"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Monday, April 25, 2011

Everything Which Is Yes (Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011)

            I really have no idea if there is a South Park program about Easter. But I have heard that there is a Christmas episode which features a wrestling match between Jesus and Santa Claus. (I don’t believe I have seen it; or, if I have, I have repressed the memory.) Yes, Jesus and Santa Claus in a wrestling match, to determine who is going to get control over Christmas: Jesus or Santa? The sacred or the secular? The birth of a great New Love among us, or the continued madcap accumulation of toys, and presents, and stuff?
            Now, in spite of the fact that it is a rather irreverent image (you may have just heard one of the very few allusions to the program South Park in an Easter sermon anywhere in the world this morning), it does have its truth about it. The way some of us, people of faith, see it, it’s still a raging battle: not so much between the sacred and the secular, as between the spiritual and the commercial, and whether any deeper values will ever be allowed to supersede those of the market place. Some of us would say that this is, indeed, the titanic struggle of our times.
            I don’t know if there is a South Park Easter show. But I suppose there could be. Jesus wrestling with the Easter Bunny, perhaps. Or with a giant Peeps chick. Though neither of these really, is enemy of many (if any) of us, let alone of Jesus.  I would think that even those of us of a more Christian persuasion have reconciled our human race’s ancient impulse for a spring celebration (with its accompanying bunnies and chicks and colored eggs—and, of course, chocolate)—with our deep understanding of the Resurrection of Jesus.  The peaceful coexistence between these two strains goes way back. Indeed, even the word “Easter” itself comes from the name of the Germanic goddess of spring, fertility, and renewal. Who can but celebrate at a season like this, when the air finally grows warm, and the days grow longer, and the buds appear on the trees and the first spring flowers come crashing through the earth? Who can help celebrating the arrival, at long last, of spring?
            The coming of spring calls forth the poetry in our souls. As Archibald Macleish wrote:
Why, it was wonderful! Why all at once there were leaves,
Leaves at the end of a dry stick, small, alive
You can’t imagine. They came by the wood path
And the earth loosened, the earth relaxed, there were flowers,
Out of the earth! Think of it! And oak trees
Oozing new green at the tips of them and flowers
Squeezed out of clay, soft flowers, limp
Stalks flowering. Well, it was like a dream,
It happened so quickly, all of a sudden it happened—
            No, there is no struggle in our souls at Easter time between the Resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the spring.
            But if we take the grace of Easter on the cheap—if we revel in its simple, primal glories and see it as a simple spring festival, without taking up the deeper challenge it represents, then it seems to me that we will miss out on its deeper meanings. For there is a cosmic wrestling match which Easter represents. It is related to that great struggle of good and evil which is always with us (you know, the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other). At the height of the Mexican War (which he bitterly opposed), the great Unitarian poet James Russell Lowell wrote:
Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side.
Lowell was right, of course; but he was only partially right. The conflict of good and evil—in our souls; in our society; in the life of the world—is never a once in a lifetime event. No, it’s a constant struggle that we face all of our lives, in each and every decision we make, really. We are always being called upon to choose, between the best that is within us, and the worst. Trying to be a decent human being is a lifelong process, and it can be exhausting work sometimes.
            That’s where the particular challenge of Easter comes in. Very simply, Easter is a cosmic struggle (a cosmic wrestling match, if you will) between the Spirit of Life and the forces of Death. It is our spirits’ choice between a life which is abundant and even eternal; and life which is mired in the same old tomb of the ways of this fallen world.
            Easter challenges us to turn our backs on the forces of “No” in this world, and to fearlessly face the wide horizon’s grander view, and embrace wholeheartedly everything which is “Yes”.
            “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
            What does Jesus mean here, when he says that we need to hate our lives in this world, in order to gain some sense of the life eternal?
            I think he means that we need to let go of those forces which tie us down—which isolate us—which make us cling to our wealth; our power; our ethnic group or religion or nation; our need to be right—let go of those forces which keep us as radically individual single grains of wheat—which would have us see ourselves as single strands of being and not part of a Great Web, interdependent with all other living creatures-- single, selfish, self-absorbed men and women, watching over our own narrow self interest, getting what we can for ourselves and the commonwealth be damned.
Easter commands that we turn our backs on the forces of “No”—no peace, no justice, no equity, no compassion, no empathy, no faith, no love, no hope.
            Easter is that “most amazing day” when “No” is banished: whether it is the no that says that life will never return to this barren ground and this meadow will never flower again. Or the no that says that that crazy rebel carpenter from Nazareth is dead and gone at last—nailed to a cross—good riddance. Or, the no in our own souls that tells us we will never love again, or never hope again, or never taste the sweetness of life again.
            Easter tells us that, with the help and grace of God, and through the wondrous healing ministrations of Nature, it need not be that way; and it will not be that way if we open our hearts, and open our arms, and embrace God’s Yes—Life’s Yes— in its full wonder and its full possibility.

