Is Justice a synonym for Vengeance?

Our second Unitarian Universalist principle reads We … covenant to affirm and promote:  Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. On Sunday, I visited the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tupelo, MS; a small lay led congregation.  The speaker was discussing this principle by asking questions about the meaning of these words.

One comment made was that when we hear people in society demand justice it is usually in the context of condemning the person who has grievously wronged another. Is this justice?  We want justice for Michael Brown.  We want justice for Eric Garner.  We want justice for the hundreds of others unarmed men and women whose lives were cut short by police officers.  Is it justice, true justice, to bring the cops to trial and seek condemnation for their actions?  I understand the emotional surge behind these cries for justice.  I understand the racism behind these brutal acts of violence.  But will prosecuting a handful of police change the system that targets young black men?  Will it bring justice and healing to the heart of the families who lost their children, husbands, brothers, too young and too soon?

I have read that when families watch the murderer of their loved one executed the pain of grief is not abated by the justice meted out.  I have read they feel a bitterness take firm root in their hearts.  Justice in this manner does not always yield to peace of heart for the survivors of such violence.

I believe the police need to be held accountable and prosecuted for their disregard for another’s life. I simply do not believe that doing so is going to create justice with a capital J because condemning others is not a healing justice. When we scream we want justice, we want those who have committed heinous acts to suffer a severe consequence for their actions. It is not justice we want.  We want blood for blood.  It does not prevent another mass shooting, or terrorist bombing, or even another police officer from exerting excessive force (a twisted euphemism for torture and murder) on an unarmed person. Prosecute yes, but this action does not necessarily create Justice in the system.

My heart grieves that in this country we incarcerate nearly 7 times more blacks than whites. Roughly 9% of our Black young men are in prison. Our nation incarcerates 23% of the world’s prisoners. This is a horrendous wrong that needs to be addressed.  But how do we address it so that not one more young black man is targeted simply because he is wearing a hoodie or walking in his family’s neighborhood with his friends? How does this nation of laws enact justice when the system itself supports injustice?

When we target a specific population for alleged crimes, it is no longer justice that is the motivator but rather the motivation is maintaining power over a population. Power over others is how justice becomes twisted and deformed.  It is this perversion of justice that we are seeing in our nation today.  Convicting with inflated felonies and incarcerating a skewed percentage of a population removes the power of the vote from the population.  This is an act of oppression not justice.  We continue to pass new laws that expand the oppressive weight on a specific population.  The unjust revival of debtor’s prison is part of this expansion of an oppressive weight. This is good news only for the for-profit prisons looking to expand their industry.

Creating a for-profit business around incarceration is not providing justice–it is exploitation. For-profit prisons are an insatiable beast that craves more incarcerations.  So those who believe that the answer to our overcrowded prison system would be to be build more prisons, especially those of the for-profit ilk have a very twisted and deformed sense of justice. These corporations have a need to have laws passed that criminalize more people in order to keep their prisons filled to adequate operating levels. This is not justice, this is creating a market for an industry.

When Al Qaeda hi-jacked passenger jets and slammed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon killing 3,000 people.  We demanded justice.  And in our anger the United States of America invaded two countries to bring justice to the lives lost. In the seeking of justice American and coalition forces lost 8,259 lives and the number of Iraqi’s lost is over 206,000.  Up to another 20,000 Afghan citizens are estimated to have lost their lives in that long war.  But was this really justice or revenge?  It was the latter.  The ongoing struggle of this region to stabilize and rebuild is not going to end any time soon.  Again, we did not mete out justice, we meted out vengeance and created enormous suffering that will endure for generations. We are seeing the consequences of our vengeance with the rise of ISIS.  We exacted suffering 78 times greater than what we experienced and upon the wrong countries if there even was a country that deserved such retribution.

What does it really mean in one of my favorite hymns, We’ll Build a Land when we sing  “where justice shall roll down like waters?” Are we seeking justice or exacting vengeance on our enemies?  In the context of Iraq it was surely the latter.  Vengeance was indeed a terrible swift sword and it cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives before we found and killed the person responsible for that terrorist act. If justice is a synonym for revenge and condemnation, then we have to find another word for our second principle because I don’t think it means what we think it means.

However, when I read our second principle, I think of what it might mean to love my neighbor as myself.  What does it mean to do unto others as I would have them do unto me?  What does that look like in my daily encounters with others?  I look first to the macro level. Am I being as loving as I can be in this moment?  Am I being generous in thought and deed?  Am I seeking to understand rather than be understood?  From here, I expand beyond those I know in my circle to those beyond my circle.  How do my actions relate to the neighborhood? the larger community?  How might I expand this notion of loving my neighbor to the larger community?  Then I begin to think about the systems I live in.  How do these systems limit the way we live?  How do these systems expand our ability to breathe?  How might I work to change these systems to be more inclusive in the ability to breathe free?

