Turn the Other Cheek – Really?

 Mohandas Gandhi said: “Forgiveness is the glue of the universe. Forgiveness is the might of the mighty. Forgiveness is the quiet of the mind.” Yes. Thus the existence of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the acceptance that we cannot change what happened in the past coupled with the intention to live in the present with peace and freedom. Forgiveness is an intentional practice. It is a process. Forgiveness is an age old human challenge. 

 I believe it is always a good time to consider forgiveness. What does it mean to forgive? Is it what those old adages say: forgive and forget; let bygones be bygones; don’t hold a grudge; turn the other cheek; to err is human, to forgive divine? No, no, no, no and no. To forgive does not mean to forget; some wrongs must never be forgotten. Nor does it mean letting bygones be bygones. When harm is done, whether intentionally or not, relationships change and those changes need acknowledgment if the relationship is to survive. Nor is forgiveness the exclusive provenance of the divine. Forgiveness belongs to humans as well; it is a human process. And more.

 I used to host a radio show called Spiritually Speaking and one of the people I interviewed was a priest, Petero Sabune, a chaplain at Sing Sing, who went to Rwanda to visit the prisons there. You may remember that in 1994 a civil war took place between two tribes and extremist Hutus massacred as many as one million Tutsis in a hundred day period. The government of Rwanda had established gacaca (ga-cha-cha) courts whose emphasis was on reconciliation. Nine judges sat and heard accusations and listened to people tell their stories. Everyone was asked to tell the truth and to take responsibility for what they did. In Rwanda there were reconciliation villages, in which Hutus and Tutsis lived together, victims and those who victimized them, lived together. Their children played together. Can you wrap your mind around that? I asked Father Sabune how such an attempt at restorative forgiveness could even begin to take place. He answered that forgiveness is a practice that is practiced every day, some days more effectively than others. You understand life backwards. You accept that you cannot change the past. You make an intention, and set up safeguards if necessary, not to repeat the past but to live forward into the present with peace. And then you renew that intention every day. 

 I believe that the human impulse to love, to connect with others, is ultimately stronger than the impulse to separate through hate. Thus forgiveness is possible, even in cases of great harm. But forgiveness is not a moral virtue and when harm is done it can do more harm to think that we must move toward forgiveness because it is the right thing to do, or the religious imperative. Thus the title of today’s sermon: Turn the Other Cheek – Really? I’m not telling you that you have to forgive or even that forgiveness is necessary. Forgiveness cannot be coerced. We move toward forgiveness because it gives us a way to heal, to repair, to recover when damaged.

 Sometimes we need forgiveness; sometimes we offer forgiveness. What helps us when we need forgiveness: from ourselves or others? 

 Confession is a path toward forgiving. “For many people, the term ‘ confession’ conjures images of a dark wooden booth and whispering one’s sins to a priest through a screen. However, confession is really just an expression of remorse about the past and hope for the future – the process of telling our story.” (Aaron Murray-Swank) Through telling and hearing the story, we begin to find greater acceptance and understanding of the past. We make sense of ourselves and each other and begin to form the intention of living in the present with more peace and freedom. We make a different meaning of our lives as we move along into more of who we want to be. “Remembering is a moral act,” writes the Reverend Michael Boardman. “In our remembering we take possession of a past. In our remembering we acknowledge who we are. In our remembering we keep alive our commitments and our aspirations. 

 Confession begins with a mindfulness of regret and remorse for what we have done. I say regret and not guilt because we can easily become caught in cycles of guilt and self-blame and thereby short-circuit the healing process of forgiveness.. Guilty self-blame ‘shifts the interior dialogue from actions to self-image: a person will harangue himself or herself as blameworthy, bad, evil . . . emotions churn in self-destructive ways . . . ’” (William Sneck as quoted by Aaron Murray-Swank) We get so fixated on how bad we are that we get stuck in it. Does any of this feel familiar?

 If and when we express regret, we take the next step of making a sincere commitment to do our best to refrain from repeating the action we regret. This may sound simple, but it isn’t. All too often people do not take the next step. They seem to think that apologizing is enough. But if we make no effort to change, then it’s not really forgiveness we ask for, but rather permission.

 For confession to work, it helps to practice a gentle, non-judgmental resolve not to repeat the action and/or words we regret. This is the transforming part. Feeling guilty and fixating on that guilt can actually keep us from accepting responsibility for changing ourselves. How could we ever change, we’re so bad? How would we know ourselves if we changed? Guilt keeps us wishing the action had never happened rather than honestly looking at the consequences, intended or unintended. Also, imposing a standard of perfection upon ourselves and/or others has this effect. If we expect ourselves never to do anything regrettable again; if we demand goodness, capability, intelligence, whatever, all the time, and nothing short of that will do, we’re perpetuating a cycle of failure. We’re giving ourselves no way out of the mind set that we have to be perfect or we’re no good. Non-judgmental regret, on the other hand, makes it more possible to honestly see what we have brought about through our words and actions, to pay attention to what’s in front of us and try most sincerely to learn from it. We stop judging ourselves as no better than our worst acts and perhaps we start to see ourselves as good as our better actions. This is the point of the story we heard, An Ounce of Mud. When we need forgiveness, can we, will we, tell our story, express our regret and commit to change?

