Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher
Come into this place of memory and hope,
Into this place where we have gathered to create a community of love and justice,
Into this place where we have come to bring each other care and to receive caring,
to transform our lives into ones of meaningful being,
and to transform our world into the garden of beauty and joy we would have it be.
In the words of Angela Herrera, one of our ministers in Albuquerque (“Invocation” from Herrera, Reaching for the Sun, Skinner House, Boston, MA 2012):
Don’t leave your broken heart at the door;
bring it to the altar of life.
Don’t leave your anger behind;
it has high standards
and the world needs vision.
Bring them with you,
and your joy
and your passion.
Bring your loving,
and your courage
and your conviction.
Bring your need for healing,
and your power to heal.
There is work to do
and you have all that you need to do it
right here in this room.
This service is titled “Religion as a Way of Life.” For many, many years I have thought about what it means to live within the embrace of my religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism. Does it mean being a fierce maker of justice? Does it mean being open to all whom I meet and recognizing their worth and dignity? Does it mean to live in total harmony with all of existence? I have come to the current understanding that it means all of those and more. My vision is not one of complete clarity, of course, but over the next year, I will be offering to you what I have come to see.
I begin this morning with a tale told by George Kimmich Beach in his book Questions for the Religious Journey. Kim Beach was, at the time he wrote this book, the minister of the Arlington Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington, Virginia. He wrote about an experience one of the members there had recounted in a sermon on spirituality.
Beach begins by asserting that in our lives we are looking for both transformation and fulfillment, a kind of paradoxical concept of living a life that is both vital and whole.
He considers those to be the primary directives of the religious quest: transformation and fulfillment.
Anna Maginnis spoke of her experience while observing birds at her window feeder:
The design and texture of the feathers is a fine tapestry. What elaborate craftsmanship was lavished on these common birds. And in this act of noticing, crusty coverings are lifted from me and I feel a slipping sensation along my nerves that gives the air hands, and I am robed in this simple certainty that I am part of something larger than myself and that my actions have meaning; I can either preserve or I can destroy.”
(Beech, Questions for the Religious Journey, Skinner House Books, Boston, MA,2002, page 158.)
“I can either preserve or I can destroy.” This observation is one that has accompanied me throughout my life. Call it the remains of my parent’s Depression Era upbringing, or call it something deeper – that our existence here is part of a larger story, and we have the choice as much as we are able to enhance life or to destroy it. I have chosen to emphasize enhancement, and it has called me to a journey of awakened conscience and involvement in both the preservation of the world of which I am a part and to a determined objection to destroying other’s possibilities to be fulfilled within this world.
In her piece “And Then” the feminist artist Judy Chicago talks of what such a vision and purpose holds for her:
CONGREGATIONAL READING: And Then, by Judy Chicago
And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both women and men will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the earth
And then all will be called Eden once again.
SERMON: Religion as a Way of Life
On the shores of Crystal Lake, just over a dune from Lake Michigan, in the Traverse City area of Michigan, there lives a woman whose equanimity I would like to acquire in my own life. She lives on very little in a two-room house with just enough clothing and just enough furniture to sleep, eat, and read. She has a garden where she grows some of her food and where beautiful flowers greet her in the summer and fall and which she enriches with the leftovers of her cooking and eating through a composter. She is patient and kind. She is also involved in most of the movements for justice in the area in which she lives. She graces the meetings with her sharp observations and great knowledge, but never with a sense of self-righteousness. If I gave that description to most of the people that live in the small towns of Beulah and Bezonia, Michigan, they would know of whom I spoke and probably they would smile as they thought of her.
I am 67 years old now and I doubt that I will ever transform completely to the spirit that this woman embodies in her living. But in life I have moved more and more toward a healthy acceptance of who I am while shaving down some of the harshest corners of my personality – well, I am working on it anyway! I could purchase such a house as hers. I could winnow my considerable wardrobe and recycle 90% of my possessions. I could try to talk with assured gentleness; I could greet the world with hospitality. But that would never take me to the spirit of this woman, for it comes from within her. And, it will have to come from within me too.
Why do I regard this woman so highly? Because I see her as living the life to which my religious understanding calls me. When I was a child, I believed those who spoke with honor of the teachings of Jesus and the Hebrew scriptures. When one renowned rabbi was asked if he could sum up the whole of the Torah while standing on one leg he drew himself up onto one leg and said, “Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you.” Jesus is recorded as saying the same thing in the positive slant of “Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you.” Simple, but so complete. If I could follow it, I think I would embody what is taught by both the Unitarian and the Universalist traditions of religious understanding.
I think the Unitarians would more likely say, “Love your neighbor as your self.”
Unitarians have developed into strong supporters of what it means to be a healthy self, while the Universalists were more focused on the covenanted community of universal love and acceptance. The combination of these two is the subject of another service, so we will get to that when I explore what it means to be a tradition of meaning and relevance in the world today.
I see the woman on the shores of Crystal Lake as doing unto others as she would have done unto herself. Moreover, she makes a covenant with the world to live that regardless of whether others behave that way. That’s part of what a covenant is. Think of marriage – it’s a covenant. The vows that are given are not ones that say, “If you do this, I will do that.” Instead they say, “I will love and honor you.” The woman I admire does not say, “If the world treats me this way, then I will do that.” That’s a contract, not a covenant. Instead, she lives as she thinks is admirable, as bestowing the world and herself with dignity and worth and respecting the interdependence of all existence. She does not take what she does not need. Yet she also works to bring forth justice in the world. Cornell West said “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Living in love is living justice into being, and that is what I would ask of myself.
Bringing forth justice in this world is one of the major attributes of Unitarian Universalism. Long ago, our religious forbearers lived out the justice they expected from all others. Sometimes they did it radically, even forcefully; sometimes with a gentle touch. That is one of the attributes of our faith that is most striking to others – the demand that a good life is one that creates justice as best we can. So if I am to live out a religious life as my tradition guides me, then justice-making is part of that. And I think it is a large part.
Cornell West’s observation that love is what justice looks like in public follows the idea of living a life of love. One cannot just live to be happy in one’s self. That isn’t possible if one is living a life based on love.
The Universalists cast their understanding of God, of the essence of Life itself, as love. They didn’t mean sentimentality, but rather the great love that results in radical hospitality to all beings, to the whole of the life within which we each dwell. In the example from the reading, when Anne Maginnis felt “robed in this simple certainty that I am part of something larger than myself and that my actions have meaning,” she was expressing what it means to dwell within the embrace of the essence of life and having the ability to choose how she moved within that essence.
We each have that gift – to recognize the larger life within which we live and to choose how we will behave within it. That’s a UU answer to the religious question of how one lives within God’s law and also has free will. We can recognize what is better for the whole of existence. And then we each have the ability to choose how we will live within that existence.
The radical hospitality understanding of living that we have studied and tried to practice within this congregation is one of the ways to love out love as a covenant not a contract. I believe and have experienced that to live with an open heart brings me closer to living within the whole of existence. If I measure what I will do before opening to the possibilities that each encounter can bring, then I live in fear and not in love. If I first look for the uniqueness and possibilities that each person, each creature, each encounter can bring, then life is much more dynamic, much more filled with peace and love. After the first greeting, however, it gets much more complex. When you come to know someone and then discover the aspects of them that you don’t particularly like, then comes the challenge to hang in there, to look deeper until you see the good parts of that person and attune yourself to that. I know that when I do this, I find myself in a better place, a place where I can live in love and not in critique.
Do I need to critique? Yes, for that is what justice making is about: turning what is not fruitful for a life embedded in worth of all toward the flourishing of all. But the critique of another being should be done in terms of what they can offer in love, not what they can do that aggravates or even frightens me. It’s a hard spiritual journey for me – this openness, this expectation of good and not ill. And I expect it is also hard for each of you, although I have seen some among you who do it better than I do. Role models are always welcome for sure!
This whole practice takes humility – not shame, but humility. Humility means “of the earth,” reminding us that each of us comes from the same dust, ultimately the dust created by the first explosion that resulted in the universe within which we live.