Justice then is not the exacting of revenge on a wrong committed.  Justice is a humble act of living day to day.  What does Life require of you?  But to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with this gift of Life.    (Micah 6:8 paraphrased)

 

2015

Who is this mythical person christened
Twenty-fifteen? A babe in swaddling clothes
at birth, a decrepit hunched being come
final hours of December thirty-first.
Its destiny is the same as yours/mine.

What type of life will Twenty-fifteen live?
As with all newborns we dream wishful hopes
anticipating, desiring, longing
for something better; something wonderful.
The life it lives depends in part on us.

How well we embody our principles—
how well we choose to seek to act justly —
how well we choose to share loving kindness —
how well we walk humbly throughout our days.
Live this day, this hour as the best moment,

as if our December thirty-first draws
near as it must for all creatures on earth.
Who then is this mythical person born?
Twenty-fifteen is our measure of life
Fill it with love, generosity, grace.

© 2015 Fred L Hammond

Advent: A Time of Preparing

The Christian season of Advent isn’t given its fair due in Unitarian Universalist circles. We honor Christmas and Easter in our own unique Unitarian Universalist manner but Advent isn’t given much heed. Advent comes from the Latin word meaning coming. For Christians it refers specifically to the birth of Jesus and also to the second coming of Jesus. But it is more than just coming, it is a season filled with preparation, filled with expectation, and filled with anticipation, so that when Christmas arrives or when the second coming occurs, the Christians are ready to receive with joy Christ’s arrival.

So what praytell do Unitarian Universalists have to anticipate? What do we need to be expectant about? What would they need to prepare their hearts in order to receive?

Well, some of us are indeed preparing for Christmas, for the birth of Jesus. Some of us find great comfort in the stories of Jesus’ arrival and the hope that his birth contains not just for them but for the world at large if everyone were able to embrace his message of love. But does this season have any merit, any worth to those of us who do not embrace a Christian theology?

I believe Advent has something to offer non-Christian Unitarian Universalists as well. Unlike other religious traditions of preparation like Lent and Yom Kippur where contemplation of ones sins prepares one for salvation or atonement. Advent can be a time of preparation for us to live into our principles. It can be a time that we focus on what Unitarian Universalists have to offer and how might that be offered into the world, starting here and now.

Many people come to Unitarian Universalism because we proclaim our acceptance of various creeds. We tell people it is deeds not creeds that we focus on, so if your personal theology includes the death and resurrection of Jesus, wonderful. If your personal theology is based in the 4 noble truths of Buddhism, fantastic. If your personal theology is in the pursuit of reaching humanity’s potential, have at it. What we will look at, we say, is how your deeds, your actions, the manner in which you live your life is making you a better human being in your relationship with a diverse world.

Sounds wonderful. Sounds Ideal. People are indeed looking for a place where various beliefs are welcomed. People are looking for a place where who they are, is truly welcomed. And they come. And then they meet real live people, us. And we don’t always match the photograph in the brochure.

We have quirks. We have inconsistencies. We have baggage. We are not all on the same page as the UUA website. We are not always the embodiment of our seven principles. We are this group in all of our imperfections. Sometimes we are oblivious of our own actions. Years ago, I met a Unitarian Universalist who when I told them my personal theology responded, “Oh, I evolved beyond that claptrap.” If she was my first encounter of this faith, I would not be Unitarian Universalist today. In other words, we oft times than not, look more like the world out there, than the world we talk about wanting to create with our principles. It is time to be the change we want to see in the world.

So Advent can also be a time when Unitarian Universalists become a bit introspective in preparing our hearts to anticipate how to welcome others here. Just as Advent for the Christian is preparing in anticipation the welcoming of the birth of Jesus, Unitarian Universalists can prepare our anticipation to welcome the other. If we hold that each person has inherent worth and dignity, what does that mean in welcoming the other? If we hold that justice, equity, and compassion in human relations is an important principle and value, how does that translate to the living of our daily lives? How is acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth made visible in your life and in this congregation?

What do these three principles even mean for us in our current context in America?

For starters, not everyone in this room is in agreement regarding the non-indictments regarding Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Non-agreement might mean that these specific non-indictment cases are not good examples of the issue in America and still not diminish the fact that police profiling is a painful reality for millions of people of color. How safe is it to express an alternative opinion on these specific cases? And the counter question is also raised, how many deaths does it take before we have the perfect case that exemplifies the racism in our criminal justice system? This might mean that not everyone has the same understanding of racism in America or understand what it means to be part of an anti-racist faith. If this is true, can we lift up our first three principles and embody them as we work towards increased understanding of racism in America?

I think most of us recognize, whether we agree or not with the recent protests, that racism is still an issue in this nation. But can we have a conversation about race in this congregation and be confident that a differing opinion can be heard in a manner that keeps that person at the table?

We as a congregation are entering a new era of community involvement with coalitions that lift up our values in Tuscaloosa and Alabama. These causes are close to the heart of many in our congregation and will require of us to be able to hear differing opinions, differing theologies, differing world views and to discern respectfully when to speak and when to hold our tongue. The manner in which we represent Unitarian Universalism to our guests and to the greater world is going to reveal how well we embody our principles. It’s that simple and that difficult of a task. How well does each of us embody our Unitarian Universalist principles?

