Green Blade Rises

The hymn Now the Green Blade Riseth sung beautifully this morning loosely refers to the Christian texts in Mark 4: The earth beareth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And also the verse in John 12: I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

The hymn written by minister John Crum in the 1920’s takes these verses and weaves a wonderful metaphor not only referring to the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus but also to the resurrection / rebirth of love in a heart wounded and grieving. It is this second metaphor that I want to explore on this day of celebrating resurrection, this day of celebrating spring’s rising to new life.

We need that assurance that love not only can but will prevail ultimately. As Rob Bell writes, Love Wins. Love wins. And it wins even when all signs point to the opposite. The green blade riseth from the buried grain/ wheat that in dark earth many days has lain/ Love lives again, that with the dead has been/ love comes again like wheat that springeth green.

I officiated at an outdoor wedding last week and on the property were these 200 year old oaks whose branches were covered with small ferns—called the resurrection fern. In times of drought the fronds of this fern are dry, apparently dead/lifeless. But when the rain comes, these fronds become healthy and supple, vibrant with life. It had been raining and these fronds were full of life.

But there is another plant that is even more amazing called the Ibervillea Sonorae. This desert plant of the gourd family can appear as a piece of drift wood for years. When the rains come, it will burst forth in magnificent full bloom and produce gourds and then die off and wait again. NY Botanical Garden reportedly had one; they purposefully kept it from water to see how long it would live in its drift wood state. Each year it would tentatively send out green tendrils looking for a source of water. If there was none to be found, it would shrivel back and return to its drift wood state. For seven years the plant waited for the moment of rebirth before it died.

I found that number of years to be meaningful. Without delving too much into numerology, the number seven is a significant number metaphorically in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Genesis story has god resting on the seventh day of creation. A Hebrew slave is to be released in the seventh year. Hebrews insisted a field be fallow every seven years; and of course the notion that the seventh day of the week is the Sabbath, a day of rest. Jesus was once asked how many times to forgive someone for the same offense, seven times? No, Jesus replied, seventy times seven. So seven years for a desert plant to wait for resurrection seems theologically significant. It suggests that we are not to give up on love. Even after waiting a time period numbering seventy times seven and the appearance of anything different still seems dead impossible—we are not to give up on love. Seven seems to be the number of the Sabbath, the rest needed to bring about rejuvenation/ new life/ or new starts can begin. But it also seems to imply that just when by all appearances everything seems to be forever in the dead of night, the moment of dawn occurs and a bright new day begins.

A blog post on this amazing plant asks the questions: How dead does something have to appear before it is dead? How dry and lifeless and alone and fruitless does something have to be before it is actually, and finally, beyond hope? *

For the Ibervillea apparently a very long time. When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain, Love’s touch can call us back to life again, fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been: Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

That is often the fear, isn’t it, that our hearts once bereft will be kept in an eternal wintry mess and spring’s warm caress of new life will never come or never come in time? So how do we wait patiently like the Ibervillea day after day, week after week? It isn’t easy.

I believe the point of Jesus’ message is not in his death and resurrection. At least not in the way the orthodox theology has established it. The point is that Jesus kept saying the kingdom of god / the beloved community was within us, the realm of heaven is indeed within us. He stated this before his death and resurrection. It was not a condition contingent on his crucifixion; it was already according to Jesus a reality. Christianity has placed the emPHASis on the wrong sylLAHble. Just as the Ibervillea has everything ready within it to burst forth with new vines of flowers and gourds, we too have everything within us we need to burst forth with love to transform our society from the dried piece of drift wood it seems to be to a lush garden of life.

This beloved community with in us is the green blade that riseth in the hearts of people who seek to live according to the universal truth that we are all one people/ one family. What we do to one person we do to all. I’ve said this before and I truly am convinced that Jesus’ core message is found in what he considers to be the greatest commandments of the Tanakh, the scriptures of Jesus’ day: “To love god / Life with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul, and with all one’s mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Everything else falls under these two commands.

I have come to believe that to focus on the crucifixion and resurrection is a form of cheap grace. There is no need for personal growth and health when this becomes the central piece of salvation. Even history’s worst villains of the western world claimed to be Christian because they believed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Say the sinner’s prayer and be on your way—nothing more to be seen here. But when the person seeks to fulfill the great command—whether it is stated in the words of Jesus or the Dalai Lama or Karen Armstrong or Thich Nhat Hanh then the person becomes engaged and their lives are transformed in ways that are mysterious and wonderful. The rest, as the Rabbi Hillel said, is commentary.

