It’s All Poetry

Rev. Josh Pawelek

In May I heard a report on the news of a suicide bombing somewhere, maybe Iraq, an enormous number of bystanders killed and wounded, a witness explaining to a reporter through a translator that the bomber had screamed Allahu akbar! (God is Great!”) just before detonation. Muslims use this phrase, the takbir, for many reasons. I suspect the fact that militant Islamists say or scream it before committing acts of violence—and that saying or screaming gets reported in the western media—could potentially lead us to hear it as a war cry and not, as it is most commonly used, as the beginning of prayer, or an expression of surprise, or of sympathy for one who is suffering, or of praise for a wonderful performance. Allahu akbar is used for all these reasons and many more.

Takbir

I’ve heard this story of the takbir shouted as prelude to violence many times. I’m sure many of you have as well. It makes me angry—and sad—when people commit murder with God’s name on their tongues. If I’m being honest, it makes me fearful. And if I’m being more honest, it engenders in me a reaction that feels—I’m not quite sure how to name it—self-righteous, superior, haughty, smug, arrogant. It’s a reaction that says clearly these killers misunderstand their religion. They’ve been mis-educated, manipulated, brainwashed. No decent religion teaches killing. It’s a reaction that says “I, an educated, western white man, know better.” And although I’ve learned to check myself whenever I feel that way, here I believe I really do know better (though I also realize I can’t possibly know what has brought the bomber to this point in their life). I don’t believe there is anything I can learn about them that would lead me to say, “Oh, now I get it. That was a good idea.” These fanatical crimes—intended to harm innocents, spread mayhem and invite more violence—will never be OK. I am right about this, and in saying that, I can’t quite escape feeling a tinge of self-righteousness, or whatever it is.

God is GreatBut in that moment back in May a different feeling came over me, a different idea occurred to me. I remembered, as a child, saying “God is great” before dinner. It was that popular children’s prayer: “God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for this food.” As I remembered this prayer a wave of recognition rolled over me: the words “God is great,” more than anything else, are a poem—a very short, simple poem; which led me to the further recognition that all prayer, at its heart, is poetry; and that when people are praying, chanting, reciting or singing in virtually any religious context, the words on their tongues are poems. The Biblical Psalms, those enduring cries of praise, thanksgiving, lamentation and awe—“You cradle me in green pastures / You lead me beside the still waters. / You restore my soul”[1]—at their heart these songs of David are poems. And when Jesus, on the first day of his ministry entered the Nazarene synagogue, read from the scroll and upset those in attendance, he was reading a poem: “The Spirit of God is upon me / because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. / He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives / and recovery of sight to the blind, /to let the oppressed go free, / to proclaim the year of God’s favor.”[2]

When the ancient Vedic sages crafted the Upanishads, articulating the core concepts of what would eventually become Hinduism,Ilumination Buddhism and Janism, they wrote poetry. The Bhagavad-Gita, the central text of Hindu spirituality—“I am the Self that dwells in the heart of every mortal creature: / I am the beginning, the life span, and the end of all,”[3]—is a poem. The Tao Te Ching—“The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name”[4]—is poetry. The Analects of Confucius—“What does Heaven ever say? Yet there are the four seasons going round and there are the hundred things coming into being”[5]—beautiful, concise poems. If you’ve ever heard a recitation of the Koran, or if you’ve seen its words laid out on a painstakingly illuminated manuscript, you cannot doubt that what God put in the heart of Muhammad (blessings be upon him) was poetry—a recognition which led me on that day in May to the idea that all religion is, at its heart, poetry. And with that the wave crashed and I knew something I hadn’t known before: when a fanatical Islamist shouts “God is great” and blows him or herself up in a crowded market square, it’s not a case of them misunderstanding their religion. They understand it perfectly. For whatever reason, their religion has taught them to do this. What has happened is that they and their religion have misunderstood poetry.

Of course this begs the question, what is poetry? I am not a poet. I’ve never studied poetry in a systematic way. I’ve never memorized a poem. I might be able to name 20 poets off the top of my head. However, if we accept this idea that all religion at its heart is poetry, then I can name hundreds of poets: Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Rumi, Hafez, Hillel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Ruth (“Where you dwell, I shall dwell”), David, Solomon, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, Paul, John Paul, Bonhoeffer, Neimoller (“First they came for the Socialists / and I did not speak out / Because I was not a Socialist”),King (“I have a dream”), Thurman, Thandeka, Tinker, Tagore, Tutu, Theresa of Avila, Theresa of Calcutta, de las Casas, Handsome Lake, Black Elk, Wovoka, Francis (“Who am I to judge?”), St. Francis, Swedenborg, Mary Moody Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Spirit primarily means wind, transgression, the crossing of a line”), Thoreau, Parker (Theodore), Parker (Rebecca), Lyon Fahs, Fosdick, Fuller, Freeman Clarke, Peabody, Stanton, Alcott, Child, Brown, Brown Blackwell, Blackenbery Crook, Nancy Schaffer (“I have been looking for the words that come before words”), Tarbox, Valentin, Herrera, Southern, Peacebang, McTigue, Pescan, Wellemeyer, Ungar, Walsh, Belletini, Mary (Gospel of), Thomas (Gospel of), Q (Gospel of, though theoretical, of course), Thich Nhat Han, Pema Chodron, Sharon Salzberg, Solle, Tillich (“Religion asks for the ultimate source of the power which heals by accepting the unacceptable, it asks for God”), Wright (“God damn America!”), Johnson (Alvan), Cone, Coelho, Kwok Pui Lan, Fox, West, Weston, Davies, Eaton, Eckhart, Murfin (“We build temples in the heart), Bray McNatt, Morrison-Reed, Simons, Niebuhr—all the Neibuhrs—Buber, Barth, Boff, Berrigan, Garrison, Guzman, Starhawk, Spretnak, Adams (Margot), Adams (Jane), Adams (James), Jerzy Popieluszko, Oscar Romero, Hus, Luther, Cervides, Rush, Jefferson, Priestley, Jones (Rufus), Jones (Jenkin Lloyd), Vivekananda, Dharmapala, Krishnamurti, Khalil Gibran, Parker Palmer, Basho, Berry, Bellah, Whitman, Wentworth Higginson, Jesus (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). That’s about 120 “poets” off the top of my head—all people whose words I’ve lifted up in worship over the years. No Google search necessary.

I asked my kids and a friend what poetry is. They said: “Poetry is writing what you think is fun.” “Poetry is freedom in writing.” “Poetry is writing things that rhyme.” “Poetry is writing what you feel.” “Poetry is descriptive.” “Poetry is writing until you have nothing else to write about.” “Poetry is using fewer words.” Good answers. I was hoping they’d mention “fewer words.” In his essay “The Poet,” Emerson said, “It does not need that a poem should be long. Every word was once a poem.”[6] When I asked the kids why poetry uses fewer words, they couldn’t say. They seemed to sense a reason, but couldn’t put it into speech, into whole sentences with beginnings, middles and ends. And that’s the point. There are truths—great truths we humans long to discern. We sometimes call this longing the religious impulse. Yet the same longing that drives poetry. We long to understand the essences of things, the spirit of things, the endless relationships among all things, the forces connecting all to all, the animating power, the constant flow, the eternal, spiraling motion, particles that are waves building and crashing, the rhythm of life, first breaths, finals breaths, breathing in, out, beating lub dub, blood coursing, cycles of life and death, growth and decay, cycles of seconds, hours, days, months, seasons, years, thousands of years, millions of years, movements of suns, moons, planets, galaxies, pulls of tides, the instinct to survive, the will to live, the creative drive, a parent’s boundless love for their child, and “the lone, wild bird in lofty flight.” [7]

Lone Wild Bird

Poetry points to these truths; but only points, because inherent in poetry is the recognition that words alone are insufficient to name them fully. So poetry uses fewer words, and in so doing creates space for other ways of knowing—feeling, sensing, intuiting, dreaming, imagining—ways of entering the place beyond words. Or, as the late poet who was also a spiritual leader, Nancy Shaffer, said in a stanza forever dog-eared, highlighted and triple underlined in my copy of her book, “I have been looking for the words that come before words, the ones older than silence, the ones not mine, that can’t be found by thought—the ones that hold the beginning of the world and are never used up, which arrive loaned, and make me weep.”[8] Was she a poet who was also a spiritual leader, or a spiritual leader who was also a poet? Nevermind, this question no longer matters to me. From this day forward I acknowledge no distinction between poetry and the heart of religion. Poetry uses fewer words to point to the truth and create spaces for all forms of human discernment of the truth. At its best, so does religion. Through its scriptures, prayers, meditations, songs, hymns, chants, sayings, aphorisms, parables, sutras, suras, chapters, verses, liturgies, rituals, worship and witness it points to the truth and creates spaces for all forms of human discernment of the truth. Poetry lives at the heart of religion.

I remember in the early years of my ministry I participated in some of the Boston-area Soulful Sundowns—evening worship services designed for young adults. I would bring my rock band along. The song lyrics became texts for my sermons. The idea was that sacred scripture wasn’t the only source of spiritual insight or ultimate truth—you could find it in the ordinary, the mundane, the everyday. You could find it in rock lyrics, literature, poetry, film. This was not a new idea for Unitarian Universalists. I was just getting used to my own version of it. At the end of the services I would ask people to share their favorite lyrics from their favorite songs and to name the spiritual message they took from those lyrics. I might have mentioned the Tracey Bonham song we heard earlier. “Whether you fall / means nothing at all / it’s whether you get up”[9]—an ode to courage, resilience, second chances, finding inner strength. I’ve always loved bringing the so-called “secular” into church and making it available for spiritual contemplation. And as long as we could cross back and forth, I was content with the line between secular and sacred. But for me, now, that line doesn’t exist. Poetry doesn’t recognize that line, can’t fathom it, won’t sanction it. And when religion draws that line, it fails to understand its own poetic heart.