Hallelujah! Overcome, overcome
 the Lord has the power of doom!
Death has not kept him bound
in the dark night of the tomb!
Sing to his glory the holy psalms!
 Spread before him the victory palms!
Arisen has the Lord!
 Praise him joyfully, heavens!
 Sing to the victor, earth!
 Hallelujah to you,
 who has risen from death to birth!

            And may we, too, thank God for this—and every—most amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and all blue true dreams of skies above; may we thank God for everything—for all the infinite possibilities of Yes which lie, ever eastering, in our souls, every blessed moment of our lives.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Inception-- Playing With Our Dreams (Sunday, April 10, 2011)

            Have any of you seen the film, Inception, which was one of the big box office hits this past summer? [Oh, good. You can tell us what it was about.] Not really; I think I can give it a try; I got the main points, at least.

            The main character in Inception is Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), a corporate spy who uses his skills to sneak into the minds of high-power executives and extract their most treasured secrets, which he then sells to rival corporations for Big Bucks. (Of course, if there’s mayhem and intrigue involved, the Big Corporations have got to be involved. Even though, after seeing Inside Job this past week, it could also be the Big Banks that are involved instead.)

            Cobb, in his former life, is also a fugitive from the law, and has a past of his own. He’s haunted by the death of his wife, Mal; he wants more than anything to go home to his children; but he can’t; if he does, he’ll be arrested.

            So he seems destined to spend his life interminably on the run. But when a rich Japanese CEO named Saito offers to make Cobb’s legal troubles go away, so he can finally return home to his kids, he seizes the opportunity. Saito wants Cobb to undermine his business rival, Robert Fischer. But instead of targeting Fischer directly, he wants Cobb (and his team) to infiltrate Fischer’s mind, to plant there dreams which will cause him to break up his own corporation, and leave the field open to Saito’s plans for monopoly.

            This process of planting dreams is called inception, and many say that it just can’t be done. It’s too complex, too dangerous—and Cobb’s earlier experiments with inception are what caused his great heartache in the first place. But he wants to go home again; he wants to see his kids; so he agrees to Saito’s challenge.

            As in any good heist film, Cobb assembles his team: his longtime partner Arthur, who has worked with Cobb on many missions before; an experienced dream traveler named Eames; a shady chemist named Yusuf; and a brilliant architecture student named Ariadne (in Greek mythology, of course, Ariadne is the one who leads Theseus out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth; that gives you some idea of the kind of imagery and symbolism we’re going to have showered upon us as Inception proceeds.)

            But unfortunately for Cobb, things start to get complicated (very complicated) almost from the get-go. This is mainly because his late wife, Mal, keeps popping up in the dream he and his team are trying to conjure up with Fischer. (They all have to dream the same dream, along with Fischer, for this to work.) Mal’s appearance throws off the other team members and threatens to destroy the elaborately constructed illusion that they’ve prepared for Fischer, in order to plant new dreams, new ideas, into his psyche. What we have in Inception, then is a dream within a dream—within a dream—and maybe, within another dream as well. Four layers of reality (four different story lines) unfolding (and interacting with each other) all at once. Like a cinematic Rubik’s Cube, one reviewer has described it. As I said, complicated. Like life. And, as in life, if you understand half of what’s going on, you’re probably doing about as well as most people.

            Inception was not my favorite film of the year. Not that you asked, but that would have been The King’s Speech, with The Fighter second. I guess I prefer my story lines linear (more or less), and my inspiration drawn from the world of flesh, rather than that of fantasy. I never got into Rubik’s cubes all that much, and I sure as heck could never figure them out. I was more into those little plastic squares, where you’re supposed to put the numbers in order. You know: 1…2…3…4…  I am a simple man in that way, I suppose. Or maybe not as bright as I think I am…

            But I am glad that I got to see Inception, anyway. It is a highly imaginative film, and daring in many ways. It opens us to some deeper ponderings on the nature of flesh and fantasy, of dreams and reality.