Whether we are ready or not as a congregation, Racism is a conversation this nation needs to address. The UN Committee on Torture on November 28th cited some 30 areas of human rights violations in the US. The committee writes that it “is concerned about numerous reports of police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement officials, in particular against persons belonging to certain racial and ethnic groups, immigrants and LGBTI individuals. ”

Another report came out that compared the US to South Africa under apartheid . It lists five areas of similarities and they ain’t pretty.

Rates of incarceration of black males under South African apartheid per 100,000 in 1993: 851. Whites under South African Apartheid per 100,000 in 1993 : 351
Rates of incarceration of black males in US per 100,000 in 2010 : 4,347
Rates of incarceration of white males in USA per 100,000: 678

Residential segregation: composite measurements of geographic segregation on a zero-to-100 scale show that South Africa in 1991 measured in the low 90s, while many American cities today rank in the high 70s to low 80s.”

Homicides in geographically concentrated neighborhoods: “Johannesburg has a murder rate of 30.5 per 100k and Cape Town has one of 46 per 100k, comparable to Chicago’s 1992 rate of 34 per 100k.” Chicago’s homicide rate in 2013 was 43 per 100k.

Black- White Marriages: In the US represents 1.6% of all marriages. In post-apartheid South Africa, 1% of all marriages.

Police Violence: In South Africa, “White police engaged in arbitrary violence against and in killing blacks.” As I mentioned, the UN specifically targets US police brutality in its human rights report.

So whether we agree or disagree with the non-indictments that took place over the last two weeks is moot. We need to come around the table on racism. And we need to be there like last year if we hope to have a positive influence in the conversation in Tuscaloosa—a city that has racially and economically segregated its west side schools through nonracial resolutions with racially charged outcomes. Yes, this is that urgent of a matter for our faith.

I have been invited to attend a dinner to hear about the formation of a new coalition called Healing Communities whose purpose is to address the rising violent crime in the West end. This new coalition is spear headed by Trinity Baptist Church. We are being invited because they have heard that we are a people who are concerned about social justice issues. Are we as a congregation ready to accept this call to participate in such a venture?

We need come together on a conversation on race relations. How does your theology as a Christian inform you on this matter? How does your theology as a Buddhist inform you on this matter? How does your theology as a humanist inform you on this matter? Are you anticipating an Advent that has the potential to transform the world?

One of my favorite stories James Luther Adams told goes something like this:

“In the 1950s , while teaching in Chicago, Adams served on the board of the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. The minister had already been outspoken about local issues of racial justice. One night, at a meeting from which the minister was absent, one of the trustees began to complain, suggesting that this was just politics, not religion, from the pulpit; that it was alienating people, including him and his wife; and that both the minister and church should be ‘more realistic.’ When he lapsed into racial slurs, his fellow trustees, including Adams, interrupted.

“What is the purpose of a church?” they asked. Did he want the church to make people comfortable? Only to confirm them in their prejudices and not morally challenge them?

Well, no, …
Then what is the purpose of a church? The others kept asking. “How should I know?” the man said. ‘I’m no theologian.’

‘But you’re a member here, and a trustee of this church,’ said Adams and the others, refusing to let him off the hook.

As Adams told the story, the discussion continues until about one o’clock in the morning when fatigue combined with the Holy Spirit and the man blurted out, “Well, I guess the purpose of a church is, uh, to get hold of people like me and to change ‘em.”

This Advent as many are getting ready for the coming of the birth of a special little boy, may we be getting ready for the birth of a new congregation that deeply embodies our principles and models the change we want to see in the world. Blessed Be.

Krokodil: The Zombie Apocalypse

I make no apologies that I have become a huge fan of The Walking Dead TV series.  I find the acting to be superb, the writing even more so.  It is a wonderful metaphor on situational ethics and morality.

That said, I have no desire to live in the era of the Zombie Apocalypse.  But that might soon be unrequited.  The homebased created Krokodil drug has arrived to America.

This drug is rampant in Russia where it is estimated that up to a million users are addicted at last count in 2010.  The drug a concoction of readily available ingredients including gasoline and iodine gives a brief 90 minute high comparable to the high that Heroin gives.  Heroin fixes however last several hours.

The consequences of the drug is not the high it gives but the literal zombification of the flesh rotting away from the body from the inside out.  Krocodil gets its name from the  thick scaly, greenish effect it causes to the skin.  The flesh rots off exposing bone while the person is living. This is the Zombie Apocalypse.

Kicking the habit of Krokodil is excruciating.  Heroin users can detox within 5-10 days, but Krokodil users need 30 days or more before the pain from detoxing subsides. They need to be given heavy tranquilizers and pain killers because the pain is beyond imagination. This fact alone is going to upend our Insurance industry mandate of 28 day stays at rehab facilities.  The user will still be in excruciating pain when discharged. The users are dead within the year without intense medical intervention.

Now if this doesn’t make you to stand up and take notice, here is one more fact about this drug in Russia.  “It is the drug for the poor.”  Heroin has become so expensive in Russia upwards of $120 per dose that the poor are resorting to creating Krokodil for about $4.

