregation was sharing a moment of silence for a beloved long time member, a baptist congregation sent protestors into the service to disrupt them because our denomination supports a women’s right to control her own body. Some may say that’s not really religious terrorism. Though I imagine if we had our memorial or prayer time interrupted when we were honoring a beloved deceased friend, we’d feel very invaded. It’s not the time or place for such protests or news grabbing.
The LA Times reports, “On Sunday morning, the Rev. Deanna Vandiver was leading a service at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, a graceful, Gothic-style brick building in the city’s Freret neighborhood. The sanctuary, with 70 or 80 people, was nearly full, and included a group of teenagers who had just finished a week-long training in social justice.
The room was silent, as the congregation prayed for a young mother of two who had just lost her battle with cancer, for a social justice lawyer who had recently died, and for peace in Gaza. That’s when the shouting started.”
The Rachel Maddow Show goes into more detail with an interview with the minister, Rev. Vandiver, who described how during this moment of silence, the radical anti-abortion protestors unbuttoned their shirts and revealed their group affiliations shouting malice and hate. It’s unbelievable to think, right? The youth, who just finished a week long training in religious leadership, got up, invited the members to join in hands and begun singing. The protestors were welcomed in if they could be respectful, or out if they could not be. In the face of hate, the youth led the congregation in song. They loved the Hell right out of that sanctuary.
Later the protestors begun shouting and waving signs – again unbelievable – outside the window of the nursery room to the babies inside. The youth that were there caring for the babies, picked up the children and brought them to the inside of the building away from the windows (leaving notes for parents of where they went.)
As we close, and prepare for another week ahead, I’d like us to take the courageous actions of the youth in New Orleans as a life lesson to reflect upon. How we respond in any given moment reflects the character of our faith. Ours is not to war, or shout back, or hate. Part of loving the world, means that when folks around us act in ways that are hateful, we may sometimes need to pick up our kids and bring them to a safer place for sure. But their behavior does not need to change our character. Loving this world means not giving into the hate in others; remaining our best selves in the face of other people’s worst selves. Things, behaviors, attitudes and actions surely must change or adapt, but our character does not. We can continue to show compassion and mercy in the building of community, whether it’s here, or across the globe.
This children-friendly homily was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 10/27/13 as part of our annual All Souls Day service. It reflects on two stories – The Water Bearer (Chinese Traditional) and Muddy Feet (Contemporary about Hosea Ballou)
All month we’ve been talking about helplessness in our services and my sermons. We all go through times when we feel that way – when no matter what we do, it feels like we can’t really do anything about whatever it is. Our story this morning reminds us that even when we feel broken, or down, or weak – we can still bring life to this world. I love the image of the watering can – or clay vessel – that’s just cracked enough to spill much of its water on the road along the way. We mean to be watering that garden over there, and through our flaws – through our holes – we wind up growing a garden everywhere we go.
While I talk, I want to invite anyone who took a piece of construction paper and crayon to draw a picture of that garden in your life. If you came forward today with a photo of a loved one – a person or a pet – that you lost – you’re welcome to draw the garden for them. Maybe draw them in your garden. Whether you’re a good drawer or not doesn’t matter. This isn’t about being good, but being loving. Think about what are the flowers – what are the things that you help grow in your life? What are you good at? Or if you’re really feeling on a roll – what are the things that you’re not so good at that sometimes surprise you and wind up helping the people in your life?While you’re doing that, I’m going to keep talking. I’m happy for you to keep drawing though!
Sometimes our mistakes can make us feel less than whole – not so good. Maybe we’ve really messed up. Maybe we feel we didn’t try hard enough. When this happens, we can feel like we need to beat ourselves up over and over – as if that was going to make all things right, or make the mistake finally work, or bring someone back into our lives. All of this is natural and normal. Sometimes we make mistakes and we need to make good on those mistakes. But sometimes we allow our guilt, or shame, or fear to start to define who we are – on the inside – to ourselves. As if the place where the water is leaking out of the clay vessel defines who we are as a person – for all times. That’s not very helpful, and it usually doesn’t make anyone feel any better, right?
I’d like to look at what our First Principle says about this. What’s our First Principle? (Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person.) We often talk about it as belief statement. We all believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Well, most of the time we do believe that; that we must stand on the side of love in our human relations. Every person is deserving of love and compassion. Just because we live, each of us are deserving of being treated with respect. Even though we don’t always succeed in this, this principle reminds us of our struggle toward that goal.
It also reminds us that just like those we strive to support, we too are deserving of respect from others. We fight for others’ rights, and we struggle for our own. This principle reminds us that when folks are treating us poorly for our differences, we do not deserve it.