            Cobb is an interesting character. Of course, it only makes perfect sense that someone as capable as he is at extracting dreams from others would be deeply hiding secrets of his own. History (or, more likely, psycho-history) is full of characters who did what they did as a manifestation of something they were repressing, or hiding, or running away from. “We become the things we hate,” Jung once said; it may also be true that, often deep inside, we are, in fact, the things we hate. (It makes you wonder sometimes about the vehemence some people have against, say, homosexuals, or foreigners, or Republicans. What is it about that despised other that’s inside of us, that we’re trying to repress, or run away from?) Better to hug your demons, as the therapist Pia Mellody said, or they’ll come back to bite you in the “back” (she used a slightly different part of the anatomy than “back” which would not quite be appropriate for Sunday morning. But I think you get the idea.)

            Cobb is all about having people “trust” him. Indeed, the only way he’ll ever be able to plant the ideas he wants to inside Fischer’s mind is for Fischer to trust him, totally and completely. But he can’t trust himself, can he? He can’t escape from the guilt and the pain of the past, and so it continues to haunt him, time and again, and at the least opportune moments.

            “Know thyself,” the ancients counseled. Good advice. But something it takes a lifetime to do, really. But the first step in the process is confronting who we really are, and understanding that usually the best way out of a troubling situation is by going right straight through it. The only way out, often, is through.

            Confronting who we really are is never easy. It’s seldom very much fun.  Admitting when we’ve screwed up, and transgressed, and done wrong is tough work. (No wonder we human ones avoid doing it and choose instead to live in denial as much as we do.)  But it is “the way out”. It’s the road to growth. It’s how we find depth and meaning in these lives of ours.

            In the later part of Inception, the architecture student Ariadne helps Cobb to find his way through the labyrinth of his guilt and pain. To find his way through, so he can get out of it, and let go of it, and maybe, find his way home again.

            Inception also  raises all kinds of interesting questions about the relationship of memory and dreams—How our memories of the past color the ways in which we envision our present and future reality.

            Ancient voices also tells us that “The truth will set you free.” But often, we’re set free by letting go of the truth of the past, so we can move beyond it in our lives.

            A great part of the tragedy of Cobb’s life was caused by the inability of his wife to let go of the dream world they had created for themselves: a perfect world, with palm trees and tropical beaches, full of idleness and luxury, free of the challenges of “real life”. Because she refuses to let go of it, it all comes to a devastatingly tragic end. Now, Cobb won’t let go of it either. In his dreams, he either wants to cling to the glorious hours before the tragedy. Or, paradoxically perhaps, he clings to the tragedy itself; he won’t let go of the pain and guilt it has engendered.

            The Eagles used to sing: “Call someplace paradise, kiss it good-bye.” Perfection (in this worldly existence) is a figment of the human imagination, and Paradise never existed. (Remember that utopia is the Greek word for “nowhere”.)  The “good old days” were certainly not as perfect as we remember them, and they probably weren’t all that great, if the truth be told. So, to cling to some enraptured vision of the past is to cling to a lie.

            Even more harmful, if we cling to the past (either its joy or its pain), we rob the present of its power and its pathos and its joy. Clinging to the past is like trying to live in the dream at the expense of the reality (like Cobb’s wife tried to do, tragically).

            Which is not to say that our memories don’t have power. They do. They can inform us in our quest to know who we are. They can inspire us in our journey toward who we can become. They can gladden our hearts and give us a sense of history and continuity and community and rootedness. “As living memories we possess the greatest gift that one person can give to another.” That’s something I say in almost every funeral at which I preside. When we have a true and abiding memory of someone we’ve loved and lost, then, truly, they are part of who we are, forever.

            Memory is powerful.

            But memories are only healthy and helpful if we live them in the context of who we are, right now. Otherwise, the past holds its heavy hand over the present and capsizes the fragile craft of our being. When we let the past hold sway over today, then “The situation has become unstable,” as one of the characters in Inception says.

When we let ghosts from the past have command over us, then all that past enmity and hatred and anger piles up, and things become engorged and crusted over, and we lose sight of who we are and what we feel and what we believe and are experiencing, and pretty soon, we’re living past generations’ dreams and fighting their battles and human progress remains mired in the same old ruts of hatred and strife.

Inception reminds us that the ideas we have—the stories we choose to live within--  the myths by which we define ourselves—go a long way toward creating our own reality. We choose our dreams and visions, and our creative imagination is a powerful part of who we are. Inception reminds us that, to a great degree, we create our own reality. We all have deeply rooted beliefs that may determine how we will lead our lives.