Given the linear thinking of our politicians, there will be increased regulations on purchasing codeine products in this country. This is the response we created to address methamphetamine use, another homebased, highly addictive, destructive drug epidemic. Krokodil makes methamphetamine seem like the cold medicine it was created from.

Just as our response to meth didn’t curb its production, a similar response of increased regulations on codeine isn’t going to work.  We need leadership to address not the symptom of this problem, the creation of the drug Krokodile but the cause of this drug’s creation; poverty.

Our politicians have been driven to create an ever widening gap between the uber rich and the middle class in this nation.  More and more people in the middle class are slipping into poverty.  If the middle class are slipping into poverty where are the people in poverty slipping into?  If this country continues on the course of removing the safety net that millions of Americans are forced to fall into, drug use like Meth and Krokodile will continue to rise in this country.

Drugs become the only thing that supplants the pain that poverty causes because once addicted, the person no longer feels the pain of poverty, they only feel the rollercoaster of a momentary high and then the crash and burn.  The ability to feel alive, bliss, not a care in the world, even for a moment becomes the ultimate quest.

We need to stem the threat Krokodil is in our nation, but not through the usual means. We need to give our people reasons to stay away from recreational addictive substances, legal and illegal.  How about providing living wages enabling workers to not simply survive paycheck to paycheck with no ability to enjoy the fruits of their labor save for a drunken weekend or a hit of crack?  How about reducing the cost of student loans so that our young people do not graduate with a $100K plus mortgage payment that they need to begin repaying within 9 months? How about creating jobs instead of sequestering the Federal government which lost 750K jobs this year?  How about our politicians stop their nonsense in DC with reading Dr. Seuss books that they don’t even understand and actually work together to find solutions to our problems as a nation?

One of the metaphors of the Walking Dead that I appreciate is the realization that the real Zombies in this show are not the people who are the undead, but the living who have lost all sense of who they are, they live each day simply trying to make it to the next day any way they can.  This show helps me appreciate the life that I have, more importantly the show helps me realize that I have a purpose and a destiny in this brief lifetime.  But I don’t want to see my nation continue in this path where we are all infected with the Zombie apocalypse and it is just a matter of time before what is on the inside is revealed on the outside.  Krokodil.

 

Unitarian Universalist Evangelism

Shortly after I arrived in Tuscaloosa five years ago now, I received a letter from a young Mormon who wanted to give me his testimony as to why he converted to Mormonism.  It was a several page letter filled with scripture verses that were intended to convince me that my path of Unitarian Universalism was not the correct path and his was correct.  The testimony, however, did not meet its intended mark.  I was left unimpressed and unmoved by his words.  There was nothing personal in his testimony, nothing that revealed to me how this faith of his transformed his life.  I knew nothing of how he handled the day to day drudgery we all face.

I was left unconvinced that his faith made any difference in the way he interacted with his family, his co-workers, his neighbors.  All I knew was a string of scripture verses that were devoid of any meaning to me.

In May of this year, I was part of a delegation from the School of America’s Watch to Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico.  During my time there, we met a man who escaped the coup in Honduras. The military had tortured and killed his family.  He made several attempts to migrate to the United States and he had been deported several times back to Honduras only to leave the country again.  His story was filled with unimaginable pain and suffering and yet as he talked there was no sign of bitterness or resentment in his voice towards his torturers nor towards the events he suffered.  I asked him how was he able to survive such an ordeal and not feel or express any animosity towards those who contributed to his suffering.  He responded simply that he kept in mind that none of his experiences compared to the sufferings of Jesus on the cross.   If Jesus, who sufferings outshone anything he had suffered and was able to forgive, then the meager sufferings he endured at the hands of others, he could also forgive.  I listened to his words and I believed him.  His faith had saved him, transformed him, enabled him to survive his days.

With the Mormon’s testimony, while I believe he was sincere in sending it, I could refute his words theologically.  I could go through the words of scriptures and state why I do not accept the theology behind his impersonal words.  This man from Honduras, however, while I could explain theologically why I did not accept Jesus suffering and death on the cross as redemptive, I could not refute this man’s experience of how his faith saved him.  I believed him and to argue theologically how a blood sacrifice of God’s only begotten son makes no sense if God is Love; would have been cruel.  The fact remains, whether I agree with his doctrines or not,  it achieved its purpose to help him face his world with integrity and dignity.

So often Unitarian Universalists attempt to speak about their faith in the manner of the Mormon.  We talk about the seven principles, we talk about the six sources.  We discuss our stances on the social issues of our day.  We talk about being a covenantal  faith and not a doctrinal faith. The result of these discussions is that our listeners are left unmoved, untouched, unconvinced that this faith that we have come to love is able to carry them through the day to day drudgery of existence.  They see no evidence that it has changed us or carried us through.