If all of the rough treatments we may be subjected to by others is wrong, what of those we inflict on ourselves? Who do we go to when our harshest critic and the most unjust judge is no one other than us? Sometimes, we forget to tell ourselves that our First Principle applies to us as well. When we beat ourselves up for the mistakes in our lives – way past any point of helping to make good on them – we’re not living up to our First Principle.
That principle is also an action statement – it’s a promise of sorts. We make a promise to each other, and to ourselves, that we’ll affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity in every person – even ourselves. When our watering can or clay jar has cracks in it – and know that all of our clay jars will have cracks in them from time to time – it doesn’t mean that we’re not worthy. Sometimes we have to find it in ourselves to follow our faith and remember that our flaws do not lessen who we are.
I want to tell you another story now. Feel free to keep drawing – maybe draw some of the things that happen in this next story. (Tell story of Muddy Feet about Hosea Ballou.)
By a show of hands – who here has ever come home with muddy feet? What happens? Do our parents still love us – (even if our carpets might hate us?) Does it mean that running around and ruining things with mud is ok? We have to try our best not to make those mistakes. But the mistakes don’t mean we’re not loved. They don’t mean we’ve lost who we are – we still have worth. We find dignity in how we handle our missteps.
Little Hosea also had another belief – or lesson he learned. This was about what happens when we die. All these photos we have on our memory table are pictures of loved ones who are no longer with us. None of us really knows what happens, but many people have many different beliefs. For little Hosea, his faith taught him that God is all loving and that all of us are inherently good despite our mistakes. That Heaven is a place that we’ll all go to someday. Historically, this belief was central to what the second U in our name meant – Universalism. That all people – universally – are worthy of love and Salvation. Over time, the lines around this belief have gotten a bit fuzzy with each new generation; but the core of the teaching is still important and healing. We all make mistakes, we all get our feet muddy – and still – and still – we are loved. Life is sacred despite our short-comings. No matter what the state of cleanliness of our toes – we can always come home.
This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn on April 7th. It deals with the difficult topic of gender, violence and public discourse.
“When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing; I wish I was home; I wish I was back there with the things I been knowing.” These words open up the song Home from the musical The Wiz. We heard a moving rendition by Melissa Paul this morning as our anthem. It’s a powerful song from a woman who has come far in her own story. In this version of the rewrite of the classic, “Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy is extremely introverted, she has, as Aunt Em teases her, “never been south of 125th street”, and refuses to move out and on with her life.
“When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing.” It’s a myth of family, of home, of our roots that love – and all these things – are neatly intertwined. It’s a myth that’s sometime’s true, like in the case of Dorothy, and sometimes hurtful. But the heart of the message is that there’s a point in our lives where we do need to move on – as introverted or as closed-off as we might be – and leave our homes – or leave our families – for something new. Sometimes we choose to do this, and sometime this chooses us.
There are those moments in life where we look around and see all the crazy, madness that seems to surround us. The Wiz, or the Wizard of Oz, hold mean witches and flying monkeys to portray this. In the real world we leave home and have to face real humans with real hate in their speech, or their actions, or their lack of actions. We craft the fantastical to help us understand, or to accept, or to distance ourselves from the very normal, the very real.
I have in mind this morning, the flying monkeys of this age, the fields of poppies that put us to sleep, this week, this month, this year seem to me tied to our internalized and public sense of shame. The young Dorothy’s of this generation travel down roads, seemingly alone at first, where through no fault of their own they become targets of violence and denigration. We all know so many cases of this. Each is a more recent version of another, with other lives affected.
A case of rape, in Steubenville, Ohio. Where two teen boys targeted another drunk girl at a party. She could represent every Dorothy, although every story is different. There are horrors that will challenge the victim for years that we can’t just wave away. But there are also horrors that we as a society will continue to perpetuate that make me suspect the idea of the safe home, where love’s overflowing. Following the conviction of the boys last month, some news coverage took a disturbing route. CNN largely focused on the effect the conviction will have on the boys who were found guilty. The media showed – on loop – the heartfelt apologies one of the victimizers gave. The coverage lent a tone of heroism to the boy’s apology.