So reach out to the person who is grieving or in pain with compassion, with love as you would want someone to reach out to you in love and become that life saving water that encourages the green blade to rise again. Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

++++++++++
Green Blade Rises
Rev Fred L Hammond 31 March 2013 ©
Presented at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

* As found on March 29 2013 at http://shelovesmagazine.com/2013/never-dead-enough/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+shelovesmagazine%2FgZoz+%28SheLoves+Magazine%29

Worship as Respite

Worship is like a breathing spell in a long and arduous foot race, or the hour of roll call in a prolonged and hard-fought battle: — it is altogether indispensable to sane and wholesome living— it is important enough in life to warrant the erection of classical temples and Gothic cathedrals. It is indeed so important that one finds one’s self sometimes wondering how any of us can afford to do anything but educate ourselves in this art. — To be effectively a person and thereby help others to be persons is the sum of abiding satisfactions in life. Worship in the sense of this aim is natural and necessary, and in the Great Community all mature people worship. Its objectives are not absolutely fixed as to their content.—Von Ogden Vogt (born February 25, 1879)

I came across this post at the The Liberal Lectionary.  If  you are not familiar with this new site, I highly recommend it. This site posts quotes by people who have influenced Unitarian Universalist theology in myriad of ways.

Von Ogden Vogt was a Unitarian Minister who served the First Unitarian Society of Chicago in the early to mid 20th century.  He is best remembered for his legacy of how Unitarians and now Unitarian Universalists worship.  See The Contribution of Von Ogden Vogt.

The quote listed above has my mind thinking about worship as respite.  There are many excellent texts on how we worship today and these texts include best practices as it were or various components of a worship service.  These are important technical aspects of a worship service as if that is all that is really happening.  But I have had the experience,  I am sure many of my colleagues have as well, when a service from a technological stand point ( I do not just mean the sound systems or the use of power-point when I use the word technological) bombs and bombs big time and people will come up to me and state how profoundly moved they were in this particular service. Their hearts were moved, a barrier in their lives shifted, they found strength to go back to their lives with renewed hope and vigor.

I am amazed when grace  somehow manages to work its way through this feeble vessel that contains my being to touch another’s life.  So worship is not simply a rote set of movements or acts as Von Ogden Vogt delineated the service.  It is something far more than the sum of its parts.  It is this “breathing spell” as Von Ogden Vogt calls it that allows for the individual and the community present to feel renewed, recharged, reborn before re-engaging that arduous footrace or on-going and prolonged battle we call living the day to day.

So this  question arises:  What brings people to worship together in Unitarian Universalist congregations? What gives us that breathing spell?  What offers that sense of respite?

Perhaps part of this respite comes from the notion that for one hour at the minimum is focused not entirely on ourselves but on others.  We focus on the well being of those around us.  We listen  to the words the minister or speaker is saying (or am I in denial?).  We hear songs that reflect various  angles of the theme of the day.  We are affirmed by others.  We are seen as being worthy in the eyes of others and perhaps even in our own eyes.  There has been a meme floating around Facebook that states something like  “if you are feeling discouraged go encourage someone.”

Worship offers the possibility of even  when  we are feeling low and broken our presence, our very presence can be a source of  encouragement to another to carry on.  And that act of encouragement reverberates back to us and gives us respite from our pain, our brokenness.  We do not know how our presence and some off the cuff comment can be the very breath of life another needs.  Our participation in a communal worship helps in offering this to others, even happening without our awareness.

Some worship spaces are majestic in and of themselves.  Those who have been at First Unitarian Society in Chicago’s Hyde Park know the vaulted ceilings, the stone walls, the slate floors, the commanding pulpit set high above the people seated in the pews.  The building itself inspires awe and eternal reverence of a people who came before and hints at the people who may come in the distant future.   These are the halls where Von Ogden Vogt and James Luther Adams preached.  Where contemporary ministers like Mark Morrison Reed sang choir as a child and where Bill Schulz attended when he was in seminary at Meadville Lombard Theological School.  To enter such a space where these and others have had their formation as ministers, have been influenced by such thinkers and bastions of the faith can be in and of itself, a worshipful respite that feeds and nurtures the spirit.

Worship for Unitarian Universalists is not the lifting up a deity instead worship for Unitarian Universalists is as Von Ogden Vogt suggests a time for the gathered community to celebrate life .  In that celebration of life, whether it is the joyous or the grieving aspects, we find respite  by holding up the values and the actions they promote in our lives that will make our  journey all the more meaningful.  May we all find respite for our journeys and may we find companions to aid us along the way.