 Confession helps when we need forgiveness. What helps when we are asked to forgive? When we have the opportunity to offer forgiveness, to ourselves and to others, how might we take it? Remember though, forgiveness cannot be demanded or coerced. 

 Desmond Tutu said: “To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.” And I would add that forgiveness does not exclude protecting oneself; does not mean forgetting; does not mean everything goes back to the way it was as if nothing ever happened. Tutu goes on. “ However, when I talk of forgiveness, I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person, a better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred.” It’s like the person who, to punish the one who harmed her, drinks poison and wonders why the one who did harm does not suffer. “Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator.” While there is no timetable regarding when one should or could or ever forgive, “If you can find it in yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained . . .” (Desmond Tutu) To cultivate and harvest one another’ s potential for goodness; to live freely now, in the present, we must find a way to release ourselves from the past. Forgiveness is a way.

 How does it happen? It has to do with an intention and a desire to let go: of our need for revenge; to let go of our need for vindication; to let go of our need for the wrongs committed to be acknowledged. Sometimes that means an acceptance that those things might never come. Sometimes it means an acceptance that we might never hear an apology, or that we might never be able to offer an apology. Forgiveness is a letting go of our need to be right, even of our need to be good. It’s a letting go of our need for everyone else to know we are right, or good. Forgiveness is a letting go of our dreams for living happily ever after. It is an acceptance that there is no happily ever after, that everyone is flawed, that everyone will disappoint us sometimes, including ourselves. It is a learning to be disappointed and still finding a way to keep going and not lose sight of all that is good. Remember when our babies seemed perfect and could do no wrong? Or our parents? Or our friends? Or our lovers? Now they, and we, are older, with faulty lives and faulty personalities. We don’t like or approve of all their choices, their values, their habits. Can we accept that they disappoint us, let it go and forgive them? Can we accept that they disappoint us and still love them? Forgiveness is letting go of our desire to have life work out on our own terms. Forgiveness is an acceptance that things are not always the way we would like them to be. Our expectations of what our lives should be do not match the reality. Our expectations of what our relationships and families should be do not match the reality. 

 Forgiveness means accepting that we can’t change what happened in the past. Forgiveness means that even though we can’t change it, we do not want to be imprisoned by it. Forgiveness is an acceptance and a letting go. And in that acceptance and letting go we may not change the past, but we do change the present and the future. “Life can be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

 Forgiveness isn’t a matter of making a rational decision to forgive and there you go. It isn’t even a matter of gaining more intellectual understanding and there you go. Forgiveness is a healing process. It takes time and one might go through a lot of grieving, a lot of anger before one comes to acceptance and letting go. Maybe it’s so hard to forgive because it hurts so much. How do you let go of feelings? The same way you start to swim–by getting in the water. The same way you cross the street–by walking into the road. Buddhists tell a story of two people, teacher and student, walking across a wide lawn to enter a large house, when the big, loud, vicious dog of the house breaks loose from its chain and runs full speed toward the visitors. The student stands still, clueless about what to do. The teacher begins barking furiously and running toward the dog. The dog looks at the teacher, turns and goes away. So with feelings. When we walk toward them, when we embrace them, when we feel them, they go away faster. The tide ebbs and flows. So with feelings. They go away when they have a chance to touch the shore, to find expression. Grieve the damage, grieve the loss, grieve the hurt someone has inflicted on you. Or you have inflicted upon yourself. Name it, feel it. With trusted friends, family, minister, therapist, let it out. 

 Forgiveness begins with a desire not to be enslaved by our past. It begins by getting in touch with our need for connection, happiness and love. When we need forgiveness, confession helps. We tell our stories, we feel our feelings, we take responsibility as appropriate and do what we can not to repeat the past. When we offer forgiveness, we tell our stories, we feel our feelings, we accept and we let go. In the largest context forgiveness is restoring the connections that lie at the heart of life. If we don’t live them, affirm them, we become disconnected, isolated, estranged, lost. We forget that we belong and that can hurt far more than not forgiving.

 I would leave you today with some questions. Is there someone you would like to forgive? Someone who has wronged you, who has hurt you, who has disrespected you? Someone whose behavior has estranged you? . . . Is there someone whose forgiveness you desire? Whom you have estranged by words and deeds you now regret? . . . . Is there a need for self-forgiveness? Can you love yourself even though you are not perfect? . . . Is there a possibility of comfort? Of a genuine expression of caring and sorrow for the damage caused? Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr suggests that the final form of love is forgiveness. Is it possible to forgive ourselves and each other and to begin again in that which connects us and to which we belong? Is it possible?

