"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Blessing of Being Down to Earth (Sunday, October 23, 2011)

Fall is a late this year, but I think that it has finally arrived. You can never tell for sure, but I think we are finally done with Indian Summer. The nights have turned quite cold. There is that chill in the air most mornings. The color on the trees seems more subdued this year (matching the mood of the world, I suppose);  but the leaves have started to litter the lawn (there will be plenty more where those came from); snatches of red and yellow and orange are readily to be seen; and once again, New England’s nature has begun her incomparable death dance of fall.

As fall finally gets here, even the most deskbound of us start wanting to be outside more, before the forced hibernation and isolation of winter begins in earnest.

As I was growing up, I didn’t spend a lot of time out of doors. I was a city boy, and I spent my free time in movie theaters and libraries—which were good, as far as they went. But whatever images of nature I had tended to come from the flickering black and white picture of the television screen.

But I do remember my grandmother’s flower garden…

It would have been a lovely spot anywhere, but it was especially glorious, I think, situated there, in that rundown, working class neighborhood in Woonsocket where I grew up:

The colors—lavenders and golds and deep violet blues—and lots and lots of pink, I seem to remember—all upheld by a sturdy, resilient foundation of life-giving green. And the smell—the scent of it all—jasmine and lilac; the aristocratic perfume of roses; and the almost overpowering aroma of the long, continuous carpets of chamomile, which my grandmother would grow, and harvest, and hang to dry, and from which she would make her own teas.

A truly amazing garden of an amazing flower of a woman! With what ease she could make the soil yield such treasures! With what care she tended the blessings of the earth!

My grandmother was not an educated woman, and I doubt she attended school for a day in her life. She never did master English completely, in spite of almost seventy years in this country, and she spoke, till her dying day, with a deep and unmistakable Ukrainian accent.

But she was a wise old soul—so very hard working—and  the people around her knew that she was wise. Other members of the Ukrainian community in our city would come to her for advice and counsel, to find out how she felt about some matter they were facing. She wore well the wisdom that comes, not from books and schooling, but rather the deep inner wisdom that comes from being down to earth.

But even my grandmother wasn’t perfect.

I remember sitting with her one evening, watching the news on television. I don’t remember what the particular news story was, but, as so often is the case, it wasn’t good news. I remember her turning to me at the end of the broadcast, and with her thick Eastern European accent at its thickest and most Eastern European, she said: “Jeffrey, do you know what dee problem eez vit dees country?”

“No, babchu,” I answered, “what do you think the problem is?”

And she looked right at me, her eyes steely gray and cold, and she replied: “Too many foreigners!”

She was down to earth. She was wise. But there were connections she didn’t make. She didn’t make the (rather obvious) connection between her experience as a foreigner in a strange land at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the experience of refugees and immigrants in our own day. She was so narrow-minded sometimes; so alarmingly prejudiced and stubborn—as hard as the frozen ground in winter. She failed, too, to make the connection between the marvelous diversity of her garden—with its myriad colors and patterns and shapes—and the very same diversity which our human race exhibits. She did not tolerate differences in people well.

Sometimes, simply being down to earth just is not enough.

Just before his martyrdom, the fourth century Christian saint Jerome wrote: “I have revered always not crude verbosity, but sancta simplicitas (holy simplicity).”

A thousand years after St. Jerome, the Bohemian radical Jan Huss, the great precursor of the Protestant Reformation, stood condemned for refusing to countenance the greed and degeneracy of the Church of his own day. As he stood tied to the stake in Prague, Huss saw a simple old peasant approach, emerging out of the crowd, holding high another torch to throw upon the fire, one more piece of timber to keep lit the fires of superstition and hypocrisy. Huss looked at the old peasant, then repeated sadly those words of St. Jerome: “O sancta simplicitas!” he cried. Sancta simplicitas—holy simplicity.

Holy simplicity can sometimes be very unholy, indeed.

It may be tempting sometimes to want to jettison all of our intellectual sophistication; get rid of all of our book knowledge, our learning, and our theories; to jettison all of this and to return, somehow, to simpler and more primal and direct ways of knowing. Especially when the world seems to have grown too complex for us to handle, and when the complexity of the world puts us in chains and fetters; when it turns us all into vacillating Hamlets, unable to decide what to do, unable to act—then we may well yearn for those seemingly simpler ways.