But it also tells us that, at the very same time we are creating our reality, that others are creating their realities as well. As we spin our tales, others are spinning theirs. And together, we sleep and dream as one. The true Inception really has five billion plots and subplots—five billion dreams—all progressing and unfolding at once. But that’s too much, even for Hollywood and CGI! But it is the miracle of living as part of the interdependent web of all creation.

And, like in watching the movie Inception, if we understand what’s going on inside that web half the time, we’re doing pretty well.

But sometimes, there come to us times—fleeting moments usually, when we do understand. When we stand alone at , staring into the darkness or the sea or the sky, all of a piece and all at peace. Or, they come to us as we sleep, and dream, and know, on a deeper level, why we are here. There come to us, if we are fortunate, those moments when we say, like the ancient Chinese philosopher Chuang-Tzu: “I did not know in that moment if I was a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.”

Or, as Prospero exclaims in The Tempest:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with [the bliss of] sleep.

We are both human beings striving to be spiritual, and spiritual beings trying to figure out what it means to be human.

We are creatures both of the shadow and of the solid ground. Both of waking and of dreaming.

Perhaps the real challenge we face is not “inception”—not to plant our hopes and dreams in the minds of others; but rather, “conception”: the merging of all our dreams, one with another, in deepest sharing and genuine intimacy, in order to bring to birth new creations of truth and beauty and imagination: in our dreams, and in our world, both in our flesh and in our fantasy.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Mad Tea Party (Sunday, November 7, 2010)

          It doesn’t get much more patriotic than “America the Beautiful”, does it? I love that song, and I know that many of you do, too. I’d bet that a whole lot of the people at rallies and gatherings of the Tea Party Movement over the past year love “America the Beautiful”, as well. Maybe they even sing it at their rallies sometimes. (I don’t know, really; I’ve never been to one; but it wouldn’t surprise me.) Because the Tea Partiers are all about patriotism, and, as I said, it doesn’t get any more patriotic than “America the Beautiful”. The song even mentions “God”. Many of the Tea Partiers seem to be all about God, too.

          But I bet that many of those people at Tea Party rallies across our land wouldn’t like the woman who wrote “America the Beautiful” very much, if she were still alive today. They wouldn’t like Katherine Lee Bates one bit. Not because she was a woman. (Christine O’Donnell’s a woman, and they like her.) Not necessarily because she was born and lived just about her entire life in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (may its name be praised) – though that wouldn’t help her popularity much. They wouldn’t like the fact that she graduated from Wellesley, and was even a professor there (but Howie Carr lives in Wellesley, and many of them would probably like Howie Carr).

          No, the unpardonable sin of Katherine Lee Bates, in the eyes of many of the Tea Partiers was that this great poet of America—this gifted writer who probably came closer than anyone to capturing the living essence of this magnificent land and its history in verse—was, quite simply and quite openly, a lesbian, a female homosexual, a daughter of Sappho. Katherine lived openly for more than 25 years with her life partner, Katharine Coman, in what was then called a “Boston marriage”. (Had they still been around when full civil recognition came to same-sex marriages in the Commonwealth in 2004, perhaps Katherine and Katharine would have been there at the front of the line, applying for their marriage license. Who knows?)

          None of which would warm the cockles of hearts of those arch conservatives who accuse the American media and the Obama administration and all those other “sinister” and “socialist” forces of wanting to foist the “gay agenda” on America.

          Which means that they probably also wouldn’t like Francis Bellamy, who wrote the original “Pledge of Allegiance” back in 1892, in Boston, of all places. (Who would have thunk that this Commonwealth, which is looked upon as the People’s Republic of Massachusetts in some circles, was the wellspring of so much outstanding American patriotism?)

          They wouldn’t like Francis Bellamy because he, unlike some people so accused, like President Obama and his Wall Street advisers, really was a socialist. (A Christian Socialist, to be specific, back when that term would not have been considered an oxymoron). Indeed, Bellamy lost his job at the Young People’s Companion where he worked because of his political beliefs, but not before writing the “Pledge of Allegiance to the American Flag” for one of its issues.

          “When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said at the original “Mad Tea Party”-- the one about which Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking Glass-- “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master – me or the word-- that's all."

  Or, as Rev. Thom Belote writes in a recent lecture on “Postmodern Politics”, political influence is not so much a matter of getting your facts right, as it is putting forward the kind of atmosphere you want to create. It’s less about thinking with your head and more about knowing with your gut. It’s less about objective truth, and more about something Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”—the quality of something “feeling true” without having to be bothered with having any evidence that it really is.

Many of the followers of the Tea Party are big proponents of “truthiness”, it seems to me.