There is a biting criticism that in our dying moments no Unitarian Universalist is going to ask for the seven principles  to be read for comfort at the hour of our death. True. But I have yet to hear of a dying person asking to recite the Apostle’s creed either. It is not our creeds nor our covenants that comfort us, but rather the human relationship of love in our lives.  The man from Honduras had a relationship with the story of Jesus’ last hours because he could compare them with his own experiences.  When he hears the story of Jesus being tortured, whipped, forced to carry a 100 pound beam of wood that he would contribute to his death, the man from Honduras can relate to the pain and suffering because he, too, has lived it.  For this man, the Jesus in this story is able to carry his sufferings as well, enabling him to let go the rage and pain he feels.

Yesterday, during one of our adult forums after the service, one of our young adults led a discussion Unitarian Universalist evangelism. He asked the question how has Unitarian Universalism changed your life.  One by one, people shared their stories of how this faith made a difference in the living of their days.  They talked of struggles and sufferings that they were able to transcend because of their seeking to uphold the values they hold dear.  They too talked about the relationships they had with others as being core to their ability to over come their travails.

These stories were just as powerful and transformative as the story of the man from Honduras. One could argue the theology behind their stories but one could not refute their experience.  The experiences were rich and deep. They were personal. These are the stories we should be sharing when we are asked about Unitarian Universalism.  Our principles are good but how do they translate into the living of our lives?  How do they sustain us when the going gets tough?  How has our faith transformed us?  These are the stories that need to be heard.

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.

What’s Your Pie?

I came across a post that my friend Kat Liu wrote on Facebook.  She writes: “The other day I read Huffington Post quoting someone as saying, ‘I go to church for pie.’ To be fair, I did not read the rest of the article so maybe there was more to it than that. But the reason why I didn’t read past the teaser is because I had the same reaction that I did many years ago when Unitarian Universalism was first described to me as ‘you can believe anything you want.’ I thought, ‘That’s nice, but why would I join a group for that? I can believe anything I want by myself.’ And I can get pie pretty much anywhere; why would I go to church for it? If that’s the only thing at church that’s drawing people, [then] that’s not enough of a draw. And if pie is not the thing that’s really drawing people, then why aren’t we talking about that instead of pie?”

So the question is:  “What’s your pie?”  What is it about this congregation, about Unitarian Universalism that gets you up out of bed on a Sunday morning to come here?  And please don’t say the fair trade coffee we serve, I already know it’s good to the last drop.  I know this because I am often the one getting that last drop (smile).   But certainly that can not be why you come on Sunday mornings or any other time of the week.

It can’t simply be because of the pie or the coffee or the freedom of not being told what to believe.  These things are not very compelling.

Now you may be surprised to hear that this question is also being asked in congregations of other faiths as well.  I stumbled across a recent blog on Friday asking the exact same question.

This Christian minister listed 13 reasons[i] as to why someone would go to church.  I looked through the list and said to myself;  no, not that one, not that one either, no, that isn’t it, no,  hmm maybe, need to ponder that a bit, no not that one.  And on I went through the list.  I will come back to this list in a moment.

I found another Christian post that also answered this question.  And I found these answers interesting.  This was in the context of churches growing and churches struggling to grow.

This blogger[ii] wrote: “When I visit congregations that are struggling to grow, I hear these types of answers, ‘I grew up in the church.’ ‘I get filled up for the week?’ ‘I was baptized in the church.’ ‘My family has always gone here.’ ‘I love the music and the preacher.’ …

“When I ask the question in churches that are growing, the answers are very different. People say, ‘The worship service and sermon have helped me grow ….’ ‘The Sunday School class I attend challenges me to grow and learn more about what it means to be a Christian.’ ‘Our church is making a difference with our mission team, and we can see the difference we are making in the lives of people we reach out to.’  ‘Most people and churches turned their back on me, but this church accepted me and helped me understand … grace and love …  They were never judgmental.’ ”

Now these comments are from a Christian point of view but the difference between the two sets of answers are in my mind profound.

It was a comment on a Unitarian Universalist blogger’s[iii] post on the obverse side of this question that brought this difference home for me.   The Unitarian Universalist blog listed reasons why the person no longer attends a Unitarian Universalist congregation.   Two of the reasons she gave for not going to church were:

“I don’t actually think church is important for me right now” 

“My needs don’t seem to matter much in church “

The comment in response was the following[iv]:

“My two boys (30’s) also have a problem attending church for similar reasons……maybe not put the same way. It always goes back to one basic reason with many different facets……I, ME, MYSELF
(1) The church isn’t meeting MY needs
(2) I’m only going to church to get something for myself
(3) It’s inconvenient for ME
(4) It interferes with things I want to do

“Consider this approach: Can I plug into the church to use my gifts to help others? Can I give of myself to God and others through the church to help others? Go to church to praise and thank God for my blessings. All the good things you have come from God, including your time.”

Now some translation work might be needed here because many of us may not believe in god.   I find if I substitute the word Life that this comes close to the experience this writer is suggesting.  How can I give myself to Life and others through the church?  Can I offer thanks for Life’s blessings?  How can I show gratitude for all things come from Life, including my time?