In her delicate, beautiful masterwork, Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote:

“…We must consciously encourage those pursuits which oppose the centrifugal forces of today. Quiet times alone, contemplation, prayer, music, a centering line of thought or reading, of study or work. It can be physical or intellectual or artistic, any creative life proceeding from oneself. It need not be an enormous project or a great work. But it should be something of one’s own. Arranging a bowl of flowers in the morning can give a sense of quiet to a crowded day—like writing a poem, or saying a prayer. What matters is that one be for a time inwardly attentive.”

Perhaps this is what it means to be “down to earth” in a positive and healthy sense. It doesn’t mean being rude. It doesn’t mean stubbornly clinging to our prejudices. It doesn’t mean refusing to stray from the well worn path we’ve walked down so many times before.

But it does mean ordering our lives so that we are “inwardly attentive”. It means endeavoring to live our lives so that we are attuned to the natural rhythms within ourselves, and within the Earth—the natural ebb and flow of life all around us.

Ideas are wonderful things. Learning is a magnificent thing. We have before us now, through whatever media we choose, a storehouse of the excitement and wisdom of the ages, now made accessible for all of us.

But beware the clutter, my friends—clutter of ideas, no less than of stuff.

 In our modern age, especially, where we are so overwhelmed by the sheer size and volume of everything before us, the tendency we have is to clutter things up. Sometimes, our lives, too, can become so cluttered by learning and ideas that it becomes very easy to lose sight of what we actually do think, and how we actually do feel. We can become so cluttered with ideas and intellectualization about life that we are no longer attuned to the living of life.

If we come to a fork in the road, and one path says “To life”, and the other says “To a discussion about life”, should there really be any doubt about down which path we would choose to proceed? But some of us, if truth be told, might not be sure… and that’s a problem.

Then it becomes our calling to find some way—creative work, prayer, meditation, therapy, a change of vocation, an escape to a cabin in the woods, whatever—some way to get back into life, back down to the earth, to get back in tune with the rhythm of life.

That rhythm is often “a lament in one ear and a song in the other," as Sean O’Casey once said. But if we are alive, can we do anything other than sing that song at the top of our voices, with fullness of heart?

If life is short (and it is sort, in the light of eternity, certainly), then let us love it all the more for its shortness. If we must be nothing more than worms, then as Churchill once suggested, let us be glowworms—human glowworms, vibrant, living, loving creatures, a delight to all who witness our work here. Let us be human glowworms with faith and hope and creativity enough to set even the darkest corners of our own gardens ablaze with our passion for life, and our love for this Earth which has brought us to birth.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Dance of Memory and Hope (Sunday, October 16, 2011)

             It’s amazing how these minds of ours work (when they do work). The past never totally desserts us. The ties that bind us to the past are always there within us. We carry them around every single day of our lives. We might neglect them, or move beyond them, or even forget about them for a while; we might cover them up; deny them; lose track of them. But then, sometimes, the least little spark can reenergize them. And then, for good or for ill, there we are—right back where we never thought we’d be again.

            The past is not all sweetness and light, of course. Sometimes, we greet it again with sadness, pain, or bitterness. But even then, it’s part of who we are; we neglect its lessons only at our own peril.

            As for those blessed memories of the past—the happy memories, which gladden our hearts and inspire and strengthen us—what a great gift of grace it is to be able to summon them up from time to time, to allow them to touch our lives so gently with their smile—as though to remind us of what a precious gift of God this life is, and that, as living memories we possess the greatest gift that one person can give to another.

            Of course, we can’t live in the past. But we can live with the past. Or rather, the past can live within us still: which can be both a real blessing and a real challenge.

            But life doesn’t go backwards. “Life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday,” is how Gibran put it. The great lesson of the fall (this season of fall, which seems to be taking forever to get here this year)—this fall season of our lives that some of us are in, that the rest of us will be in before we know it—is that we have to learn to let go, to let go of so many things, so many dear ones, as our lives unfold—like the passing year.

            But our lives don’t always seem to pass as gradually and gracefully as the passing year. Sometimes, these lives of ours hurtle forward like a madcap roller coaster ride at Six Flags or some such place. Exciting, and scary, and energizing while we’re on it; but the end always comes much too quickly, however long we’ve been there. (But maybe we get to ride it again at some great Amusement Park beyond our knowledge? Who knows?)