Candy Crowley of CNN asked, “What’s the lasting effect though on two young men being found guilty juvenile court of rape essentially?” Or reporter Poppy Harlow said, “It was incredibly emotional, it was difficult for anyone in there to watch those boys break down,” Harlow said. “[It was] also difficult, of course, for the victim’s family.” Or CNN legal contributor Paul Callan noting, “There’s always that moment of just — lives are destroyed. But in terms of what happens now, the most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders. That label is now placed on them by Ohio law. That will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
I watched these reports over and over. Trying to see the space where it became about the health and wholeness of the girl who was hurt. Or about how society doesn’t know how to handle the aftermath of harm. Or how the courts are doing their best to make clear that rape is rape. But all I see is sympathy for the lives of the victimizers that are destroyed by their actions. As if being labeled for life a sex offender – for the simple reason of being a sex offender – was a serious grievance done to these boys.
“Maybe there’s a chance for me to go back there; now that I have some direction. It would sure be nice to be back home; where there’s love and affection.” We all have to deal with hard times in our lives. Some of us, too many of us, need to face times of incredible pain. In those moments we wish to be able to turn back to a place of safety, of affection, of simplicity where we can regain our footing; and immerse ourselves in a sense of nurture. To return to our center in light of all that we have to face and all that we have learned. Journalism like this with CNN, or with those common lessons that teach women how to prevent harm to themselves rather that instilling in people the drive not to harm. The public sense of culpability errs on the side of how she could have prevented this rather than on why he should have known better. And to be true to the world, the victims are not always women – but it so often happens this way.
Our theology of Universalism asks of us to strive for a place of openness, of compassion for those that cause harm. Holding hatred, or malice helps no one, and harms most of all ourselves. It can grip our hearts, and make us forget to love freely, to live deeply, to hope when we need to so desperately. I appreciate the compassion in the journalists’ from CNN’s coverage. I criticize the focus. Many lives were ruined as they say – but some lives bear the brunt of their own mistakes – and that guilt, that shame, should not fall upon the victims in our world.
In my Good Friday homily last week, I reflected on how that day was the most difficult day in the Christian liturgical calendar. I want to return briefly to part of it because the message of Good Friday is important here – and as I was reflecting on the Passover week, stories like Steubenville were center in my mind. “On Good Friday, we are asked to stop and bear witness to the suffering figure on the Cross. Bloody and pierced, Jesus hangs with onlookers staring in grief and fascination. Our gut wants us to look away, even if we can’t stop staring. Our hearts want us to move as fast as possible to the hope reborn on Easter. But the discipline of that day, is not to move past it – not to let it go as quickly as we can. It’s to allow it to seep into our hearts – to face the reality of the death before us. One of my seminary professors – Rev. Christopher Morse – would remind his students every year that the Hope of Easter rests in the shadow of this day. Redemption in the story comes later – but this day marks not hope, but clarity. Not relief, but purpose. The Cross returns to us again and again in our lives. What is this death? It returns to us with our culture of shame – our culture of rape. Women being blamed for the very crime that was done to them. Voices that seek to silence her worth to save the faces of other men who’s lives might change because of their own crime. There is no hope when we hear the propaganda, but we can find clarity. The trial of the Cross is an indictment to each of us. Horrors happen in this world…. They can’t go away by just wishing them so. We must first face them. We must first accept that they are here – in our lives – in our neighborhoods.”
“Suddenly my world has changed it’s face, but I still know where I’m going
I have had my mind spun around in space, and yet I’ve watched it growing,” Dorothy continues on singing. Our childhood sense of normal, of safety, of home will go away – and return – throughout our lives. But we can find a compass to steer by; we can know where we’re going despite all that feels like it’s been thrown at us. In fact, it takes each of us returning to our compasses to see the way.
Common sense tells us that victims might be wise to learn how to avoid, as best we can, future harm – but the onus is not on them. The crime is not ours. The partners in so many homes throughout our country who are survivors of violence – may sometimes be stuck in a trap – but they are not the source of that trap. For some of us in this room – this is a given. For some of us in this room – they have learned this truth the hard way. For some of us in this room – we desperately need to hear it – right now. Our culture of shame is a collective trip we buy into, and it requires collective action to let go. We have to lovingly remind ourselves, time and again, that we ought not feel shame for the actions of others – that is for them to bear. It is for us to find our direction again in our own lives.
“If you’re list’ning God, please don’t make it hard to know if we should believe in the things that we see. Tell us, should we run away. Should we try and stay, or would it be better just to let things be?” Dorothy asks pleadingly. This question – right here – might be the heart of the message. The culture of shame we have built as a nation – around women, their bodies, and who gets to decide what – is not to be believed. It is as false as can be. We have fabricated an insane politic that lifts up personal freedom while simultaneously legislating corporate control of one gender’s identity – sometimes with as much emotional impact as other forms of actual assault. Our media blithely discusses “about women” in a way that men would be shocked should we ever do the same to us fellows. For the men in the room – try to imagine any form of legislation that would ever affect us where a panel of women sit and decide what we do with our bodies? Would that feel merely intellectual, or political, or would it feel invasive? Try to imagine a situation where we were the victim of sexual assault and where the news would take the side of the perpetrator or focus on how unfortunate it is that the perpetrator’s life is now ruined. I could not imagine this – at all. It would be seen as horrific, shocking. It would not be read as as simple statistic; a norm to be expected.