How do you know a religion has misunderstood poetry? It has started using too many words (which, I suppose, is a commentary hardening hearton most sermons). Paradoxically, the more words we use to describe our truths, the further we get from the feeling of them, the intuiting of them, the dreaming of them, the loving of them. The more words we use to describe our truths, the further we get from the raw experience of them. The more words we use to describe our truths, the more we limit them, the more we drain the life from them, the more we imprison, entomb, harden, calcify, fossilize them. Emerson said “Language is fossil poetry.”[10] How do you know a religion has misunderstood its poetic heart? It has stopped pointing toward the truth and has started acting as if it alone has the truth. It has stopped offering its people opportunities for discernment, for entering into mystery, for searching the vast expanses, for making their own meaning of their own experience. It has stopped trusting its people to make their own way. Instead it has started demanding allegiance to a single, sweeping truth expressed in jagged, unassailable, terminal words; it has started shaping its original sense of awe, its original beauty into strict and hard-sounding doctrines; it has started drawing lines, categorizing, putting everything and everyone into boxes, binding belief, banishing dissent, setting boundaries—who is in and who is out. It has started making threats with eternal consequences; started discriminating; started accepting the unjust status quo; started hearing “God is great” as a call to murder. Indeed, religion misunderstands its poetic heart at the world’s peril.

Contrast this with Molly Vigeant’s poem, “oh, the places our journeys will go,” which she wrote as a credo, a personal belief statement. She says “I wish I could say / I know of / This perfect way / But to be honest / I love / Just looking / No commitment / To just one thing / Listening / To how the birds sing / And finding joy in that / Comfort / Without a resort.” Religion damages the human spirit when it says “Repeat after me. Do not stray from my words.” Molly says there is no perfect way. She’s right. Religion saves us when it opens pathways, sends us searching, urges us on, opens us up, invites us to ponder, creates space, points us toward  truth. Religion is at its best—life-giving, liberating, empowering—when it speaks poetry, uses fewer words, and invites us into the wonderful, creative spaces between them. “You cradle me in green pastures / You lead me beside the still waters. / You restore my soul.”

still waters

When we finally arrive at the spaces between the words, at the words before words, at whatever faint glimmer of truth we humans can grasp, it is a blessing. It can be for us a source of courage, strength and resilience, a source of comfort and solace, a boon to our creativity, and perhaps, most importantly a call to bring love back into the world. Molly says it well: “We are a people / And people are love / Let that be enough.” When the poetic heart of our religion brings us back from our searching with messages of love on out tongues, surely it has done its saving work.

Amen and blessed be.
 

[1] Excerpt from Psalm 23, Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #642.

[2] Luke 4: 18-19.

[3] Excerpt from the Bhagavad-Gita, chapter 10, Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #611.

[4] Lao Tzu, Tao-te Ching, in Wing-Tsit Chan, tr., The Way of Lao Tzu (New York: Macmillan Publishing co., 1963) p.97.

[5] Confucius, The Analects, Book 17: 19 in D.C. Lau, tr., Confucius: The Analects (New York: Penguin Books, 1979) p. 146.

[6] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “The Poet,” in Whicher, Stephen, ed, Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin co., 1957) p. 229. Or read the full text at http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/poet. There is a helpful analysis of “The Poet” in Richardson, Robert D., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkely: University of California Press, 1995) pp. 371-5.

[7] MacFayden, H.R., The Lone, Wild Bird, Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #15.

[8] Shaffer, Nancy, “In Stillness,” Instructions in Joy (Boston: Skinner House, 2002) p. 5.

[9] Tracey Bonham, “Whether You Fall” is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ADHC80–sY&list=RD_ADHC80–sY#t=31.

[10] Emerson, “The Poet,” in Whicher, ed, Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, p. 231.

 

Fatherhood in Flux

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Parents rushingThe Rev. Kathleen McTigue is right: the realities of parenting do not mesh well with the features of the classic spiritual journey—“the solitary pilgrimage, the focused weeks of prayer or meditation, the ecstatic chanting in the company of other seekers.”[1] But parenting is a journey, and there is enormous spiritual growth to be had. “This ordinary, unsung path,” writes McTigue, “requires tremendous openness to the unanticipated. It meanders around a thousand turns that feel like detours or dead ends. It requires faith that the spirit does not grow in a straight line nor need traditional forms and practices. Real spiritual growth depends on our willingness to be transformed, and very little transforms us as thoroughly as sharing our lives with children.”[2]

Our ministry theme for June is family. This morning I’d like to lift up parenting as a central task of adults in families and explore Classic familysome spiritual dimensions of parenting in our era. Since today is Father’s Day, I’d like to focus my reflections on fatherhood. And I begin with this caveat: the “golden-age” American image of what a family is—happily married, heterosexual, usually white, middle-class parents, living in a freestanding suburban house with a yard, a white picket fence, a dog chewing a bone, and two-point-something well-adjusted children, maybe a baby on the way—that image of family, if it ever existed, was far more rare than we typically imagine. Today we know families come—and always have—in a seemingly endless variety of configurations. Any time a minister (or anyone) proposes to generalize about any aspect of family life, there’s always a risk that some alternative yet valid perspective will be missed.

That is, it’s difficult to name universal truths about families. Because we spend so much time with our own families—however we understand them; because we become so enmeshed in the challenges, joys and traditions of our own families—we can develop tunnel vision when it comes to understanding how other people experience family. My kids live with married, heterosexual professional parents. They have four supportive grandparents close by. They eat three meals a day. They have three cats. They take a family vacation every summer, usually involving a beach. They spend family time playing games, watching movies, hiking and visiting with aunts, uncles and cousins. This is what family is to them. But they have no idea what it might mean to live with one parent, to be an only child, to live with a grandparent in an in-law apartment, to have two moms or two dads, to have a step-parent, to have half-siblings, to be in foster care, to struggle financially, to spend summers on a farm or at a second home in another country. They have no idea what it might mean to have a live-in maid, chauffeur or chef, or to live in a practicing Muslim, Catholic, Mormon or Jewish family.

There’s always the risk, and the reality, that my experience of being a father will not match someone else’s experience of being a father; or that my experience of having a father will not match someone else’s experience of having a father; or that my experience of being a white, middle class, heterosexual, married, working, Unitarian Universalist father will not adequately speak to the experiences of fathers with different identities fathering under different circumstances. The problem is not that experiences vary—diversity in family life is a beautiful feature of early 21st-century America. The problem is that it is so easy to forget that differences are there at all. There is not one experience of fatherhood, motherhood, parenting, or grand-parenting. There is not one experience of family.

The cast of "Modern Family"

The cast of “Modern Family”

I do think it’s safe and accurate to say fatherhood in our era is in flux,[3] especially when it comes to gender roles. Traditional parenting roles for men and women—once quite distinct—have been slowly converging over the past few decades. A great illustration of this is the online hype surrounding a photo blogger Doyin Richards posted on his website Daddy Doin’ Work[4] last fall. He told the story in a January 8th Huffington Post article: I took time off from my corporate job for baby bonding with my 3-month old daughter. It’s a lot of work being a stay at home parent, but it’s so damn rewarding…. One morning … my[wife] was running late for work and was worried that she wouldn’t be able to get [our three-year old daughter’s] hair done before I had to take her to school. I told her that she could leave and I’d handle it. She countered by saying that doing her hair requires attention and the baby would get upset if I left her alone while I played the role of stylist. Again, I told her that I’d handle it. On the way out she said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

That’s when I put [the baby] in the Ergo, stood [the three-year old] on a stool and worked my hair magic. During the process, I thought, There’s no way my wife will believe me if I don’t take a picture of this.That’s when I set my camera up, put it on a 10-second timer, and took the photo…. After 15 minutes of multitasking, the final result was a nice, tight ponytail for big sister and a happily sleeping baby in the carrier. Mission accomplished. I emailed the photo to her with the caption “Boom.” and we both got a good laugh out of it.[5]

Doyin Richards' famous photo. Boom!

Doyin Richards’ famous photo. Boom!

The photo went viral soon after he posted it. He says there were three types of comments: those who think he is the world’s best dad; those who think this is no big deal and he shouldn’t get extra praise; and racists (Richards is black) who assumed he must be a deadbeat if he has time to fix his daughter’s hair, or that the children aren’t actually his because they have lighter skin (his wife is Japanese and White). He identifies with the second group, saying “this is something Dads are supposed to be doing,” and “I am not special in any regard.” That is my response, and I suspect the same would be true of most of you. But it’s worth naming that fathers attending to children in this way are a relatively new phenomenon in the American social landscape. While I’m sure there have always been such fathers, it’s traditionally a mother’s role. Hence Richards’ wife’s quip: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Richards was on paternity leave, which is also a relatively new phenomenon. A June, 2013 Wall Street Journal article, entitled “Why Dads Don’t Take Paternity Leave,” pointed out that 15 % of US companies provide some paid leave for new fathers—and they call that progress. However, even when the benefit exists, many dads elect not to take it. “There’s still a stigma associated with men who put parenting on an equal footing with their jobs…. Most employers still assume that work comes first for men, while women do all the child care…. Many men who openly identify with their parental role at work face pressure or resentment from co-workers…. Men who are active caregivers get teased and insulted at work more than so-called traditional fathers and men without children. Active fathers are seen as distracted and less dedicated to their work—the same perception that harms career prospects for many working mothers…. Such men are accused of being wimpy or henpecked by their wives.”[6]

I go back to Rev. McTigue’s notion that “real spiritual growth depends on our willingness to be transformed.” As fathers become more willing and able to adopt—and excited and passionate about adopting— those aspects of child-rearing traditionally assigned to women, there will be transformation—not just for those men, but for all of us. One of Hilary Clinton’s most significant achievements as Secretary of State was to orient United States foreign policy globally toward the education of girls, arguing that educated mothers are one of the most potent weapons against war, terrorism, violence and extremism. I agree. But imagine also an America in which men play a more immediate and traditionally feminine role in child-rearing? Might that not have a similarly powerful and positive effect on our long-term chances for creating a more just and peaceful world? I, for one, believe that is a transformation worth pursuing and I welcome this blurring of the traditional male and female parenting roles.