Meeting the Woodpecker in February

                                                          

 

1. Woodpecker: Hello!                                               

Before this broken maple.                                         

every day I stand.                                                        

Hoping for a glimpse of you.                                     

Touch me, friend.  We are alive.                               

2. Wednesday 8 am

I walk the dog to your tree

Woodpecker — hello?

Wait — I hear your sharp chirring.  

Grateful, joyful, I see you!

Palm Sunday for Unitarian Universalists

Coming to Jerusalem:  

As the majority of Unitarian Universalists, I was born neither Unitarian nor Universalist nor UU. My personal roots, like our UU roots, lie within the Christian church, in my case the Episcopal Church, even though I no longer consider myself Christian. But every so often I revisit my roots, especially around Christmas and Easter. I enjoy it because when I look deeply at the stories I always find some meaning in them that transcends their time and place, and transcends the doctrine I do not believe in. So it is with Palm Sunday and I am grateful that I was asked to take it up today. As a child in Sunday School I remember carrying around palm branches on the Sunday before Easter and never really understanding why or what Palm Sunday was all about. What is it about and what might it have to say to us today? 

Palm Sunday is the start of an intense week, the final week of Jesus’ life, called Holy Week by Christians.  In many ways this week represents the culmination of Jesus’ ministry on earth.  All four of the gospels give an account of it, although each one differs slightly from the others. This is an aside, but you may not know that my PhD is in Greek and so when I went to seminary I particularly loved New Testament studies because it’s language is Greek. In my years as a parish minister in Kingston I led bible study for many years and we pored over the history and the context with a critical UU eye. So a part of me would love to examine how the gospels differ, and the meaning of those differences. But I won’t. . . . You’re probably breathing a sigh of relief.  But in order to give you the story, I’ve put together a composite (from the NRSV, New Revised Standard Version) of what the gospel writers say about what we now call Palm Sunday.

(Mark 11:1-7) “When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. (Matthew 21:4-5) This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  (Luke 19:36-38) As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, (John 12:12) . . .  the great crowd that had come to the festival (of Passover) heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. (Luke 19:38) . . . the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,  (Mark 11:8-10) Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  (Luke 19:38-40) saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”  (Matthew 21:10-11) When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”  (Mark 11:11) Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.  (John 12:16) His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.

What’s going on here? Many people would have crowded into Jerusalem from the countryside to celebrate Passover, which was a reason for Jesus also to head for Jerusalem. He rode a colt, foal of a donkey, a symbol of peace, as prophesied in the Hebrew Bible by Zechariah (9:9-10). Spreading cloaks and palm branches before him was a token both of honor and of rejoicing. The people thought Jesus was coming as a king who would restore their power and freedom, as in the time of King David. They cried hosanna, which was a Hebrew invocation to God meaning “save us, help us.”  Only later did hosanna become a cry of joyful acclamation. So the people expected in Jesus a king for this world. Even the disciples didn’t understand what was going on. As we will see, in the week that followed Jesus did claim the title Messiah, did offer peace and salvation, but not according to anyone’s expectations or desires, which is why by the end of the week he would be crucified.

And here is a lesson. As Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but we must live it forward.” There are times in the lives of individuals and of communities when important changes occur but in the midst of them we do not understand the full extent of what is happening. Perhaps you are in such a time right now. Important changes have and are occurring. You might have hopes, expectations, desires. That’s only natural. And . . .  and could you remain open to the idea that you do not, you cannot, know all that will come down the line and what you expect and want may or may not happen. As you look back on this time, you might understand it better than you do now. Can any of us hold our hopes, our expectations and at the same time also hold the possibility of something very different happening? I know that can feel unsettling. It was unsettling to the people hanging around Jesus, who knew something important was happening but they did not know quite what to do with it. It’s a time of living in the question mark.

Jesus spent the next days in Jerusalem in the temple. The first thing he did was throw out the merchants and money lenders, calling them thieves and robbers. Instead, he used the temple for teaching and healing. And here’s a lesson. By his actions Jesus modeled what a religious community could be, even should be. As I mentioned, a lot of people would have come to Jerusalem and the practice was to sacrifice an animal for the Passover. Those traveling long distances would not have brought an animal along with them, so merchants set up shop in the temple, selling the people what they needed. Prices were inflated and some were making good money at the expense of the pilgrims. That’s what Jesus called theft. That’s what Jesus found objectionable and unfair. So he overturned their tables and threw them out. What did he put in their place: teaching and healing. A religious community is a place where people explore and learn together. It is a place of healing. What might that mean here, in this place?  Taking care of one another so that you get through this time of living in the question mark and emerge stronger and together.