Victims of physical violence often internalize the blame – in part because we as a society say that we’re always able to have done something to prevent it – so when we didn’t prevent it we search for why we didn’t prevent it. We do this as kids when we’re hurt as kids. When we’re bullied as teens we draw the lines to why it’s really our fault, even though we hate the bully. And we carry that with us for the rest of our lives. As adults we’ve often convinced ourselves that we are able to accomplish so much so if this happens to us, we should have been able to stop it. And we’re trapped. We’re centered in our sense of shame. We seek to find blame – and while pointing anger toward those who are guilty, secretly – inside – deep down – we believe the lie that it’s about us. We echo the lie our culture tells us to believe.
Central to our faith is the conviction of worth. Our first principle is not a simple belief statement that solely means we’re all inherently worthy. It does mean that too. We have worth – we have human value. It also means that we are tasked with committing ourselves to the discipline of fostering and uncovering the worth in each of us. Shame buries our sense of worth. Shame teaches us to limit who matters and by how much they are allowed to matter. The discipline of worth calls us to challenge anything that diminishes the human spirit.
“And I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find a world full of love. Like yours; like me; like home…”. Dorothy blesses us with those closing words. We can turn this around. We are the people we have been waiting for. In all its complexity, all its difficulty – this world full of hurt is also a world full of love. Our hearts that are broken, also carry within them a love that is full whether we have forgotten it or not. In recognizing the careful messages we as a people have crafted around blame, shame, and power we can unlock the fullness of our hearts once more. We have to start by recognizing the messages for what they are. We either see them, or we live by them – and we can’t live by the culture of shame – not truly.
Check out my latest blog for the Huffington Post on Universalism, Consumerism, Christmas and OWS. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-g-jude-geiger/occupy-heaven_b_1175708.html
This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on Feb, 7, 2010. It’s about the wonder of the universe, the imminent and the transcendent. The poem by Neil Gaiman can be found at http://j.mp/kOu7yw
At the beginning of this month, I went on a retreat with 20 other Unitarian Universalists to Murray Grove, NJ. It’s a simple retreat center about 2 miles from the ocean that serves as a Universalist pilgrimage site. It’s the location where John Murray, founder of Universalism in the U.S. got stranded off a sandbar on his way to NYC from England in the year 1770. The very brief version of the story goes that local farmer, Thomas Potter, had built a church 10 years prior to house a Universalist preacher in the pulpit. The problem was, there were no Universalist preachers yet in the U.S. It was either a case of extreme forward thinking, or merely fantastical wishing come true. The farmer Potter managed to convince the reluctant John Murray to preach the following Sunday should the wind not change by then, thereby freeing his boat. The wind didn’t change, and Murray did preach, and Universalism was born in America. This is said to be the only recounted miracle in Universalist history.
So 240 years later a few friends invite me to leave the barracks-like retreat center to go for a hike to the spot where Murray’s boat got stranded. I’m thinking, “sure… an easy walk through some forest and farmland to the ocean sounds lovely.” It’s sunny out, and a balmy 40 degrees. I run back to my room to put on better shoes – well sneakers without holes in them really, and my nice hand-crocheted scarf. I decide not to change out of my good jeans… and we’re off. The start of the walk is lovely, an easy trail through light woods. You couldn’t tell there’s a strip mall just off the road from where we started. The (first) time my running shoes break through the patch of snow hiding a thin veneer of frozen ice covering ankle deep water I vaguely recall the retreat director saying something about “everything should still be frozen over.” And I think, “oh, that’s what she meant.” Good thing those sneakers, the ones I had just bought that day, were black – or they’d really clash with the new shade of mud coating my good jeans.