Every star, every earthworm comes from that dust. We are not cut from a better cloth than they, nor are we made of a lesser cloth. The Jain tradition of Hinduism lives this to a greater extent than most in the Western world. They do not believe that when you don’t want an ant in your living room, it is alright to stomp on it and kill it. They are the people who would take it up and place it out of doors. They don’t’ let the ant crawl all over them, but they also don’t eliminate it because it inconveniences them.
(Believe it or not, as I was typing this, an ant appeared and started crawling all over the computer monitor. I’m sure it is a sign!)
Parallel to this concept is the idea that we often express as not using what we don’t need, of using what can be used over and over, of re-cycling, of not filling our lives with needless things that took resources form the earth to create. The Green Sanctuary concept that we practice in this congregation is also applicable to our whole lives for it lives out respect for the interdependent web of all creation as well as for the needs of those who hunger for food, shelter, opportunities for living out the whole possibilities of their own lives. It is a concept that the earth’s abundance is held communally, not by any individual no matter how many fences that individual builds, no matter how ostentatious that person’s living becomes.
There is in me an automatic reaction to this ostentatiousness – I see it as injustice. It calls me to see the same in my own life, and that’s the hard thing – to realize what one really needs and what is just padding covering up the pure structure of life.
It calls me to ask myself whether what I am acquiring is about meaning or just meaningless nonsense. It’s all a part of living within the limits of the web that supports our existence or of ignoring its calling to moderation and sharing. It’s why my family gets donations to justice-creating projects as Christmas gifts. Each person may receive from me something I made or something they can really use, but they get the bulk of their gifts as donations made in their names – donations to Doctors Without Borders, or the Heifer Project, or the UU Service Committee, etc. It’s a little confusing to the children, but they do grow into understanding that Christmas is a time for spreading goodwill, not accumulating tinsel. It is most about our time together, our love for each other and for the world within which we have our lives.
So, how do you envision your life if it is lived as a reflection of your religious or spiritual beliefs? How is your life reflecting the things you have done by which you feel the most blessed? How does your life live out the love within which you dwell – the love that keeps all life intertwined in a flourishing embrace? To live a religious life, one does not need to go into a monastery or live separated from most humans in the forest. So how would you like to live out your days upon this earth, living where you are now with the folks you live within the community within which you dwell?
Imagine yourself five years from now as you would most like to be, having done all the things you want to have done, having contributed all the things you want to contribute in the most heartfelt way.
What is your greatest source of happiness?
What is the thing you have done by which you feel the world is most blessed?
What contributions could you make that would give you the most satisfaction?
To do this, what would you have to relinquish?
What strengths and capacities would you need to recognize in yourself and others? What would you need to do to begin this life of contribution and service that you hold with all your religious and spiritual being?
Why not begin and begin now?
(From Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart, A Guide through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, Bantam Books, NY, 1993, page 303)
COVENANT: James Vila Blake (spoken together)
Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another.
My closing thoughts today are from the work of Angela Herrera, as were the Opening Words. She created one of the Meditation Manuals for this year called Reaching for the Sun. She calls this piece “All that You Need Is within You.”
Consider this an invitation
yes – you
with all your happiness
and your burdens,
your hopes and regrets.
An invitation if you feel good today,
and an invitation if you do not,
if you are aching –
and there are so many ways to ache.
Whoever you are, however you are,
wherever you are in your journey,
this is an invitation into peace.
peace in your heart,
and peace in your heart,
and – with every breath –
peace in your heart.
Maybe your heart is heavy
Maybe it’s troubled
and peace can take up residence
only in a small corner,
only on the edge,
with all that is going on in the world,
and in your life.
Ni modo. It doesn’t matter.
All that you need
for a deep and comforting peace to grow
lies within you.
Once it is in your heart
let it spread into your life,
let it pour from your life into the world –
and once it is in the world,
let it shine upon all things.
By Charlotte Lehmann, Ministerial Intern
“Putting down & pulling roots up” (written by church member Beth Kueny)
“We light this chalice for the roots we put down and the roots we pull up. It's not an easy choice to put down roots when we know we'll probably move again; in four years when college is done, in the spring when the semester is over, whenever that new job in the new town starts, next year or next month. But the thing about pulling up roots is that it leaves the soil turned open and aerated. And this disturbed soil is easier for the next person to put roots down into. Maybe that next person will be one that helps change everything for the better, but they'll only be able to join us if the soil of our community is turned open and ready to accept new people. We can't be afraid to put down new roots, to pull them up, to accept new friends, even if they can't stay.”
The first reading this morning is one that many of you heard me do during Emmy Lou’s service on January 8, about being aware of the blind spots in our mirrors. This scene from trans-gender activist, Kate Bornstein’s play “Hidden: A Gender” is worth doing again this morning. [Delivered in character as Doc Grinder, en femme, Act I, Scene 7, “Hidden: A Gender”]
Yes, strange as it seems, he still feels like a woman. It’s gender blur. We don’t think about our gender day and night. Not like these poor victims. No, it doesn’t even cross our mind. No. Not until someone calls you sir again. Not until someone says you’re behaving too effeminately. Experts agree that we don’t even think about gender in terms of ourselves. No, it’s not until we see someone walking down the street and we can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman. Ever wonder why you can’t stop staring until you decide one way or the other? It really bothers you doesn’t it!
We don’t have to know someone’s age. Their race may be somewhat indistinct, and we might be mildly curious. We may look at someone and think are they gay or straight, but we don’t have to know. We can wonder. Yet we insist, and this is the curiosity, we insist that a person be one gender or the other and we remain unsettled until we assign one gender or the other. It’s part of our conscience, isn’t it?
And, as to conscience – we really should thank religion, whose chief task, it seems to be, is to see that we all have more or less the exact same conscience (Bornstein, 182-183).
The next reading, by the late Catholic Christian Feminist scholar Anne Carr, explains the difference between sex and gender and addresses how we end up with “more or less the exact same conscience.”
“Gender” is a highly variable cultural aspiration, attached to but distinct from biological sex, that attributes appropriate roles, behavior, and characteristics to men and women. While sex is named by the terms “male” and “female” or “man” and “woman,” gender is named by the adjectives “masculine” and “feminine.” And while gender appears to be ‘natural’ in any particular culture, its variability across cultures indicates that it is a human construction, a cultural creation that nevertheless takes on powerful ‘objectivity’ as it is deeply internalized by individuals and groups (Anne Carr Transforming Grace 137).
In my final reading, Jacqueline Lewis uses the phrase “good enough holding” to mean the space wherein healthy development occurs, trust is established, and love supports the creative tension inherent in the appreciation of differences. In The Power of Stories: A Guide for Leading Multi-Racial and Multi-Cultural Congregations, she writes,
If congregations are to be good enough holding environments, their leaders as the ones commissioned to hold the beloved community, cannot accept racism, discrimination, segregation, oppression, and separation as by-products of racist America. They must not only demand that divisive walls of hostility be demolished, they must also insist that damage done by existing walls be repaired as well. Congregational leaders cannot be satisfied until they story for the church that false borders among races, theologies, and even differing faiths must be redefined. …It isn’t that an individual identity is discounted and merged into a group identity; people do not lose their particularities. Rather they are interrelated and interdependent. In the holding environment of true community, people share experiences of meaning – they share storylines, which are more compelling than the barriers or boundaries that separate them. These common narratives prepare the way for reconciliation. …Three of the leadership capacities they require are the ability to 1) help people to tell their stories, (2) help people listen to the stories of others, and (3) weave those stories together.
Loving one another across boundaries requires some element of risk and vulnerability. It also requires some sense of feeling grounded and secure (Jacqueline Lewis The Power of Stories 51-52).
Maybe the so-called average person does not “think about gender day and night,” but I seem to be confronted by it frequently. My conscience has been bothering me off and on for years now. When I was very young, in the late 1960s, my hair was generally much, much longer than I keep it now. It was a time in our social culture when all who were hip wore their hair longer. Boys could not be distinguished from girls on the basis of hair length. For some reason, I was frequently mistaken for a boy. To me it really was no big deal, but to my mother, it was upsetting. I suppose it was the clothes that I wore, the activities I engaged in, the way I walked and how I talked. I liked to do things that boys got to do without question. And in my family, that was okay. Up to a point.