Jesus healed in the temple and he taught. What did he teach? A lot. One of his themes was apocalyptic: what’s going to happen in the end times which he seemed to believe were coming sooner rather than later.  He prophesied the demise of Jerusalem and the punishment of the scribes and those in high places. He talked about the resurrection after death and how believers would be with God. He foretold what would happen to him just a few days hence. So it was a week of concentrated ideas, many of which were at odds with what Jewish authorities taught about prayer, about purity (who you are with, what you could and could not do on the Sabbath), about life after death, and about paying taxes to their Roman rulers. When he rode that donkey into Jerusalem, Jesus rode toward trouble. He chose the hard and dangerous path for the sake of what was to him truth. Many of our Universalist and Unitarian forebears made the very same choice, for the sake of what was to them truth. There is a similarity in some of those truths, namely that all people are worthy and that valuing appearance over substance was hypocritical. In my opinion, Unitarian Universalism should not give up on Jesus, the human teacher, the young and fearless prophet. He could be a model for us. 

Two important themes of the teaching that week were faith and love. When asked (Matthew 22:36-40) ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ And here’s a lesson. Our Universalist ancestors taught us that one way to show our love for God, however one understands that word, is by loving humanity and living that love. This is how a community living in the question mark is healed: by each person treating the others as he or she would like to be treated. This is a very challenging practice.  If any of us were to look back, at the end of the day, on every exchange we had with other people, could we say that we had treated each of them as we ourselves would like to be treated? Or did we do to others that which we would not have wanted done to ourselves? It’s a human characteristic to go around with blinders on regarding everyone else’s concerns but ours. Which, I suppose, is why the “Golden Rule” of do unto others appears in so many religions.

Let’s continue the story. As the first night of Passover approached Jesus and his friends made arrangements to have their seder in an upper room. Christians call it the Last Supper.  Before the meal Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, again modeling the humility and servant-hood that might exist in community. At table he spoke again of his coming death and foretold the betrayal by Judas. Afterwards, Jesus asked his friends to accompany him to the garden at Gethsemene, where he went off alone to pray. He asked them to keep watch. Upon his return Judas led in armed men to arrest Jesus. They brought him to the Jewish authorities, who questioned him and turned him over to the Roman authorities. His crime seems to have been that he was claiming to be that king of the Jews the people had hailed him as. The Jewish understanding of Messiah was as King Messiah, the anointed one. Jews did not expect a Messiah to be divine. So if Jesus was seeming to accept the title of King, the authorities and the people would understandably have expected a king for this world. And a king for this world would have threatened both the standing Jewish and Roman authorities. Jesus did not deny the title, but of course he was talking about a different kingdom. Under the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, Jesus was crucified on what is now called Good Friday.

And his friends? Throughout this intense week they behaved as humans will behave in times of stress and trauma.  They did not do what was asked of them. Rather than staying awake at Gethesemene, they fell asleep — twice. They were exhausted. Some of them bickered over who would be judged most worthy to sit beside Jesus in heaven, engaging in a kind of power struggle.  Some of them wanted all the details nailed down right then and there, including the hour and minute of the end time.  It is anxiety producing to live with uncertainty.  And Jesus did not provide the answers. He said, essentially, wait, watch and all will become clear in time.  One of the disciples, Judas, became disillusioned and turned Jesus over to the authorities. When Jesus was arrested all of the disciples ran away and abandoned him. Peter even denied that he was associated with him. They were afraid. They felt powerless and confused. Other people seemingly emerged out of nowhere to offer help, such as the man who provided a tomb for Jesus. And some of his friends stayed the course and remained with him through death and beyond. Exhaustion, dropping the ball, power struggles, wanting all the details to be in place right away, disappointment, running away, staying put, offering help. And here’s a lesson. Some of this might sound familiar. That’s what people do in times of trouble, when living in the question mark. This was not the end of the story though. In time the disciples regrouped and came back together. They re-formed community. They transformed community. That’s also what people do in times of trouble.

So, this Sunday, Palm Sunday and the days that followed, have a lot to say. In many ways the story lives and even has new relevance. In times of great change, when we cannot fully understand what is happening and do not know what will happen, we have to live in a question mark. We have to be open to the unexpected. Living in the question mark brings out the best and the worst in people. It is particularly a time for religious communities to be places of healing, in which love resides and people take care of one another and treat one another with respect, acceptance and understanding. 

The week came to a close with Jesus’ death on Good Friday. The new week began with a pause, the Sabbath. It seemed that all was lost. Then the resurrection occurred. The story did not end with Good Friday. Easter followed.  So hold on and have faith that resurrection will come.  It’s Palm Sunday and this is the start of a busy and intense time. Hold on. For as we know, the story does end well. It does end well. May it be so.