This is the first teaching or challenge of the Universalist retreat center for my urban-self. Can a city-boy keep his heart and mind on the beauty and indwelling-presence of the natural world caked in mud and baptized in frozen water? Can I push aside the thoughts of my colleague next to me giving me a lesson in how to treat tough to get out stains, while focusing on the “now” I traveled 3 hours to get to encounter? Can I stop berating myself for packing so insensibly? Twenty minutes in, I realize after my crocheted scarf starts getting caught on thorns and 5 foot tall grass, that the “everything should still be frozen over” comment of the retreat director was a reference not to patches of ice, but to the frozen swamp that was the doorway to the ocean. I could hear Thomas Potter laughing as I realized that a century of untended farm-lands means that they’re probably not farmlands any longer. In New Jersey, most of the area surrounding the ocean eventually turns back to marshland when humans stop fighting it. And that was the trigger that woke me up – the absolute absurdity of unexpectedly trekking through an icy swamp in sneakers dressed as what another colleague labeled – “fashionista.” The mind turned off, and I could see the world around me again.
We heard from Emerson in our reading this morning that, “I do not wonder at a snow-flake, a shell, a summer landscape, or the glory of the stars; but at the necessity of beauty under which the universe lies; that all is and must be pictorial; that the rainbow, and the curve of the horizon, and the arch of the blue vault are only results from the organism of the eye.” What we encounter we glimpse at through our world of perception. What we see, or hear, or feel. It’s also what gets conveyed more subtly or more insidiously. The beauty of the surrounding is modified in our minds by our company of friends or family, or our perception of those loved ones, at the time. It’s altered by our concern for the stuff we bring with us – whether that stuff be our designer jeans or attachment to our opinions. We forget the present with thoughts of homework, deadlines, debts and other fears. Or it could be innocuous like my one friend who can never simply say that the day is rainy – it always has to be “awful and miserable” as well. Or more troublesome prejudices – the kind where one gets distracted by two men or two women holding hands in the park, or those of us who may need to cross the street when someone of a different race comes our way.
I usually preach against bias as a justice issue, going through all the ways that it separates us from our common humanity, or fails to honor our first principle where we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person – and some would say every being. This morning, I’d like to remind us that it also is a spiritual crisis. The biases of the mind – whether they be the awful miserable titles to our rainy days or the more serious slurs we label anyone who’s different than ourselves, makes it distinctly more difficult to experience Emerson’s “necessity of beauty under which the universe lies.” They cut us off from our religion’s first source — that transcendent mystery that affirms life and defies description. They garb us as fashionistas in a landscape that’s better suited to more practical attire. They may build us up, and make us think we look better than those around us, but in truth it just serves to slow us down; to complicate the snags along the way; and to leave our hands and feet icy and cold for the road ahead.
Even Emerson is guilty of this dressing-up. We heard him write, “…There is no need for foolish amateurs to fetch me to admire a garden of flowers, or a sun-gilt cloud, or a waterfall, when I cannot look without seeing splendor and grace.” I do hope that Emerson could only see splendor and grace in all things – he’d be a truly remarkable soul if he could. I know that’s something that’s very hard for me to keep in the forefront of my experience. I guess I prefer to be in the company of foolish amateurs — I sure need them to remind me of what I’m seeing.
Our poem by Neil Gaiman laughingly prods at this human condition – our capacity to get so tunnel visioned that we miss the world for the problem. He takes us along a different road to absurdity with mythic alien invasions, walking dead, and robotic dominance that are readily missed for the much awaited phone call. The extreme is not seen for the mundane thing that we can’t let go of since we long to have it. This mirrors my parable of the frozen swamp. The extreme wonder of the living world can be missed by a cost-benefit analysis of mundane dry-cleaning prices. The beauty and indwelling spirit of our fellow human beings gets cloaked by our bias, or fear, or simple discomfiture. And that cloak is sooo easy to see, when the sublime “rose of beauty on the brow of chaos” is sooo easy to miss.
What are we waiting for? When we’re sitting in our living rooms staring at the phone for whomever to call, with a world falling apart around us in one hand, and extravagantly awe-inspiring on the other, what exactly is it that we need? When we’re checking emails or text messages every 3-5 minutes – what do we not have in the spaces between? Do we need to be reminded that we’re ok, just as we are? That we’re loved? That we’re human and beautiful despite what the magazine or billboards may otherwise depict? Have we convinced ourselves that those products of air brushes and photo-shopping Frankenstein creations are real and we are not? Is it that we’ve forgotten that the natural world is a resource and the anchor of being, and not a commodity? That we’re foremost and first citizens – not consumers?