But even if roles blur, I wonder to what extent certain parental instincts are more unique to fathers, while others are more unique to mothers. It’s a stereotype, but if men are more aggressive, more prone to use violence, more socialized to see themselves as family leaders, breadwinners and protectors, more distant, more solitary—if fathers feel these things more instinctually and poignantly than mothers—I worry about how these instincts could play out in our era. I worry because I perceive an fearextraordinary level of fear in our society: fear of terrorism, of immigrants, of an assault on gun ownership, of assault weapons, gun violence and mass shootings—70 since the December, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre—fear of the mentally ill, of Big Government, of taxes, of unemployment, of deficits and debt, of Black presidents, of White presidents, of marriage equality, of marijuana, fear of Eric Cantor, of David Brat, of Hilary Clinton, of Islam, of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, of Boko Haram, of Black and Hispanic men, of tornadoes, hurricanes, mudslides, droughts, wildfires and nor’easters, of global warming, of power outages and water shortages, of genetically modified food, of corporations, of the Koch brothers, of rising college tuitions and sea levels; fear of fathers fixing daughters’ hair—fear upon fear upon fear. Depending on our politics we think some of it is completely justified, and some of it is completely ridiculous. But it’s there. And if there is a deep-seeded, masculine, fatherly instinct to resort to aggression and violence to protect one’s family, in a fearful era, might we not witness an increasingly violent society?

I’m not sure. There are data that suggest we live in the safest, most peaceable era in human history. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker made this argument in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.[7] Maybe despite deep-seeded instincts towards aggression, and despite widespread fear, a more safe and peaceful world is emerging right before our eyes. But that doesn’t feel right—not if you’re an inner city father living in contested gang territory; not if you’re a Midwest father whose hometown was obliterated by a tornado this past winter; not if you’re a father anywhere whose child’s peer was caught bringing a gun to school. We’ve become a fearful nation in an increasingly fearful world—not all the reasons are spurious. This creates a dilemma for American fathers. Do we, out of fear, embrace those more ancient inclinations which include aggression and violence and thereby risk perpetuating violence? Or do we welcome a new set of values for fathers: nurturing spirits, vulnerable hearts , an embrace of difference, a rejection of violence, a capacity to really partner with whoever our partner may be, and a desire and an ability to fix out daughters’ hair? And maybe it isn’t precisely a dilemma. Maybe it isn’t a matter of losing the ancient instincts altogether, because certainly there’s a time and a place for aggression and even violence. Perhaps the flux fathers are in is calling us towards greater balance: aggression tempered by a drive to nurture, distance moderated by an impulse toward closeness and connection, violence only as a last resort, and briefcases whose contents include little girls’ hair brushes. Though some may call such balance weak or cowardly, I call it strong and courageous.

I asked a number of UUS:E fathers to give me their impressions of fatherhood in our era. Across the range of responses I found both a desire to find a place for the more ancient fatherly instincts and an embrace of the transformation that comes with child-rearing even when it demands a departure from tradition. Rob Stolzman shared the story of a friend, an Alaska native, who remembered her dad going moose hunting for the family. “He never told the family that he was planning on going; he would simply begin to take longer and longer walks into the wilderness with his hunting equipment until one day he wouldn’t come back and would be gone for up to a week.  He didn’t need to speak his intent; he would simply follow his routine and then be gone, but his family knew exactly what was happening.  And it made them ecstatic because they knew when he came back he would be bringing fresh moose.” Rob says, “Our schedules revolve around work and school and children’s activities and we try to squeeze more and more in.  I value the picture of a father, or mother, going about his/her solitary duty, without saying a word, and with not only total understanding and acceptance but celebration from his/her family.  It seems like we are often too busy to stop and acknowledge the happiness and excitement of a family member contributing in a routine, solitary and unassuming way.” Thanks Rob!

William George Richardson Hind's "Moose Hunting Winter Manitoba"

William George Richardson Hind’s “Moose Hunting Winter Manitoba”

Glenn Campellone described the changes parenthood has demanded of him: “By far my greatest challenge has been letting go of the traditions and expectations of my own upbringing.” “Some of the issues we faced (and the solutions we chose) caused me to leave my comfort zone and suspend disbelief, which was extremely difficult for me.  I’m not sure my parents or their generation could have or would have even considered some of the decisions we’ve made.

I’ve rethought “my attitudes toward home schooling.  I’ve come to understand that traditional school environments just don’t work for every student.” I’ve come to understand that the traditional path of “high school to college to corporate career to marriage to children isn’t always the path to happiness.” And I’ve come to understand that” your parents’ religion doesn’t have to be your religion.  Roman Catholicism was all we knew, but we knew it wasn’t working for us…. Once again, it was our  children’s desire to have a spiritual home that opened our eyes to other possibilities and led us to UUS:E.” Thanks Glenn!

Knowing there are fathers who can articulate and celebrate a more traditional view of fatherhood and find in it spiritual value and depth to help us respond in healthy, grounded ways to the seeming insanity of today’s world; and knowing there are fathers who can assess how fatherhood has transformed them and opened them up to greater possibility, to nuance, to seeing grey in a world that so often only offers black and white—this gives me confidence that that elusive balance between the old and the new, that elusive balance so essential to meeting fear with hope, that elusive balance so essential to making peace in the world is utterly possible.

Dad-Hair

            Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “The Parents’ Pilgrimage,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 73.

[2] Ibid., p. 74.

[3] For a general review of various aspects of this flux, see: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/12/5-facts-about-todays-fathers/.

[4] See http://daddydoinwork.com/.

[5] Read Richard’s Huffington Post article at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/doyin-richards/i-have-a-dream-picture-like-this_b_4562414.html. And read a recent National Public Radio article on fatherhood that featured Richard’s story at http://www.npr.org/2014/06/12/321218293/white-house-urges-dads-to-join-work-life-balance-conversation.

[6] “Why Dads Don’t Take Paternity Leave,” Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2013. See: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324049504578541633708283670. Also, and for the record, a May 2013 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research reminds us that only 35% of women work for an employer who offers paid maternity leave, and the United States is one of only four countries globally, and the only high-income country, without a statutory right to paid maternity leave for employees. See: http://www.iwpr.org/publications/pubs/maternity-paternity-and-adoption-leave-in-the-united-states-1.

[7] Listen to / watch Pinker talk about the ideas in BetterAngels at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5X2-i_poNU.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma: We’re All in This Together

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Prisoner's DilemmaTwo members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principle charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. If he testifies against his partner, he will go free while the partner will get three years in prison on the main charge. Oh, yes, there’s a catch. If both prisoners testify against each other, both will be sentenced to two years in jail.

The prisoners are given little time to think this over, but in no case may either learn what the other has decided until he has irrevocably made his decision. Each is informed that the other prisoner is being offered the same deal. Each prisoner is concerned only with his own welfare, the minimizing of his own prison sentence.

The prisoners can reason as follows: “Suppose I testify and the other prisoner doesn’t. Then I get off scot-free (rather than spending a year in jail). Suppose I testify and the other prisoner does too. Then I get two years (rather than three). Either way I’m better off turning state’s evidence. Testifying takes a year off my sentence, no matter what the other guy does.”

The trouble is, the other prisoner can and will come to the very same conclusion. If both parties are rational, both will testify and both will get two years in jail. If only they had both refused to testify, they would have got just a year each![1]

Game Theory

This is the classic formulation of the “prisoner’s dilemma,” first articulated in the early 1950s by mathematician Albert Tucker. He was developing the work of mathematicians Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher who created—some say discovered—this game. They were developing the work of mathematician John Nash. All of them were working in the new field of game theory, originated largely by mathematician John Von Neumann. And all of them, including Von Neumann, worked in the early 1950s for the RAND Corporation, an organization founded after World War II to provide research and analysis for the US military. According to Von Neumann biographer, William Poundstone, “in the public mind, RAND is best known for ‘thinking about the unthinkable,’ about the waging and consequences of nuclear war.”[2] Game theory was one resource RAND scientists brought to bear in their efforts to determine US nuclear strategy. According to Poundstone, “no example of a prisoner’s dilemma has been more popular, both in technical articles and in the popular press, than a nuclear arms rivalry. This is so much the case that the term ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ is sometimes taken to be part of the jargon of nuclear strategy, along with ‘mutual assured destruction.’”[3]

Having said that, I’m not going to talk about the Cold War or nuclear strategy. This sermon was purchased by our beloved Fred Sawyer at last year’s goods and services auction. Fred said, quite clearly, “I don’t want to hear about nuclear weapons or the Cold War. What I want to know is whether or not the prisoner’s dilemma tells us anything useful about morality.” I’m grateful to Fred because the prisoner’s dilemma does say something useful about morality, and I’d much rather explore that than give a history of its use in predicting Cold War Soviet behavior. I’ll first explain the prisoner’s dilemma and what it tells us about morality. Then I’ll reflect on Unitarian Universalist moral impulses in light of the prisoner’s dilemma.

Two words game theorists use to describe what’s happening in a prisoner’s dilemma, and which also help us discern the moral implications of the game’s results, are cooperate and defect. There are two players. They each face a choice: to work together—cooperate—or to work against each other—defect. A player cooperates when they make the decision that best supports the other player. A player defects when they make the decision that least supports the other player. There are four possible outcomes: both players choose to cooperate; both choose to defect; one chooses to cooperate and the other defects; or the other chooses to cooperate and the one defects. There are consequences for each choice, and each player bases their choice on what they think will best serve their interests. In the classic formulation of the prisoner’s dilemma, a player cooperates when they choose not to testify against the other player. A player defects when they choose to testify. In essence, do you sustain your relationship or break it?

This classic formulation is one of many ways to imagine the prisoner’s dilemma. In fact, there are unlimited formulations, both hypothetical and real. Earlier we watched a clip from the British game show, “Golden Balls.”[4] Although this isn’t a true prisoner’s dilemma because the players negotiate before choosing, the game follows the basic prisoner’s dilemma model. There’s a £100,000 jackpot. The players can choose to split it—cooperation—or to steal it—defection. If they both choose to cooperate, they split the money. If one chooses to defect and the other chooses to cooperate, the defector gets all the money. If they both choose to defect, neither gets the money. Do you cooperate or defect?