Freedom

IMG_1176 (a mural in Barcelona, Spain)

Freedom

You know what? I cry whenever I vote. From the very first time, when I pulled that lever in the presidential election of 1972, (I voted for George McGovern), I get teary. Voting is that monumental for me. It is a most potent symbol of democracy and of freedom. Given the state of our country and the economic, political, environmental and social challenges we face, given that some are questioning whether, or to what extent, the United States is a democracy, these days I’m asking myself what it even means to be free.
We human beings have been aware of our need, our desire, our passion for freedom maybe ever since our beginning. Metaphorically speaking, wasn’t it at least partially a desire for freedom of the mind that led Eve and Adam to want to know the difference between good and evil? Countless wars have been fought to preserve and to take away freedom. Countless people have tried to define it, describe it and create it. Countless songs have been sung; countless words have been written in celebration, out of inspiration, in the striving for freedom. Today I’m thinking that freedom is both a cause and an effect. It is the result of certain value systems, of certain ethics. It is the cause of certain behaviors to bring about those ethics and value systems. Freedom is relational. Clarence Darrow said “You can only be free if I am free.” Deeper, freedom serves the human longing for a full and richly sustaining life. I wonder if our desire for freedom, if our need for freedom, is not fundamental to our beings? Which would be why it has, and does, play a critical role in human history? Are we free? Are we really free? What does freedom mean?
Unitarian Universalism is all about freedom, of course. Freedom of conscience, freedom of the pulpit, freedom of belief. Back in 1980 when I was first learning about UU’ism, the idea that I was free to believe the deepest truths of my mind and heart won me over and I have been a UU ever since. That’s how much of an impact freedom made on me.
The borning of Unitarianism and Universalism in this country coincides with the birth of the United States itself in the late eighteenth century. This is no accident. Many of the same principles, values and ways of thought can be found in each of them. Thomas Jefferson, Unitarian, wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (and I say people) are created equal,” ( each of us has inherent worth and dignity), “that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” (The free and responsible search for truth and meaning.) “– That to secure these rights Governments are instituted among Men, (people), deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” (The use of the democratic process in our congregations.) “– That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Here freedom is associated with life and safety and happiness and it is the job of government to function in a way that brings them about.
Some of the same people who played instrumental roles in the founding of the country made important contributions to Unitarianism or Universalism. Universalism, which claimed that God loves all people and thus there is salvation for all people, developed in America during the 18th c. “By 1781, Elhanan Winchester had organized a Philadelphia congregation of Universal Baptists. among its members was Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. . . John Murray, an English preacher who immigrated in 1770, helped lead the first Universalist church in Gloucester, MA, in the battle to separate church and state” (Mark Harris, Unitarian Universalist Origins: Our Historic Faith) and served as a chaplain in George Washington’s army. Unitarianism, which proclaimed the unity of God over the Trinity, saw its earliest churches arise in the Philadelphia area in the 1790’s. Of the first five Presidents of the United States, three claimed Unitariansm. Just like the thirteen colonies, Unitarianism and Universalism did not arise from nothing. Oh, each had a gestation period. The seeds of Unitarian thought and Universalist belief were carried to this land at least three quarters of a century before any distinct congregations emerged.
Do people, individually and collectively, really have an unalienable right to liberty: in body, mind and spirit? Yes, if we believe we are born equal. Yes, if we have a right to pursue happiness. Freedom and happiness are linked. Happiness brings freedom. Freedom promotes happiness. Equality opens the possibility of freedom and happiness for everyone. This is what we Unitarian Universalists say we’re about. This is what we say the United States is about.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his State of the Union speech on January 6, 1941, said the following about freedom and democracy: “For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are: Equality of opportunity for youth and for others. Jobs for those who can work. Security for those who need it. The ending of special privilege for the few. The preservation of civil liberties for all. The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living. These are the simple, basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations. . . .
If the Congress maintains these principles, the voters, putting patriotism ahead of pocketbooks, will give you their applause. In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his (and her) own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants– everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.” Dwight Eisenhower was later to say, “Peace is the climate of freedom.”
Hear the echoes of the Declaration of Independence: all persons are born equal and have a right to live in safety, freely, pursuing happiness; and it is the job of government to help society function in a way that makes this possible. Hear the echoes of our Unitarian Universalist seven principles: freedom of conscience and belief, peace, justice, equity and compassion in human relations. I had not realized before the great similarities between the aspirations of our democracy and the aspirations of our Unitarian Universalism. Therefore I would say that when we, as Unitarian Universalists, think that our government is not living up to its job of ensuring and protecting, not doing everything itself, but ensuring and protecting systems that promote life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, freedom of speech, and of religious expression, freedom from want and from fear, when we think our government is not doing this, it is our job to speak up. Because those are foundational values for us. Because we need better from our government. More equality of opportunity for youth and for others. More jobs and fairer wages for those who can work. More security for those who need it. And we need less. Less special privilege for the few. And we need preservation of civil liberties for all. We needed it in 1941 and we still need it in 2014. The values of our democracy and the values of Unitarian Universalism dovetail.