Blessed

Here in the south, I often hear people say when ending a phone conversation or ending  a transaction between a store employee and customer, “Have a blessed day.”   In these contexts it seems hollow, superficial, too easily rolling off the tongue like that other saying used elsewhere in the nation: “Have a nice day.”  What does that really mean, anyway? Have a blessed day.  What does that even look like?  Would I even recognize it if I stumbled upon it?  Can another person truly determine what a blessed day is in another’s life?

But to really bless someone is much more profound.  Recently two people said things to me that made me feel blessed.  One out of the blue said “Thank you for being you.”  She explained what she meant by that and it was more than just a warm fuzzy moment.  This morning I received a text message from a colleague telling me that he was going to share a story about a conversation he had with me some eight years or so ago.  I did not remember the event but he had and it made a difference in how he lives his life on a daily basis all these many years later.  His telling me this was a blessing that not only affirmed me but told me that my life made a difference in the daily life for someone else.  We all need to hear and receive these blessings, these essential truths about our lives.

There has been several spin offs on the God made a Farmer commercial that was aired during the Superbowl.  This one linked here was for me especially poignant and affirming.  Those who know of my life’s journey thus far will recognize several of the themes in this video and I felt blessed.  Regardless of your sexual orientation or identity expression, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

So God Made a Gay Man

The late Henri Nouwen wrote a series of letters to a young journalist he met during his time at Yale University.  These letters became the book, Life of the Beloved.  Nouwen writes,

Let me tell you what I mean by the word “blessing.” In Latin, to bless is benedicere. The word “benediction”that is used in many churches means literally: speaking (dicto) well (bene) or saying good things of someone.  That speaks to me.  I need to hear good things said of me, and I know how much you have the same need. Nowadays, we often say: “We have to affirm each other.” Without affirmation, it is hard to live well. To give someone a blessing is the most significant affirmation we can offer. It is more than a word of praise or appreciation; it is more than pointing out someone’s talents or good deeds; it is more than putting someone in the light. To give a blessing is to affirm, to say “yes”to a person’s Belovedness. And more than that: to give a blessing creates the reality of which it speaks.  There is a lot of mutual admiration in this world, just as there is a lot of mutual condemnation. A blessing goes beyond the distinction between admiration or condemnation, between virtues or vices, between good deeds or evil deeds. A blessing touches the original goodness of the other and calls forth his or her Belovedness.

The world has grown colder since Henri Nouwen’s passing.  His words of blessing one another are needed now more than ever.  We are far too easily offended by others words and actions and react with violence of fist and spirit.  We have denied love’s entrance into our hearts and strike out with vehement rage when we do not get our way or when someone suggests there might be another way to living on this small planet.

I think it is okay for us to feel and even embrace the pain of our separateness from one another. I think it is okay to embrace the reality that our societal structures have molested and abused our spirits.  But in that brokenness we need to respond not with bitterness against the world but rather with humility of our humanness.

Nelba Marquez-Greene, mother of one of the slain children in the Sandy Hook shooting wrote a beautiful Valentine Day’s reflection after the death of her daughter, Ana.  She shares her experience of thanking the volunteers who were on the scene of the horrendous loss of life.  She writes:

I could see in their eyes how much their hearts were broken for me. And my heart broke for them. But perhaps that is what we need…to be more broken for our neighbor, for our loved ones for our coworkers…. and even for the people that hurt us and bring us strife. Unity. So that love can win. Respect. So that love can win. Pro-activity not reactivity. So that love can win. Empathy. So that love can win. Peace. So that love can win. Conscious, collaborative action. So that love can win. Faith. So that love can win. ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ John 13:34

This is what being blessed is.  It is being held in love and being fully present to receive that love.  With each blessing we receive comes healing of the spirit enabling us to love anew.

The Cry For Freedom

I received the following quote via twitter this week.  The quote by Ana Levy-Lyons is from an essay she wrote for the recent edition of the UU World, our denomination’s magazine.  She states:  “It seems clear that there should be tension—enormous tension. Until the world is as it should be, until war and hunger are abolished, until power is shared and all voices are heard, we should not be able to fit comfortably into this culture.[i]

She is talking about religious communities being counter-cultural, as being a model of a way of life that prophetically calls society to be different than the way society is currently manifested.  She then calls upon James Luther Adams, our Unitarian Universalist theologian of the 20th century and quotes his words[ii]:

The element of commitment, of change of hearts, of decision so much emphasized in the Gospels, has been neglected by religious liberalism, and that is the prime source of its enfeeblement. We liberals are largely an uncommitted and therefore self-frustrating people. Our first task, then, is to restore to liberalism its own dynamic and its own prophetic genius . . . A holy community must be a militant community with its own explicit faith; and this explicit faith cannot be engendered without disciplines that shape the ethos of the group and that issue in the criticism of the society and of the “religious” community itself.