All of these subtle shifts turn us toward or away from our living, breathing selves and world. We are barraged by an overload of information that constantly informs and misinforms. Some of it is useful data that allows us to navigate our daily lives. Some of it false. Some of it obscures with it’s addictive voracity. The correct or incorrect bits are useful or discarded for a time. It’s those bits that create a fog of hazy dreaming that I want to help dispel. When the phone rings, will he or she still love me? Will I lose my job? Did I make the right decision? Will she pull through? All those questions may really matter; they may all point to something truly serious. But do they also sometimes cause us to miss the transcendent mystery that is living? We’ve got a long road ahead of us, but regardless of that, we’re still on the road. The view’s worth looking at – always. I promise you, it’s a better sight than the silent phone.
One source of the barrage of information is the T.V. I’m beginning to wonder if some contemporary news sources are more like the mind that’s sitting waiting for the phone to ring than the investigative news of, say for example, the Nixon era. When a tragedy hits the world, we get cycles of information that seem to repeat themselves without adding anything new of substance. Getting the word out about Toyota’s recent recall is important. But I’m not sure that repeating the same clip of news about the disastrous threat of uncontrolled acceleration is the best application of cutting edge reporting or my precious viewing time for that matter. I could tell you everything about the delay in reporting, apologies, legal obligation of drivers to bring in their cars, etc. I can do this because I heard the story at least 6 times in one hour – the same story. It’s much like the utility of replaying that disastrous argument you had with your loved one. Some of it is valuable in recognizing how to move forward, but five sixths of it is wasted space that could be better filled. I’d rather hear more about the nuances of the health care debate, or comparative views on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But I suppose we’ve relegated that to episodes on comedy channels, like the Daily Show. That’s the only T.V. news source that I’ve seen consistently do comparisons between politicians promises or views of 2 years ago with their stance dances of today. It sets an odd tone where we label intelligent investigations as comical, and name serious, reporting which fixates on repetitive fears.
I used to blame the conglomerate that we call news for its own failings. Well, to an extent, I still do. But a greater part of me begins to wonder whether prime time news is simply reflecting our human condition. Are we so used to fixating on the moment of disaster in our lives, that we can’t let ourselves move on to the stuff that matters, or the life that continues on, or the complexity of what brought us all to and through that moment? Maybe the news is structured as it is, because it better matches our own minds.
Considering it in this light, I suggest that paying attention to the disease of that news medium, the repetitive kind of news that fails to add more substance to data, can prove helpful to our own capacity to more fully engage life. Attend to the feelings that arise from the repetition. Take note of how it affects you bodily. Do you feel more anxious? Do we feel frustrated? Does our breathing change? Do we feel more connected to our global community or feel more isolated? Do we feel more connected to our humanity, or less so?
These questions are valuable in regards to our own often repetitive minds as well. The negative iteration of some contemporary news sources can be seen as a useful mirror to how our over-thinking minds impact our lives and our humanity. Holding onto the moment that was, or will be, or might be – over and over – affects our feelings, our breathing, our anxiety and our human connectedness. Allowing the barrage of information to echo in our heads, rather than inform us, actually serves to diminish our awareness of the world rather than better inform it.
I’m not sure simply being aware of this will change how our news sources communicate, although it’s probably advisable to frequent the less common but genuinely investigative reporting than the more common type I’ve been speaking about. But we can change how we are affected by the medium. We can change how we are conscious of echoed talking points. We can be aware of the over-thinking mind that’s reflected in the cultural-consciousness we call the news. I feel it’s a metaphor for our own selves and a useful tool to awaken to the reality that we often do this to ourselves within our own heads. For myself, one clue that this is true is that I find it much simpler to point toward the noise on T.V. than I am to the noise in my head. Easy target. And yet, it does map the pattern. Just like people, the only ones we really have any power to change are ourselves, so we might as well seek to start there.
If awareness of considerate reporting that remains conscious of nuance and complexity is the goal for a healthy news medium, what is the path toward healing in our own consciousness? If we accept that the news can reflect our own mental states at times, what does it point toward? In my heart, I believe we as a species are struggling deeply with learning to be able to disagree with one another without holding onto our sense of rightness; without maintaining a stance that demands our take on the information we see to be 100% truth. There’s another verse from Emerson’s writing that talks about that indwelling spirit, that sense of presence, being likened to a bird flitting amongst the trees. It lands on this branch then the next, popping up from different locations and directions. No one tree masters it. Conscious awareness is like this. Truth is like this bird. Once we try to grasp firmly, the bird is no longer free to be itself. A certain beauty is lost or mangled, and the capacity for flight is grounded. The lessons of Emerson’s flitting creature is in the awe it inspires, not teaches. It’s in whatever wondrous moment that finally pulls the person, waiting for the phone to ring, away from their stupor and schools them back to life. It laughs at a world view that suggests we can sift through all the data pouring through our well-informed minds and separate things neatly into a sense of right and wrong that just so happens to cleanly align with our way of doing things. …Whatever that might be this week, or year, or century. We are awash with another type of information in our lives; one that gets lost beneath our thinking distractions. Our first source as Unitarian Universalists points toward that direct experience of wonder that leads us to a renewal of the spirit – one that affirms and upholds life. I would marvel at an education that used this litmus test on truth. How does what I’m learning right now affirm and uphold life?