And this was the difference between the one congregation that was stagnant and the one that was vibrant.  The vibrant congregation’s members felt their presence at church mattered. They had something to receive and they had something to offer towards the mission of the congregation as well.

Now in the three congregations that I have served in my time as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I have heard similar sentiments from people who have left the church.  They have told me that they think they have grown beyond what Unitarian Universalism can offer them.  They liked the people, they liked what Unitarian Universalism stood for, and they even liked the social justice issues we focused on as a congregation and as a denomination.  But for one reason or another they believed they had grown beyond Unitarian Universalism.    They may, like the Unitarian Universalist blogger, still identify as Unitarian Universalist just as a person who no longer attends Roman Catholic mass might still identify as Catholic.  Or they may have pursued a different faith path and claim a different identity.  Or they may have joined the ranks of the un-churched.

I admit I do not understand how someone can grow beyond Unitarian Universalism.  I hear the words but I don’t comprehend how that can be that someone grows beyond being Unitarian Universalist. Our faith is one of the more challenging faiths that I am aware of because we ask people to “work out your own salvation[v]” as Paul of Tarsus commands the Philippians.  You can’t get more biblical than that but it is one of our principles of our faith which states:  A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  This means working out your own salvation.  It is finding out what saves you from your self and being transformed into a person who is more loving/ more forgiving/ more mindful in living.  It is finding out what saves you from the coldness of heart that is endemic in our society.

But if you are coming here for the pie or for a social club or even for a refuge then you will be disappointed in time because the pie here will cease to satisfy your hunger, the social club milieu will become boring, and the refuge you sought will be undone by meeting people who believe the very things you disdain and their presence here will scandalize you.

Our faith is creedless and therefore we do not ask people to check their brains at the door nor do we ask them to check their god at the door. We covenant to be together as a people engaged in the network of mutuality which is our humanity.  What affects one affects us all. And together we can learn not only to be better people because of this network of mutuality but also in the hopes, in the trust, in the creative interchange that occurs whenever two or more people gather to create a better world filled with justice, love and equality. We do it first here and then out there in the world.

This to me is the draw of our faith.  This for me is my pie.  And frankly, I can’t do this on my own and neither can you.  I am not like the Buddha who was able to withdraw under the Bodhi Tree and receive enlightenment.  I have my moments of with drawing for meditation or retreat but I must have community in order to practice and integrate what I profess to believe.

James Luther Adams once said that church was the place where we get to practice being human.  What makes this congregation different from all other congregations in Tuscaloosa, guaranteed, is that here when you have a problem you are facing you will not hear a platitude.  You will not hear an easy answer like ‘pray more’ or ‘God doesn’t give you anything more than you can handle.’ Or ‘believe this doctrine and all will be well.’

Instead what hopefully happens is you will find people who will listen, hold you fully present in their lives, and if you so desire talk with you about the situation you are facing and assist you to handle this burden in your life. We do this in community, not alone.

And this was one of the reasons the Christian minister mentioned that made me take pause and say hmm, he wrote we go to church “because we need help to face the issues of life and faith…”  I come to church to hear and learn how I might be able to handle the issues that I am concerned about. Whether that learning takes place in the worship service or in an adult class after the service or even in the conversations we have together.

As minister, I come to be of service to each of you.  Yes, that is my professional role, but it is a role that is not exclusively mine to offer.  Each of you has this role for one another.  I know you have this role because you often minister to me in this place and you minister to each other as well. It is sometimes as simple as a smile or a hug or as profound as an insight shared in a conversation.  Sometimes this is the only place where people receive hugs during their week.  This role is multi-generational.  The children have ministered to me just as surely as the person twice my age though the latter is mighty hard to find in this congregation. (I am 56, who here is 112?)

And the other reason this Christian minister suggested people come to church and I have paraphrased it considerably, “Because we need an alternative to the constant messages of a culture [engulfed in false piety].”

We live in a culture here in the south, though it is also prevalent elsewhere, where false piety is insipid in daily conversations. From our elected leaders to the workplace, false piety is expressed with all the haughtiness of righteousness but with none of the convictions in their character. They wag their tongues in hateful disdain of others and claim they are showing the love taught by their faith tradition.  Their own messiah had this to say about them: Woe to you … , pretenders, who are like white tombs, which from the outside appear lovely, but from within are full of the bones of the dead and all corruption! So also you from the outside appear to the children of men as righteous, and from within are filled with evil and hypocrisy[vi].

Some people come to church to seek sanctuary from this kind of verbal onslaught.  But we offer no comforting balm if all we offer is refuge and not healing.  We do no good if all we do is allow our spiritually wounded to vent about this incessant verbiage that wears down the spirit.  We need to be teaching how we can love our neighbor even when they attack our values of equality.  We need to be teaching how to forgive those who hold us and others in disdain because they, too, are a victim of untruth.   And the spirit of untruth is a poisonous venom that slowly petrifies the society in which we live.  It will take a community of faith to be the antidote of such venom but this only works if the community of faith is inoculated by coming together on a regular basis and lifting up the values we seek to emulate in our lives.