Harsh words to hear.  First the question of not being counter-cultural and then not committed to restoring liberalism, religious liberalism to its own prophetic genius that critiques society and our religious living within it.  Harsh words indeed.  But are there examples of this happening?

In 2005 I had the privilege of visiting Chiapas, a state in southern Mexico.  Chiapas is much like Alabama in some ways.  It too is among the poorest of its nation.  They too made international news for the ways the government oppresses people there. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed by the US, Canada, and Mexico, the indigenous people of Chiapas realized that NAFTA was not for their benefit but would actually do them great harm.   All of the resources of this wonderful state, Let me repeat that,  all of the resources are owned not by the indigenous people.  The coffee, the beef cattle, the bananas, the honey, the oil, the electricity, and many other exportable resources; all of it is controlled by the Mexican government and American corporations. The people of Chiapas do not see any of the money produced by these resources.

The people who live here are living in dire poverty and they are exploited not only by their own government but also by the corporations from America and Europe.  But how are their needs presented to us?

In a piece that I wrote for the Chiapas Peace House Newsletter, The Children of El Pacayel[iii], I described the charitable organizations portrayal of such children.  I said I had been taken in by “the international charitable organizations that seek to raise funds by showing third world children.  You know the video clip.  The image of Sally Struthers walking down dirt trodden roads with children cast aside along the way unable to move from hunger or disease is meant to pull at our heart strings to donate money.   The closing clip shows her holding a young girl all gussied up and smiling.  See what your money can do?”

This form of charity, as well meaning as the donors are for those who are destitute does not answer the root causes of the poverty.  Leonardo and Clodovis Boff in their text, Introducing Liberation Theology, state this approach as “a strategy for helping the poor, but treating them as (collective) objects of charity, not as subjects of their own liberation…. There is a failure to see that the poor are oppressed and made poor by others; and what they do possess—strength to resist, capacity to understand their rights, to organize themselves and transform a subhuman situation—tends to be left out of account. Aid increases the dependence of the poor; tying them to help from others, to decisions made by others; again, not enabling them to become their own liberators.”

If some of this argument sounds familiar, it is because this is the argument of conservatives in this nation regarding welfare. Conservative voices might add the belief that poverty is caused by some sort of vice such as “laziness, ignorance, or simply human wickedness.”  Many liberals tend to see this argument as heartless towards those who are poor, not only in third world countries, but right here in America, right here in Alabama.   Liberals response to this argument is to maintain programs of aid to the poor as a form of compassion band aid or as Boff coins it, “objects of pity.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I am one of those liberals who want to keep those welfare programs in tact.  But perhaps, it is time for me to recognize that it is at best a temporary safety net measure and not meant to be a permanent fixture in any one’s life.

And that might be why there is the reform argument which is the response from liberals who believe that with minor restructuring within existing systems the situation of the poor will be improved.  Alas, Boff writes, “Reformism can lead to great feats of development in the poorer nations, but this development is nearly always at the expense of the oppressed poor and very rarely in their favor.”
This is also the belief that third world countries and even poor states like Alabama and Mississippi are poor as a function of backwardness.  In the process of time, if stimulus loans for economic development in Alabama or foreign aid for third world countries were given, then the result would be prosperity and progress.

The problem with reformism is that it is generated not from within the community affected but from outside of the community. Those who are to benefit from reform are “passive objects of action taken by others.”

NAFTA was supposed to be one of those reforms of the system. The thinking was if there was more ease in the production and trading of goods between nations then all would benefit from it.  However over 2 million farmers lost[iv] their ability to farm in Mexico once NAFTA was fully implemented in part because they could no longer compete with factory farms in the US and in Mexico.  In short, the old adage rings true; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

There is a third way to approach and explain the problem of poverty.  It is a dialectical explanation: poverty as oppression.  Boff explains that “poverty [is] the product of the economic organization of society itself, which exploits some—the workers—and excludes others from the production process—the underemployed, unemployed, and all those marginalized in one way or another.”

The way out is not through charitable contributions or through reforms but by replacing the present way of doing things by offering an alternative system—a counter cultural approach.  It is the poor themselves who stand up to create this revolutionary approach to their liberation.