Toward the end of October, I joined over 150 other religious educators for a week of service and learning in New Orleans during our annual liberal religious educators’ Fall conference. We broke up into groups of 15 or 20 to spend a day working in the fields, gardening, weeding, sorting books for kids who have few or none, among many other projects. We spent days in classes on music, local culture, personal stories. We explored angles of racism and classism. We learned how youth and adults collaborated to affect change. We witnessed how individuals from all financial backgrounds worked together to heal the corners of the blocks in which they dwelled. We went down primarily to serve, to help make things better down there; and we came away realizing “down there” had a lot to offer us to help out “back home.”
Blurring the lines between down there, and back home, was a main goal of the planning team for the annual conference. They were challenging us. They were asking us not to feel hearts full of charity, overflowing; but rather to experience solidarity at our core with the struggles of our fellow neighbors on this spinning orb we call home. The communities in New Orleans were asking us to come down and lend a hand, and in return, they’d show us their ways of making things better so that we could bring home the tools they’ve crafted, sharpened to excellence, and put to good use. We can serve with them, and in return, they’ll serve with us.
The personal transformation asked of us by this ethical stance, is central to Unitarian Universalist theology. I can recall the words of a mentor of mine, the late Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, previous Senior Minister of All Souls in NYC, who was known to teach that “we spring from a common source (Unitarianism) and that we share a common destiny (Universalism) and that both source and destiny are grounded in love.” I love that message. It feels very simple to say that we all spring from this living world, and we all share this road, this walk together. But it’s just as easy to forget this truth in our daily lives.
It’s just as easy to say we’re somehow better, or somehow above, the plight of others. It’s easy to come into a place of struggle and feel superior in our charity. It’s easy to impart our wisdom to a friend or family member who can’t seem to get their dating life, or their career, or their educational path together. Ok – with a show of hands, who here has ever given advice to a friend about how poorly they were managing their dating, or work, or school life? Now keep those hands up, if you weren’t able to follow your own advice. (mmm hmmm!)
We can laugh at ourselves (hopefully) for these foibles and everyday follies. But those are the little ways every day we commit acts of charity that lift ourselves up, without opening ourselves to the learning potential of mutuality, or solidarity. They’re some of the tricks we use to forget that we all spring from one common source and share one common destiny. Acts of solidarity, the moments we seek to serve while learning from those we aid, remind us of the truth of our origins and the nature and direction of our shared path. They humble us, and in our humility we come to realize how amazing this gift of life truly is. The big acts of service, of traveling across this country to help heal our brokenness, need to transform the little every day brokenness in our own lives, or we missed half the point and the wholeness of the message.
One of the lessons we learned in New Orleans, is that the community couldn’t do it alone. Individuals needed to work together. Non-profits, and congregations needed to work together. Congregational walls needed to open up to let more in and create collaborative opportunities. How much of that do we do locally? Do we work well with our fellow congregations in NYC? Where do we intersect with community groups in our neighborhood and our small town of Brooklyn? In some ways we excel, like the awesome reality of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) that meets every Wednesday in our downstairs Chapel, and in some ways we have room for growth. But we have a good deal to learn from our Louisiana neighbors.
We’re trying to do more of this in the months to come. For example, many of you may know that our Senior High Youth group will be traveling to New Orleans the week preceding Easter to have a week of service and learning. Following the good modeling of the groups in New Orleans, we’ve reached out to our neighbors in Staten Island. Our Staten Island UU youth group will be traveling with us; they’ll be fund-raising with us; and we’ll be getting to know one another more and more over the year to come. In fact, about 15 of us spent an evening full of pasta and conversation just two nights ago thanks to the delicious cooking of Becky Huffman and Paul Eisemann. Their youth group, Religious Education chair and Senior Minister came to visit us in the first of many steps toward building community. I sincerely hope and pray that this will be a real opportunity for our two congregations to get to know one another better. I know our Weaving the Fabric of Diversity committee is also seeking to expand their collaborations with our sister congregation, and I commend them for their work.