Freedom is new life, new ways of being. It is renewal and rebirth. It is an unlocking of potential and possibilities. It has an outer dimension and an inner dimension. The freedoms in the Declaration of Independence and in the Roosevelt speech primarily come from the outside; outer freedoms provided by the interdependent systems and institutions, governments and societies and cultures in which we live. Freedom has an inner dimension too, without which its outer dimensions will not quite function. When we are free internally we can make use of our external freedoms.
What are the inner dimensions of freedom? The jazz pianist and collaborator with Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, like Franklin Roosevelt, spoke about four freedoms but Strayhorn’s are internal as well as external: freedom from hatred; freedom from self-pity; freedom from fear that our actions will help someone else more than they will help us; and freedom from the pride that makes us think we’re better than others.
Strayhorn’s ideas are not that far from Roosevelt’s. His freedom from fear that our actions will help someone else more than us is about a lack of generosity arising from scarcity thinking, especially on the material level. It corresponds to Roosevelt’s freedom from want. If we believe there’s not enough for everyone, then we begin to hoard things. I took a group of youth to Boston one year and everyone brought snacks to share. Except one kid, who brought a six pack of soda, which he kept hidden. I came upon him taking a can from his stash and asked him if he wanted to share them with the others. He said no, because he only had six and there wasn’t enough for everyone, so he didn’t want to give anything to anyone. So he kept all six for himself. I must admit, I understand that. I too am not a stranger to scarcity thinking. Scarcity thinking often leads us to greed and to the economic injustice that is so rampant in our society. Scarcity thinking feeds excessive individualism and leads us to think only about ourselves, only about what is advantageous to us. Strayhorn’s freedom from the pride that makes us think we’re better than others is a spiritual freedom, a humility. It’s a freedom that recognizes all persons as created equal, with inherent value and dignity. Freedom from hatred is about freedom from fear within the human soul as well as about peace. Freedom from self-pity is a spiritual freedom. It is an affirmation of justifiable pride in who we are and it allows us to see others for who they are.
The outer dimensions of freedom are the equal worth of all people affirmed and upheld by the fair access to material resources, the fair access to the democratic process, fair access to a diversity of ideas, fairly represented, and open opportunities for a diversity of spiritual expression. These can lead to conditions that bring happiness. They need to be supported by government. But they need to be also supported by interior resources such as generosity, humility, courage, acceptance of one another. How do we cultivate those? What is the inner work we have to do to free ourselves from hatred, self-pity, discrimination and scarcity thinking?
We have all seen examples of people living in deprivation and under conditions that were decidedly not free and yet their spirits were free. Harriet Tubman said, “There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other; for no man should take me alive; I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted, and when the time came for me to go, the Lord would let them take me.” Only if she was free on the inside, free from self-pity, genuinely believing in her own worth and dignity could she be willing to die for freedom from external slavery. Ho Chi Minh said “Although they have tightly bound my arms and legs, all over the mountain I hear the song of birds, and the forest is filled with the perfume of spring flowers. Who can prevent me from freely enjoying these, which take from the long journey a little of its loneliness?” Connecting with the beauty, the peace and the life in nature calms and soothes us. Nelson Mandela, in prison for 27 years, did not seem to lose the freedom of his spirit as he made genuine relationships with his captors. Freedom from hatred. African-American slaves, whose very bodies did not belong to them, left a legacy of freedom in their spirituals and in their stories because they had faith in their God. The human spirit seems to have the capacity to remain free even when there is little other freedom if it can free itself from hatred, of self and other, and when it remains able to forgive and to connect with other people and/or with nature.
Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, Billy Strayhorn describe what freedom looks like on the outside and on the inside. Ultimately what enables us to get there is telling the truth about our experiences, taking responsibility for the consequences, intended or unintended, of our actions, listening to the experiences of others, making amends when appropriate, grieving the past as needed, vowing to make use of all we have learned. “The truth will set you free” is no empty expression. When we own our truth it can free us from self-pity and hatred, from scarcity fears and want. It frees us to speak our minds and it opens our spirits to deeper expression. It frees us to listen. The freedom that arises from owning our truths opens a door to the pursuit of happiness.
So — are we free? Only insofar as we tell the truth and listen to the truths of others, as a society, as a people, as a nation, as individuals. Only insofar as we stop covering up, or putting forth half-truths as if they were the whole truth. Only insofar as we respect each other enough to take one another’s stories seriously. In the land of the free, what enslaves your spirit? What experiences, what ideas, what perceptions, what feelings have you not given voice to that need to be heard? What have you said or done, or not said or done that has built walls around your spirit? What truths are you keeping from yourself?
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness come at the price of telling the truth. Freedom of speech and religious expression, freedom from want and fear come at the price of telling the truth. Freedom from hatred, self-pity, scarcity mind and discriminating prejudice come at the price of telling the truth. And listening to the truths of others. May we have the courage to do so. May we have the courage to demand that our leaders do so. May we say, with Franklin Roosevelt, that the practice and implementation of internal and external freedoms, is “no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for the kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.” May we attain such a world. May we be truly free. May it be so.