When I turned 13, it was suddenly not okay to be me. My parents came down hard on me for everything. And I had no idea why being my very own person was subject to so much criticism. It was not until I got to college five years later, and confronted directly with my own sexuality, that I was given the key to why my humanity was barraged by negativity. It turns out that my sister had come out as a lesbian when I was 13, and I was “put into the position of the other daughter, the normal one.” Now and then I am still called “sir” by sales people; it does not matter what I am wearing or how obvious my external, biological sex. It does not bother me. I do not insist on being one gender or the other. All are created in God’s image and God is and is not gendered. The Beloved is both-and.
What is normal? Our culture has imposed multiple binary systems. It insists that we be either male or female, masculine or feminine – these dualisms have to do with sex and gender. Then there is our sexuality – we are either heterosexual or homosexual. Bisexual, sometimes called ambisexual, is seen as some sort of blending in the middle between the two extremes on the Kinsey Sexuality Scale. For those who may be unfamiliar, Kinsey, Pomeroy and Martin published their sexuality studies on first men then women in the 1940s and 50s. It was also called the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale. On Kinsey’s scale and exclusively heterosexual person was on the left and an exclusively homosexual person was on the right; everything in between was labeled bisexual – it was the first sexuality continuum proposed by sexologists. The 10% figure for homosexuality in the population comes from Kinsey’s study of men, but Kinsey found that only slightly more than half claimed exclusive heterosexuality according to his scale.
However that is not what we hear about. For example, social ethicist and liberation theologian, Miguel De La Torre cites 2005 National Center for Health Statistics findings that 90% of both men and women ages 18-44 label themselves heterosexual (135). But do you remember being graded on a Normal Curve? If the teacher awarded grades on a bell-shaped curve, the assumption was that 68% of the students would receive an average grade of “C”. Another 14% would get a “D” and likewise 14% would get a “B” of some kind. Only two percent would fail and two percent would be “A-students.” Normal is average. The extremes of exclusivity cannot statistically be considered “normal.” Under the binary of sexuality dualism, heterosexuals are at one end while homosexuals are at the other. Given this, heterosexuality is not normative. If we assume hetero-normativity, then the sexuality scale is not a spectrum with exclusive heterosexuality on one end and exclusive homosexuality on the other. Complicate the male-female gender binary with the variations in sexual orientation of transgendered and intersex people who already do not fit into the sex and gender binary systems; how then can we picture sexual orientation?
What is more, how can we see gender? What does biological sex really look like? Are we really two groupings of human beings – those with two X chromosomes (female) and those with one X and one Y (male)? Biologists long ago discovered that our chromosomes exist in other combinations than just XY or XX. They call it monaicism when two or more cell populations of different genotypes exist within an individual. It is possible even for intersex individuals, those born with both male and female sex organs, to have genitalia that do not match their chromosomal configuration. Biologists have labeled these chromosomal variations mutations or meiosis errors. But does the Spirit of Life make mistakes?
Perhaps in all of the Spirit’s infinite wisdom and creativity, the Beloved saw life wholly as a mosaic. Monaicism is the living system that the Infinite created. Order emerges out of chaos. We see patterns that we read meaning into. When we do, we may lose sight of the different tree species that make up the forest as a whole. In the case of gender, it would be better to not see the forest for the trees.
Our culture has placed inordinate value on masculinity, male-ness, patriarchy. Anything that does not fit is “other.” Anything “other” is subordinated. Consider the following story. An American couple went to visit relatives in Germany. One evening they were taken out to see a cabaret show. Delighted that his guests were enjoying themselves, their German host indicated that the women performing on stage were actually men in drag. Taken aback, the American man said, “If those aren’t real women, then I’m not a real man!” We limit ourselves tremendously by being either-or. It is “so much waste of human potential” as feminist and queer theologian Virginia Mollencott has written (38). Our lives become dull pictures without texture and color. We neglect the intricacies of the ecosystem. Sarah Gibb Millspaugh, a Unitarian Universalist minister who has written about “Pastoral Care with Transgender People,” points out “the reality of transgender people’s lives stands as a testament against the universality of male and female, and a system that upholds this universality is, ultimately, life defying” (227). To be radically inclusive justice seekers is, she continues, “to confront such life-defying fallacies of our culture that serve the powerful and punish the powerless” (227).
Heather Ash, a friend of mine explained to me how she and her partner, who are spiritual teachers, confront the life-defying fallacies of sex and gender in their spiritual teachings while we shared a meal in Basel, Switzerland, after a seminar she and I attended. During our last day at the seminar one of the participants had remarked on the balance of male and female, gay and straight in our group of four students. In outward appearance there were two men and two women. And the participant assumed there were two heterosexuals and two homosexuals. And yet, this gay man had made assumptions about the sexualities represented.
Heather Ash explained to me that, as part of their course on sexual integrity, she and her partner Raven developed a radically inclusive way of understanding sex, sexuality and gender that they call “Earth and Sky Energies.” They did this “to move beyond the terms that so many people use when talking about sexual (and other types of) energy: feminine and masculine” (Amara, “Earth”).
Yes, I have been thinking about gender a great deal more in the past several years: ever since I played the ambiguously and fluidly gendered role of Doc Grinder in “Hidden: A Gender”, a play written by transgender activist Kate Bornstein. Transgendered people are often referred to as belonging to a Third Sex or third-gender (Millspaugh 228). However, my sense is that moving from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional system does not go far enough. It is still static. Kate Bornstein makes the following suggestion: “Instead of imagining gender as opposite poles of a two-dimensional line, it would be interesting to twirl that line in space, and then spin it through several more dimensions. In this way, many more possibilities of gender identity may be explored” (115-116).
Virginia Mollenkott’s radically inclusive term omnigender takes a different form beyond space and time. Mollenkott calls us to a “category-transcending, passionate, and compassionate vision of the human face divine that will stimulate and sustain our attempts to achieve omnigender justice” (211). Imaging humanity as not bi- or even tri-gendered, honors “the spiritual oneness of all people, while simultaneously freeing them to be fully themselves in every way” (211). Omnigender blurs the distinctions. The Spirit of Life is neither gendered nor non-gendered. Spirit is both-and. Life is.
If the Beloved is both male and female, and the Beloved is also non-gendered, what does that make us? We were created in Beloved’s image. What does that make our relationship with the Beloved? What does that make our sex? Our sexuality? Our gender? How can anyone be anything other than omnigendered? In which case, it makes much more sense to have a trans-normative culture where sex, sexuality, and gender are appreciated in all of their complexities and in the grand scheme of things no one way of being is better than another. Let us become a good enough holding environment for all individuals in the beloved community of humankind.
If the chief task of religion “is to see that we all have more or less the exact same conscience,” as Doc Grinder the gender-blurring emcee of Bornstein’s “Hidden: A Gender” suggests, then let us become aware that we are all omni-gendered and create a trans-normative culture. The Infinite knows that there really is no separation between earth and sky or chaos and order. This Breath of Life weaves all existence together into a tapestry; this Ground of Being into which are placed all of the tiles of the mosaic, becomes a picture of radical inclusiveness.
Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher
The other day I woke up because something was flitting before my eyelids. It was the sun, coming in through a crack in the bedroom draperies. When I looked out, I realized that the bright sun was flickering because of branches being blown by the wind and coming between me and the sun.
Our lives are filled with both sun and shadow. It is not only a sometimes-thing when the sun and tree branches are in a certain relationship with each other in our sightlines. It is a fact of living. Today, as we proceed toward the holiday of gratefulness, I think it might be useful to explore some of this issue from a religious point of view (for those of you who use that word!).