Solidarity, unlike charity, demands we seek personal transformation. In the words from some of his seminal work, cultural ethicist, Michael Jackson writes, “As I, turn up the collar on my favorite winter coat this wind is blowin’ my mind I see the kids in the street, with not enough to eat who am I, to be blind? Pretending not to see their needs… I’m starting with the man in the mirror I’m asking him to change his ways and no message could have been any clearer if you wanna make the world a better place…”. The metaphor of the mirror is the clearest symbol of what solidarity demands of us; and what solidarity offers us. We’re not going find more food for kids in the street if we don’t look to our own ways, attitudes, and perceptions first and foremost.
In this spirit of looking first to ourselves, the only people we can ever truly change, let’s reflect a little on our Hunger Communion this morning. I invite you to sit-up, feel yourselves in your body, open your hearts to the emotions that played across your mind during the communion portion of the service this morning. For those of you that had ample access to a nice loaf of bread, how did it feel to see the ample remainder upon the altar? Where did you feel pressure in your body when you turned to see most of the congregation struggling to share bits and scraps? For those of you receiving the opposite extreme, the absurdity of the 30 or 40 or 50 of you sharing one slice, where did the experience sit in your body? What arose in you when you saw someone else’s ample surplus sit upon our chancel? For those of you sitting somewhere in the middle, I challenge you not to make the mistake that the middle ground reflects the situation of the middle-class in the States. The vast majority of us in this room benefit as did the folks in the first three pews this morning. Even if we are relying upon food stamps, we have greater access to nourishment than most of our neighbors on this planet do. (And if you or your family are hungry this morning, come up to me after the service, and we’ll work together to change that. Many of us in the States and this city do go hungry every day.)
Knowing this, feeling this, experiencing this, what do we find in the mirror this morning? How does this annual ritual translate for us? From the safety and danger of this pulpit, I can not answer this question for any of you. We all need to come to that answer internally, but our religious community is a vessel for you to put those answers to practice. This religious home is a place of safety, of succor, where you can risk the glance into the mirror and take the first transformative steps. It’s what we’re all called to do here.
It’s common to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge before us. Helping one person out there, in a charitable way, is a concrete thing we can accomplish so we’re often, though regretfully not always, willing to do it. The guests at our table boxes signify several hundred concrete steps this congregation takes each year to affect noticeable change in the lives of people they touch. Escorting those boxes down to our religious education classes and introducing the plight of others into the awareness of our children and youth are another hundred or so concrete steps we take every year. Food is the focus of this morning’s Communion, but access to clothing, and shelter, and even moments of celebration for young children, are all interwoven in the broader fabric of poverty. Each thread connects to another. Our annual toy drive, our split the plate with Good Shepherd, our periodic days of repainting shelters for our Queer Youth, our clothing drive for Christian Help in Park Slope expand the list. Money, and time, and concern are necessary to affect moments of reprieve, and occasional nudges against systems of oppression the world over. And we as a religious community must do them, because I often fear I’m not sure who else would if ethical gatherings of individuals ceased this work. And yet, they’re not enough alone. Charity is not enough even if it is a necessary point of entry for many of us.
We ritualize the Hunger Communion to transform our hearts and spirits. The internal awareness and the internal transformation are great gifts of solidarity to end the crisis of Hunger. Some of us change our eating habits to reduce our impact. For some this will mean vegetarianism (like myself) or veganism – both diets that reduce reliance upon grain-intensive livestock. For others it will mean supporting Community Supported Agriculture, to reduce environmental impacts while funding local farmers who quite often donate surplus to those in need in our local community. For some, it will mean supporting Community Gardens that teach folks how to grow food, the value of nutrition, and increase access to fresh foods.
Many in this congregation donate funds to build micro-credit banks in Haiti to help combat systems of poverty that reduce women’s access to employment and entrepreneurialism – at their best, these banks are acts of solidarity that empower individuals to increase their own capacity to be self-subsistent. These banks presume, given a fair chance and equal access, people can stand on their own. I agree with that presumption.
And the list can go on and on. I invite you, no I challenge you. If something was stirred in you this morning, seek the ways in which you can affect the change in world you seek to know. Begin with yourself. Begin with the everyday habits. Transformation of this world beneath the glow of justice is possible and it begins at home. It is an act of solidarity over charity. This is the saving message of our Unitarian Universalist faith. There is a path worth living and walking; there is ever a potential for hope in the unfolding of the human spirit; we are loved and maintain the possibility to love; perfections and products are pale compensations for forgetting our connectedness in this awe-inspiring living world. It is my hope and my prayer this morning, that our service of Communion reminds us of the truth of our interconnectedness. And that this truth stirs within our blood such compassion that we are quickened to act.