I believe this faith has the antidote to this toxin. I believe this faith works best when done within community.  I believe this is a community that is worthy of committing support through membership.

You may initially come for the pie or the socialization of similar minded folk.  I hope you will stay for the community that can strengthen your spirit and your character throughout your lifetime.

I close with a story.

Once upon a time there was a family that was moving in search of a new community.  On their travels they saw a woman selling fruits and vegetables along the road.  They decided to stop and purchase some for their travel.  They asked the woman about the community they were coming up to and what sort of people lived there.  The woman asked, “Well what sort of community did you leave?” “Oh,” they replied “we left the community because they were filled with deceit and lies.  They were vicious and hurtful to one another.  The community was filled with people who were only out for themselves.”  The woman listened and replied; “Well you won’t like this community then, because it is far worse here.  You be best to go on to the next community.”  The family thanked the woman for her honesty and went on their way enjoying their fruit.

A few hours later another family who was also searching for a new community came upon the same woman and fruit and vegetable stand. They too decided to purchase some for their travels.  And in their shopping they began asking what type of community were they approaching.  The woman asked what sort of community they had left.  “Oh,” the family responded, “We came from a wonderful community.  Everyone was very helpful to one another.  If there was a need, others came forward to assist in filling it. They were people who loved their neighbors dearly and were always making sure that others were doing well.”  The woman responded, “Well, you are in luck for in this community we also seek to love one another and help out in times of need.  You will find this community much to your liking.” The family decided to make their home in this community and the community was exactly as the woman had said. May it be so and Blessed Be.

What’s Your Pie? by Rev. Fred L Hammond delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on 10 Feb 2013 ©


When Praying is Sufficient

I have done lots of praying this past week but as a person who does not believe in a God who answers prayers, my stating that I have done lots of praying is going to need an explanation.  How could I be praying if I do not believe in a God who answers?  What possible good would my praying have if it is not directed to someone or something?

And for the record, I did not begin my prayer To Whom It May Concern as in the Unitarian Universalist joke.  No my prayers are aimed at no deity other than the mystery of life and my humble role in its unfolding.

We began our service today with The Prayer of St. Francis. It has been attributed to Francis of Assisi, the monk of the 13th century. However, the prayer in its current form can only be traced back to 1912 when it first appeared anonymously in French in La Clochette, a spiritual magazine.  It is most likely not a prayer written by St. Francis.

But regardless of the origin, the prayer has universal appeal to Christians of all stripes as well as people of other faith traditions.  It is a prayer asking for the willingness to change one’s behavior.  A softening of the heart is being sought.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is despair, hope.

This is a prayer that although it petitions a higher power, is also asking the person to focus on behaviors that potentially would change their immediate environment if they were attentive to their surroundings. How might a person sow love where there is hatred?  What might that look like?  What might that look like in the neighborhoods of Gaza and Jerusalem, where hatred has once again spilled over? I saw a photograph of two young boys; one Jewish, one Palestinian arm in arm. Sowing love might look like that, not simply a photograph but the actual friendship between members of the two rival groups.   Or what might it look like here in Alabama where people are upset over the election results and want to secede from the union.  What might a focus on harmony look like in our country? Poking fun at their obvious disdain for the election results is probably not sowing harmony—Just sayin’.

The Prayer of St. Francis is popular because it resonates deeply with human nature.  Everyone one of us has experiences where negative emotions have appeared recalcitrant and wanted to find a way to resolve them.  This prayer addresses these states of the human condition. It leaves the door open as to how these conditions might be resolved but it posits the desire into one’s consciousness which in turn might lead to a specific action. Perhaps an action that one person can do. Perhaps it will be an action that a small group can do or perhaps an action that a sweeping movement can do. How might these seeds of love, hope, compassion be sown in our families, in our communities, in our nation today?

The human condition is also addressed in a Buddhist Metta, a sample line might be “May I live in peace and harmony with all beings.[i]” It is setting the intention and then the desire to focus on this intention with mindfulness.  What would living in peace and harmony with all beings look like?  The Buddhist is examining this thought in the Metta.  The prayer is not addressing a deity but it is setting the intention and is opening the door for the mind to thoughtfully ponder what might be done to achieve this desire.

The Prayer of Jabez became popular a few years ago.  It is the prayer by a person found in the book of First Chronicles in the Hebrew text.  Not much is known about him other than his mother naming him Jabez after a difficult labor which means “he makes sorrowful/ pain”.  He issues a prayer to God requesting blessing and ends the prayer with “that I may not cause pain.”  The text tells us that God granted his request.

It became popular with the prosperity gospel preachers and new thought practitioners as a prayer to gain prosperity.  The difficulty with saying this prayer is the formulaic aspect of it for gaining prosperity.  Say these words in a ritualistic manner every day for at least 30 days and low and behold, you are prosperous in all things. This is the prayer on the surface and it is how Bruce Wilkinson in his book on the Jabez prayer encourages people on how to increase their lot in life.  When the Prayer of Jabez is approached in this manner it encourages magical thinking.  It becomes a potion, an incantation for a life of ease.