In most of the publications that address this issue – in readings of the thoughts expressed most of the time, I don't find a lot of comprehension that holds me through hard times. I find a lot of assertions that we live amidst a world that contains as much beauty as sorrow. And I believe that is true. But sometimes it isn't very comforting because it leaves me without an understanding from which to orient myself. This last week I picked up a book that has been around for a while called "A Language of Reverence." The book has articles by several thoughtful ministers and lay persons, including two theologians: Sharon Welch, who now teaches at Meadville Theological School here in Chicago, and Thandeka, who is on leave right now from Meadville and is at Harvard Divinity School. Both of these theologians are Unitarian Universalists. I think their offerings are enlightening. And I mean that word as awakening of both the body and the mind, of both emotion and reason. I've talked about some of Thandeka's work before. Today I am going to take my inspiration from the work of Dr. Sharon Welch.
In her essay, she is asking the same thing as I was asking when I thought of this topic for today. What is the relationship of fear and abundance, and how do we live a bearable and meaningful life in this mixed world? The essay is called "Return to Laughter." Dr. Welch is a feminist theologian who is not a theist. But her work informs people of all theological stances. She addresses issues in a post-modern world view; what happens when the religious assumptions of modernism have failed and we have to create new ground upon which to stand. That is actually the place where most of us are in this room. We all have a good grasp of the religious concepts of liberalism as expressed in the Enlightenment forms of our faith tradition. But most of us rest uneasily upon that foundation. For instance, on aspect of that foundation is the idea of progress – that the world is progressing toward some ideal form of human existence. And there is the idea that things are rationally explainable, or that there is a true answer to each problem and if we can divine it, so to speak, then we can live in a more benign state.
I dropped those ideas several years ago. I discovered that my experience did not match their conclusions. And I have been searching for another understanding that would help me to live a good life ever since. Dr. Welch's work has opened some doors for me in that search.
I remember a workshop she taught several years ago. She spoke of the fabric of life and had a jazz group that played in between her lecturing sessions. The leader of the jazz group talked about jazz – how it is formed and played. That’s so like Dr. Welch – using pragmatic experiences to mirror what she is saying and making them available right in the session. This is a theologian who thinks that knowledge does not all come from the carefully reasoned word. Much of knowledge comes from the experienced life. And if the word and the life don’t match, then the word has a problem. It is the way UUs understand science – if science comes to conclusions or judgments that contradict the Bible, for instance, it is the Bible which must adapt. It is not that science must adapt to the Biblical understanding of the world. Again – if the word and the life don’t match, then the word has the problem.
After the observations of deconstructionists that led to post-modern thinking – thinking that matches the comprehensions of science much more than modernism does – we can be certain of one thing: religious experience and activity are not simple if they really address the world of our being or our ideals. Dr. Welch writes, "After deconstruction, each term of our discourse, each gesture of our rituals, each movement of desire is seen as contested, indeterminate, and socially constructed. Not only are our concepts, gestures, and desires constructed, and indeterminate, but they are implicated in master narratives that help sustain oppression, domination, and exclusions."
(Welch, “Return to Laughter”, in A Language of Reverence ed Dean Grodzins, Meadville Lombard Press, Chicago, IL, 2004, page 41-42)
One of the problems that Welch addresses is the cultural and, therefore, religious assumption of dualisms that exists in the Western world. It comes from our seeing the world as one thing and our ideals as another. In other words, it comes from the self/other viewpoint of existence. In a culture of monotheism, such as we have in the Western and Middle Eastern worlds, this disconnect between self/other becomes a war between good and evil with God representing good. But we get into a massive theological problem then, because if God is good, then why do bad things happen? The usual culprits are that people have free will to thwart the aims of God; that the largest sphere of life is actually a war between forces of good and forces of evil, with each having their leader (i.e.: God and Satan). None of these makes anything other than metaphorical sense to most UUs. Many of us picked up the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner and found it initially exciting. At least I did. But he ends up with the only solution being to trust that God really has our interests at heart, and thus we are actually OK even when bad things happen. I, personally, can’t buy that. Welsh has another approach.
Her basic concept is that life is indeed a mixture of sorrow and beauty, of loss, pain, and disappointment as well as of love, enjoyment, and fulfilling meaning. Instead of focusing on God as the source of right relations, she became convinced, as am I, that "creativity and relatedness are in themselves amoral, and the task of giving them moral expression is socially and culturally mediated, perilous, and haphazard." (ibid 43)
Wow! How, then can we talk about having gratitude or living without being strangled by fear? If all that creates morality is haphazard and culturally mediated, then there is no standard for what is right. If there is no standard, then does anything go? These are exactly the questions, and even taunts, leveled at UUism by more literalist or fundamentalist thinkers. How can the world find true morality if all is relative or haphazard? Welch shows us a way that includes much room for gratitude and for hope.
But, Welch warns us, this way of understanding the world does not offer a sure way that gets justice or injustice. She writes, "although this construal differs in its placement of error and injustice [than more standard or traditional ways because it is] acknowledging the amorality at the core of the religious, it is not, for that reason, more likely, nor less likely than any other construal to lead to justice or injustice. Here (she continues), I draw on Nietzsche’s notion of the longest lie – the belief that 'outside the haphazard and perilous experiments we perform there lies something (God, Science, Knowledge, Rationality, or Truth) which will, of only we perform the correct rituals, step in to save us.' "
That’s a pretty packed statement, isn’t it? In simpler terms, she is saying that this way of comprehending life will not lead to a clear path to justice, nor will it find a clear path to injustice. For there is nothing outside the haphazard world that controls what happens. There is nothing outside of this world that will save us when things go wrong.
But she does believe that there are things within this world that can help us. But one of the ideas we have to give up is the idea that paradise can be created in this world. Utopia is an idea, not a reality. It may produce goals, but Welch believes many of those goals themselves lead to exclusive, judgmental ways of confining creativity rather than using it. She gives several examples of utopian thinking leading to harsh exclusionism, beginning with Martin Luther. He had an idea of how the world was supposed to work, and it required his own idea of a proper and good life to make it work. Thus he became intolerant of those who did not believe as he did. His rants about Judaism, for instance, inspired Hitler. Welch quotes Toni Morrison, from her book "Paradise" to make this point. Morrison, through one of her characters, notes, "How exquisitely human was the wish for permanent happiness, and how thin human imagination became trying to achieve it."
We cannot, says Welch, ground our efforts in any sense of otherness – of the idea that there is another way of living, another world, another fulfillment of justice waiting somewhere for us to discover it. That’s the mistake the Pilgrims made – or their next generation made, which became known to us as the Puritans. They believed they could create a "Golden City on the Hill" where all would be just, all would be happy, all would be moral and normal. Instead what they created was a theocracy that killed people and excluded them when they questioned those who determined what the rules had to be to achieve this Golden City on the Hill. Good intentions do not always lead to success, especially when they become exclusive.
Instead, says Welch, we have to wrestle with the resources we have here and now. And the good news is that we do have guidance in how to use them and live with them. She particularly looks to feminist and Afro-American constructs in uncovering that guidance. For those are people who have lived, and lived with beauty, in the midst of systemic domination. Again, Toni Morrison, this time from her novel Sula, which surveys an African American community in the years between 1919 and 1965, "a time of violent and systemic racism: lynching, mob violence, and harassment, legalized job discrimination, and segregation."
What was taken by outsiders to be slackness, slovenliness, or even generosity was in fact a full recognition of the legitimacy of forces other than good ones…They did not believe Nature was ever askew – only inconvenient. Plague and drought were as "natural" as springtime. If milk could curdle, God knows robins could fall. The purpose of evil was to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine, and ignorance. They knew anger well but not despair, and they didn’t stone sinners for the same reason they didn’t commit suicide – it was beneath them.