Liberation theology seeks to do this by seeking to first understand the historical context of the poor and oppressed and then find ways to respond in relationship to that context.  Now Liberation theology is steeped in Christology—Jesus teachings about the poor and the transformative process through the death and resurrection of Jesus as being central to Liberation Theology.  As Boff explains, “the poor are not simply poor, as we have seen; they seek life, and ‘to the full’ (John 10:10). This means that questions relevant to or urgent for the poor are bound up with the transcendental questions of conversion, grace, resurrection.”  And conversion, grace, and resurrection are evident in the evolution of the resistance movement Mexico and other Central American countries.

In Chiapas, the Zapatista’s initially rose up and declared war against the Mexican government.  And after blood shed in the early years of their declared war, they decided war was not the answer but rather a sustained resistance to exploitation. This came about after the massacre at Acteal, where some 40 innocent men, women, and children were killed by the Mexican military.  These people were not Zapatistas but happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The world community stood up in protest. Marcos writes in the Sixth Declaration[v]:  “the first thing we saw was that our heart was not the same as before, when we began our struggle. It was larger, because now we had touched the hearts of many good people. And we also saw that our heart was more hurt, it was more wounded. And it was not wounded by the deceits of the bad governments, but because, when we touched the hearts of others, we also touched their sorrows. It was as if we were seeing ourselves in a mirror.”

My visit to the Zapatista community of Oventic revealed a community where a democracy by consensus was being developed.  These were a people who understood the historical context in which they lived.  Not only did they understand their ancestry as indigenous people of Mexico but also their 500 year history as a people living under the domination of the Doctrine of Discovery.  The result of this context enabled them to incorporate into their communities an understanding of their own oppression and empowered them to create something new, an alternative to the corrupt Mexican government.

Anthropologist Duncan Earle writes: [vi][The Zapatistas] had no model except [for] their own indigenous belief that there should be consensus. They have been able to create a para-state that takes care of its own education, health, transportation and economics.”  In response to an article, he stated: “[vii]Chiapas is an island of peace and security, and in the Zapatista zones, good government and no drug cartel activity. That is why tourism is on the rise there, even Zapatourism.”

This approach was recently adopted by the indigenous Purépecha community of Cherán in the Mexican state of Michoacán where the Monarch Butterflies winter.  This was a community besieged by organized crime loggers and drug cartels. Their pleas to the government for intervention and protection went unanswered.  They rose up as a community and stopped the violence.  They kicked out the crime syndicate and removed the corrupt government and set up a council that uses governing principles of their ancestors.  This includes having a series of neighborhood bonfires at night.  They talk, they cook food for one another, and they come to consensus as to how to protect their community and their forest.

A report states this about the community: [viii]Retaking old habits and customs; returning to the idea of la faena, work that’s done by all for the good of everybody. It wasn’t long ago that this tradition was still practiced. The elders will tell you: “we built this school with la faena” and remember how at a wedding or funeral, the tradition dictated that everybody helps with something: food, work, anything so that life is easier for all. This old way keeps people close.”

They have set up a counter-cultural community because the ways set up by the government were not protecting them from the violence of the crime syndicate or from the impotent and corrupt government. This community banned political parties as they see them as divisive.  They are a community under siege not only from the crime syndicate but also from the Mexican government. The community of Cherán is pulling together and creating something new because reform no longer worked.

But what about here?  How does Chiapas and Cherán relate to Tuscaloosa?  Yesterday, I met with Somos Tuskaloosa.  They are working on developing their goals for their future as the possibility of changing the system of immigration becomes feasible in an Obama second term.

Somos Tuskaloosa discussed the need to understand the historical context in which they find themselves.  They are realizing that they cannot simply allow the government to reform immigration without their ability to have a say in how that might be done. They see immigration as a piece of the racist history of the United States. They need to understand that history and the systems developed in response to that racist past.  Their desire to develop a community where all people are respected, not just as a rhetorical statement, but brazenly embraced for who they are is counter-cultural in Alabama.

And isn’t that what we want too?  To be a community that brazenly embraces the other as equal sojourners in life?  As Ana Levy-Lyons challenged us; how would we seek to abolish the war and hunger within our own hearts and in the larger community—figuratively and literally?  What would shared power look like here in this congregation?  How would we ensure that all voices are heard?

What would we need to change if we declared our community as an autonomous Human Rights zone in Alabama?  That is the definition of sanctuary—a place where people are safe and secure from the dangers of the world.   May we find the courage to participate in such a liberation—a liberation that yields to a just society. Blessed Be.