Game theorists are not necessarily looking for the most moral way to play. They’re looking to see how players understand their self-interest in relation to the other player. They assume players who attempt to maximize their self-interest are behaving rationally. This is, of course, a somewhat loaded assumption, but stay with it for now and I’ll name some objections to it later. For now, since morality has to do with how we treat others—how kind, compassionate, sensitive and fair we are towards others; how generous we are in balancing our needs with the needs of others—we can make a general claim that the most moral way to play the game is to cooperate—to make the choice that best supports the other player. The problem with behaving morally is that if you cooperate but the other player defects, you receive the harshest penalty, often referred to as the “sucker payoff.” The more moral choice always comes with a degree of vulnerability and, at least in the context of the game, it can appear to be the less rational choice. On its face, defection is more selfish—or at least self-interested. While I hesitate to call it the immoral choice (whistle blowers exposing corruption are often defectors), we can make the general claim that it is the less moral way to play in relation to the other player: it sacrifices the other player for the sake of personal gain. If the point is to maximize self-interest, the less moral choice appears to be the more rational choice.

self-interest

This is especially true if you only play the game once. If you only have one opportunity to cooperate or defect, it is always statistically more advantageous—and thus more rational—to defect.  Poundstone calls it common sense.”[5] If your partner cooperates and you defect, you go free. If your partner defects, you’re much better off having defected as well. So it’s best to defect. There’s a paradox here. Mutual cooperation is a better outcome for both players than mutual defection. But to arrive at that better outcome, both must independently choose to act against their own best self-interest. We might say both must behave less rationally. It appears the more moral choice is not the more rational choice. The mathematicians who created/discovered the prisoner’s dilemma had always hoped there was some way to resolve this paradox. In 1992 Poundstone wrote that “Flood and Dresher now believe that the prisoner’s dilemma will never be “solved,” and nearly all game theorists agree with them. The prisoner’s dilemma remains a negative result—a demonstration of what’s wrong with theory, and indeed, what’s wrong with the world.”[6] It reveals the egoism at the heart of human nature.

But there’s a lot to object to here. What if I know the other player? What if I trust they’d never testify against me? What if we had a pact? What if my own moral code won’t let me testify against them? What about the fact that cooperation among criminals isn’t necessarily moral?[7] What about people who act against their self-interest—people who, for example, vote for candidates who favor policies that hurt them economically?  What about the fact that people don’t always behave rationally, or that rationality does not necessarily equate to following self-interest, or that rationality in the absence of emotion, compassion, love, etc., may not be the most reliable guide to effective decision-making? All these factors can and do come into play in a real-life prisoner dilemmas, but there’s no good way to account for them theoretically if you only play the game once. However, it turns out that when we play the game repeatedly, players can introduce a variety of strategies that do account for some of these factors. For example, if you play with the same person over time, unless they play completely randomly, you can get to know how they play; you can start to anticipate what they’re going to do and adjust your play in response. It’s more like a real relationship: the players share a history. Or, if your moral code prevents you from defecting, you can play a strategy of only cooperating. You’ll end up in jail, but you’ll have a clean conscience. Or, if you want to play as a pure egoist and defect every time, that’s a viable strategy, in part because it exploits the kindness of others, but over time others stop trusting you and you spend more time in jail.

There’s a strategy known as Tit for Tat that tends to produce the best overall results in competition with other strategies—that is, over time, it yields the least amount of prison time. Tit for Tat is known for being nice. It always begins with cooperation. That is, it starts the game by trusting that the other player will cooperate. It gives the other player the benefit of the doubt and risks being vulnerable. From there it simply copies what the other player does. If the other player defects, Tit for Tat defects on the next round—a punishment.  If the other player cooperates, Tit for Tat cooperates on the next round—a reward. It’s a punishment and reward strategy, but it always begins with cooperation, and it is by and the large the most successful strategy. This was the conclusion of mathematician Robert Axelrod after extensive research in the 1970s and 80s.[8] Even though it is always in our immediate self-interest to defect, if we’re playing repeatedly—which is more akin to real life—we maximize our self-interest by cooperating. The ethicist John Robinson says, “Alexrod and others … have [successfully shown] how cooperation arises from self-interest, and is a stable strategy in many contexts. They have discovered a reason to be good, an evolutionary explanation for morality that works even though, underneath it all, people are egoists.”[9]

This can be tested even further by having multiple groups of players playing simultaneously and rotating around to each other. Not only does Tit for Tat continue to perform well, but even a small group of Tit for Tat players in the midst of a larger group of more egoistic players can move the whole group towards adopting their strategy and thus orient the whole group—the whole society—towards cooperation. This conclusion affirms that wisdom from the late cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” It also suggests, again, that the more moral choice to cooperate ultimately serves our self-interest better than the less moral choice to defect.

One PlanetThis conclusion certainly resonates with Unitarian Universalist moral impulses—and perhaps the moral impulses at the heart of many religions—although Tit for Tat is not language I would use to describe those moral impulses. Our morality begins in and grows out of relationships. Ours is a covenantal religion. We’re all in this together. As Unitarian Universalists we covenant to affirm and promote seven principles.[10] And as a congregation we have crafted a unique covenant to guide our interactions with one another.[11] We come here to be part of a community. We recognize at a deep level that we benefit from being part of a community, that in community we find grounding to counter all those trends in the larger world that drive people apart, that erode social bonds, that thrive on and exploit our isolation. We know our principles are hard to make real in the world, and even harder to make real in the absence of community. Thus, our first move is cooperation. We’re all in this together.

But it’s not our moral impulse to play a Tit for Tat strategy. It’s not our impulse to defect as soon as the other player defects. It’s not our impulse to punish. Our moral impulse is to sustain relationships, to continue cooperating with the defector, to continue articulating a message—through word and deed—that those who participate in our community, and indeed all those with whom we come into contact, have inherent worth and dignity, are part of the same interdependent web, are deserving of our love and care, deserving of the benefit of the doubt. Our UUS:E covenant even says that if we fail to uphold it we will strive for forgiveness. In the terms of the game, we strive to meet defection with cooperation, again and again and again.

Can this impulse be exploited? Yes.. This impulse would likely land us in prison frequently. Should we tolerate ongoing behaviors that weaken our community? No, of course not. There are times when any faith community needs to draw lines, set boundaries, defect. But we have faith in the power of community. We have faith in the power of relationship. We’re all in this together. And it’s good to know what the data say: over time, self-interest is best attained through cooperation. What’s good for the whole is ultimately good for the individuals who make up the whole. And that’s how we strive to play.

Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] Poundstone, William, Prisoner’s Dilemma: John Von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb (New York: Anchor Books, 1992), pp. 118-119.

[2] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 90.

[3] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 129.

[4] See the clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3Uos2fzIJ0. Also, this Radiolab story, “What’s Left When You’re Right?” incorporates the “Golden Balls” clip and is very entertaining: http://www.radiolab.org/story/whats-left-when-youre-right/.

[5] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 121.

[6] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 123.

[7] Hayden Ben, “Rethinking the Morality of the Prisoner’s Dilemma,” in “The Decision Tree,” Psychology Today, July 28th, 2013. See: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-decision-tree/201307/rethinking-the-morality-the-prisoners-dilemma.

[8] Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, pp. 236-248. For more information, see Axelrod, Robert The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984).

[9] Robinson, John, “The Moral Prisoner’s Dilemma” is at http://intuac.com/userport/john/writing/prisdilemma.html.

[10] For the language which names the seven Unitarian Universalist principles as a covenant, see: http://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/bylaws/articleii/6906.shtml.

[11] See the UUS:E covenant at http://uuse.org/ministries/principles-and-mission/#covenant.

 

May 2014 Ministers Column

Our ministry theme for May is devotion, and while there are many ways to begin discussing this theme, I want to focus this column on what it might mean to be devoted to one’s spiritual community. And to begin, I want to express my heartfelt thanks to two people who have shown extraordinary devotion to UUS:E in recent years.

First, I am so thankful to Mary Ann Handley for stepping in and serving as our president over the past two years. She served longer than she originally expected to serve, and she has guided our board and our con­gregation through challenging times with grace, clarity, patience and integrity.

Second, I am grateful to Stan McMillen who is ending his second term as chair of the Stewardship Committee. Stan has issued a gentle but persistent call for all of us to practice the virtue of generosity at UUS:E. At a time when congregational giving is declining in the United States, and in the midst of difficult times for the U.S. economy, UUS:E members have by and large maintained or increased their giving. Stan’s leadership has been essential to this trend at 153 West Vernon St.

Mary Ann and Stan: Thanks for your service to our congregation. Thanks for your spirit. Thanks for your love. Thanks for your devotion.

There are many other UUS:E leaders I wish to thank as well, although they are too numerous to men­tion here. At our annual meeting on the evening of Saturday, May 17th, we’ll have an opportunity to thank and honor all our outgoing leaders, as well as welcome those leaders beginning new terms. I hope you’ll plan to attend and stay for the goods and services auction.

Being a congregational leader is one way we can express devotion to our spiritual community. I know not everyone sees themselves as a leader in this way, but if you have any desire whatsoever to lead, UUS:E is a good place to do it. There are many opportunities. If you have any interest in leadership, please do not hesi­tate to let me know. If you aren’t sure you want to lead, but just want to ‘test the waters,’ please consider join­ing a committee. Are you handy and like to tinker? Consider the Building and Grounds committee? Interested in community action? Consider the Social Justice / Antiracism Committee. Whether it’s music, caring for one another, caring for the earth, managing finances, raising money, educating children, working with youth, at­tending to human resources, leading Sunday services, we’ve got a place at UUS:E to put your talents and pas­sions to use. We’ve got a place for you to be devoted.

With love,

Rev. Josh

For What the Soul Hungers

Rev. Josh Pawelek

 

"Reconciliation" by Josefina de Vasconcellos

“Reconciliation” by Josefina de Vasconcellos

“Break not the circle of enabling love, where people grow forgiven and forgiving; break not the circle, make it wider still, till it includes, embraces all the living.”[1] I want us to encounter these words this morning as a call to the work of reconciliation. And as we do so I want to draw a distinction between the ideal and the practical. To make the circle wider still, to embrace “all the living”—this is an ideal, a vision of a completely reconciled global community. Though I’m tempted, I won’t set it aside as unrealistic because I’m convinced there is something in our human nature that drives us toward this vision. The hymn is not just fanciful or spiritually pleasing rhetoric; there’s something real driving us and we are called to respond. On the other hand, from a practical standpoint, it’s unrealistic. Our circles will more than likely never embrace all the living; more than likely they’ll remain relatively small. This, too, is real. My message then, is that the work of reconciliation is what matters. We may never achieve the vision of a truly unbroken circle, of a reconciled global community, but we can choose to heed the call and engage in the work of reconciliation wherever and however it presents itself to us. This is one measure of a well-lived spiritual life: we engage in the work of reconciliation wherever and however it presents itself to us.