(as in ibid, page 47)
That stoning and suicide were "beneath them," was, says Welch, the gift of a communal legacy of resilience and respect. This is what we have from our ancestors. They have survived, and we will too. Some may die, but we will, as a whole people, survive. And we will survive because we can deliver to each other the gifts of love, caring, and tenderness. The gifts of right relation. Welch labels them "alchemical processes," the idea being that they turn ordinary things into gold. Writes Welch, "[These processes] have turned the bare bones of onto-theology into fierce, compassionate, and sustained movements for justice, and we can do the same." (ibid. 48)
Onto-theology is the idea that a reasoned structure can guide us to justice. Instead, says Welch, the African-American experience is that lived relationship can create justice while it endures suffering. From it can spring "fierce, compassionate, and sustained movements for justice" such as the civil rights movements of the 1960s, '70s and into the '80s. These movements challenged the repression of African-Americans, of women, and of gay/lesbian, transgendered and intersex persons. We aren’t there yet. It was reported in the Huffington Post that when a gay soldier stationed in Afghanistan participated in a call-in session during one of the Republican debates this month, asking whether a candidate for the Presidency would continue or seek to sever the rights granted by the current administration for homosexuals to serve openly in the military, and was greeted by boos, no one in the room stood up to say that the boo-ing was not acceptable. The candidate, Rick Santorum, answered that he would dismantle the current recognition of gays to serve openly because service was not about sex and people should keep their sex to themselves. We have a long way to go. At least the military supervisors of this soldier sought him out to be sure that he was OK and re-assured him that they continued to support him. So we have gone part of the way.
Welch does not offer a religious outlook that says we desire to become divine, to be perfect, to live in utopia. But she talks of "shouldering the endless work… of tying the knot with life again" and again. A South African writes:
"On a plantation, on a slave ship, on a farm, in the city, in the suburbs, in the church, in a mosque, in the wilderness – we have found and must continue to find ways to carve our sacred time and space to pass on tools of wisdom and survival to our children, our children’s children, and one another.”
(Karen and Kasimu Baker-Fletcher, My Sister, My Brother as quoted by Welch, ibid, page 54)
And Leslie Marmon Silko, speaking of her own Pueblo traditions, writes:
"Neither the worst blunders or disasters nor the greatest financial prosperity and joy will ever be permitted to isolate anyone from the rest of the group….You are never the first to suffer a grave loss or profound humiliation. You are never the first, and you understand that you will probably not be the last to commit or be victimized by a repugnant act."
(Silko, Landscape, History and the Pueblo Imagination as quoted by Welch, ibid, page 55)
It is a blessing and a gift to see life through the lens of life-affirming justice. It is a gift that comes to us through our own genetic ancestors and through the past of our faith. Diane Gelder once said of our new building, we build not for the building but in honor of of what the people of the past have given us. Part of this gift is also the gift of our biological world, the gift of body, not reason. The body of the earth and all its creatures has given us life, and we learn to give them respect. It is from this learning that we come to live within the dynamic balance that can exist between all of life. This is not a telling of a life here and an ideal elsewhere, of a heaven or a future utopia. It is a life of reciprocity.
When I say the prayer at my family’s Thanksgiving table, it will be a prayer of gratitude for the earth, for the creatures of life, for the people who grew, picked, packaged, transported, and offered for sale the food we will consume. For they have given us this moment of life. In reciprocity, may we live in love, tenderness, and care. May we face injustice wherever we find it. May we create from it life and life-giving, sustaining, community-building powers as we have been given the keys to do.
From Sharon Welch:
"How can we acknowledge that there is no fundamental divide of us - the righteous, the vanguard, the enlightened - and the unsaved, the unworthy and the strange? We can 'return to laughter,' learning from the stranger within and the stranger outside, blessed with the legacy of seeing all as worthy of dignity, privacy and respect. We can return to laughter, the generous laughter that relishes the irony of knowing that that which finds our morality is itself amoral, and morality, far from being the demand or gift of the divine, is the perilous and at times beautiful human response to the energy and wonder of life." (ibid. page 59)
Charlotte Lehmann, Ministerial Intern
W.W.Y.D.? – Occupy Your Heart
Come into this circle of community. Come into this sacred space.
Bring your whole self!
Bring the joy that makes your heart sing.
Bring your kindness and your compassion.
Bring also your sadness and your disappointments.
Spirit of love and mystery, help us to recognize the spark of the divine that lives inside
each of us.
May we know the joy of being together.
~ Andrew Pakula, adapted
I am going to share with you a personal story that unfolded in my life this past fall. Every day, I take a walk where I live. There is an African American man who sells Streetwise magazine in front of the restaurants. I usually stop and talk to him. He asks me how my mother is, because he has met my mother, and that is the kind of man he is. And my mom asks me about him every now and then, because that is the kind of woman she is. Well, this past autumn, my timing was off and I wasn’t seeing my friend the Streetwise vendor very often. I knew he wasn’t feeling well; that he asthma was acting up, and I kept looking for him when I went out for my walk because I was concerned about his health.
One day in October, as I was coming back along the street from the Lake, I saw an African American man standing in the Streetwise vendor’s spot; so I crossed the street thinking it was him. It wasn’t. I started to pass by, but thought better of it and turned back to the man who was there. This man said “you’re a friend of [the Streetwise vendor]; I’ve seen you talking to him.” And we got into a conversation. This man told me that he was homeless and living on the street. He was tired of living like that and just wanted to get enough money together to get a bus ticket to New Orleans where he had family. I listened and murmured words of encouragement. Then as our conversation ended I turned to go and began to continue my walk, but I turned around again and asked him his name, which he told me, and I said I would try to remember it so I could say “hello” to him when I see him.
Over the next two months, I saw the homeless man around my neighborhood several times. I would wave from across the street or stop and speak with him briefly; once or twice I gave him a dollar or two to get something to eat. In late November or early December, I recall he told me that he didn’t want to spend another holiday sleeping in a park. I didn’t see him that often. And I also didn’t seem to be out walking when the Streetwise vendor was in his spot.
Then in mid-December the seminary where I am enrolled was moving out of its building to a new location. As one of only a very few students living in the neighborhood, I was keeping my eye on what was happening, and went down to see how the move was going one morning. There was a lot of activity and the basement was being cleared of accumulated junk, including a lot of scrap metal. There were several men coming and going from the building hauling out junk to the parking lot. A few other people were scavenging any useable items and there was a pickup truck being loaded up with scrap metal of all kinds. Among the people coming and going from the building was the homeless man I met that fall. I said “hello” and found out how he was doing. Down in the basement, he asked me some questions related to what the movers were packing, and he told me that he had alerted the guys he knew about the scrap metal. An hour later, in the parking lot, I told him that I had been thinking about what I could do to help him and I told him that I could help him with the bus ticket, that I could buy him a bus ticket to New Orleans. His face lit up and he asked, “When?” I asked him, “When can you go?” Well, any time, he could go that afternoon, and we arranged to meet back in the parking lot early that afternoon, and he went off with the salvagers in their truck.
When he came back, he told me that they hadn’t given him anything for his help in neither telling them about the opportunity nor hauling things to load and unload the truck. They hadn’t even given him a ride back to meet me.
We drove downtown to the bus station. I purchased the ticket with my credit card, retained the receipt for my records and gave him the ticket plus a twenty to get something to eat on the way. He was so grateful; his face was beaming. He gave me a hug and thanked me profusely. The gratitude was immense. And I felt good.
I went home and the next day, Saturday, I went out for my regular walk. As I was coming back from the lake, I saw the homeless man standing in the Streetwise vendor’s spot. As soon as he saw me coming, he turned and hurried down the alley away from me. I circled around the block but didn’t find him. And I felt bad. I felt like I had been scammed and I didn’t want to feel that way. Feeling scammed would negate everything I had seen and experienced the day before as not genuine. On Sunday afternoon, I was out for my usual walk, coming back from the lake and again I saw him. This time, I waited longer before crossing the street, and this time he didn’t run away. I went up to him and asked him what happened. “Why didn’t you get on the bus?” He told me that he’d had a strong feeling that he needed to call his family that afternoon before getting on the bus and when he did call he was told not to come. He was told there was no home for him there. No family. Unless he was willing to live by their very strict rules, don’t come. And he had felt ashamed. He felt ashamed to have been rejected by his family and he couldn’t face me. I listened; I told him I was sorry that that had happened. I told him we were okay. I asked if he had the ticket and said that I would need it to get my money back. He didn’t have it on him; so we
made arrangements for me to meet him the next day and get it from him.