[i] “We should be more Counter-cultural” by Ana Levy-Lyons as found at http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/229846.shtml

[ii] IBID

[iii] http://www.chiapaspeacehouse.org/content/view/276/305/lang,en/ (website is no longer active, currently on hiatus)

[iv]NAFTA and the Mexican Economy, M. Angeles Villarreal, June 3 2010 Congressional Research Services as found at  http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL34733.pdf

[vii] Dr. Duncan Earle (not verified) on April 16, 2009 – 01:53  http://hir.harvard.edu/blog/jason-lakin/fifteen-years-after-the-zapatistas

[viii] Pablo Pérez, Translation by Laura Cann  as found at http://www.borderlandbeat.com/2012/07/the-fight-of-cheran-day-it-began.html

 

“The Cry for Freedom” delivered at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa   by Rev. Fred L Hammond 11 November 2012 ©

Is Justice Defined by the Victor?

It is the end of October.  I am getting up to ten political emails a day now all asking me to support their campaigns.  There is usually also a spin of fear in these emails.  The most horrible thing will happen if the other person wins the election. Doesn’t matter the political party, the fear expressed is the same.  If the other party wins, our way of life, our values, our freedom will be compromised or worse stripped away.

Is this really what our democracy is about?  Is it really a warring game where the other is characterized as some evil entity prowling to destroy our values?  If you listen to the commentaries this certainly seems to be the case.

I want to believe that the arc of history is bent towards justice.  So I try not to despair when I see racism rearing its ugly head in our proposed legislation or when I see laws curtailing the rights of people.  I say to myself eventually the arc of history will bend towards justice.  Maybe it is not a smooth arc but the arc is there and justice will win out.  But then, I have to ponder on who defines this justice?

I have a definition of what justice is and isn’t.  But so do the people who are proposing legislation that I feel attacks my definition of justice.  Come November 7th, barring a repeat of the 2000 elections, we will have either elected or re-elected a President.  Regardless of the winner, some will rejoice that the arc of history has moved towards justice.  And so I wonder is justice objective or subjective?

History it is said is written by the victors.  Is justice also defined by the victors?  Just as God can be created in our image and therefore love the people we love and hate the people we hate.  So too, is justice defined.  For 236 years, this nation has defined justice according to the words of white men.  There have been horrible atrocities in our nation’s history justified by white men in power. There has been genocide and slavery of entire races of people and these actions were justified by white men. The history books declare the actions were just or unjust depending on the victors.

Had the native peoples been able to prevent the white men from stealing their lands or the South had been able to defeat the North, the history of this nation would have justified the outcome differently. Here in the South, there is still a belief that the South was treated unjustly regarding the ending of slavery.  There is still a belief that state’s rights should have prevailed.

Today, there is a fear expressed by white people  that American history will soon be written by people of color; by people who do not share our religious doctrines; by people who have a different idea of how power should be distributed.  It is these fears that are the subtext in the political campaigns this year. The fear is that everything we thought we knew to be true will be considered false and rewritten. I would like to calm those fears and state that truth is never fully told by one side or the other. Truth is always a compilation of sides. It is by understanding the subjective angles of truth that we can begin to embrace our humanity and grow in compassion and love towards the other.

It seems to me that our freedom to vote for our leaders is even more crucial than ever before. For me, our leaders need to be the ones who will embrace the multiple sides of the truth as expressed by the people of our nation and begin to create justice with this recognition of the whole.  I want to believe that the arc of history bends forever towards Justice.  I want to believe that the positions I have taken are the correct positions. But perhaps the correct position is to have some humility and recognize that Justice as it develops may not be what I had in mind.  Blessed Be.

What’s it All About?

Opening Words:

From the dawn of human history, humanity has been seeking the answer to life’s most pressing question:  What is it all about?  There have been variations of this question.  Does life have a purpose?  Is there meaning in life?

There appears to be an answer that has dubious origins.  Some say the answer came from the Shakers in the celibate religious communes in New England in the late 19th century. Others say it was discovered after a brutal battle in the midst of the Second World War in England to cheer the troops.  And still others say the answer refers to the ice cream street vendors selling ice cream in wax paper before the invention of ice cream cones.

The answer to this pressing question is this:  You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out, you put your right foot in and you shake it all about.  You do the Hokey Pokey and you turn yourself around, that’s what it’s all about.