Obama is a foreigner. He wasn’t even born here. That’s something that many of the President’s opponents “feel” is true. They believe it, and they’ve convinced many other people that it’s true, too: Our President is a foreigner; he isn’t “one of us”; his election was illegitimate.

It must be true. In spite of the birth announcement that appeared in the Honolulu Advertiser on Sunday, August 13, 1961:

“Mr. & Mrs. Barack H. Obama,
6085 Kalanianole Hwy
, August 4, a son.”

Perhaps Obama's grandparents planted the announcement just in case their grandson needed to “prove” his U.S. citizenship in order to run for president someday.

No, Obama isn’t “like” the (supposedly) “beleaguered” White, Anglo-Saxon Americans that constitute much of the Tea Party’s support. What better bit of “truthiness” do you need, then, than to establish that even Obama himself isn’t “really” an American—that he’s “one of them”?

“One of them” from whom we “real Americans” need to “take our country back”.

          There’s nothing new about this tactic, of course; demagogues always seek to dehumanize their opponents, to turn them into the thing that their supporters hate most. As Dr. Goebbels said, if you tell a lie that's big enough, people will just assume that it must be true. One of the lies circulated about Abraham Lincoln when he first ran for President was that he was, really a Black man. When the rabid Republicans attacked Franklin Roosevelt, they said he was a Jew. So should it surprise us now that, in some quarters, Barack Obama is characterized as a Muslim, or an Arab? What could be “worst” from that, in the minds of some people?

“At any rate I'll never go there again!” said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. “It's the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!”

Just as she said this, she noticed that one of the trees had a door leading right into it. “That's very curious!” she thought. “But everything is curious today. I think I may as well go in at once.” And in she went.

     Now, I know that assertions that race plays a role in the Tea Party’s ideology is usually met vehemently by its proponents. They are all furious at the implication that race is a factor in their political views — in spite of the fact that they do talk about race-related issues an awful lot: They blame the financial crisis on poor black homeowners. They spend months on end engrossed by reports about how the New Black Panthers want to kill white babies. They support politicians (like Rand Paul in Kentucky) who think that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an overreach of government power. They support enacting South African-style immigration laws in Arizona. They still obsess over ACORN and the voter fraud which, supposedly, “stole” the 2008 election. And, of course, there is the matter of Barack Obama's birth certificate… Everyone who disagrees with them is, automatically, it seems, a “radical leftist” who hates America.

      In a recent article on the Tea Party in Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi writes:

     “It would be inaccurate to say the Tea Partiers are racists. What they are, in truth, are narcissists. They're completely blind to how offensive the very nature of their rhetoric is to the rest of the country. I'm an ordinary middle-aged guy who pays taxes and lives in the suburbs with his wife and dog — and I'm a radical communist? I don't love my country? I'm a Redcoat? … These are the kinds of thoughts that go through your head as you listen to Tea Partiers expound at awesome length upon their cultural victimhood, surrounded as they are by America-haters like you and me or, in the case of foreign-born president Barack Obama, people who are literally not Americans in the way they are.”

     It’s not about race, members of the Tea Party maintain. It’s not even about social issues, like gay marriage or abortion (even though some of their candidates, including Sharron Angle in Nevada, proposed criminalizing abortion, even in the case of rape). It’s about the economy. And it’s about the role of government. We need to get government out of our lives. We need to lessen the role of Big Government in the economy. We need to lower taxes, and cut back on spending.

     Certainly, those all sound like laudable, common sense goals. But how do we do achieve them?

     Many of the Tea Partiers seem a bit short on details at times.

     Early in his campaign, Rand Paul, now Senator-elect from Kentucky and a physician by profession, denounced Medicare (let alone Obamacare) as “socialized medicine”. But it’s also true, of course, that eligible Tea Party activists sign up for Social Security and Medicare as surely as any of us have, or will. This past spring, when confronted with the proposal to reduce Medicaid payments to doctors like himself (half of his patients are on Medicaid), Rand Paul refused. “Cut government spending—but not for me!” could well be his mantra. Paul wants to gut the “Americans with Disabilities Act”; he wants to abolish the Department of Energy and the Department of Education-- but won’t even consider touching doctors’ compensation from the federal government. Why? Because he’s a doctor. “Physicians,” he says, “should be able to make a comfortable living.” As, indeed, they should. Even though American physicians make, on average, about three times what a French or British physician makes. There may be very good reasons for that—but let’s not wrap our doctors’ bills in the American flag!

     The Tea Partiers don’t like all these bailouts for big banks—another pillar in the Obama administration’s program to bring socialism to America. But, of course, they forget (or ignore) the fact that the bank bailout – T.A.R.P.—the Troubled Asset Relief Program—was signed into law, not by Obama the Antichrist, but by his esteemed predecessor, George W. Bush, on October 3, 2008.

Maybe this is quibbling, I know. We should never let the facts get in the way of the point we're trying to make. It doesn’t really matter who signed T.A.R.P. into law—Obama is to blame for it. Back last spring, when I did my part-time stint as a census taker here in Stoughton, I knocked on the door of a house a couple of streets over and actually had someone harangue me about how the census was a plot by “Obama and the Democrats” to spy on the American people. I had a feeling that a history lesson on how the census started in 1790, during the administration of President George Washington (who wasn’t a Democrat, and I’m sure wasn’t a socialist, either) wasn’t going to do any good. So I just excused myself and left.

     It really has gotten that crazy (and, as Alice says, “stupid”) in some circles, and that, frankly, scares me. I know that political Mad Hatters aren’t confined to the Tea Party, or even to the political right. There are plenty of left-wing crackpots with their own conspiracy theories, too, I admit.

     But financed as they are by huge amounts of corporate money; with influential friends at the heights of the media; with ties to shadowy armed organizations and a propensity for using violence against those who oppose them; operating in this time of great social and economic upheaval-- when I look out at the growth of the Tea Party movement, I worry about where this country of ours is headed.

     I know I could be engaging here in a bit of leftist alarmism—my own bit of conspiracy theorizing perhaps. Or maybe I’m just jealous, because the American Left does seems so impotent and ineffectual in getting its word across. (Maybe that’s because the Left still has too much disdain for “bumper sticker” ideology, or too much regard for a well-reasoned approach to the truth. Or maybe it’s because the Leftist elite has become isolated and out of touch from the ways in which “everyday” Americans think and reason and react. That could well be.)  

     Perhaps I am being alarmist. But sometimes, I worry that I do sniff in the ire of the Tea Party the first whiffs of a New American Fascism, and that, at the very least,  we need to be careful, and vigilant, and keep our eyes open in the days ahead.

     In 1947, just after the battle against Nazism and Japanese militarism had been won, the U.S. government (then under the leadership of that arch-Leftist Democrat Harry S. Truman) released a short film called Don’t be a Sucker. (You can watch it on Youtube; it’s about a half hour long.)

     The film sets out to show how a fascist government could come to power in America. It would do it, the film said, by dividing people against each other. By telling the American people that those “other people” weren’t really Americans. That they were here to destroy the "American Way of Life” That it’s up to “real Americans” to “take back our country”. Sound familiar?

     But the voice of reason in the film points out—the voice, actually, of a Hungarian refugee who had fled the Nazi takeover of his country and had emigrated to America—that “We have no ‘other’ people in America. We are all American people.” He stands up and tells his neighbors that it’s up to all of us “to guard everyone’s liberty or to lose our own.” There is no “us” and “them” here. There is only “We, the people.”

    That means that we need to start talking to one another again. And listening to one another again. In our civic life, that means concentrating on finding ways in which everyone is treated fairly and equitably; in finding ways that government ministers to the needs of common, everyday folk like you and me, and to those who less than you and I do, and not just to the needs of the already powerful and wealthy. In our political life, it means using the intelligence and wisdom in this land and finding ways to put people back to work; finding ways to stop wasting money; finding ways to use the best ideas among us—wherever they come from—to solve the awesome problems our nation faces, and that our world faces.

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

          May we firmly plant our nation’s flag in the solid ground of liberty and law, in self-control and reason, in common sense and civility toward one another again.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Spiritual Spring Cleaning (Sunday, April 3, 2011)

            My dear Elizabeth took a day off from work this week so that we could do something really special, something we had been looking forward to doing for a long time.
            No, not go out to lunch at our favorite restaurant.
            No, not go up to one of the art houses in Cambridge to see one of those new films we’ve been wanting to see.
            No, not take in the latest exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts.
            No. We cleaned the cellar. We got about three-quarters of it done, too, maybe even a little more. And it felt good. (Now, we just have to get that last little section done before we start dumping stuff down there again. It’s one of those jobs kind of like washing the windows on the Empire State Building. It never ends, really.)

            I don’t think I’d qualify for the A&E television series Hoarders, or whatever it’s called. (I have absolutely no inclination to watch any kind of “reality” television, but especially that program. It sounds rather pathetic, actually.) But like many of you, I suspect, I have lots of trouble throwing things away.
            The cellar was full of boxes and boxes of things I had clipped from newspapers and magazines over the years, each with its own little bit of information I might  need “some day”—for a sermon, for a book, for whatever…
Or, they actually were things—clippings, articles, what have you—that I had used—for a sermon or a book or whatever—but now couldn’t bear to throw away.
But now, 99.9% of those clippings now await transport to a local recycling bin, as do back issues of Budget Travel, and old TV Guides, and The Economist stretching back to the late-1990s, which might have been the last time I got rid of some of this stuff. They’re gone now, or going…
            Now, before Easter, when company’s coming, sticking their head into things, I have to tackle the refrigerator—and all those jars of condiments, with a smidgen or this and a smidgen of that. I have to get rid of last year’s horseradish, so I can make room for this year’s. I think the stuffed green olives from Thanksgiving can go. We ate three of them, after all. Maybe one jar of Major Grey’s chutney is enough, instead of two or three.

            Then, at some point, I need to get into the closet in the bedroom, too, and decide which clothes to keep and which to bring to St. Vincent’s. Am I going to be the “Big Jeff” this year or the “Very Big Jeff”? (You can probably track all the diets I’ve been on for the past ten years by the measurement of the clothes in my closet.) “Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide...” Between the size 34 waist and the size 38; between the Size XL and the plain old L.
            There comes a time, even for pack rats like some of us, when it’s time for a purge. It’s time to get into the closet and toss (or, even better, recycle). It’s time, every once in a while, for a bit of cleaning—and what better time for that than the spring?
            This spring seems to have been a little sluggish in getting here, but at least Easter is late this year, so it has until April 24 to get its act together.
            Various cultures have their own rituals for the spring: The Jewish ritual of chametz takes place every year the week before Passover (which starts at sundown on April 19 this year). In chametz, an observant Jewish family will toss out every bit of last year’s grain, in a ritual reenactment of the actions of their ancestors in Egypt, as they prepared to escape pharaoh. Every old crumb hanging around in the kitchen—every kernel in the corner—everything has to swept up and thrown out. Everything must go so that the whole kitchen or pantry is spotlessly cleaned; and the special Passover dishes are washed and scrubbed thoroughly; and the new season of spring can start with a fresh and clean start.

In the Christian tradition, there is Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday, which was March 9 this year. The forty days of Lent symbolize the forty days Jesus spent in the desert, where he had gone off by himself to fast in preparation for his entry into Jerusalem. So, during Lent, in the Catholic tradition especially, Christians are asked to fast, or at least to give something up-- to cleanse themselves physically and spiritually, in order to prepare for the coming of the Easter season.

In our more secularized culture today, we’re more likely to engage in spring cleaning before Easter in order to prepare for the coming of the Easter Bunny: so that someone won’t reach for an Easter egg at the hunt, and pull out a “dust bunny” instead!

For many reasons, then, different cultures direct some kind of spring cleaning—mainly, I think, because it makes us feel good; it puts us in-sync with the new energy flowing in the earth at this season of new life. When we clean a room, or a cellar, or the refrigerator, it feels like things can breathe again, like there’s new energy flowing.

That is, after all, one of the basic principles of the Chinese art of feng shui. In order to have a healthy and prosperous life, your chi—your life force, your energy—has to be able to flow. Too much clutter—in your house, or even in one’s own body—blocks the flow of energy. The chi can’t flow if it’s constantly bumping up against furniture and stuff and piles of papers and more stuff.

Now, we need to de-clutter our homes from time to time in order to let the energy flow. This is no less true of our souls. The spirit—we might say soul—of each of us is our vital center. It’s the core of our being; our innermost psychological sanctuary. Now, we might pile a lot of junk in the cellar or in the attic; but we wouldn’t think of cluttering up our sanctuary here at church that way, would we? We wouldn’t stack boxes in the aisles, or stacks of newspaper in the choir loft, would we? No, we want that to be nice and clean; the aisles clear; the air and the light and the sound able to flow. Maybe we need to take care of the sanctuaries of our inner beings that way, too.

But too often, we allow our souls to get cluttered. They even get grimy, and dirty, and from time to time, they need a good scrubbing—or at least some cleaning out, some re-arranging. As a writer named Gaylah Balter puts it, “Why, you ask, would the soul need any spring cleaning? [Because] as our daily lives unfold, we lose track of our souls’ needs… Noise, clutter, stress, or life chaos seep into our lives and dim our ability to care-take our souls.”