            So often, it seems as though we view the days of our lives through a rear-view mirror, as we rush forward to our next goal, our next achievement, the next milestone of our lives. So often what we need to do, then—however old or however young we may be—is slow down in all of our busyness and haste to get things done and to arrive at our next destination; slow down and experience this day—this hour—this moment we have before us right now—because, you know what? It is never going to come back again, and if we ride roughshod over it, and ignore it, and refuse to live it fully, we’ll never be able to add its precious value to our great treasure chest of memory.

            This precious moment—right now—is the great point at which both living memories and living hopes meet and greet and dance with one another. The living moment—right now—holds within it the sum total of all that has been; it points forward toward all that will ever be. And it needs to do it gracefully, like a dance, stepping neither too much one way, nor too much the other; neither locked in the ways of the past; nor ignoring the past in a mad dash to the future. But feigning first one way, then the other; looking backward one moment, then forward the next; remembering the past, caring for the future, but all the while savoring and enjoying the music and movement and flow of where we are and what we’re doing right now.

            That is how hope is born in the womb of history. By living our lives fully right now, and at the same time forging those ties—strong and true—that connect us to the future. How we care for our children. How we care for one another. How we care for the Earth. The decisions we make today determine what kind of place this world will be.

            That is what hope is all about. Hope is our willingness to do our work well today, so that tomorrow will be good for those who come after us. It doesn’t really matter whether we live to see the end results of what we’re building or not. Of course, we want to see it; but that’s not really what matters. Hope is about doing our work well so that the ties that bind us to those who come after us will be firm and secure and life-supporting; so that the memories we leave will be sweet dreams of the past and not nightmares that continue to haunt the future.

Victor Frankl ranks as one of the greatest psychologists of the 20th century. He was one of the leading intellectuals of his day, an esteemed scholar, and a best-selling author. But his most important credential, perhaps, was that he was a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. Certainly, the heart and soul of his work, especially his masterwork, Man’s Search for Meaning, emerged out of what he observed and experienced in the camps. During this most horrible period in his life, Frankl, like so many others, lost all of his family—his wife, his parents and siblings. He lost almost everything he owned.  Yet, like numerous others, he survived the horror.

Frankl tells us, who merely languished, faded away, and then, finally died. There came a moment, Frankl wrote, when the people around just knew that a fellow prisoner had given up hope, and was preparing to expire. “He would go quiet, smoke a last cigarette he had been hoarding, refuse to get out of bed, ignore threats or blows, and soon, usually within a day, the prisoner would die.”

Frankl once among the first to discern the connection between mind and body, the relationship between attitude and health-- between finding meaning in life and survival itself. He and those like him had survived the camps, Viktor Frankl maintained, because they had never given up hope. What Frankl observed was the value of hope, even in the most hopeless-- the most deplorable and ghastly--  conditions. “Whoever is joined with all the living has hope,” the book of Ecclesiastes tells us. And, Viktor Frankl discovered that it is the one who has hope who stays connected with life-- indeed, who stays alive. Daring to hope can make all the difference between life and death. Hope makes all the difference in determining whether our lives will be rich in meaning or devoid of it.

It is also interesting, I think, that in Spanish the word for to hope “esperar” is the same as the word for “to wait”. Espero means “I hope”; it also means “I wait”. There is pregnant in each moment of our living upon this earth an anticipation of what is to come next-- a sense of not knowing what awaits us-- coupled with a sense not of dread, but of hope.

One more etymological nugget I came across recently is that the English word “hope” is also related to the English word “hop”. When we hope, we hop to life. We spring into life. We jump at the possibilities. We leap at the prospect of what might be awaiting us. While we wait, we hope. And while we hope-- why not hop?

People who find meaning in their lives not only have lives that are rich in hopefulness. They also go through life, I think, as sort of spiritual Energizer Bunnies, hopping from adventure to adventure, possibility to possibility, hope to hope.

This doesn’t mean that they pretend that life is a bed of roses. No one who has spent more than a few years in this world can pretend that any of our lives can ever be free of their share of pain and sadness, despair and even times of hopelessness. People will let us down; we will be disappointed sometimes. Some of our goals won’t be achieved, however hard we try. Those we love will get sick and pass away.

There is a good deal of life that we have to accept for what it is, and that often isn’t very pleasant.

But hope knows how to accept. It knows how to wait. And on the next blank page of life, it delicately writes its dream of what can be next.