Adventures with the new floor

We got a new laminate floor put down in the kitchen because the burst pipe under the sink treated us to icky mold under the existing linoleum. The warm oak color looks good and brightens the room.

Anyway, I was told to get this special mop, a bona, to clean the floor. It has a sprayer and leaves no residue, etc. So I go to Lowe’s and buy one for $40. Not cheap. It’s plastic and the pieces attach together. Except they don’t. I pore over the instructions, but the green piece on part B simply will not fit into the white handle of part A. So I take it back to Lowe’s hoping that someone will help me put it together.

The young woman in Customer Service intercoms someone from some department to appear. An even younger, smaller young woman shows up and has no idea what to do. But both of them give it a good try. They fit the pieces into each other and find, like I did, that they will not fit. They identify, like I did, that the white piece seems too thick for the green piece to slide over it. The younger one goes back for another mop contraption, convinced that the one I bought is defective somehow. She returns shortly, announcing that there are no more. They turn to a man, older and a manager type, for help. He immediately tries to force the pieces together. When that doesn’t work he grabs a long screwdriver and tries to forcibly widen the green part. Doesn’t work. He puts the pieces down and disappears. Next comes an elf-looking young man. He plays with it a while and behold! The white part snaps into the green part. At no time did any of these people consult the instructions. The girls intuited what to do and when it didn’t work they figured out why. The manager guy applied force and when it didn’t work he left. The elf-boy played with it and randomly found a way. Hmmmmm.

Triumphantly I bring my mop home and into the house where I am met by the woman who cleans for us. She takes one look at the mop and tells me categorically that it will not work. The sprayer is no good. I didn’t really want to hear that, so she kept saying it one, two, three times. I wasn’t going to return to Lowe’s at that moment so I asked her to give it a try. She agreed but it turned out she was right — the sprayer didn’t work. I got my money back. Let the floor clean itself.

Christmas 2014

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“After the ecstasy the laundry,” a phrase taken from Jack Kornfield’s book of the same name. To me, at this time of year it means after the wonder, joy and goodwill of Christmas — the ecstasy — we go back to our lives — the laundry. Angels and stars and Kings and shepherds. Birth of a baby upon whom rests the salvation of the world. It is quite a miraculous story. And every year as we speak of the birth of this child we associate with it all our hopes and longings for peace and joy in this life. This is the ecstasy of Christmas. In the darkest time of the year it’s promise revives us. Or it doesn’t. Maybe we never even experienced the peace or the joy that we’re told we’re supposed to feel at this time of year. And all of a sudden it is January. Cold and snowy. Dark, maybe even desolate. Does Christmas change us? Does it somehow better equip us for January? For any hint of an answer to that question, we might have to consult less lofty beings than kings and angels.
“The Camels Speak” ~ Lynn Ungar
Of course they never consulted us.
They were wise men, kings, star-readers,
and we merely transportation.
They simply loaded us with gifts
and turned us toward the star.
I ask you, what would a king know
of choosing presents for a child?
Had they ever even seen a baby
born to such simple folks,
so naked of pretension,
so open to the wind?
What would such a child care
for perfumes and gold? Far better
to have asked one born in the desert,
tested by wind and sand. We saw
what he would need: the gift
of perseverance, of continuing on the hard way,
making do with what there is,
living on what you have inside.
The gift of holding up under a burden,
of lifting another with grace, of kneeling
to accept the weight of what you must bear.
Our footsteps could have rocked him
with the rhythms of the road,
shown him comfort in a harsh land,
the dignity of continually moving forward.
But the wise men were not
wise enough to ask. They simply
left their trinkets and admired
the rustic view. Before you knew it
we were turned again toward home,
carrying men only half-willing
to be amazed. But never mind.
We saw the baby, felt him reach
for the bright tassels of our gear.
We desert amblers have our ways
of seeing what you chatterers must miss.
That child at heart knows something
about following a star. Our gifts are given.
Have no doubt. His life will bear
the print of who we are.

What do we get from the ecstasy that carries over into the laundry? What can we learn from the various participants in Jesus’ birth story? The camels offer this wisdom: accept the weight of what we must bear, move forward with dignity , it is possible to live on what we have inside and lift others with grace. Maybe we ought to practice being camel-like because these are important gifts.
In the Arabian desert camels were a preferred mode of transportation for humans and goods. They also furnished shade, wool, meat, milk and hides. A one hump camel, called a dromedary, can weigh as much as 1500 pounds and can carry about 990 pounds though 300 pounds is more comfortable. Their leg muscles are very strong. Domesticated many thousands of years ago by frankincense traders, camels can lose up to 1/4 of their body weight in fluid, something that would kill both human beings and most other animals. They do this, not because they store water in their hump, but because they are able to drink huge quantities at one time and their bodies absorb it very slowly. Inside a camel’s hump is fat, which it draws upon for energy. If it uses up a lot of fat energy, the hump shrinks and even slides off down the camel’s back onto it’s side! A good meal or two fills and restores the hump back to it’s proper place on the camel’s back. (www.marissamontes.com) So you see, the camels spoke true. They really do accept the weight of what they must bear, move forward with dignity, live on what they have inside and lift others with grace. What would it look like if we did the same?