Noise—clutter—stress—all things we get our fair share of, certainly. If we don’t take time to sort through them, they before long they become a severe burden to our souls. If we don’t question whether they are positive additions to our beings or not—and rid ourselves of their excess—then all this noise, clutter, and stress can cause great internal dis-ease. Whatever the relationship is between internal and external dis-ease (and that’s an open question), we know that the relationship is there. Sometimes, stress makes us sick; it even kills. We know that a person who is more in balance on the inside will probably be happier (and perhaps healthier) on the outside.

So, how’s your chi flowing? How are you feeling? Have you taken the pulse of energy around you lately? Maybe you’re like me: a little tired, a little rundown and stuffy, feeling a little stuck. This long train of New England winters can do that to us. (Especially this past winter, which was kind of a tough one.) But there is also something within these human spirits of ours which can remind us, if we listen, that even in the midst of winter, even here in New England, there is always a new spring right around the corner.

But oftentimes, both in nature and inside each of us, there is yet another season between winter and spring. It gets overlooked sometimes, except maybe in Vermont, but it’s there; that’s Mud Season. The snow’s gone, but it sure as heck isn’t spring yet; the ground is loosening up, but it’s got to dry out a tad before anything can grow.

I once heard about a dirt road in Vermont which used to get awfully worn and rutted during Mud Season. It was just about impassable to all but the most intrepid, so much so that the town fathers and town mothers thought it might be helpful to post a sign by the side of the road, warning about the treacherous conditions. “Choose your rut carefully,” the sign said. “You’ll be in it for the next ten miles.”

Often in life, we end up in ruts which we may or may not have chosen, for 10 years, or 20, or even more: Ruts of addiction. Ruts of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. Ruts of relationships that don’t work any more. Ruts of not being able to get out of our own way. Ruts of not being able to forgive someone for something they’ve done to us. Ruts of not being able to forgive ourselves. Ruts of laziness and sloth. Ruts of perfectionism and self-sufficiency. Ruts of self-indulgence. Ruts of self denigration. Comfortably numb ruts which make us not want to change anything about our lives, even when they’ve grown too small or too limited or even lifeless.

There’s a rut out there for everyone (maybe a good half dozen for some of us), and we all get stuck in ruts at different times in our lives. But a little spiritual spring cleaning can help us clean out those inner passageways, and climb out of some of those ruts. And we do it one rut at a time.

Perhaps the first step in the process of spiritual spring cleaning is to take a personal inventory. Discover what it is that you want to change, that you need to change. Decide whether it is something you have the power to change. Then discern what tools your life has given you for making the change. Discover. Decide. Discern. That means finding some time to step aside from the busyness of life, if just for a little while, and listen for that inner voice, and ask ourselves, “What is life trying to tell me?” Just as we need to take a day off from work to clean the cellar sometimes, so we might need to take some time by ourselves to consider these questions of who we truly are.

Then, if you get some answers, you don’t have to change everything at once. Indeed, that might be the worst thing to do. If we try to clean our houses that way, we’re asking for disaster; we’ll probably just end up with that many more unfinished projects. We start cleaning the closet in the den; then go on to the closet in the bedroom; then we go into the cellar; then we start the attic. Before we know it, we have a half dozen half-done projects all around the house, just adding to the clutter and chaos.

The same thing happens if we try to change everything that needs changing in our lives all at once. We may create more problems without solving the ones we’ve got. It seems wiser, I think, to focus on that one thing that’s crying out the loudest for you to change. You probably know what it is already. It’s the two ton elephant, sitting in the middle of the sanctuary of your soul. Concentrate on getting rid of that – one step at a time—then move on to the next challenge.

But start somewhere. Start to change. Start to rearrange your souls, so they might blossom forth abundantly. As the poet Rumi reminds us, “Don’t fall back asleep!” Don’t descend back into the interminable winter of your soul. Don’t listen to that voice telling you (and it’s probably your own voice, really): “Maybe this rut isn’t so bad. It’s a pretty comfortable rut. Maybe I’ll hang around here for another 10 or 20 years.”

Someone once said (and maybe it was me that said it, but I can’t remember): The only difference between a rut and a grave is how high the sides are.”

As Anais Nin reminds us, if we are to be truly alive, for all of us there will come that blessed day when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the pain it took to blossom.

The time for hibernation is over. It’s time to get out of bed, and out of our ruts. “Don’t fall back asleep.” Begin your journey of spiritual change and growth.

“Clean your room well,” the old Shakers tell us, “for good spirits will not live where there is dirt.”

May we create that space within for a good spirit to grow, as well.