Hope reminds us to look back at the best memories we have, and to build on them. It reminds us to look back at the best examples from our human story—to those who were most true to their calling to full humanity—and to learn from them.

Hope reminds us that we can live in relationships where we love one another. We can hope for a community-- and even a world-- where all children are cared for, and educated, and given something to hope for. We can live in a world where all sons and daughters of God are guaranteed basic human freedoms; where their needs are met; where their sacred diversity is appreciated and celebrated. We can hope to do our part to make this world better for our having been here.

There is a story about a young British couple in their 20s who were on holiday in Indonesia. They had been talking about their future, especially whether or not they should get married. She wanted to; he didn’t. Suddenly, the ferryboat they were on ran aground during a storm, started taking on water, and began to sink. They clambered for a lifeboat, but so did too many others, and soon, the lifeboat, too, foundered. So, the young couple set off swimming, calling out for each other in the storm. Finally, they came to a spar, and clung to it for dear life, waiting to be rescued. Eventually, five other passengers joined them, but one by one, the others ran out of strength, let go of the spar, and dropped off into the water to drown. Finally, after thirteen hours, help managed to arrive through the storm, and the couple was rescued.

Asked later how they had managed to hold on for so long, the couple really didn’t know what to say. Finally, the young woman responded: “Well, we remembered all the things we had done together. We told jokes. We sang to each other.” “We promised that if we made it, we’d get married straight away,” the man added. “It was almost like a test,” the young woman went on. “As though some great power had asked us a question. How could we let go then?

The book of memory reminds us how much we have invested in this life. How can we let go then?

But hope also reminds us that it is not enough to cling to the past. It is not enough to drift passively through life. Hope means active engagement in life. There is a responsibility of hope. Commitment and service and responsibility are the price we pay for the gift of life we have been given.

May memory continue to warm our hearts. May hope continue to keep us afloat. There is so much to hope for. There is so much to believe in. There is so much work for us to do together, hand in hand, memory by memory, hope by blessed hope.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Keeping Up Appearances (Sunday, October 9, 2011)

Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the great voices of 20th Century American Protestantism and one of the great preachers of his day, once said: “Existence is what you find. Life is what you create.” In a similar vein, I once saw a poster in a card shop which showed a little cabin, all alone in a clearing in the woods—and it proclaimed to all who saw it: “Whatever your lot in life, build something on it!”

Such is, broadly speaking, the overriding ethos of Western civilization. We are put here on this Earth to accomplish something, to leave behind something tangible when we’re gone.

I love Longfellow’s words that we shared earlier in the service: all that talk of “working in these halls of time” and building today “strong and sure”. They are words that ring true within me. We want to build something upon this Earth, leave behind some evidence that we were here when we’re gone. There’s nothing at all wrong with that.

But sometimes, I think that we get too hung up on thinking that we have to get it all right, that we have to do it perfectly. Or at least, that it has to seem that way.

Now, in case you haven’t noticed, perfection is not part of the specifications list of the standard human model. It’s not in our human job description, at least not as almost all of us actually do the job of being human.

Yet, still, we have convinced ourselves that we have to try. We have to pretend that there is such a thing as human perfection and that we are it—or damn close. Still, we strive to maintain the illusion of having it all together, all the time-- even when we know, deep down inside, that it’s really just an act. That is, sadly, the way we go through life, so very often; I think we do ourselves real psychological and spiritual (and sometimes, even physical) harm in the process.

Sometimes, perhaps, we are in the same boat with that little boy who, after arriving at school one morning, remembered that he was supposed to have brought his birth certificate: “Oh no,” he exclaimed, totally distraught, “I forgot my excuse for being born!”

Maybe some of us feel (sometimes at least) that we, too, need an excuse for having been born; or, that we have to “prove” that we deserve to be here; that all of our i’s have to be dotted, and all the our t’s need to be crossed, and all those ducks need to be in a row, in order for us prove ourselves “worthy” of a sense of gladness at the very fact of our existence. We have forgotten, it seems, that living on this Earth is not something we’ve earned through any of our own efforts. It’s a free and amazing gift of grace, pure and simple, and our calling is to get on with the actual living of our lives, and not merely play acting at them.

There lies the great snare of striving, at all costs, to keeping up the appearance of perfection. “There is tragedy in perfection,” wrote the 20th Century philosopher George Santayana, “because the universe in which perfection arises is itself imperfect.”

For we are imperfect, each one of us. That’s just the way we are made. “Everything God has made has a crack in it,” Emerson once said. But how often we seem to run from this fact of our existence.

Where does this need for keeping up appearances come from? In his book, How Good Do We Have to Be?,  the well-known rabbi Harold Kushner asks just that question, and offers a few possible explanations:

“Did we get it from our parents, who hoped we would make up for the empty spaces in their own lives?” Kushner asks. “From teachers who took for granted everything we did right and focused on every mistake? From religious leaders who told us that Adam and Eve broke one rule and were punished forever?”

He continues:

“Do women get the message of perfection from movies and fashion ads, featuring actresses and models with figures they can’t hope to match? Do men get it from relentless pressure to sell more, to earn more, and from a society that makes fun of losers in the Super Bowl for being only the second best football team in the world?”

How sad it is, Rabbi Kushner points out, that organizers of the National Spelling Bee every year have to provide a “comfort room” where children can go to cry, to yell, to scream, to be comforted and consoled when they misspell a single word and are eliminated from competition. These are young people who have just spelled dozens of words that neither you nor (most certainly not) I could ever hope to spell—who have made it to the National Finals for God’s sake—an amazing accomplishment! That’s something in which they ought to feel genuine pride— why should they need to feel awful about missing one single word?

(Rabbi Kushner adds that, to this day, he can’t see the word “judgment” without remembering that it was the word he got wrong in the finals of his elementary school spelling bee more than sixty

Of course, none of this makes any rational sense whatsoever. If there is one thing we all should have learned by now in our 36—or 57—or 65—or 80-something-- years on this planet, it’s that sometimes the veil is going to fall, and our human imperfections will lie exposed for all the world to see. And you know what? For most of us, almost all of the time, they’re no big deal. With the exception of those relatively few Really Bad Things that people sometimes do, most of us, most of the time, are drawing from that same, common pool of screw ups, dysfunctions, and bad judgments. Failed marriages; family estrangements; running up too much debt; giving into our baser instincts; not being as caring or compassionate as we should have-- challenges we face, certainly; sometimes, even real tragedies in our lives. But not reasons, really, for us to hang our heads in shame and exile ourselves from the land of the living; nor are they reasons to hide who we really are from others; because, in one way or another, I would bet that almost all of us have been there, or someplace similar.  

If you think of all the human interactions of which we are part—the countless interpersonal transactions we complete in the course of a day—there’s no surprise that, inevitably, we’re going to mess some of them up.

Let’s say that we complete 200 interactions in the course of a day: every single business transaction; every social interaction; every “hello” and “excuse me”; every “because I said so”; every “get your feet off the coffee table”. That would mean that we face at least 73,000 interactions in the course of a year. Which means that, if we only mess up 1% of them (and 99% is a good grade to strive for in most human endeavors, and it really is a good thing, I think, that most of us aren’t brain surgeons or air traffic controllers or head of the Federal Reserve), that means that we’ll each make 730 mistakes in the course of a year. We can make 730 mistakes a year-- and still get an A+!

Striving not to screw up too badly is a pretty good goal to seek. But it’s hardly perfection. It’s 730 reasons to feel regret; 730 times to wish we’d done it differently; 730 opportunities to know that we’re not perfect; 730 times to pick ourselves up, and try again.  

Looking at it differently, too, those 730 mistakes can also be a source of great hope. As Leo Buscaglia once said, “I pledge not to demand that you be perfect, until I am perfect myself. So, for now, we’re both safe.”

We don’t have to look at our imperfections as Mount Everests we have to scale to prove ourselves worthy, or as insurmountable Berlin Walls that separate us from one another. Instead, we can see our imperfections as bridges that connect us to one another—pathways of our shared humanity—common ground that we can use as a foundation for sharing our stories with one another, and comforting one another, and learning from one another.

Being willing to share openly our human imperfections, without shame and without fear, is the basis of true compassion; and compassion (and the deep humility which it ought to engender) form the basis of a living spirituality.

Rabbi Kushner also wrote: “I believe in a God who knows how complicated human life is, how difficult it is to be a good person at all times, and who expects not a perfect life, but an honest effort at a good one.”

Should we expect any more from one another, then, than a decent effort at a decent life?

And we are called upon to make that decent effort. We are called to try to live up to our highest ideals. Reminding ourselves that we aren’t perfect is not the same as saying that we ought not to try to do our best. As gifted, talented, creative human beings (which we all are, or have the potential to be, in so many diverse and amazing ways), we are called upon to be true to the best that is within us. It can be a handy excuse, I suppose, to say, “Well, I can’t be perfect, I can’t do it all, so I’m not going to do anything to better myself, my family, my community, my world.” That’s a cop-out people take sometimes, too.

But it’s hardly the way to lead a full and worthwhile life, either. There is a vast difference between being a perfectionist (which is not healthy, in my opinion) and a lifelong striving for excellence (which is certainly commendable).

Even though the boundary between the two can get fuzzy at times, we do have inside of us these internal barometers which help us to know the difference. Call it conscience, or intuition, or instinct, or the voice of God in the soul, or what have you; if we listen to it, and use it to help us weigh and measure our actions, then we can discern what’s going on. This internal barometer can help to remind us—to remind ourselves--  when we’re “keeping it real” and when we’re play acting (because sometimes, even that’s not as easy as you might think). Very simply, real living and play acting feel different from one another, deep down inside.

Real living is willing to show that it can be wrong sometimes, that it has made mistakes, that it still has so much to learn.

Keeping up appearances has to be right all the time; its entire reason for being is not to let the facade drop.

Real living is willing to take risks.

Keeping up appearance is based on fear; it clings to the well-worn, well rehearsed pathway, though all else be lost.

Real living feels empowering.

Keeping up appearances feels like anger and frustration.

Real living is spontaneous.

Keeping up appearances is about control.

Real living is accepting.

Keeping up appearance is judgmental—not just of others, but just as much of ourselves.

Real living goes forth in confidence.

Keeping up appearances clings to the rock of its own self-doubt.

Real living is all about going with the flow.

Keeping up appearances is standing still like Atlas, holding on our shoulders a world of false premises.

Keeping up appearances is a Potemkin village of a life, a false fa├žade behind which lurks nothing of real and abiding value. It’s a stop sign, which seeks to control the wild highway of life

Real living is, in sum, an ongoing, never-ending journey of heart, and mind, and soul.

These lives of ours are never, truly, like Game Seven of the World Series, where there’s just one winner. Nor are they the Super Bowl—where there’s only one “best team”, and everyone else is a loser.  

Life is always Opening Day of another season of our living, another step along the way of our great pilgrimage.

May we be sustained by hope as we continue our journey, and may we find courage to travel unafraid. May we delight in the presence of our fellow pilgrims, every step of the way. And may we share openly and honestly the gifts of who we are with our fellow creatures in this world.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Scapegoats (Sunday, October 2, 2011)

            I didn’t plan on talking about baseball this morning, really I didn’t. Because I always get the feeling that when I do, I kind of sound like George Will, talking about… Bruce Springsteen—something he just doesn’t (really) understand. Or I sound like George Will talking about baseball, which is almost as bad.

            I didn’t plan on talking about baseball. I was going to look at the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, and the historical and religious role of the scapegoat. But then, events of the past week (of last Wednesday night, to be precise) reminded me of the long, jaded connection between scapegoats and baseball, so here we are. Talking about… the Chicago Cubs.

            The Chicago Cubs haven’t been to a World Series since 1945. (They haven’t won one since 1908.) According to a website called “The Cubs Are Losers” (.com), in the years since the Cubs won the World Series:

  1. The radio was invented.
  2. Four states have been admitted to the Union.
  3. The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  4. The television was invented.
  5. The U.S. went through the Great Depression.
  6. The U.S. has participated in two World Wars and three major armed conflicts.
  7. The National Football League was founded.
  8. Man landed on the moon.
  9. Halley's comet has passed the Earth-- twice.

And so on...

But faith abides, and hope springs eternal, and the year 2003 was going to be different, Cubs fans said. Sure enough, that year, the Cubs made it to the National League Championship Series, and were playing the Florida Marlins for the title. They were at Wrigley Field in Chicago; it was the eighth inning of Game Six, with the Cubs ahead in the series, three games to two. The Cubs were ahead, 3-0; they were just five outs away from going to the World Series!