Life was never meant to be easy.  Life can be enjoyable.  Life can be an adventure.  Life can be fulfilling. But life is not meant to be easy. It may have easy moments when things are moving along smoothly but those moments are the extent of the easy life.  So those who pray this prayer as a formula for the easy life will be sadly disappointed.   Even Bruce Wilkinson, the author of the popular book was to be sadly disappointed.

In 2002, he used the profits to go to Swaziland to set up an orphanage for children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic.  A noble cause.  Certainly this was an increase in his territory. He had grand visions.  But a Wall Street Journal[ii] story reported in 2005, that he “resigned in a huff from the African charity he founded” allegedly because the people of Swaziland did not comply with his demands.  There is a life lesson here and the answer is implied in the very prayer he promoted[iii] but apparently refused to see.

Beneath the surface of this prayer there is something being asked of the pray-er.  ‘Increase my territory’ implies a relationship with the world that is more than just acquiring wealth.   It requires taking on more responsibility and being held accountable for one’s actions. In the case of Mr. Wilkinson’s grand intentions of using his new found wealth, it meant listening to the needs of the people he felt called to serve. Instead he went to be the savior of these children. But what was required of him was to honor their culture in humility. He had a responsibility to honoring the worth and dignity of the people he wanted to help. This noble task was not about him as an evangelist or savior.  It was about being accountable to the territory he was entering.  Being kept from evil requires being attentive not only to the events that are happening around the person but also attentive to the impact of one’s actions so “I may not cause pain.”  This is a prayer that while being addressed to God is also about taking responsibility for one’s journey through the world. It is not a mantra to be repeated in a rote fashion but rather wrestled with in relationship with one’s own life circumstances.

What territory in my life am I required to be responsible for?  How am I being held accountable to the tasks set before me?  How am I being attentive so that I am being kept from harm?  How am I being attentive to the responsibilities that I have so that all who may be impacted by my responsibilities and behaviors are also kept from harm so that I may not cause pain?  These are the questions that are raised with this prayer and the answers are probably not ones that fall from on high into one’s lap.  The answers come from dialog, from being in relationship with others, from being attentive to the needs presented, and they come from walking humbly in the path of life.

The Serenity Prayer is another popular prayer that is about discerning the way through our life. The prayer was written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  Niebuhr wrote extensively on theological ethics before, during, and after World War Two. The horrors of this war from the Nazi and American concentration camps to the release of the atomic bombs over Japan are the backdrop of his writings and the circumstances in which this prayer was created.

It is a pragmatic prayer not given to the illusion that all things will be fine and dandy.  Again, this is a prayer that while it addresses a higher power, requires the person to wrestle with the words in relationship with their own circumstances.  What are the things in my life that cannot be changed and therefore accepted as they are?  What are the things in my life that can be changed?  Are the things that can be changed worthy of my efforts to change them?  Are there indicators or sign posts that I need to be paying attention to, which would determine something as changeable versus non-changeable in my life?

The practicality of this prayer to be applied to daily life won this prayer into inclusion of Alcoholics Anonymous circles.  The second stanza includes their famous tag line, ‘One day at a time.’  It recognizes that life includes hardship. The second stanza also contains allusions to the last week of Jesus’ life of accepting the world as it is and not fighting it.

Now I told you I have been praying a lot this past week. These were the prayers that I found myself referring to this week.   I prayed that I would be a comforting presence to members of our congregation.  I prayed that I would be mindful in my behaviors to offer the support needed for family members to make critical decisions in the care of their loved ones. I prayed that I would find the right words to share at the right moment to lessen the deep pain, I knew would be felt.  My prayers were not to a deity but they were uttered with the humility of the unfolding mystery called life.  I knew that my words might not make a difference, or that my presence might not make a difference but I believed the attempt was an important one to make. Perhaps in a moment of transcendence, in a moment of grace, the realization of being loved would break through and soften the moment, ease the transition from this life or ease the acceptance of a life transitioning to death.  It matters not to me if the person recognizes that moment as God’s love or human compassion—if only it would provide some comfort in our human hour of need.

There is one more prayer that I find myself uttering.   The 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart said If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.  Thank you is a prayer.  I say thank you when I look at the flowers blooming out front of this church.  I say thank you when I see children laughing and playing.  I say thank you when I observe the members of this congregation be so generous with their time in support of others.  And I say thank you for this life that I am living as it is filled with wonder, filled with interconnections of love. When hardships befall us as they are bound to from time to time, I find myself saying thank you, not for the hardships but for the response of the people around me who step forward with love and compassion.

This past week many people stepped forward and their presence was deeply appreciated.  Thank you… it is the prayer that is more than just two words.  It is a prayer of reception. When a person says thank you, especially in difficult times, it is an acknowledgement of humility. It is an acknowledgement of love shared.  It is an acknowledgement of our interconnective needs of one another.  If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.  Blessed Be.


[iii] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/february/8.76.html

 

“When Praying is Sufficient delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa by  Rev. Fred L Hammond 18 November 2012 ©