The gifts of the camels. Accepting the weight of what we must bear means facing and working with the reality of our lives. Not so easily practiced. How many of us ignore and deny realities we don’t want or like? That pain we’ve been having pretty steadily after we eat but never acknowledge or do anything about, for instance. How many of us pretend that something is true when it is not? The family that presents a functional, happy face to the outside world when in reality it is falling apart, for instance. How many of us fight against reality by demanding that it be different than it is? We want our friend, our spouse, our child to be other than he/she is and we let them know that regularly by our criticism and judgments, for instance. How many of us sink under the weight of fear, sorrow and/or bitterness at a reality full of suffering? The seemingly arbitrary unfairness of life fills us up until we cannot imagine ourselves in any other state but despair and resentment, for instance.
Holding up under a burden, accepting what we must bear means naming what is, admitting the truth of our lives rather than denying it or fighting against it or allowing it to defeat us. Life brings us what we deserve and what we don’t deserve. Life brings us what we ourselves have caused to happen and what has happened through no action or intention of ours. It takes courage to accept the reality, but I believe it helps us ultimately. Remember that a common load for a camel is 300 pounds, but it can carry as much as 990 pounds. We too might be able to bear more than we think we can.
Moving forward with dignity. Camels often appear ungainly, even awkward under their burdens. When they race they seem especially ill proportioned with those skinny legs. Nothing like the stunning beauty of horses. Yet, camels move with dignity. They do not look uncomfortable in their own skins and when they walk, they hold their heads up high. Facing and accepting our lives with heads held high in all the joys and sorrows, successes and failures, well being and ill being. Acceptance brings dignity as we hold a sense of comfort in our own skins, with nothing to cover up because we know we can withstand the reactions and responses of other people. We have seen the truth of ourselves in the mirror and taken it in. No one can take away the dignity in that.
Making due with what there is; living with what you have inside. It requires self-knowledge and self-acceptance. Camels have inner resources of energy and they pace themselves so that they use their fluid wisely. To what extent does any of us trust our own inner resources, or believe that we have them? Fear can make us forget them. I am both drawn to water and afraid of water. I tell myself I can’t swim but really I’m so scared that when I try to swim I stop breathing. And then I panic. I forget that if I sync my breath to my body movements I will not only stay afloat, but I will swim. I need to trust the resources of my body.
Others of us are not aware of our inner resources, much less know how to use them wisely. If I asked you now to name twenty strengths you have, could you do it? Could you say how those strengths enhance your life? Think of a time when you have surprised yourself with what you could do, or what you knew. Write it down. Use it. Build on it. What we have inside is mighty when we access ourselves. Acceptance means not only naming our limitations, but also naming, and claiming, our strengths. Our dignity comes from an awareness of both.
Lifting others with grace. Using our strengths to help others get to where they’re going. Using our resources to connect with patience, dignity, acceptance. Camels allow human beings to ride upon their backs. They do the work of others. Because camels played such a key role in caravans of transport, they helped people of different cultures to know and mostly appreciate one another. Strengths in the service of building strengths. When we lift another with grace we acknowledge who they are and offer our respect for their dignity. It takes the inner resource of humility to kneel and accept another’s weight. And we can best use our inner resources in service to others when we have a good measure of self-acceptance and self-knowledge. And there is balance. A camel transports for eight months of the year and spends the other four months resting and doing camel things.
When we think about the life of Jesus as it has come down to us, we can see that his life indeed bears the print of the camel gifts. His burdens were many and heavy and he bore them and continually moved forward with dignity, right to the end. Misunderstood by most, distrusted and reviled by many, he certainly had to live on what was inside him. Betrayed and abandoned, he certainly had to die by himself also. At the same time, his presence, his life and his teachings certainly lifted, and continue to lift, humanity.
May our lives too bear the print of the camel gifts. May we find acceptance of the truth of our realities. May we live conscious of our own dignity. May we know our inner resources and develop them to their best use, one of which is in service to others. These camel gifts put flesh on the hopes of the season for peace and goodwill and joy. They show us a way to move closer to what we have made Christmas symbolize, namely the birth of our better natures. So let the Angels sing and the Kings follow a star and the shepherds leave their flocks in search of the ecstasy. After the ecstasy we will ride the camels home and do the laundry, wise with what they have given us and determined to put it into practice. May it be so.