This past week two stories of people working toward reconciliation drew my attention. First (thanks to former UUS:E member Alison Cohen for pointing it out) on Monday the Bahá’í World New Service published an article about a senior Iranian Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani, who created an illuminated work of calligraphy of a paragraph from the writings of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-founder of the Bahá’í faith. Tehrani offered this work of art as a gift to the Bahá’ís of the world and, in particular, the Bahá’ís of Iran. The Bahá’í World New Service called it an “unprecedented symbolic act.” As some of you may know, and as the article points out, “since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, hundreds of Bahá’í have been killed and thousands have been imprisoned. There are currently 115 Bahá’í being held in prison solely on the basis of their religious beliefs. Bahá’í in Iran are denied access to higher education, obstructed from earning a livelihood, prevented from burying their dead in accordance with their own burial rites and subjected to the demolition, desecration and expropriation of their cemeteries, all because of their religion.”[2]

Ayatollah Tehrani's illuminated calligraphy

Ayatollah Tehrani’s illuminated calligraphy

On his own website, Ayatollah Tehrani wrote: “Feeling the need for [a] practical and symbolic action to serve as a reminder of the importance of valuing human beings, of peaceful coexistence, of cooperation and mutual support, and of avoidance of hatred, enmity and blind religious prejudice, I have made an illuminated calligraphy of a verse from the Kitáb-i-Aqdas of the Bahá’ís. I have made this as an enduring symbol of respect for the innate dignity of human beings, for … peaceful coexistence regardless of religious affiliation, denomination or belief. And now at the start of this new year … I present this precious symbol … to all the Bahá’ís of the world, particularly to the Bahá’ís of Iran who have suffered in manifold ways as a result of blind religious prejudice.”[3] I could find very little information on Ayatollah Tehrani other than commentators around the world calling him courageous.[4] What I think I see is a religious leader, a person of faith, who looked for the “circle of enabling love,” found it broken, and did what is within his power to mend it, to work toward reconciliation.

The second story (thanks to UUS:E member Nancy Thompson for pointing it out) appeared in the April 6th New York Times Magazine: a series of portraits the photographer Pieter Hugo took last month in southern Rwanda of Hutu perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide and Tutsi survivors who had reconciled with each other.[5] (Monday marked the 20 year anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide.) With the portraits are quotes from the subjects. In one, the perpetrator says, “I burned her house. I attacked her in order to kill her and her children, but God protected them, and they escaped. When I was released from jail, if I saw her, I would run and hide. Then … I decided to ask her for forgiveness. To have good relationships with the person to whom you did evil deeds – we thank God.”

Pieter Hugo’s portrait of Godefroid Mudaheranwa (left) & Evasta Mukanyandwi (right)

Pieter Hugo’s portrait of Godefroid Mudaheranwa (left) & Evasta Mukanyandwi (right)

The survivor says, “I used to hate him. When he came to my house and knelt down before me and asked for forgiveness, I was moved by his sincerity. Now, if I cry for help, he comes to rescue me. When I face any issue, I call him.” From what I know of Rwanda today, the circle is still broken; there is still a long way to go towards reconciliation, though processes are in place so that the work of reconciliation is sustainable. The stories in this article are wonderful examples of people choosing to engage in that work when the opportunity presents itself.

I said there is something in our human nature that drives us toward reconciliation. I find some glimmer of that something in the 1994 book, Music of the Mind, by the late microbiologist and New Zealander, Darryl Reanney. He writes: “In satisfying the body’s hunger you return the balance to what is was; in satisfying the soul’s hunger, you return the balance to what it shall be.”[6] Reanney wasn’t writing about reconciliation per se; I’m not even sure the word appears in the book. But this notion of “satisfying the soul’s hunger” shakes something up in me, wakes me up, challenges me to contemplate where my life is heading—not as in where I want to be in the next five years, but in a more ultimate sense: what am I reaching for with my life? The answer that comes back to me—the answer I think all religions offer in some way—is reconciliation.

What gets shaken up in me is whatever level of complacency or overriding sense of security has crept into my life; whatever unexamined habits or routines have taken hold of my living; whatever patterns or ruts in which I have become stuck. Of course the feeling of being shaken up in the midst of complacency, false security, habits, routines and ruts is not always a good one. Afterall, these things do play an important role in our lives. They allow continuity from day to day. They breed familiarity and comfort, provide a sense of order and stability. They are often tied into satisfying our bodily hungers—returning to whatever balance our bodies seek. But there’s an intense spiritual tension here. Complacency, security, habits, routines, patterns, ruts also tend to blunt, gloss over, hide—at times obliterate—our awareness of the soul’s hunger. I’ll say more about what I understand the soul to be, but let me first make this claim: at its deepest, the soul hungers for reconciliation, for the circle unbroken. When I am shaken out of my complacency, or reminded of the truth that there is no completely reliable security in life, or led to question my habits and routines, or challenged to break out of my ruts—however that happens—in those moments, if I allow myself to be open to what shakes me, I recognize a soul hunger for reconciliation. I recognize there’s a part of me—and I suspect there’s a part of you—that feels profoundly unreconciled: somehow ill-at-ease in the world, perhaps anxious, separate, alienated, at a distance, not quite in right relationship, not quite at home, still searching, hungry. When we fall into complacency, security, habits, routines and ruts we tend to feel it less or not at all. But when we’re shaken up, there it is: unreconciled.

“City Square” by Alberto Giacometti

“City Square” by Alberto Giacometti

This claim may or may not resonate with you. I know some of you feel unreconciled because you’ve told me. For others what I’m describing may feel unfamiliar. Either way, think with me for a moment about why religion exists at all. I’m convinced human beings have created religions in order to respond to this innate soul hunger for reconciliation. Boston University professor of religion, Stephen Prothero, says “where [all religions] begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world. In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi tells us that life is out of balance…. Hindus say we are living in the kali yuga, the most degenerate age in cosmic history. Buddhists say that human existence is pockmarked by suffering. Jewish, Christian, and Islamic stories tell us that this life is not Eden; Zion, heaven, and paradise lie out ahead.”[7] Religion hones in on human dis-ease, anxiety, fear, alienation, suffering and offers a pathway out, an answer: salvation, heaven, Zion, paradise, the promised land, nirvana, moksha, last day resurrection, a just society, the beloved community, the kingdom of God. I contend all of this is a response to the soul’s hunger for reconciliation. Why do religious claims and stories that to many of us seem completely unbelievable, completely at odds with the teachings of science, completely out of touch with what we think reality is, nevertheless have such a powerful hold on the human imagination and such incredible endurance over thousands of years? Because they satisfy the soul’s hunger for reconciliation.

Let’s not get hung up on the word soul. I don’t believe in an entity that resides within us, enables us to reason, drives our will, animates our personality, and lives on after our physical bodies die. I don’t believe in that popular conception of Heaven where our soul encounters St. Peter at the pearly gates. But I do think it’s significant that for thousands of years, theologians and philosophers across a wide range of religions and cultures, east and west, have dedicated enormous energy to explaining why so many human beings report a hopeful desire to be ultimately reconciled with divinity, with the Gods, with Ultimate Reality, to reach a final union, Heaven, Paradise, etc. Their explanation frequently includes some concept of the soul—the spiritual part of human beings—different from the body—that is part of divinity and yearns to overcome the bodily hungers in order to be reconciled once again with divinity. In so many religions, the soul is the bridge between humanity and the divine.

“Solitude of the Soul” by Lorardo Taft

“Solitude of the Soul” by Lorardo Taft

For me soul is a metaphor, a beautiful, soothing poetic word—far less sublime than so many traditions would have it, but important nevertheless. Imagine we’re having a conversation and you’re telling me about something for which you have great passion, something that makes you come alive, something so important to you that you can’t let it go; you’re going to pursue it, you’re going to wrap your life around it. When I see your eyes light up at the prospect of your life so dedicated; when I hear the enthusiasm and the strength in your voice when you speak about it; when I perceive it living very naturally in your body; when I sense the energy you gain from contemplating what your life could be—that glow, that excitement, that conviction, that power—that’s your soul. It’s not a thing. It’s a quality in us. It shines through when we’re being authentic, telling the truth, pursuing our passions. It’s never complacent or static. It never succumbs to a false sense of security. It chafes at the tyranny of our routines, habits and ruts. It is restless. And if we open ourselves to it, it will push, prod, call us further along, higher up, deeper into…. into what? Into fulfillment, satisfaction, wholeness; into our own promised land or beloved community. It drives us to feel at home in the universe, to seek balance, to break not the circle. The soul is our desire to experience oneness, to be reconciled—to each other, to humanity, to all life, to the earth, to the universe, to the cosmos, to all we hold sacred.

I imagine the soul—this desire—has two sources. One is our common experience of our time in our mother’s womb—a time of nurturing darkness and warmth before birth, a time of floating, of being held completely by another, a time of oneness, of no boundary between self and mother. In contemplating this time I wonder: as we are born, as we exit the warmth and safety of the womb, as we wake up from the bliss of unknowing, as we take our first breath, utter our first cry, see our first light; is it not possible that somewhere deep inside, beyond the borders of consciousness, we resolve in that moment to return to that original unity, that darkness, that warmth, that unknowing? And if so, might we not experience this longing through the course of our lives as a soul hunger for reconciliation?

Bronze Sculpture of a Baby Face by Mariola Pierz

Bronze Sculpture of a Baby Face by Mariola Pierz

The second source is like the first, only on a cosmic scale. From what I know of the still-emerging story modern physics tells us of the birth of the universe—the story of the big bang—everything that exists today was, at a moment approximately 14 billion years ago, gathered into one tiny point, a cosmic unity, a circle unbroken; held in infinite, pregnant darkness. It exploded; and, as recent discoveries appear to confirm,[8] it expanded exponentially in just a tiny fraction of the first second—matter and energy pushed out in all directions with astounding, violent force. If we are descendants of that same matter forced out in that original explosion; is it not possible that somewhere deep inside, somewhere beyond the borders of consciousness, something in us longs to return to that original unity, to come home from our exile at the edges of the universe? And if so, might we not experience this longing as a soul hunger for reconciliation imprinted in our tiniest particles at the dawn of time?