Sermon:

Okay so we had some fun with the question by doing the Hokey Pokey.  But we humans are a serious bunch and not so easily given to such frivolity as song and dance.   It has its place, we serious ones might declare and some have even dared to declare that song and dance  was the work of the evil one.  Some of us in the human race when trying to answer this question of what’s it all about received answers that life is very serious and must therefore be lived with a sort of prudence and decorum. 

There is the ancient thought that human life served purposes of the gods who were rivals of each other.  Our part in the scheme of things was some sort of chess match being moved about as pawns.  Greek and Roman mythology is filled with stories of the gods having their rivalry and human life being the means in which their rivalries were to be played out. 

This thought is also found in the Hebrew Scriptures in the story of Job.  In this story, God and Satan are having a conversation.  God is bragging about his faithful servant Job.  Satan responds with ‘but of course he is faithful, look at all you have given him—a fine home, healthy and strong children, riches and comforts beyond compare—take all this away from him and Job will curse God and the day he was born.’  God accepts the challenge and within days Satan has all of Job’s good fortune wiped out. 

‘What’s it all about?’  Job cries out.  His friends all tell him it is because of some grievous sin that he committed.  For his friends life is about seeking the good side of God, of pleasing God;  and those who please God will be rewarded with a comfortable and good life. Therefore his friends insist, Job must repent of his sin and get right with God.  But Job knows of no sin in his life or in the life of his family who have been taken from him.  His friends however, argue that His life is out of his control and his sin is that he piously thought it was his to decide its course.  Job does not accept that answer either.

The premise is that God is wise and the creator in all things.  His friends construct this syllogism:  Suffering comes from God. God is Just. Therefore Job is guilty.  Job constructs this syllogism:  Suffering comes from God. I am innocent. Therefore God is unjust.  According to Stephen Mitchell, a translator of the Book of Job, a third syllogism is not even imaginable:  Suffering comes from God. God is just. Job is innocent. (no therefore.) 

So according to this, what it’s all about is humanity humbly accepting the fate that God has bestowed. Even in the final syllogism that Mitchell suggests, God is still the author and director of life.  God is still in charge and his ways are just and good.  There is yet another syllogism that even Mitchell does not consider.   Suffering does not come from God or Satan. God, and here I will also insert the non-theist Universe, is neither just nor unjust. Job is an innocent bystander in a series of events that he had no control over.  His attempt to make sense of these seemingly unrelated events is a futile exercise. 

Yet we all try to do this, don’t we?  We all try to understand why a sequence of events have occurred, that there must be some fate, some master plan that we are unable to see in the present moment. 

Some religions have taken these random events, both on the personal intimate level and on the national and global level and try to fit them into some sort of schematic.  We want a plan to be there. We want there to be a purpose to answer what is it all about? 

So religions have created these narratives.  One such narrative suggests there is this cosmic spiritual battle occurring in the heavens between good and evil/ between God and Satan.  We are all in this conspiracy of this huge battle being waged whether we want to be in it or not.  Events like tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and even human made events like terrorist attacks, both domestic and foreign, become part of the battle plan in this cosmic war of good versus evil. God or Satan, depending on perspective, allowed or created these events to punish the sinful or tempt the chosen to fall from grace.

And just like in the movie the Matrix, at any moment, if we are not awake to the truth, our actions could become the actions of Agent Smith to fight against those who are enlightened about the matrix and seek to expose this delusion. There are those behind the scenes of the matrix who are watching and controlling what happens, trying to keep balance between those who are enlightened and those who are still asleep in their delusions.

We see it in the current dualistic political landscape, regardless of which party one subscribes to, the other side is an evil interloper out to destroy all that is good, all that is sacred and Mom and apple pie, too.  What it’s all about is to become one of the chosen, one of the elect that will reap in the rewards. Choose your political party carefully.  Even in politics, there are the elect few who will be saved and the rest is refuse for the fires.  

What if all this seriousness is not what it’s all about?  What if there is no god who is waging a cosmic battle with the forces of evil?  What if there is no magic in the universe that if we speak our intentions and let go into the unfolding process things will merrily go our way?  What if there is no hidden plan for our lives that we must strive to uncover? What then?  Does that mean there is no answer to the question: What is it all about?  Perhaps. 

But then I consider our lives.  I consider those who have lived their lives as if it had purpose, as if they had a reason to be here in this time and place.   I think of people like Phyllis Ward, whose memorial service I officiated this past week.  Here was a person whose life had purpose.  What’s it all about? 

Her life seemed to answer this question with an affirmation—to live life as fully as possible, to love others as fully as possible, and thereby make a difference to improve the lives not only for those in her immediate circle but also those far off. She enjoyed all that life offered her and she sought to live that life as brightly as she could.  