Monday, I went to meet him, but he didn’t show up. I struggled with the feelings about being taken advantage of and wondered if I had been scammed after all. I really didn’t want to feel that way. I knew that there would be people who would shake their heads at my stupidity. I worked hard not to feel bad or kick myself. Fortunately, I had a therapy appointment the next afternoon and I talked about how I was feeling. My therapist told me that it didn’t matter whether I had been scammed or not. It didn’t matter what anyone else thought about the situation or about me either. It didn’t matter what the homeless man’s motivation was. She said that what mattered was that I had acted out of care and concern, that my motivation was from a place of love. That was a big help to me and I took that message in.
The next day, I waited until evening to take my walk. This time the Streetwise vendor was in his spot and I stopped to talk to him. As I did so, I looked down the street and there a little further on was the homeless man leaning up against the wall of a building. He didn’t look good. He was barely able to stand. He kept swaying and nearly falling over. I asked the Streetwise vendor what was wrong with the homeless man. No idea. I wondered if maybe the homeless man was drunk. The vendor said it was either that or too much medication.
I went over to talk to the homeless man. He said his body hurt and his head ached. Standing next to him and from his description, I could tell that he was very sick and it seemed clear to me that he had a fever, that he had the flu. I talked to him and asked what had happened that he didn’t meet me the day before. He hadn’t been feeling well and hadn’t been able to get there at the time we had set. Then he pulled off one of the gloves he had found to keep his hands barely warm, reached into his pocket and pulled out the bus ticket, which he then handed to me. A few minutes later I went back to talk to the Streetwise vendor and then went on home. The next time I saw the homeless man, he asked me if he had given me the ticket. He couldn’t remember having done so, but he didn’t have the ticket in his pocket. Yes. We’re good.
I’m still dealing with Greyhound, but that’s another story. And you don’t want to get me started on big business, big banking, insurance companies and government bureaucracy!
On one of my daily walks that I took this autumn, I noticed for the first time that someone had written into the sidewalk when the concrete in front of the Quaker House was wet: “om mani padme hum.” Om mani padme hum in Sanskrit, or om mani peme hung in the Tibetan form, is the most widely used of all Buddhist mantras. The Sanskrit form is the script inside the heart on the front of this morning’s order of worship. It is the mantra of compassion. The mantra, “om mani peme hung,” is said to invoke the attention and blessings of Chenrezig, the
embodiment of compassion in Tibetan Buddhism, the Buddha of Compassion. I guess the scribe meant it to serve as a reminder, to Quaker House residents and visitors alike, to occupy their hearts as they walk back out into the streets of [my neighborhood]. I like this reminder. I spoke the mantra aloud every time I left and returned home this past autumn as my response to a hostile living environment created by the woman residing in the apartment below mine who harassed me for my mere existence in the space over her head. Om mani padme hum. I believe that strengthening our capacity to create community starts with compassion.
Of all the images related to the early months of the Occupy movement that I saw being passed around on FaceBook, my favorite is a photo by Ian McKenzie of an African American woman smiling broadly while holding up a handmade sign made from a torn piece of cardboard and decorated with hearts and spirals that simply says, “Occupy Your Heart.” When we occupy our hearts, we embody compassion.
Occupy your heart. It strikes me that this is the underlying request, the demand behind all of the Occupy protests that have been going on around the country. Occupy your heart is the unspoken cry of demonstrators in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya, Yemen, the West Bank and Gaza. Occupy your heart is the root action that is going undone in a world broken by exploitation and oppression.
A similar reminder to embody compassion, but in the form of a question, is the popular Christian Evangelical youth slogan WWJD? or “What Would Jesus Do?” from the 1990s that has been reinvigorated during Occupy Wall Street along with pictures and cartoons depicting Jesus and his disciples as the original Occupy movement. The WWJD-slogan came to my mind as the story I told you of the homeless man unfolded in my own life. Except, I changed it to W.W.Y.D? – What Would You Do? What would you do if you found yourself jobless and homeless? What would you do if a stranger needed help? What would you think if it appeared that in your helpfulness you had been taken advantage of? How would you respond if an estranged family member called and said he or she was coming home? How would feel if your family told you to stay away because of mistakes you had made in the past? When I ask myself “what would I do?” I answer with “occupy my heart.”
It turns out that this is very apropos because, ironically enough that phrase “what would Jesus do?” originates from a Charles Sheldon novel written in 1896 called In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? To summarize, in this still-in-print novel, a minister “encounters a homeless man who challenges him to take seriously the imitation of Christ. The homeless man has difficulty understanding why, in his view, so many Christians ignore the poor” (Wikipedia). The author, Charles Monroe Sheldon, was a Congregational minister; his novel grew out of a series of sermons delivered to the Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas. Reverend Sheldon was a Christian Socialist. His sermon series espoused Jesus as moral example as well as savior, and after publication in The Advance the series was influential on the likes of Walter Rauschenbusch and the theology of the Social Gospel movement. A past assistant minister of Central Congregational Church, Reverend Kathryn Timpany explained in a March 2000 article
in the Topeka Capital-Journal that, “Sheldon preached a social gospel that was presented in real terms to the downtrodden segment of society, as opposed to the evangelical reading that interpreted ‘WWJD?’ as more of a pietistic viewpoint of an individual’s response to matters of conscience as a result of being saved through faith in Jesus.”
With the Occupy demonstrations, some have suggested that the Social Gospel movement is being revived. Appearing as a response to such current movements agitating for social and political change is a new book by Quaker educator Parker Palmer. In it Palmer examines five habits of the heart (see Note) that, if used by all of us, will achieve the goal that is expressed by the book’s title: Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. And isn’t that what people in North Africa and the Middle East and the United States and Europe, people from all around the world, want?
Occupying your heart is a matter of acting from the basis of these habits of the heart. What are they? First, we are all in this together. The people who belong to the 1% but stand with the 99% – the wealthy who support the protests of the poor and disenfranchised recognize that oppression oppresses the oppressed and the oppressors alike. The downtrodden know this hearthabit well. I have seen numerous instances of those who have little sharing what little they have with their fellow human beings. My friend the Streetwise vendor shares the food he is given by restaurant patrons with other homeless and hungry men who walk the streets picking through the
garbage for food or half-smoked cigarettes. He has even shared food with me sometimes. It is an awareness of being in it together that some of us may experience during a time of crisis such as a blizzard or power outage. What is happening in the city of Chicago also affects those of us who live in its suburbs. We are all in this together.
Knowing that we are all in this together leads to habits of the heart that involve the Other: an appreciation for the value of “otherness” and an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. Celebrating diversity is one way that we express this appreciation. Sometimes, though, the value of “the other” lies in the tension that it creates by showing that there is more than one way to do or to be.
Valuing otherness – affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person, as we say in our first principle – goes beyond mere toleration of difference. It is about recognizing and appreciating the Other. Father Michael Pfleger is the rebellious and controversial Catholic Priest at Saint Sabinas in the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood of Chicago. I had the good fortune to hear him speak at the end of November at Benedictine University in Naperville. He told his audience about a homeless man in downtown Chicago who reminded Father Pfleger that even when we are unable to give any money or food to the hungry and the homeless, to please not treat people as if they are invisible. When we acknowledge a person who has been reduced to begging for a few coins so they can get something to eat, we make the invisible members of our society visible and give them worth and dignity. I know it means a lot to the people with whom I have become acquainted.
Palmer’s fourth habit of the heart is generating a sense of personal voice and agency. I met a woman, while I served as a Chaplain Intern on the Infusion Therapy unit at the University of Chicago Medical Center, who used being diagnosed with late stage esophageal cancer to generate her sense of personal voice and agency. She told me the day of her first chemotherapy treatment that she was determined to call attention to this particular form of cancer and the need for early testing and detection. There is, she said, no reason for this cancer to be the silent killer that is has been. This patient told me that she wants to use her experience to educate others. She has chosen the creative tension of her illness to give herself a voice and to be life-affirming. Her efforts will improve others’ chances of survival. Her activism is courageous and healing for herself and others.