“B of the Bang” by Thomas Heatherwick

“B of the Bang” by Thomas Heatherwick

I think this soul hunger for reconciliation is real. And while we don’t always feel it, there come those times when we are shaken up, awakened, called. In those moments perhaps we produce a work of art to mend a broken society; perhaps we forgive one who has wronged us; perhaps we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, free the prisoner, welcome the stranger. Perhaps we work for a more just society. Perhaps we sing. Perhaps we dance. Perhaps we build the beloved community. However and whenever the possibility for reconciliation presents itself to us, may we hear that ancient call. May we do what we can to make the circle whole.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Kaan, Fred, “Break Not the Circle,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #323.

[2] “In an unprecedented symbolic act senior cleric calls for religious co-existence in Iran,” Bahá’í World New Service, April 7, 2014. See: http://news.bahai.org/story/987. For current reports on the oppression of Bahá’ís in Iran, see Iran Press Watch at http://iranpresswatch.org/post/9273/comment-page-1/.

[3] The entire text of Ayatollah Abdol-Hamid Masoumi-Tehrani’s explanation of his action is at: http://news.bahai.org/sites/news.bahai.org/files/documentlibrary/987_website-statement-translation-en.pdf.

[5] Hugo, Pieter, photographs, Dominus, Susan, text, “My Conscience Was Not Quiet,” New York Times Magazine, April 6, 2014, pp. 36-41. Or see “Portraits of Reconciliation” at: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.html?smid=fb-nytimes&WT.z_sma=MG_POR_20140404&bicmp=AD&bicmlukp=WT.mc_id&bicmst=1388552400000&bicmet=1420088400000&_r=3.

[6] Reanney, Darryl, Music of the Mind: An Adventure Into Consciousness (London: Souvenir Press, 1995) p. 22.

[7] Prothero, Stephen, God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World (New York: HarperOne, 2010) p. 11.

[8] For a review of the recent discovery of evidence supporting the theory of “cosmic inflation,” see http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/march/physics-cosmic-inflation-031714.html.

Before the Song at the Sea

Matt Meyer

 

Matt Meyer

Matt Meyer

The song at the sea must have been an incredible party.  The Israelites have made it to safety.  The Red Sea has swallowed up their enemies, and their powerful god has liberated them from generations of slavery.   

And you have to imagine that the actual walking through the Red Sea, when the waters had parted, leaving them this magnificent passageway to freedom. Well that must have been pretty incredible too.  

If you’re like me, you have a pretty clear mental image of the event, as Charlton Heston raises his staff and a mighty wind comes and parts the waters.  But there is another story of the way that it happened that has come down to us through the Jewish tradition.  

The story says, that when Moses and his people were trapped between the Egyptian Army and the sea, the people had begun yelling at Moses, asking why he had led them out of the safety of Egypt.  He asked God “what now?”  God rebuked Moses and told him to tell his people to just keep on walking and stop doubting. 

So a man named Nachson, a leader of his tribe, begins to wade on into the water.   He steps in, expecting the waters to part, but they don’t.  So we walks in up to his waist, expecting them to part, but they don’t.  When the water is up to his neck, he expects it to part, and it does not.  It is only when the sea is up to his nostrils, we are told that God opens up the path before him.  

God wanted to free the Israelites, but first they had to do their part.  Liberation didn’t come because they sat back in comfort and asked nicely. If you have ever worked to get our government, or any major institution or corporation, for that matter to change its way, the story of Nachson may feel familiar to you.  He was in almost over his head, before the way started to clear. 

-wade in the water-

 Why would he do such a thing?  What gives a person such solid faith in the path before them? 

Sometimes I hear stories about people I admire, and I try to ask myself, who am I in this story?  To be honest, I’m probably not Nachson.  I’m probably not pharaoh, or Moses either.  I’d like to think, of the bystanders watching Nachson walk into the sea, I would have at least been one of the supportive ones.  “Keep up the good work Nachson, I’ll be right behind you as soon as the path is dry!”

Shane Clairborn, a radical Christian activist, worked to set up an intentional community where people can not only believe in Jesus, but follow the example of Jesus’ life, by holding property in common and loving their neighbors in action as well as words.   To hear him tell his story though, of fundraising and conflict and getting his jaw broken in a rough neighborhood, he often seems to be in a little over his head.  But, Shane says, “Some of us have just caught a glimpse of the promised land, and it is so dazzling that our eyes are forever fixed on it, never to look back at the ways of that old empire again.” 

I imagine that Nachson, had seen somewhere in his heart, a dazzling glimpse of the promised land.   He saw clearly where he and his people were at, with a powerful and angry army coming up behind them, and he saw where they were headed  – through troubled water, and onto freedom.  The path from here to there was clear, and no sea was going to stop him from walking it. 

-wade in the water- 

One of the first real discussions I ever participated in on the subject of racism was a white-identity group at UUA General Assembly many years ago. 

We were in an oversized room in a convention center, a dozen white college and high school students sitting in a circle.  Someone said these words that hit me.  The said, “Racism is the name a system that pushes down one group, People of Color.  But the other half of the system is a process of lifting up another group, white people.  

I have gone on to learn more since then, about what that lifting up and putting down looks like in real life, but that first sentence, that definition, articulated, what had been for me, the missing half of the story on race.  

This other half of the story included me – included my place in things. I started to look back on my life at these invisible forces that, like gravity, shaped the world around me and pushed me, so silently, in a certain direction:          

-that time the police let me go with a warning,

 -the first good paying job I got through a family friend,

-everyone who said I looked like a “natural’ leader,

-the private school I went to,

-the other time the police let me go with a warning,

-the honors classes I took, strangers who naturally trusted me,

-my own trust in the government to be on my side,

-and last but not least, the other time that the police let me go with a warning. 

Coming to look honestly at my place in this old empire of ours has felt at times like being in over my head.  How uncomfortable to realize that despite my best intentions, I am sometimes in the position of the Israelites fleeing the Egyptians and that I am at the same time also the Egyptians.  

Most of the Egyptians weren’t bad people, you know, they were part of an unjust system, where exploitation of the most vulnerable was just built into the their economy.  

The sneaky thing about white privilege is that I did not ask for it.  

It’s like finding some extra money in my pants pocket after doing the laundry.  

All along the way, my employers, and the police, and locally funded schools, and standardized tests, and family connections, and the housing market, have all been slipping money and other privileges into my back pocket, and I never even needed to pay attention to it.  In fact, I was encouraged not to. 

But walking intentionally into uncomfortable conversations about race, going into the discomfort, sometimes up to my neck has given me, if not a glimpse of the promised land, at least a vision of the way toward it. 

Once the Israelites were out in the desert, and the way forward looked difficult, some among them we are told, asked Moses to take them back to the more comfortable land of Egypt and back to slavery, rather than trust that they could cross the sea.  I can understand that. 

What’s a white person to do when we inherit money accumulated by our parents or grandparents in a time when their careers and even their neighborhoods were closed to people of color.  

What’s a man to do when corporations slip an extra 30% in income into our back pockets, just for being male bodied.  

What’s a heterosexual to do when federal marriage law slips some extra money in our back pockets for loving someone of a different gender.  

Looking around to the systems of inequity in this old empire that surrounds us, is uncomfortable. Finding all those dollar bills and benefits in my back pocket, feels a little like being trapped in Egypt as an Egyptian.  Living in comfort made affordable by the cheap labor of exploited people.  The Israelites had a plan for liberation, but what of the middle class Egyptians.  The story doesn’t tell us if any of them felt uncomfortable with their place in things.  

I am stunned by the courage of that Mexican man on the immigration rides in Arizona, who at great personal risk boarded a very public bus in order to speak his truth about humanity in an unjust system. 

But I am equally impressed by the white woman who sat near him and was willing to get into that struggle up to her neck. I had thought perhaps that she would have had nothing to lose, by showing her identification to the authorities, but she sought a greater purpose.  Perhaps she saw a glimpse of the promised land, through the realization of living her values in troubled water. 

Our broken immigration system is troubled water. 

A public school system that fast-tracks some to college and some to jail, is troubled water. 

A consumer culture that urges us to find comfort in things at the expense of relationship is troubled water. 

The separation of people according to racial profiling is troubled water. 

Wading through those troubled waters of injustice can bring us to the other side, where we can realize the promised land of justice, equity and compassion in our human relationships.  

I don’t know if there is a god out there somewhere who has specific opinions about how we go about bringing change to the material world.  My experience though, tells my that god or no god, some plans work better than others.  Sitting back in comfort and asking nicely for change, tends not to work.  It is rare to find a story of societal transformation, without some troubled water.  Without someone moving forward into the depths, holding fast to a vision of the promised land.

-Wade in the water- 

The African-American spiritual, Wade in the Water, comes from the new testament story of the pools of Bethesda, where we’re told a multitude of people waited by it’s shores, because it was known that in certain seasons, god would trouble the water, and the first one into the pool when the water was troubled would be healed of all their ailments. 

In a story of exodus from slavery in our own nation Harriet Tubman was said to sing this song, to tell slaves on the run, that they should follow the water-way, so the dogs would not be follow their scent. 

I can’t say for sure, which character in the Exodus story I would have been.  But I can say that I’ve known some modern-day Nachson’s (say modern-day Nachson) and am planning to try my best to follow them into the water. 

Coming of age in Unitarian Universalist community challenged me to think about how change happens.  From the World as it is to the world as it might be. We have a strong tradition of heresy that, I hope, isn’t coming to an end any time soon. 

I invite you to join me in the heresy of returning any unearned money you find in your back pocket.  I invite you to think of a modern day Nachson in your life and ask them how they do it.  I invite you to wade into the troubled water, of discomfort, of conversation, of action.  I invite you to turn your back on this old empire of ours and join in recommitting to a Unitarian Universalism that speaks of a promised land here and now, and walks steadily into the water to get there together. 

 

February 2014 Ministers Column

Dear Ones:

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”

“Love will guide us.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can   do that.”

“There is more love somewhere”

“If music be the food of love, play on.”

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you your  age.”

“Love is blind, and lovers cannot see, the pretty follies that themselves commit.”

“Doubt that the stars are fire, Doubt that the sun doth move his aides, Doubt truth to be a liar, But never   doubt I love.”

“You love me. Real or not real?” I tell him, “Real.”

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”

“Love stinks!”

“If I had a flower for every time I thought of you…I could walk through my garden forever.”

“Love, love me do.”

“There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people   by halves, it is not my nature.”

“Love me tender, love me sweet.”

“Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures   of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”

“What’s love got to do with it?”

So much has, is and will be said about love. The risk is always that we lose sight of what love is. Of course, love is more than one thing. And because it is rooted in those places in us that so often lie beyond words—and often beyond understanding—it is difficult to say with real precision what love is. But I’d like to try. Our ministry theme for February is love. I’m mindful of a poem from WH Auden, “So Tell Me the Truth About Love.” Well, that’s what I’d like us all to do this month. Let’s explore what we mean in those instances when we use the word. Let’s try to tell the truth about love.

With deep and abiding love (which I will try to name),

Rev. Josh

Interim DRE Search Committee Ready to Roll!

The UUS:E Policy Board has created a search committee to locate an interim Director of Religious Education to follow retiring DRE Vicki Merriam. The search committee held a ‘start-up’ meeting on January 23rd with Karen Bellevance-Grace, Director of Faith Formation for the Clara Barton and Mass Bay Districts of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Members of UUS:E’s Interim DRE Search Committee are Clare DiMaiolo, Andrew Clokey, Jennie Bernstein, Walt Willett, Kristal Kallenberg, Monica Van Beusekom, Peter Marotto and Diana Sherman. UUS:E Vice President, Polly Painter, is serving as liaison to the Policy Board. Rev. Josh serves ex officio. 

Thank you Interim DRE Search Committee members!

UUS:E Interim DRE Search Committee

UUS:E Interim DRE Search Committee

The Interim DRE Search Committee expects to post the job in mid-February, interview candidates in mid- to late-March, and make a final recommendation to the Policy Board in mid-April.

Speechless in the Face of Evil

Rev. Josh Pawelek

PeaceBang writes: “My liberal religious tradition would say that … people who are one bad turn of events away from sheer desperation, may do bad or criminal things because of that desperation. I agree. They certainly might. I certainly might do that if I was in their position. What my liberal religious tradition does not acknowledge is that on top of this level of human misery, fear, need and desperation is a pre-existing human condition called evil.”[1]

Shhh

For the moment I’m less interested in the idea of “a pre-existing condition called evil;” I’ll come to that. I’m more interested first in “what my liberal religious tradition does not acknowledge.” Yes, Unitarian Universalism is not known for its robust discourse on evil. This is not to say we’re oblivious to evil—we aren’t—or that none of us has any direct experience of evil—some of us plainly do. But evil is not the typical starting place for our theological reflection. It doesn’t drive our spiritual lives. When asked to describe the purpose of our spiritual practice, very few of us will answer: “it’s my way of confronting evil.” I can’t tell you how many of you, upon learning our January ministry theme would be evil, asked Why? Why talk about that? One member summed it up well. “Evil,” she wrote. “THAT is, to my mind, an un-Unitarian concept.” She’s right, as is PeaceBang. We are the exact opposite of those charismatic Christian churches anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann described in her New York Times editorial last Sunday. “In these churches, prayer is warfare. The new charismatic Christian churches in Accra (Ghana) imagine a world swarming with evil forces that attack your body, your family and your means of earning a living.” [2] We UUs know human beings can and do inflict enormous pain and suffering on each other. Yet when we imagine the world theologically, we’re more likely to say it’s essentially good. People, essentially good. Creation, essentially good. Evil, at most, plays a minor role.

This is not new. I’ve named it before from this pulpit. Many of my colleagues preach about it. They write blogs, articles and books about it. In his 2005 book, Faith Without Certainty, liberal theologian and UU minister Paul Rasor writes that in order to effectively confront racism it is critical that we understand it theologically as a form of evil. However, he goes on, “it is hard for liberals to talk in these terms because we have no real theology of evil and therefore no language or conceptual reference points adequate to the task.”[3] Six months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an article in the UU World magazine asked whether we were theologically prepared to respond to evil. “Now that terror spreads from shore to shore, now that Islamist militants are calling the United States a terrorist nation because U.S. bombing has killed Afghan civilians, is this one of those rare moments in history so powerful that we have no choice but to re-examine even something so fundamental as our historic trust in the basic goodness of humanity?”[4] 

But this question is older than 9/11. It first came to my attention in the mid-1990s when I entered seminary. I can’t remember who first said it, but I heard it early and often during my ministerial education. It probably sounded like this: Unitarian Universalists have much to say about humanity’s more positive traits—love, caring, compassion, generosity, selflessness—all of which we are capable of expressing in word and deed. But for the more negative human qualities—violence, greed, hatred, selfishness—all of
Darth Vaderwhich we are capable of expressing in word and deed—we don’t have a deep theological understanding of the roots of these things in us and the world.
I remember as a seminarian realizing that I had learned more about evil reading The Lord of the Rings and watching Star Wars than I had attending UU Sunday School in the 70s and 80s. My grandmother—a Bible-reading, pietistic, Pennsylvania Dutch Lutheran with evangelical edges—used to tell my brothers and I stories about Satan, how he tempts you to sin, how he wants your soul in Hell. She was helping us get into Heaven, an act of love; and we loved her for it. But by the time we understood what she was talking about, we were already living in a different theological world with no Satan, Hell, angels, demons, divine punishment and, we were pretty sure, no Heaven—at least not the one she anticipated.

That same UU World article following 9/11 quoted Lois Fahs Timmins—daughter of the great Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs—talking in 1996 about her Sunday School experience in the 1920s and 30s. “‘We spent 95 percent of our time studying good people doing good things, and skipped very lightly over the bad parts of humanity,’ she said…. ‘I was taught not to be judgmental, not to observe or report on the bad behavior of others. Consequently, because of my education, I grew up ignorant about bad human behavior, incompetent to observe it accurately, unskilled in how to respond to it, and ashamed of talking about evil.’”[5]

Genocide

I suspect the charge that Unitarian Universalism doesn’t acknowledge evil is as old as liberal religion itself. Any time we put human goodness at the center of our faith, someone else may ask, “What about genocide? What about fascism, killing fields, gas chambers, mass shootings, torture, racism, slavery, sexual abuse? With its positive view of humanity, liberal religion has always faced this line of questioning. There is, therefore, some truth to the claim that, unlike our counterparts in more conservative religious traditions who encounter the world as a spiritual war zone,[6] we are, at least theologically speaking, speechless in the face of evil.

Speechless

Some truth, yes, but there may be more to our speechlessness than we realize. This is my message: speechlessness in the face of evil is not the same thing as powerlessness in the face of evil. Let me say a few words about what I think evil isn’t; and then a few words about what I think it is, and I hope it will become clear what I mean when I say speechlessness does not equate to powerlessness.

What Evil Isn’t

No SatanFirst, there is no ‘Prince of Darkness.’ This is the Universalist in me speaking. Evil does not result from Satan or his minions swarming around, causing illness, sowing social discord, and harming livelihoods. If you agree, you’re in the minority. Luhrmann says 57 % of Americans believe in demonic possession.[7] Of course, it’s important to me to respect and honor diverse religious world-views, to try to understand what value they may hold for their practitioners. While I might not agree with someone who believes their condition is caused by demons, I also won’t tell them they’re wrong. My pastoral instinct is to receive them with an open-mind and try to fathom how they understand their predicament. If demons are important to them, then we talk about demons. While I can’t do what an evangelical Christian minister or a Catholic priest exorcist might do, I can have a conversation. More often than not, the person just needs to be heard. More often than not, there’s trauma in their background, driving their belief. That is, more often than not some violence has been done to the person. Even if I don’t believe the demon is real, certainly the person’s pain and suffering is. I may be speechless in their theological world, but I’m not powerless. I can still bear witness to trauma. I can still respond to pain and suffering. And so can you.

Second, natural disasters are not evil. Tornadoes, hurricanes, tidal waves, earthquakes, typhoons, floods and fires can and do bring chaos and tragedy. But they are natural and largely indiscriminant, not the result of a vengeful deity. Of course, many people believe natural disasters are divine punishments for some transgression. It makes me angry—and theologically speechless—whenever I hear such pronouncements. I have nothing to say. But, again, speechless does not equate to powerless. In the wake of natural disasters I hope we aren’t wasting time and speech debating theology. I hope we are responding to pain and suffering in whatever ways are within our power.

What Evil Is

I don’t know if evil is a pre-existing condition. I’m also not sure it matters. Whether it pre-exists, or we learn it along the way, or it’s in the social order and we become accustomed to it without ever realizing it—I think there’s some truth to all three—I’m convinced evil Abuse of Poweris real. It has an impact on the world. Recall the UUS:E member who said evil is an un-Unitarian concept. She is also a victim of evil—the survivor of relentless child abuse by more than one family member. (Please know she gave me permission to share with you.) It’s a story of people wielding power harmfully over a more vulnerable, dependent and weaker person—at least a person who is perceived to be weaker. It’s a story of people killing the spirit of another, attacking their emotional and physical well-being, silencing them. Of course there are many more stories like this, and multitudes of stories of all kinds of violence people visit upon people. When any of us hears a story like this, does it matter whether we have a well-developed theology of evil to understand it? In that moment of hearing the story, I wonder if trying to restate the experience of evil in theological terms may do more harm than good. If we’re really hearing the story—if we’re really taking it in, encountering the horror of it—I wonder if the most healthy, realistic and respectful initial human response we can have is speechlessness. Silence. Perhaps this is how we know we’re dealing with evil: We have no words. We have no words because what we’re hearing contradicts everything we love about humanity. We have no words because what we’re hearing shatters our faith in human goodness.  

Speechless

It’s the same with stories about the ways in which our systems and institutions visit violence upon people—the violence of warfare, of suicide bombings, chemical weapons, terrorism, torture, racism, sexism, mass incarceration. And there is that more subtle yet increasingly visible evil of which PeaceBang writes in her blog, that evil that lies atop human misery, fear, need and desperation, that evil of an economic and political system that cares less and less about poor people, unemployed people, homeless people; that system that tolerates an unprecedented, unsustainable and immoral level of income inequality. When we pause to hear the stories of pain and suffering this evil breeds; when we pause to take them in, to let them wash over us, to recognize the insidiousness of this system, is any theology “adequate to the task?” Again, I wonder if the most healthy, realistic and respectful initial human response is speechlessness. Silence. Perhaps this is how we know we’re dealing with evil: We have no words. We have no words because what we’re hearing dashes our hopes for a more just and loving society. We have no words because what we’re hearing shatters our faith in human goodness.  

Speechless

In the end, when encountering abuse, trauma, violence, war, racism, poverty, whether it pre-exists or we learn it along the way or its embedded in the system; whether we name it evil or not, does our theology really manifest best in what we say? Or in what we do? That’s the real question. What do we do to confront evil once we’re aware of it? Speechlessness may look to some like inadequacy. But I find lack of action far more damning. This is the message I take from PeaceBang’s blog. She’s issuing a call to action. She says, “A popular Unitarian Universalist slogan right now says, ‘Go love the hell out of the world.’ Perhaps in 2014 we might make a shared, community resolution to hearten each other for this work, for this steady confrontation with forces that lie, steal, starve and shame a huge percentage of the population which regards its lack of financial success as a personal failure. Perhaps in the new year we might refrain from one or two in-fights … over relatively small matters or semantics and stay focused on the hell in the world, which I believe we can successfully discern if we stay clear about where and what it is.”[8]

Which brings me back to my liberal religious tradition. I know this: if I’m going to confront evil with courage and resolve, I need human goodness at the center of my faith, despite my awareness that people, myself included, aren’t always good. I need the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person—even those who commit atrocities—at the center of my faith. And I need to keep a positive, hopeful attitude about the future at the center of my faith, despite what I know about the human penchant for war, oppression, and destruction of the natural world.

And while I don’t want my children or the children of this congregation to be ignorant of evil, I expect to continue teaching them about good people doing good things. And I want us all to remember that in far too many religious settings historically and today people hear the traumatic message over and over again that they are wicked and sinful by nature and must accept unbelievable teachings and engage in hollow rituals in order to be saved from eternal punishment. And I want us all to remember that in far too many religious settings historically and today people have been identified as evil and consequently abused, imprisoned and murdered based on their sexual orientation, gender, disability, mental illness, skin color, healing practices, culture, folkways,  perceived proximity to the earth, any unorthodox beliefs, and even their scientific world-view and methods. When I read of a congregation shouting “The witches will die. They will die. Die. Die!”[9]—which is not just a phenomenon in the Ghanian Charismatic Christian churches, but happens in a myriad of ways all across the globe—I hear people with a robust theology of evil using it to perpetuate more evil against innocent victims. That’s the risk with any theology of evil. Those who believe it can use it to justify their own evil actions.

Our liberal, Unitarian Universalist, positive view of human nature as loving, compassionate, generous, caring and self-sacrificing—though it may not present the whole picture—is no light-weight, naïve, sheltered theology. It is a life-saving, life-giving, life-enhancing religious response to all those theologies that drive arbitrary wedges between people, that seek to frighten people into faith, and that teach people of their inherent sinfulness rather than their beauty, worth, and potential. If the price of such a faith is speechlessness in the face of evil, then so be it. It may be just what is needed. So, may we find power in the midst of our speechlessness, and may our faith lead us to action—action that loves the hell out of the world.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Read PeaceBang’s “Go Love the Hell Out of the World” at http://www.peacebang.com/2013/12/28/go-love-the-hell-out-of-the-world/.

[2] Read T.M. Luhrmann’s New York Times op ed,”When Demons are Real, at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/29/opinion/sunday/when-demons-are-real.html?_r=0.

[3] Rasor, Paul, Faith Without Certainty (Boston: Skinner House, 2005) p. 176.

[4] Read Warren Ross’ “Confronting Evil: Has Terrorism Shaken Our Religious Principles?” from the January/February 2002 issue of UU World at http://www.uuworld.org/2002/01/feature1.html.

[5] Ross, “Confronting Evil” at http://www.uuworld.org/2002/01/feature1.html.

[6] Luhrmann, “When Demons are Real,” NYT, December 29, 2013.

[7] Luhrmann, “When Demons are Real,” NYT, December 29, 2013.

[9] [9] Luhrmann, “When Demons are Real,” NYT, December 29, 2013.

 

I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, But Everything’s Gone Blue


Blue Christmas“Drops of pain, flow like rain, tell why your tears are falling: for humankind, so frail, unkind, or for your own life’s calling?”[1] Words from Unitarian Universalist songwriter Shelly Jackson Denham. “Tell why your tears are falling.” There’s really only one message I want to bring to you this morning, and that is, very simply, not everyone, every year, can enter fully into the joy, merriment and hopefulness of the holiday season. It isn’t always possible. For some, the bright lights, the season’s greetings, the festive music, the Christmas trees, the messages of peace and good will—all of it clashes with their internal state, clashes with recent painful experiences, clashes with difficult childhood memories of the holidays. For some there is dissonance. We’re dreaming of a white Christmas, and yet for some, everything’s gone blue. We wish you a merry Christmas, and yet for some, “tears are falling.”

We call it “Blue Christmas.” I don’t know how long this term has been in vogue. I don’t remember ever hearing it used in this way prior to 2000. I don’t know if it has any connection to the song, “Blue Christmas,” which Elvis Presley recorded in 1957, and which was first recorded in 1948 by an artist named Doyle O’Dell. Whether or not there’s a connection, the song doesn’t really express the depth of sadness and pain some people can experience during the holiday season. Some churches hold special services—often at night—for people who are grieving, lonely, in despair or anxious during the holidays. Sometimes these services are called Blue Christmas services. Sometimes they’re called “Longest Night” services, a reference to the winter solstice.

Blue Christmas

On one hand, I think it’s important to hold such services. I think it’s important for the church to make a space for people who don’t want to—or simply can’t—be present at holiday services and other activities where the predominant mood is joy. On the other hand, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of saying, essentially, “everyone who’s depressed, you come to church at this special time and we’ll take care of you; the rest of us will have our Christmas joy and holiday merriment on Sunday morning.” As if we can—or even should—somehow keep all the difficult emotions in a separate place so they don’t intrude on “normal” Christmas. I don’t want to isolate Blue Christmas feelings from the regular holiday worship life of the congregation. It makes sense to me to spend time when we’re all together naming the reality of Blue Christmas for many among ourselves and in the wider community. I hope and trust each of us expects to bring our whole self into our spiritual community. I hope and trust each of us expects to bring our whole self into worship. And sometimes that means bringing sad selves, grieving selves, lonely selves, uncertain selves, regretful selves, hopeless selves, selves in pain. And those of us who don’t feel that way, myself included, might have a gut reaction that says, “no, the holidays are about joy, peace, hope, festivity, etc.” But if some of us are feeling blue, that’s part of the holidays too. So, let’s name it and honor it. That, in my view, is what spiritual community is for—to meet each other where we are, no matter where we are.

Blue Christmas

Another reason I feel strongly about observing Blue Christmas in the way we are this morning is that, while I suspect most of us, in most years, experience the joy, merriment and hope of the holiday season, it is also true that our lives can change—sometimes tragically—in the blinking of an eye. I’m thinking of those who’ve lost loved ones over the past year. Christmas can be so hard in the midst of grief. And I’m thinking of the Benson and Mills families, who lost three family members in last weekend’s shooting in Manchester. And I’m thinking of Christine Keith, and her son, 14-year-old son Isaac Miller. Christine was a Unitarian Universalist from the Lansing, MI area. She and Isaac were shot and killed in a similar domestic violence tragedy a week ago Thursday. And I’m thinking of the people of Newtown, Connecticut, marking the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school.

Manchester Vigil

Human beings are resilient in so many ways. We have such incredible capacity to meet challenges and to persevere through hardship. But it’s also true that a fragility lingers at the edges of our lives and none of us can outwit it forever. Loneliness comes. Anxiety comes. Fear comes. Hopelessness comes. Pain comes. Illness comes. Death comes. It might not be us this year. But it might be us next year, or in five years. Naming it now not only affirms people who experience it now, but it prepares each of us for the day when we’re dreaming of a white Christmas, but everything’s gone blue.

And not only might it be us next year, or five years from now, but it’s also more than likely that it has been us at some point in the past. We each carry a bit of Blue Christmas with us every year. How many of us have had to endure a first Christmas without a beloved family member—a grandparent, a parent, a spouse, a child? How many of us have dealt with illness—our own or that of a loved one—through the course of a holiday season? How many of us have had years wherein the joy and merriment of Christmas was overpowered by some anxiety, fear, pain or grief?

My grandmother died some years ago. Reflecting on her death reminds me that for nearly forty years, I would travel to her hometown of Hanover, Pennsylvania after Christmas Day. It was family time—and it was idyllic. I have wonderful memories. Since my grandmother died—and since my children have grown older and we’ve begun to develop new holiday routines—we don’t make that Christmas pilgrimage anymore. Most of the time during the holiday season this change doesn’t faze me. Most of the time I don’t think about it. But every once in a while something grabs my attention, tugs at my heart—I hear a brass quartet playing “Silent Night,” or I pull that John Deere tractor tree ornament out of its box, or I pass by a snow-covered farm on a cold, clear winter night—and I’m back there again, six years old, ten years old, eighteen years old. For a moment my heart aches. For a moment everything is blue.

Blue Christmas Farm

Blue Christmas. It may be any one of us this year. It surely will be each of us some day. It likely has been all of us once upon a time. Therefore, let us be honest about the holidays. Let us name the full range of feelings we may bring, will bring, have brought into this season. Let us name them not because we want to fix them or somehow miraculously make them disappear, but simply because they are real. In the midst of all our Blue Christmases, if nothing else, may we find comfort in being together in the fullness of our humanity. And with the fullness of our humanity laid bare in front of us may we, when we are ready—when we are truly ready—feel once again the joy, peace and hope, that are also real, and eventually come to each of us, like midwinter’s returning sun, like the lightly falling snow.[2]

returning sun

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Denham, Shelly Jackson, “Winter Night,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #256.

[2] “The lightly falling snow” is borrowed from Connecticut Poet Laureate Dick Allen’s poem, “Solace,” written in response to the December 14, 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Listen to Allen’s reading at http://wnpr.org/post/simple-solemn-tribute-sandy-hook-victims