            The batter for the Marlins was Luis Castillo. With the count at 3 and 2, Castillo hit a long foul ball toward the left field wall. As Cubs outfielder Moises Alou reached for the ball, so did a Cubs fan named Steve Bartman.  Bartman  got there first. The ball bounced off his hand and into the stands. The Cubs pleaded for a call of fan interference, but the umpire said no. So, Alou was still alive, and he got a hit; so did the next Marlin batter; and the next. The Florida Marlins went on to score seven runs in the inning; won Game Six; then Game Seven—and they (and not the Chicago Cubs)  went to the 2003 World Series (against the New York Yankees, of course).  

            That did not make poor Steve Bartman too popular in Chicago. He had been a Cubs fan all his life; he coached Little League. But now, he was the Most Hated Man in the Anerican Mid West. He was led out of Wrigley Field with a police escort. People booed him; hissed at him; called him names. Some even threw beer cans and trash at him. He had become the scapegoat for all those decades of the Cubs’ failure; the cause of all those fans’ pain and despair and heartbreak.

            Now, rationally, of course, we can say that it wasn’t Bartman’s fault. He didn’t throw the pitches that let the Marlins score seven runs. He didn’t strike out in the ninth, or fail to get on base. He didn’t decide whether or not to change pitchers or send in a pinch hitter. (Others in Chicago still blame the “Billy Goat Curse” rather than Bartman for the Cubs’ failure: It’s all the fault of a curse placed on the Cubs by a billy goat who was denied entrance to a World Series game at Wrigley Field in 1945; the Cubs haven’t made the Series since; it must be the goats’ fault; he cursed us, some Cubs fans say.)

            Of course, we know rationally that this is nonsense. It isn’t the goat’s fault that the Cubs lose. The ancient Hebrews knew that, too, I think. They probably understood that the scapegoat wasn’t really carrying their sins away into the wilderness. But they did understand, those ancient folk, an important psychological truth: that there is often something deep within us that needs a scapegoat sometimes, that needs someone to blame for all our ills.

            “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars…”

            But in the Jews.

            In the Muslims.

            In the gays.

            In the immigrants.

            In the blacks. In the whites. In the Asians.

            In the Democrats.

            In the Republicans.

            In the rich. In the poor.

            In anyone you can imagine.

            In anything there, handy to blame—

            That’s why “we are underlings.”

            Or, as the rap group Atmosphere sings in their song, “Scapegoat”:

            “It’s the east coast, no it’s the west coast,

            It’s public schools, it’s asbestos…

            It’s sleep, life, and death,

            It’s speed, coke, and meth,

            It’s hay fever, pain relievers…

            It stretches as far as the eye can see

            In reality… it’s everything but me,

            On and on and on and on,

            The list goes on and on and on and on,

            The list goes on and on and on…

            The Ancient Hebrews knew that we have within us sometimes this need to pile our blame on someone or something, this need to unload all of our rage and shame and guilt. So, rather cleverly I think, they instituted the ritual of the scapegoat as part of their Day of Atonement observance:

            Bartman, they would throw their trash and wine bottles at it. Then it would be led into the wilderness, where it would have to fend for itself, cut off from the community.

            The purpose of this ritual was to make the goat the substitute for all of the sins—individual and collective—of the community. It allows a group of people not to have to take responsibility for their own failings or those of others, but to put them on something outside of themselves. But at least ancient Israel had the compassion and the good sense to choose a non-human subject for its substitute. All too often in human history, we choose other people as our scapegoats. We turn that person into an object; we de-humanize them; we see them as the cause of all evil, all of our problems, a tool of the devil. And then, we would have them cast from our midst; banished—or, in extreme cases, even annihilated.  

            There have been variations on the theme over time. As one of my colleagues has written: “When you look down through… history, it seems like every culture has a place for the scapegoat—and usually, no one ever volunteers for the job.”

            And sometimes, it really was a job; what people did in life. I’m sure you’re heard of the term “whipping boy”. It’s a figure of speech we use now to denote someone whom everyone piles their blame for something on (kind of like the scapegoat). Well, there really were literal “whipping boys” once upon a time—young, impoverished orphans, whose duty it was to be punished for the wrong-doings done by the prince, whose tender, royal skin (I suppose) couldn’t be touched. So, if the prince did something wrong—the whipping boy took the lash.

            Whipping boys didn’t volunteer for their positions; but “sin eaters” did. Back in Wales in the 16th century, there were people who made their living by eating the sins of others. Here’s how it worked back then: When a person died, his (or her) family would lay the body out in his (or her) coffin, and then put a loaf of bread on top. They would then carry the coffin outside, still topped with the loaf of bread, and that’s when they’d call in the “sin eater”. The family would pay give the sin eater the loaf of bread, a bowl of beer, and sixpence, and the sin eater would agree to devour the bread, and with it, consume all the sins of the deceased. That way, the dead person could go to heaven without sins on his (or her) soul, and the family could get on with its life, without worrying about the fate of their loved one. They got peace of mind, and the sin eater got bread, beer, and sixpence. A win-win situation!

            Now, all of this arcane historical information might be very interesting and all—but how does it pertain to us, modern men and women in this modern (or is it post-modern?) world? We don’t have literal scapegoats, whipping boys, or sin eaters any longer, so why should we care?

            Obviously, because scapegoats and whipping boys are still alive in our world today, figuratively if not literally. (I don’t know about “sin eaters”; that might just qualify as “arcane historical information”. But then  again, the way the economy is going, maybe it is a profession that could make a comeback.) As we have seen from the lists above, we still scapegoat others in our society today. It happens with sports teams. It happens in churches and workplaces. Sometimes, families will scapegoat one or more of their members—blame them for everything that has gone wrong, every problem the family has faced, all those times when reality did not live up to the ideal.

            Those who are scapegoated are usually the have-nots of society; those who cannot fight back or defend themselves; those who are powerless, marginalized, outcast. But not always. The danger with scapegoating is that too readily the tables can get turned, and sometimes, we who once felt safe can find ourselves in the scapegoaters target scope.

            About three years ago, a man walked into the Unitarian Universalist Church of Knoxville, Tennessee, pulled out a gun, and started shooting. He killed two people and wounded seven. Why did David Adkisson do it? Apparently, he was a fan of right wing talk radio (he especially liked Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, it seems) and, after hearing over and over again all the terrible things that “those liberals” were doing to the country, Adkisson decided to do something about it. He knew that Unitarian Universalism was a “liberal religion”, so he figured there must be a lot of liberals at the UU church, so he went there and started shooting them. They were his scapegoats for all of the problems America faced.

            In Norway, this past summer, a right wing extremist named Anders Brevik didn’t like liberals either. He didn’t like the way the liberal government was opening Norway to so many immigrants, for whom he had no use either. So, he rowed over to the island of Utoya, not too far outside of Oslo, where there was a youth camp run by the governing Labour Party, and shot and killed 69 people, mostly teenagers and young men and women in their twenties.  

            Anyone can become a scapegoat. That’s something the Jewish people have known for centuries. And that black people have known. And gay and lesbian people. And immigrants to a new land. And, sadly, that our Unitarian Universalist brothers and sisters in Knoxville know too well now, and the people of the lovely land of Norway.

And when people have not just sticks and stones and beer cans and taunts and obscenities— but guns, too—or hijacked airplanes—or all manner of technological mayhem-- scapegoating can be very dangerous indeed. Look at the mayhem of Nazi Germany to see what mayhem scapegoating can bring.

Before we start scapegoating others, then—blaming someone other than ourselves for the problems we face-- let us have the wisdom to stand back, and consider, and remember that the measure with which we judge another can so readily (and explosively) be turned back upon us, in the flicker of an eye.

The ancient Hebrews were psychological geniuses in a way, because they knew that, oftentimes, the weight of the past can hold us down. It can get in the way, and sap all of our energy and strength, and hold us back, if we don’t have some way of expiating—getting rid of—all of our past misdeeds and mistakes. So they devised an ingenious ritual for unloading all of that psychological garbage onto the back of that poor, despised scapegoat. Pile all of that sin up, then let the goat run free, off into the wilderness, never to be seen or heard from again.

But the choosing of the scapegoat was only the first part of the Atonement ritual. For our Jewish ancestors also knew that getting rid of the torments of the past was useless, unless it led to a new start, a great turning, a great change of heart, an At-One-Ment with our Creator.

“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today,” Franklin D. Roosevelt once said. “Let us move forward [then] with strong and active faith.”

“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.”

Our challenge as religious men and women is how we choose to act in the face of this life, over which we so often have no control. Will it be arrogance or humility? Hostility or hospitality? Do we choose to serve, or do we choose to blame?