Holding creative tension is a hallmark of liberalism. It is what allows us to embrace change rather than flee from it or dig in our heals and refuse to see that it is only through change that we are able to grow and adapt to the changes happening around us. Another example of the importance of personal voice and sense of agency can be seen in the events of the Arab Spring. Democracy simply does not work if the people have no voice or if they do not speak out about injustice. Amidst the deplorable acts of violence and repression, the beauty of the protests erupting around the world in 2011 was the countless number of voices being lifted up and shouted out so that the world could hear that dictators and tyrants and emperors of all kinds, from Colonel Mu’ammar Qaddafi to big banking institutions, were wearing no clothes. It added new vigor to the protest call and response, “What does democracy look like?” “This is what democracy looks like.” The people: giving voice. The people: being
agents of change.
Palmer’s definitive habit for healing the heart of democracy - strengthening our capacity to create community - is a natural outgrowth of the other four habits of the heart. It involves exercising our hearts by occupying them and developing our hearts in such a way that they are able to hold more of humanity with love and tenderness. Unfortunately, because of what Palmer refers to as “living in individual silos,” we think that it is necessary to go it alone, even when we are hurting and afraid. But healing happens most effectively in community, which is not to say that we do not need time alone to lick our wounds or sort out our thoughts and feelings, but if we never share in community what we experience, it is difficult to ascertain reality or see how we have grown as a result. A young man that I met while staffing a workshop gained this insight during a time he had gone off alone to suffer through his pain. During his contemplation, he realized that healing happens in relationship with others, within the circle of community. In Native American traditions, the community gathers together in a circle. They say that if part of the circle is sick, the whole circle is sick. Healing the individual within the community heals the community. The systemic changes that must happen to heal the world have to be accomplished for the people by the people, in order to be of the people.
In the Spring 2012 UU World, Marcus Liefert, an intern minister and seminarian in Berkeley, California, whom I met during the UU Polity course we both took at General Assembly last June, wrote: “For me the Occupy movement is not really about blaming people for the mess we’re in. It’s not about clashing with police. Ultimately, it’s not even about Wall Street. It’s about a new vision of society. It’s about finding more creative ways to be in community, to
have inclusive decision-making processes, to take care of those in need, and to discover who we
Combining “what would Jesus do?” with the “occupy your heart” sign and our understanding of the five habits of the heart necessary for healing the heart of democracy, I suggest that the important question to be asked is “what would I do in this person’s place?” Let us remember that we are all in this together, remember to appreciate the value of “otherness” and to hold tension in life-affirming ways, remember to speak up and speak out about injustice and to keep on creating community through listening to other voices. “What Would You Do?”
W.W.Y.D? Occupy Your Heart.
Please remain standing and take the hands of those nearest to you that we may form a community of connection, a community of support, a community of ear and eye, and hand heart connection. A network of blessings. Wherever we find ourselves: whether among the 1% or the 99%, whether jobless and homeless or gainfully employed and comfortably sheltered, whether welcomed within family or kept at arm’s length, whether feeling scammed or feeling ashamed, can we find a way to occupy our hearts? Love will guide us to a place where there is more love. All we need to do is remind ourselves to be compassionate, to put our hearts in a holy place.
Parker Palmer’s five habits of the heart as discussed in Healing the Heart of Democracy:
The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, 2011:
• An understanding that we are all in this together.
• An appreciation of the value of “otherness.”
• An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.
• A sense of personal voice and agency.
• A capacity to create community.
Rev Emmy Lou Belcher
OPENING WORDS: attributed to Kalidasa
Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your existence:
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendor of beauty:
For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision;
But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.
As we come into this church today, we step into the stream of people who created and maintained our liberal faith through thousands of years. They were people who questioned and confronted the powerful in order to live their own truth. They were people who worked through hard times to keep things going. They were people who dreamed, and put those dreams into form. Today we can come together to strengthen our own resolve, to look critically at our present judgments, to live this day well, to care for each other and for the generations to come.
Perhaps the most influential theologian of our faith tradition in modern times was James Luther Adams. He was a man not satisfied with what he found in this tradition when he joined in the 1920s. He pushed the buttons of his colleagues and the laity in his early years and came to receive our honor for his work. He was a brilliant man with degrees in theology and in comparative literature. He found Harvard dull when he attended and sought challenge through reading the primary thinkers of the past and of his time.
He went to Germany to study with Paul Tillich and others just as Hitler came to power. Adams was almost captured by the Nazis, who were angry that he would not quit working for the goals of those who opposed Hitler. He smuggled documents and money into Germany that allowed many to escape to the United States, including Tillich.
He not only thought about things, but he believed that thought without action was empty. All his life he belonged to social action movements and organizations that were breaking new ground in human freedom and dignity. In his first parish ministry, he heard of workers in a nearby factory whose complaints about the disregard of their rights had fallen on deaf ears, both within the company and in the press. So he preached about it and raised such a stir that the issue became a matter of public concern and the workers were granted their rights. He started a ministers’ study group that one could only belong to if one was engaged in social action at the cutting edge of society. He believed the role of the clergy was to be both prophetic and priestly – to proclaim what was amiss and to serve the needs of the gathered. Furthermore, he believed that was the goal of every person and coined the phrase for one goal of the liberal church as “The prophethood and priesthood of all believers.”
Adams wrote a piece that is included in the readings section of our hymnal. It is his description of the liberal church in its truest form. I start with that description as we move today to hear some of his conclusions about life and the way that the liberal church should encounter and embody them.
I invite you to listen to his words.
#591 I call that church free:
I call that church free which enters into covenant with the ultimate source of existence, that sustaining and transforming power not made with human hands. It binds together families and generations, protecting against the idolatry of any human claim to absolute truth or authority. This covenant is the charter and responsibility and joy of worship in the face of death as well as life.
I call that church free which brings individuals into a caring, trusting fellowship, that protects and nourishes their integrity and spiritual freedom; that yearns to belong to the church universal. It is open to insight and conscience from every source; it bursts through rigid tradition, giving rise to new and living language, to new and broader fellowship. It is a pilgrim church, a servant church, on an adventure of the spirit. The goal is the prophethood and priesthood of all believers, the one for the liberty of prophesying, the other for the ministry of healing. It aims to find unity in diversity under the promptings of the spirit “that bloweth where it listeth… and maketh all things new.”
(as in the UU Hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, Unitarian Universalist Association,Boston, MA., May 1983, reading #591.)
SERMON: Without Delusion
When my ministers’ study group selected its topic for this year, I was asked to write one of the four papers that will be presented at our meetings in November. The topic was "Is There a Future for the Liberal Church?" I was asked to write a paper on the critique of the liberal church that James Luther Adams put forward in 1942, after his sojourn in Nazi Germany. I had done a thesis on Adams, and thus was considered someone who at least could figure out what he was saying. Adams was a super-literate man: he studied many cultures, languages and literatures as well as theology. So when he wrote a piece, he often referred to ideas that many have not heard illuminated. Having struggled through his wide vocabulary of words and ideas, I was thought able to most easily present this material. So I have been writing a paper called "James Luther Adams' Critique of the Liberal Church." I know, it’s a really dull title. My preferred title is "Do you Hear?" taken from the song in our hymnal "Do you hear, oh my friend, in the place where you stand, through the sky, through the land, do you hear, do you hear?" My goal in crafting the paper is to look at Adams original critique and ask if it is still valid for today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations.
Adams identified four essential elements of liberalism:
First, liberalism holds that nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism – including liberalism itself.
Second, liberalism holds that all relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual free consent and not on coercion.
Third, being an ethical procedure…liberalism involves the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of democratic community.
Fourth, liberalism holds that the resources (human and divine) which are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.
He wrote, "Now we may return to the previous question: Why liberal? And we answer: Because confidence in the principles of liberalism is the only effective resistant to the ultimate skepticism and despair on the one side and to blasphemous claims to authority and suppressions of criticism on the other. These are the enemies of the human spirit whose dangers are threatening today."