The teacher Jesus said his presence and teachings was so that others could have life and have life abundantly.  Phyllis seemed to be saying the same thing with her life as her presence and teachings made a significant difference in the lives of hundreds of her students.  She inspired others in finding their hearts path. I heard repeated over and over how she inspired her students and friends to follow their dreams and how grateful they were that they did.  

What is it all about?  To love and be loved in return. 

 In the eulogy I gave for Phyllis I quoted Ric Masten’s poem End Line with these words: 

I ask God:  “How much time do I have before I die?” “Enough to make a difference,” God replies.

Phyllis certainly made a difference in this world, she made the world a better place for those who knew her and helped shape towards the positive our collective future.  The only way she could have done this is by jumping her whole self into life. 

Jump with our whole selves into life.  Enjoy the heart and marrow of it.  All that comes our way good, bad, or indifferent is there for the tasting and it can spur the development of love and compassion in our days of living and love and compassion to and from others.

Even in the struggles we face in our lives requires nothing less than our whole selves.  Our friends on the Undocubus [no papers no fear ride to justice] made such a choice to live life with their whole selves. This is living with integrity. They are deciding that they will not just passively accept their destiny as dictated by someone else’s rules but rather engage their destiny with their whole lives–with integrity. They are declaring that their life matters and will make a positive difference to others in their living of it.

Begin slowly if you must with just a hand or a foot but at some point all must jump in with our whole selves in order to reap benefits of living a full and abundant life.

All that silliness of the Hokey Pokey may really be what it’s all about. 

Published in: on September 2, 2012 at 1:58 pm  Comments Off on What’s it All About?  
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What question does religion answer?

A few years ago now, how quickly time passes, in order to become a Unitarian Universalist Minister I had to meet with the Minister Fellowship Committee (MFC).  This committee is charged with making sure that all ministers in fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association have met a set of criteria and standards to be a minister.  There were a variety of questions asked.  One question that I was asked was the following:  “What is the Meaning of Life for the Jew?”  I did not answer the question well. 

I have pondered this question alot since then.  The question is based on a presumption that religions answer the question, “What is the meaning of Life?”   It is a false presumption because that is not the question that religions answer.  Religions answer the question, “What is my relationship with the other?”   The other being everything from this other person sitting before me to the world around me to the concept of god.  But the question, “what is the meaning of life?” is not the question being answered by religion. 

The word religion comes from the Latin religare meaning to bind fast or to bond between.  It is a relationship that is established when one practices a certain religion.  And it is a bond that is tied fast between the person and the practice (read also God) they are upholding. 

Judaism answers the question by stating that my relationship with the other is covenantal.  Abraham established a covenant with God.  It was a promise that if his people did certain things then God would ensure that his people would continue to prosper.   The society that was developed by Abraham and his descendents is based on this covenantal relationship.  The story of the Hebrew scriptures is the story of this covenantal relationship. 

Christianity, Orthodox Christianity specifically, answers the question by stating that my relationship with the other is inherently broken.  The religion then seeks to develop ways to fix that brokenness.   The story of the New Testament, especially those books written by Paul of Tarsus,  is how a relationship with Jesus fixes that brokenness.

Universalist Christianity states my relationship with the other is separation.  It then seeks to develop ways to bring about reconciliation.  It could be argued that within the story of the gospels is found the story of reconciliation of humanity with God.

Buddhism states my relationship with the other is illusion.  It then seeks to develop ways that will bring about enlightenment, the ability to see clearly.  The story of the Buddha tells his journey towards this enlightment. 

Islam states my relationship with the Other is ultimately submission.  It then seeks to develop ways in order to be in submission with the Other (specifically Allah). 

Now through following these various ways of relating to the Other, one may discover that their life has meaning.  But this is meaning that is added to their life as a result of being in relationship with the other.  Religions can help add meaning to ones life by giving it a shape or a touchstone from which one can center their life around. 

Unitarian Universalism answers the question of what is my relationship with the other by also answering that it is covenantal.   It is a covenant that is renegotiated with every relationship I enter.   Sometimes the covenant is negotiated consciously, sometimes not.  The values that Unitarian Universalists promote do keep me grounded as I seek to live them in my daily life.  And in my seeking to live my covenant, I find that my life is filled with meaning and purpose at least from my perspective of looking out at the world and how I relate to it.  Blessings,

Published in: on October 28, 2008 at 8:29 am  Comments (2)  
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