(Beach, Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams, Skinner House Books, Boston, 2005, Introduction)
He was writing this in the midst of World War II, but I think his words ring loudly and truly in our own times. We must be wary of both ultimate skepticism and despair on one side and blasphemous claims to authority and suppressions of criticism on the other. As we wage the battle between whether liberalism or a form of misinformed and suppressive authority will prevail in our country, we should well look to some of Adam’s words and reminders of the role of liberals in a society. I was listening to Piers Morgan on MSNBC interview Christine O’Donnell not long ago when she walked out of the interview because she was not allowed to decide which questions he could ask her about statements she had made in a book she wrote. This is what Adams is talking about – taking away the ability of the press to question a candidate on statements the candidate has made is not about freedom. It’s about coercive absolutism.
Adams calls this sort of behavior the exercise of power without love, for it is ultimately an act of mistrust – O’Donnell does not trust herself or anyone else enough to address what she considers right if another is allowed to ask the questions. Adams wrote: power without love is the equation for tyranny. Love without power is ultimately suicide or non-existence...” or the condition of ultimate skepticism and despair. Love and power must be continually balanced in human behavior if goodness is to be generated and continued. Again, in Adams words, "...Tyranny in any of its larger social forms can be unseated or corrected only through the exercise of that sort of mutuality which can organize the power to check it." (ibid, page 89-90)
Adams has no illusion that life is good and kind, that one only has to relax and goodness will bloom all around. Instead he wrote that life is ultimately tragic in the Greek and even the Shakespearean sense. Relaxing and expecting life to be joyful and thus suffering will cease is a delusion. Only with the use of power can love reign, power not over others but mutual power, the power that comes from trust and openness but is nevertheless critical of the results. So often we lead ourselves to believe that we are OK, but ultimately we know that isn’t so if others around us are suffering, especially if they are suffering in order to support our own delusional way of life.
In history and in the human psyche lie the conflicts that reveal the tragic course of existence. In the Greek tragedies, suffering was often caused by a clash of goods: what was good for one person was tragic for another. It is also often the result of ignorance, or of the limits of our knowledge. Oedipus did not marry his mother because he knew she was his mother. He did so out of ignorance of who his mother really was. That ignorance, you may remember, was caused by his own parents reacting to the prediction that their baby boy would grow up to kill his father. So they sent him to be raised where he would not know his parents. In this ignorance, Oedipus killed his own father and married the wife of the man he had killed, without knowing either were his own parents.
Most of us don’t lead such dramatic lives as Oedipus, but we constantly do something we think is good and it turns out to miss the mark. It turns out to hurt others we don’t want to hurt. It turns out to not be the miracle we thought it would be. And we all know of incidents where two people each have an idea they carry out; the idea is a good one for each of the two persons, but when these ideas meet, so to speak, they turn out to be contradictory. Either of them cannot be exercised without hurting the other person. This is called "the clash of goods." Adams believed we were caught in a world where our limits would always entangle us in clashes of goods. Conflict is germane to human existence, he observed. The meaning of our lives is shaped by conflict as well as by love. Life cannot be lived without conflict. Instead, it is to be lived to heal our conflicts as much as possible.
The Buddha was saying the same thing. It is not that suffering can be erased. It is that one can learn to live with the suffering and not let it send one into despair. Buddha pointed toward a letting go of control by one’s ego and thus eliminating one of the most unfortunate ideas in human existence – that we can control the world around us and thus be safe. Instead, monks rise each morning and walk into the world holding their rice bowls before them. People will either put food into the bowls or not. The monks will either be fed or not, but they do not control this. This ritual can be seen as a symbol for the ultimate situation of each of us. Despite all our attempts to control weather, crop yields, soil fertility, etc., we cannot guarantee that our next meal will arrive. At any moment, locusts or flooding from a hurricane can destroy our crop, and we have no ability to avoid it.
Buddha saw life as ultimately tragic especially if one tried to control it, and if one tried to separate one’s self from the larger world. One is only a part of the larger whole, not a separate part that is in control of the other. This echoes in the Greek idea that our ignorance will limit our control of events. Every morning and every night, some are born to sweet delight, while every morning and every night, others are born to suffering. We don’t get to chose. And those who suffer one day may spend the next day in sweet delight – or not. Life is never a bed of thorn-less roses. It is always tragic as well as beautiful.
Adams was not a metaphysical theologian. He did not think that there was a way to totally cleanse the world of its thorns, and especially not by just thinking good thoughts. One had to act, even in all the ignorance that is our condition. But acting from routine is not helpful either. Thus the emphasis on criticism, on critique: we need to examine our lives and our assumptions, to challenge the conclusions of others. The ability to question is not a sin in liberal eyes. It is rather a way to unfold the truth, and sometimes the only way. Adams did criticize the modern liberal church's emphasis on individuality that often has led to criticism of everything and a strong distrust of authority. He saw this as leading to stasis. Adams instead saw us as beings of communities, and communities need compromises to keep together. Compromises are another result of the clash of goods, a way of working out intentions that can benefit one person or group but hurt another.
Adams pointed out that conflict is a foundational condition of existence. So both the character and the meaning of human life are shaped by conflict. He lived in a time that illustrated this. Adams had little sympathy for those who believed that one should never engage in war. Some evils, he believed, required powerful rebuttal. But he would also say that the decision to go to war should be made in the light that it will cause huge suffering. Our question should always arise from doubt about the efficacy of a decision: Will the suffering caused by the acts of war be for the greater good or will it just create more suffering than already exists? In our time we have most certainly seen the tool of war taken up too quickly when the motives for its use have not been deeply enough questioned.
The deepest religious experience, Adams held, was the moment of recognition, the moment when the center of an event becomes clear. In that moment we can learn profoundly and can develop the urge toward a change of heart. In a book about the theology of Adams, George Kimmich Beach wrote, "Without a profound sense of personal tragedy, the motive for change is absent: without a tragic sense of existence, there is no radical change of heart." (ibid, page 96) The rituals around the Jewish Days of Awe, Yom Kippur, illustrate this and bring it into focus on the side of redemption and love. That is why we observe Yom Kippur in this congregation. We need this awareness, this time of real reconciliation because of recognition of our own frailty and because we also recognize our power to heal, to turn toward love.
When we say that history is tragic, we mean that the perversions and failures in history are associated precisely with the highest creative powers of humanity and thus with our greatest achievements. One might call this the Oedipus motif in the sphere of history: nemesis is often encountered almost simultaneously with the seemingly highest achievement…The national culture, for instance, is the soil from which the cherished treasures of a people, their language, their poetry, their music, their common social heritage. Yet nationalism is also one of the most destructive forces in the whole of human history.
(quoted by Beach from, “The Changing Reputation of Human Nature” page 67 in The Essential James Luther Adams, Skinner House, Boston, 1998)
If you think that you are hearing echoes of the concept of "original sin" in this tragic definition of life, you are observant. Adams was adamant that the concept of original sin had nothing to do with sexuality except in its harmful aspects. Instead, the fall as depicted in the Bible was a symbol of a human condition: we who know also see that we are limited in that knowledge and thus unable to create plans without fault. The counter to this fault, Adams believed, was not condemnation of humanity but rather the love that is also available to us. Because we know, we can love beyond instinct. We can work for the greatest good for all. We can compromise, we can critique, we can doubt, we can remain humble in the face of our lack of total control and knowledge, yet we still can create for the greater good of all. We can live in a basically tragic world, one of incomplete knowledge and of missing the mark, if we are able to keep love and discernment our constant companions. When we forget the tragic nature of life, when we believe that life can always be rosy and chase after such a condition, then we are condemned to a life of delusion and ineffectiveness.
James Luther Adams defined worship as the experience of renewed loyalty to the spirit of love and all its ways. It is the commitment to a life of love (agape) that turns our faces toward the problems of our times and asks us to help ameliorate suffering. It calls us to examine our social structures and our accepted conclusions and to act upon our discoveries, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We can never eliminate sorrow or suffering – If nothing else, eventually death will bring suffering to all of us as our beloved ones tangibly depart from our lives. But we can offer a balm to sooth the sufferer, a hope for those caught in tragedy that love exists even if the tragic also does. We can offer a kind heart and an open hand to share both the suffering and the joys of life. In this spirit, may we join in the closing song, Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire.