"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Silent Night, Holy Night (Christmas Eve, Saturday, December 24, 2011)

When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:18-19)

Mary “pondered them in her heart”. She pondered what she had just seen, and heard, and experienced.

She didn’t join in the general brouhaha about this “big event” that had overtaken the little town of Bethlehem. She didn’t sell her story to the tabloids, and blare it all over the world. She didn’t tweet about it to all her friends, or post a status update about it on her Facebook page. She didn’t write a sermon analyzing what had happened, or write a poem about it, or draft a flow chart to organize and control the whole situation.

She didn’t just think about it, either, up in her head. She pondered it. In her heart.

She took the whole state of affairs into her very being, and she let it speak to her there. She remained still and quiet—quiet enough to hear what that holy night had to say to her.

Perhaps this is the best way we celebrate Christmas (and, unfortunately, probably the least likely): by pondering its deeper meanings in our hearts.

“Nothing in all creation is so like God as stillness,” Meister Eckhart once said.

 And T.S. Eliot once wrote:

I said to my soul, be still,
and let the dark come upon you
which shall be the darkness of God.

“Be still, and know that I am God,” the Psalmist commands us. And a Unitarian minister in Wayland, Massachusetts, many centuries later wrote: “O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing!”

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given,
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.

The holiest gift of Christmas comes not in grand or ostentatious gesture (though there is much to love in the way we celebrate Christmas that is grand and ostentatious). It doesn’t arrive with the Boston Pops playing in the background, or with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing “Alleluia!” at full throttle (though the allelulias add much to the splendor and magnificence of Christmas, too).

But tonight, on Christmas Eve, when all the hubbub has died down, and the last mall parking space has finally been found and fought over, and we’ve found the last stamp to send out that last Christmas card, and that last gift has (finally) been bought and wrapped and placed under the tree (maybe not paid for yet; that’s a January sermon, perhaps)—then the splendor and magnificence (and the noise and bother and tiredness and excess, which are their evil siblings) can retreat; they can go up to bed. Then quiet can come upon us, and the darkness can descend, and we are left alone at last with all that we have seen and heard. May we, too, like Mary—after the Wise Men had finally left, and after the shepherds had finally gone home, and Joseph had nodded off to sleep, and she was all alone, at last, with her babe in arms—may we, too, have the wisdom then to be still, to be silent, and to ponder the miracle of Christmas in our hearts.

And If we are still enough—silent enough on this holy night—and if our hearts are open enough, and clear of our addictions and afflictions, and agendas and egos—then we may yet hear the song of the angels that God has sent our way, and hear their glad tidings of great joy.

Christmas Eve is the great convergence—the holy vortex between our hopes and fears—between hope and history-- between heaven and earth. It represents life’s most profound moment, when God’s hand touches the humble stable at Bethlehem, and God’s love illuminates itself fully in the heart and the life of the great man of Nazareth. It is the holy night, the night of consecration. The night, in the Christian tradition, when God became man.

Of course, even when Christmas finally arrives, and then leaves again, much will remain as it has been. The outward appearance of our lives might seem unchanged by Christmas. The world won’t really seem so different. We will all still have our own problems to face. There will still be Iran and North Korea to deal with. There will still be people without work, and without food, and without hope. Words like “tyranny” and “terrorism” and “greed” and “graft” will not have been sponged from the dictionary—or from our human hearts.

In the unspeakable cruelty of Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl tells us, frozen, exhausted, starving prisoners would rush outside every evening, just to marvel silently at the beauty of the sunset. One day, one of them finally whispered to the others, “How beautiful the world could be.”

Christmas is our divine reminder of the beauty—and the innocence—and the joy and the justice that are inherent in this creation. If we leave a space—in our stillness, in our silence—for the love of Christmas to enter our hearts, then it can begin to work its miracle there. And slowly, steadily, that love can grow—from one soul to another—like the light of shared candles—until the world is made a little brighter (and a little warmer) by our having been here.

Then every night will be Christmas Eve.

And every child will be the Christ Child.

And we will see all creation, at last, as the holy shrine it truly is. And we will treat one another as the children of God we truly are.

Then God will truly be born among us. As citizens of this world, we, too, will bring light to places of deepest darkness. And we will begin at last the work, in history, in our very lives, of transforming the face of the world in an image of Love.  

A blessed Christmas to you all.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Farewell, Vaclav Havel!" (Sunday, February 2, 2002)

In 1918, John Haynes Holmes, minister of the Community Church in New York City, preached a sermon titled “The Greatest Man in the World”. He chose as his topic not Woodrow Wilson or the German Chancellor, or any of the great political leaders of his day. Indeed, he chose no master of commerce, no great artistic or social figure. Rather, Holmes chose as his topic a humble, obscure Indian lawyer, known to very few people outside of his own country, and known far from universally within it. This lawyer had returned home from South Africa just three years before, and had started a movement—still a very small movement—that sought to use non-violent means to bring about India’s independence from Great Britain.
His name, of course, was Mohandas K. Gandhi—who would, within a decade become known as “Mahatma”—“Great Soul”. He was, indeed, a man who would, in time, be acknowledged as one of the titans—one of the truly great men—of the Twentieth Century. Holmes could not even imagine how prescient and prophetic he was!

I make no such claims with Vaclav Havel. Or, at least, I make a much more modest claim. Even if I am his “only American biographer” (there have been others who have published books on Havel, but I am still, as far as I know, the “only American”-- though I have a feeling that may change before too long), I do not claim to have “discovered” Havel, as Holmes did (largely) with Gandhi. Havel may yet be a relatively obscure world figure (unjustifiably, still, in my estimation), but he hardly qualifies as “unknown” in the eyes of the world. He remains, rather, in some circles, among the most respected of world leaders. Nor am I presenting any green, untested entity to you here, either. I have spoken to you of Havel before, numerous times (whether too numerous, I leave to you to judge, and it has been a while). Havel has been around for a while, too: he has spent almost forty years on the political stage; he has spent the past thirteen years as his countries’ president (note the plural; he has been president of two different countries: first Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic). Today, in just a few hours, he will complete his second full term as Czech president, and retire into private life. So it is this morning that we offer him our words of “Sbohem!”— “Farewell!”— while at the same time anticipating eagerly what amazing things this fascinating man will do next in this life which has brought him from pampered child of the Prague elite, to social outcast, to avant-garde playwright, to political dissident, to political prisoner, to president, to prophet of postmodernism and esteemed elder statesman.

For each stage of his life, too, there have been valuable lessons—gifts of the spirit—which Havel has offered to the rest of us.

As a young man, Havel showed forth a depth of character, a resiliency, unusual in one so young. At the conclusion of the Second World War, when the Nazis were finally vanquished, and the Communists came to power in Czechoslovakia, Havel’s father, a very prosperous businessman, was among the first targets. Almost overnight, he saw his properties confiscated, his businesses take over by the state. In spite of the fact that he was an intelligent and motivated student, because of “class considerations”, Havel was denied access to high school and college, and forced to go to work as a lab assistant.

But he wouldn’t be stopped; he wouldn’t be beaten down. He enrolled in night school and studied six days a week, for five years, until he finally got his degree. In spite of the fact that the Communist authorities held a stranglehold over the nation’s culture, he and his teenage friends formed their own literary club—“The Thirty-Sixers”, after the year in which they were born. As a young man, he made his way to the underground jazz clubs and coffee houses of Prague, where he would stay until late into the night, discussing poetry and philosophy with the kindred spirits he found there. Even living under a dictatorial regime, Vaclav Havel found outlets for creativity and self-expression. May we living with so much more opportunity and freedom find ways to express ourselves creatively as well.

As he matured, Havel also paid attention to his own inner sense of calling. He knew that the love of writing—first poetry, then plays, later essays—was deep within him. He seemed to have been “born” a writer, composing his first handwritten “philosophical book” when he was only about ten years old. When he was drafted into the Czechoslovak Army, he and his friend, Carl Brynda, formed a battalion theater company, which won several regional honors for its original productions (much to the chagrin of certain of those in power, who had already identified Havel as a “troublemaker”). When he returned to Prague from the army in 1959, he took a job as a stagehand at the ABC Theatre, one of Prague’s old vaudeville houses. Then, he moved on to the modernist Theatre on the Balustrade, where he served first as an electrician, then as a stagehand, then as a set designer, finally as dramaturge, or resident playwright. It was the Theatre on the Balustrade which staged some of Havel’s earliest plays— including The Garden Party and The Memorandum in the early 1960s.

Through periods of thaw and frost, liberalization and reaction, Havel continued to write. When the Prague Spring was crushed in 1968 and his plays could no longer be performed in public, Havel still kept writing. Now, his works threw new light on the life of the dissident and the cultivation of fear in totalitarian regimes. When the official public theaters were closed to new ideas, he and his friends would gather in the barn at his summer home at Hradecek and put on their own plays. They managed to statge an illicit performance of Havel’s play The Beggar’s Opera before several hundred people at a supper club outside of Prague in 1975. Havel knew his calling, and would allow no inconvenience, no mere circumstance of life, no authority of party or state, to dissuade him from it.

Havel’s life also shows the power of the individual. His keynote work, written under virtual house arrest in 1978, was “The Power of the Powerless”—which inspired the workers of Solidarity in Poland to keep on when martial law seemed grimmest. Sudents at Tien An Men in 1989 were reading Chinese translations of “The Power of the Powerless” when the tanks rolled in, crushing their rebellion.

Very simply put, the theme of “The Power of the Powerless” (indeed, the overriding theme of Havel’s entire life perhaps) is that once individual men and women begin to take simple, everyday actions to oppose an oppressive system—once they begin what he called “living in the truth”—then that system is doomed to collapse sooner or later.

Throughout his life, Havel had seemed “one man against the world”:

In 1956, when only 19 years old, he managed to get an invitation to a writer’s conference at the Dobris Writers’ Home near Prague. There, he dared to utter the names of poets long banned by the Communist authorities. His remarks unleashed a heated discussion about the place of literature in a Communist society. It would be almost a decade before he would be invited back to a writers’ conference again, and the events of that conference in 1965 were eerily reminiscent of those at Dobris nine years earlier. When Havel denounced the closing of a reformist literary journal named Tvar, many rose to denounce him; but then, this time, others rose in Havel’s defense. The episode illustrated the sharp chasm that has developed within reformers and Stalinists within the Communist Party as a whole. The discussion grew so heated and went on so long, that the conference eventually adjourned, unable to transact any further business. Single-handedly, it seemed, Havel had broken up a meeting of the most powerful literary figures in the country. After Havel spoke, one hard-liner was heard to remark: “This one is going to be a dangerous fellow for us!”.

Just how “dangerous” Havel would be, those in power in Czechoslovakia could not begin to imagine. There is nothing tyranny loathes more than an engaged man or woman willing to speak openly his or her own truth.

Each of our individual actions is needed to change the world, but individually, none of us can change the world alone. Havel’s life illustrates the power of the individual; it also shows, just as clearly, the power of community, and of association. Throughout his life, he has sought out confreres, comrades, kindred spirits, with whom he could join in the struggle. Almost always, it seemed, he emerged as the leaders of these groups, formal and informal, as well. “When I get involved in something (in my usual all-out manner),” he wrote in 1991, “I often find myself at the head of it before long—not because I am more clever or more ambitious than the rest, but because I seem to get along with people, to be able to reconcile and unite them, to act as a sort of unifying agent.” “Havel understood politics at its best as the care and feeding of the immediate needs and interests of a community,” political commentator Paul Wilson writes. He was a leader who never abandoned his own principles, but who was nevertheless able to work closely and successfully with a wide range of people in order to reach concrete political goals. As leader of the “dissident” movement in Czechoslovakia, he welded together a wide range of different viewpoints into the Charter 77 human rights movement. When a student rebellion broke out in Prague in 1989, Havel was among the leaders who brought together the various critics of the government, and rallied public opinion, to foster the heroic and inspiring “Velvet Revolution”. Havel’s life proves the truth of Margaret Mead’s observation “Never doubt that small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Havel’s life also testifies to the power of ideas to change the world. When he was in prison, and banned from writing all but a single letter a week to his wife, Olga, Havel used the opportunity he had to full advantage, All week long—as he worked at various jobs around the prison, during the exercise break in the prison yard, in bed at night in the minutes before sleep came—Havel would plan his next letter. Eventually, Havel’s ideas—sometimes practical, sometimes deeply moving, always deep, often very difficult for lesser minds (like mine) to comprehend—came to be published in his book Letters to Olga, which was later smuggled out of the country and published in the West.

Likewise, the words of his essays, including his open letter to President Gustav Husak in 1975, his masterwork “The Power of the Powerless” in 1978, and many of his later dissident writings, were also smuggled out and broadcast back into the country via Radio Free Europe and other Western radio stations. Thousands would listen closely to Havel’s every word; some copied them down, word for word. From their notes, people made handwritten copies—samizdat—and passed them along to their family members and friends. Havel’s words—his ideas—became a flicker of truth amidst the totalitarian darkness: a flame that would grow as the truth of his ideas became more and more apparent in the hearts and minds of his countrymen.

There are so many precious legacies which this great man of our time has bequeathed to us (and will continue to grant us, as the next stage of his life—may it be a long and fruitful one—unfolds). Havel, almost alone among political leaders of our time, reminds us of the importance of deep inner spirituality—as opposed to ostentatious public religiosity-- in both our private and our public lives. He warns us against the siren call of ideology (whether the ideology of state socialism or that of monopoly capitalism) and the “bridge of excuses” which ideologies offer us away from living our own truth. His life is a living beacon of the power of courage—and even in power, as president, he has not shied away from holding unpopular ideas and taking unpopular actions. Currently, in spite of widescale opposition within the Czech Republic to American unilateralism toward Iraq, Havel has emerged as one of Europe’s most outspoken defenders of American policies. (Which might very well also show us that Havel proves another truth we need to remember: that even the greatest heroes are not perfect, and that even the wisest leaders make mistakes sometimes, as I believe, frankly, Havel is making in his thoughts on Iraq).

But perhaps the most important gift Havel has given us is hope. His life story brings hope back to our lives. His career is a living exemplar of the politics of hope. In these troubled times, when world politics—and our own national politics—seem riddled with fear and division, we certainly need a good dose of the “politics of hope”.

“I cherish a certain hope in me,” Havel told the American editor Lance Morrow in 1992, “hope as a state of the spirit without which I cannot imagine living or doing something. I can hardly imagine living without hope. As for the future of the world: there is a colorful spectrum of possibilities, from the worst to the best. What will happen, I do not know. [But] hope forces me to believe that those better alternatives will prevail, and above all it forces me to do something to make them happen.”

The most thorough (though hardly the best) biography of Vaclav Havel was written in 1999 by the British author John Keane, who subtitled his work “A Political Tragedy in Six Acts”. Keane even had the hubris to conclude his work with a fantasized account of Havel’s funeral (because Havel was in such poor health at the time of the books writing that Keane did not believe he would survive).

Well, Keane was wrong—about Havel’s death—and about the ultimately tragic nature of his life. So now, this good man retires from this stage of his public life—to rest and spend some time at his villa on the Portuguese coast; to write his memoirs at last (he is Czech, not American, of course, so I will, perhaps, remain his “only American biographer” even then). No doubt, he will continue to amaze some of us (and challenge us, often) with his stinging insights and prophetic perceptions of the state of our times.

A life this full is hardly tragic. A life which has drunk so deeply the cup of life blesses the lives of us all, and bears wonderful testimony to the power of the human spirit. Whatever mistakes Havel has made, public and private—whatever failures his presidency exhibited—whatever his limitations as a political wheeler-dealer—all these have more than been redeemed by his grace, his dignity, and his stirring reminder to us that character is, indeed, destiny.

At the age of ten, with the great war finally behind him and his country, and the future uncertain, young Vaclav Havel recited before his class in school this original poem to his country’s president:

If I were a little boy
I’d bring snowdrops and
the first violets
that bloomed in hiding
and I’d say:
‘Take them, Mr. President, I
bring you greetings of spring.’

Take our greetings and our hopes, President Havel, soon to be just Citizen Havel again. Take our well wishes, like flowers, gratitude for the precious gifts with which your life has blessed us all.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

When does a tradition become a rut? (Sunday, December 11, 2011)

            Once upon a time, there was a Zen master who had a cat. One day, as the master was meeting with his students, the cat jumped into his lap and demanded to be petted (as cats are prone to do). But the master was busy teaching his students; so he ignored the cat; he placed it gently on the ground, and went on talking.

            But of course, the cat (being a cat) was not going to take “no” for an answer; so, he jumped back into the teacher’s lap. He began really digging in, kneading his claws into the master’s knees, swooshing his tail across the master’s face. The teacher put the cat back on the floor. The cat jumped back into the master’s lap. This happened several times, over and over again.

            Finally, without saying a word, the master got up, carried the cat outdoors, and tied it to a big tree in the front yard.  Then, he calmly went back into the house and continued teaching his students.

            This happened every day the master met with his class—every day, for several weeks. The class would start. The cat would jump into the teacher’s lap. The master would tie the cat to the tree. Then, one day, some of the students got to class early, and decided they would help their teacher, by tying the cat to the tree before the class began. So then, every day—for weeks, then months, then years—before the day’s teaching began, the students would take the cat outside, and tie it up.

            When the master died, the students would still come to his house every day, and tie up the cat.

            Then, when the cat finally died, the students found another cat and tied it to the tree every day.

            The master and his teachings were long forgotten. What remained was the ritual of tying the cat to the tree. That darned cat had become a sacred object!

            Such is, often, how “traditions” are born: one day, someone does something for a perfectly good reason, and those who come after keep doing it—even though the reason for doing it might be long gone. Here’s another example. It’s from Nancy Friday’s book, My Mother/ Myself:

            Peggy was a newlywed and she was cooking her first big meal for her parents since the wedding—a big, glorious Virginia ham. Before she put it in the oven, she sliced off three or four inches from the shank end. Her new husband saw her do it, and asked her why. Peggy looked surprised that he should ask. “Mother always did it that way,” she replied.

            At the dinner table, as he was carving the ham, Peggy’s husband asked  her mother why she cut three or four inches off the ham before baking it. The mother looked puzzled, “That’s how my mother did it. Doesn’t everyone?”

            So, the net day, Peggy phoned her grandmother, and asked why, in their family, do they cut off three inches from the shank end of the ham before baking it. “I’ve always done it that way,” grandmother replied, “because that’s how my mother did it.”

            Now, it happens that this family was very fortunate, and that Peggy’s great grandmother was still alive. So Peggy drove out to the nursing home where her great grandmother lived, and asked her about the missing three or four inches of ham.  “Well,” the elderly woman began, “one day I was teaching your grandmother how to cook, and we were baking a big ham. But it was too big for the pan, so I sliced off the shank end so that it would fit, and then I put it in the oven.”  

            Sometimes, we think that our “traditions” have reasons behind them, when they have actually long outlived their usefulness. They’ve become dead habits, mere ruts. Sometimes, they don’t do us any harm; at other times, they’re unnecessary and wasteful— I hope they were at least making stock with the four inches of ham they were slicing off all those years for no good reason. At other times, though, they’re detrimental to us; they fence in our spirits; they limit us in who we can become, and how deeply we can experience life.

            The American theologian Martin Marty once said that the “seven last words” of the church could well be: “But we’ve always done it that way,” and he could well be right.

            Now, don’t get me wrong. I am as much of a traditionalist as any of you (and probably a good bit more than many of you). As you already know (unless, perhaps you just tuned in, or have somehow been asleep for the past nineteen years) I love history. I love talking about it, and preaching about it, and reading about it, and even writing about it. I love visiting historical sites (which I define very liberally—in my view, anywhere that anything ever happened qualifies as an “historical site”, worthy of being squeezed into one’s vacation itinerary).  I once took a skills inventory test as part of a job I was doing, and found out—surprise!—that my reference points come from the past, not from the present, and I am sure as heck not what they call a “futurist”.

            Nothing gives me deeper joy than understanding how what we are doing today connects with the lives of those who came before us. That is what history is all about to me: seeing how our current story emerged out of the stories of the men and women of previous generations; how we are joined to them in a continuous line of shared humanity.

re-member: to join ourselves again to that which has come before, to keep intact the precious strands linking the present to the past. That’s important, it seems to me, if we are fully to realize our humanness. This re-membering can be such a wonderful gift to this world of ours, which seems so often hell-bent on change for the sake of change, and ever more accelerated. Tradition slows us down, and reminds us of those who came before us, and the debt which we who live today still owe to them.

            I fully understand what that Jewish woman was experiencing in the kitchen there, in the reading we shared from Rachel Naomi Remen:  “I was a single thread, but I belonged, something I had never experienced before. For a few seconds, I had a glimpse of something larger, not only of who I am, but Whose I am…I felt changed by it.”

            We are changed and deepened by being part of a tradition—if it’s a tradition that lives—that exists for a reason, both in the world, and in our innermost souls.

            But sometimes, traditions do not live any more. They’re dead letters; empty rituals, practiced second or third hand—like the students still tying the cat to the tree. Sometimes—if we’re not in touch with why we practice a certain ritual—what it connects us with—either in the world or in our history or in our souls—then it can stifle us, limit our creativity, interfere with our spiritual growth. Then, it’s nothing more than a rut we’ve fallen into. To persist in doing something just because “we’ve always done it this way” is not enough reason to keep doing it. Not in this day and age of profound transition, when old and venerable institutions seem to be dropping like flies (to use a rather inelegant metaphor; for these are, I fear, rather inelegant times in which we live). As one of my colleagues has put it, “If [our] tradition cradles our stories and dreams, then it has value; but if we cease to know the reason why, then we are perpetuating [something that has already died].”

            If we quibble about niceties of “tradition” while the world is convulsing in change all around us, then we’re kind of like the people who arranged tea service on the Titanic. It might have seemed important and even looked nice at the time, but that ship was heading for an iceberg, and was, in reality, already on its way down.

            So do we men and women in this new age, we sons and daughters of postmodernism, even need such things as ritual and tradition in our lives? Or are such things but remnants of an age already dead, mere niceties for antiquarians and other people interested in religious stuff to dabble in? We have Facebook, so why bother with churches? We have androids and i-phones and all that stuff (that I don’t have a clue about)—so can we survive without ritual, without clinging to tradition?

            No doubt, we could survive, I guess. But would it be worth the cost? Suppose we human ones didn’t celebrate our rituals of winter festival—Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, Solstice, and so on—would our human race remember, in time, that though the days be dark, the light returns at last? Oh, no doubt the astronomical observation would remain; we’d still know that spring will follow winter finally. But we would forget, I think, that such a power of light and dark exists within ourselves, as well. Without our religious and spiritual traditions, I think we might well forget that though the light in our souls grow dim in certain seasons, that it, too, can return in its time.

            “Ritual is a way of marking and intensifying value,” Starhawk reminds us. According to Robert Fulghum, tradition represents “those patterns that we… repeat again and again because they bring structure and meaning to our individual and collective lives.” But Fulghum also goes on to remind us that if our rituals don’t work for us anymore, they need to be discarded, or re-formed,  to meet new challenges, new realities, new patterns in our lives. Used correctly, Fulghum says, rituals can remind us of who we are, and what we are part of.

            As in most things, it doesn’t have to be all one way, or all the other. The way to live with a healthy regard to tradition lies neither in slavishly following the past, nor in rejecting it out of hand as out-of-date and foolish. They key, I think, is to step back and examine our traditions from time to time, and see where they came from, how they got us here, and whether they still deepen and strengthen us for life’s journey. If they do, then let’s continue them with new joy and new hope and fullness of heart. If they don’t do that anymore, then we can let go of them with no guilt; let go and get on with our journeys, birthing new traditions along the way for us and those who will come after us.

            A writer named Portia Nelson once wrote her “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters”. They are very short chapters, so let me read them to you now:

Chapter 1

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost ... I am helpless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in the same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in ... it's a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter 4

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5

I walk down a different street.

            May we love the street on which we are walking. But not the ruts. And may we always have the courage to choose a different road when the time comes.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

"God Wins" (Sunday, December 4, 2011)

            Rev. Rob Bell is minister (and founder) of Mars Hill Bible Church, a non-denomination Evangelical Christian church in Grandville, Michigan, which has about 10,000 members and something over 7,000 people in attendance every Sunday. (But we don’t need to get into that.)  In 2007, the church put on an art exhibit, around the theme of “Finding Peace in a Broken World”, and someone included a picture and quotation from Mahatma Gandhi; a nice touch, and hardly controversial, one would think.

            Apparently not. A visitor to the exhibit felt compelled to attach a note next to Gandhi, which read: “Reality check: He’s in hell.”

            “Really,” Pastor Bell thought when he read the note. “Gandhi’s in hell. He is? Someone knows this? Someone is certain of this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know about it?”

            Out of this experience came a book, published earlier this year, called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book has been quite a bestseller, even cracking both the New York Times and Amazon.com Top Ten lists for a while. It has also ignited a raging battle in Evangelical Christian circles, with some people defending Bell; others criticizing him—and still others hurtling at him that most damning of epithets: of all: “Terrorist”? No. “Pedophile”? No. “Cannibal”? No. Worse.

            Bell is, they say, a universalist!

            This is because Rev. Bell has had the audacity to question some of the central tenants of an exclusivist Christianity which divides all of humanity into camps of good guys and bad; “Christian” and “Heretic”; “Saved” and “Unsaved”. As Bell himself writes:

            “Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?... What kind of faith is that? Or more important: What kind of God is that?”

            In reawakening the age-old question within Christianity of “Who’s In?” and “Who’s Out?”, Rob Bell has earned the ire of the Evangelical establishment, big time. Ministers have been fired from their positions for defending his book. Churches—even whole seminaries—have called special meetings to denounce it (no book burnings yet, as far as I know; but I wouldn’t be surprised). The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary called the book “theologically disastrous”. “When you adopt universalism and erase the distinction between the church and the world,” he continues, “then you don’t need the church and you don’t need Christ and you don’t need the cross.” And that, he says, represents a major theological cataclysm.

            (Because everyone knows, of course, that God is a card-carrying Christian—and maybe even a card-carrying Evangelical, to boot!)

            This controversy has raged since Love Wins first appeared. A well-known Christian blogger denounced Bell as a “universalist” in one of his postings, and so many people responded and tweeted about it that it became one of the top trending topics on Twitter that day. Imagine that: “universalism” at the top of the Twitter “what’s hot” list! Who would have ever thunk it? Not us, that’s for damn sure!

             “Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, people,” one Christian writer warned his readers not too long ago. “I notice that in recent days, Universalism has been running more and more rampant,”   

            I suppose that makes us, who actually claim to be Universalists, the most rabid wolves of all. You wouldn’t know it to look at us, would you?

            But Universalism does offer a direct challenge to the dark and depressing theology of mainstream Calvinism in America. It always has, and always will.

            Around the same time this church in Stoughton was founded, way back in the 1740s, something was going on in the northeastern part of the Colonies called the “Great Awakening”—a great religious revival in which people were turning back to religion, back to Christ. Among the leading preachers of the day was Jonathan Edwards, and his sermon, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” is considered a masterpiece of the era:

            That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell's wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor anything to take hold of…  Your wickedness makes you … heavy as lead… and if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf [of] …hell… The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours… [and] nothing that you can do [will] induce God to spare you one moment… your punishment will indeed be infinite.”


            As Rob Bell writes:

             “And then there’s the ... question of ‘what is God like?’ Because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that,  that we need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be ‘good news’? This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies and they say, ‘Why would I ever want to be a part of that?’”

To Bell, a lot of Christian preaching is that old “bait and switch” routine. We are told that God is love, that God offers us the gift of grace, freely given. But then, if you don’t do what He says—vote the way He wants you to; marry and love whom He tells you to; lead your life according to His particular little rules and regulations—then your “loving” Father God threatens to torture you forever in hell!

How can it be anything less than blasphemy to create an image of God as small and petty and mean-spirited as the worst of human tyrants?  “If there was an earthly father who was like that,” Bell says, “we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.”

            Why should God be any less loving, any less compassionate, any less merciful, than the best of our human race, of our human potential, of the best that is within all of us, when we live up to whom we would be, and live in accordance to the divinity within our souls? Our religion ought not to give us nightmares and scare the Jesus out of us. No, it ought to inspire the Jesus inside of us—inspire that which is most like God within us.

One day back in the early 1800s, our Universalist forbear Hosea Ballou was having a heated theological exchange with a Baptist minister, who was trying to implore Ballou how eliminating the threat of hell and eternal punishment, as the Universalists suggested, would lead to rampant immortality and across-the-board wickedness.

“Brother Ballou,” the Baptist minister said, “if I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I would hit you over the head, steal your horse, ride away and leave you for dead, and still get to heaven.”

To which Father Ballou replied, “My friend, if you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you in the first place.”

It was amidst the Calvinist theological despair of its own day that American Universalism took root—and offered a hopeful and courageous and liberating vision to the people of its day.

            Universalism dared to declare that God was Love—in practice, no less than in theology; and that a loving God would not rest until all His creation was restored to full harmony and happiness—if not in this life, then in the next. In the face of  the misanthropic view of Calvinism that taught the total depravity of creatures supposedly created in the image of God, Universalism insisted that every man, woman, and child would eventually be restored to God, for all eternity there to dwell.

            And it would be God who would do the choosing—who would choose who was in and who was out. Not proponents of one particular church; not advocates of one particular view of salvation; not those who want to draw a circle which excludes certain members of our human family because they don’t conform to this or that narrow social teaching or this or that particular lifestyle or perspective.

As the Universalist poet Edwin Markham wrote:

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

 God wins, Universalism declared. Because Love wins, in the end. Because there is a power of Love beating at the heart of the universe from which no human power or principality—no human error or sin—can ever, ultimately, estrange us.

Well over 200 years ago, John Murray, the founder of Universalism in America, declared that there is within the most ordinary of men and women—within everyday people like you and me—a shining light that can pierce the darkness of our lives, and pierce the darkness of our world:

“Go out into the highways and byways of America, your new nation,” he commanded, in words never since matched in their eloquence.  “Give the people, blanketed with a decaying Calvinism, something of your new vision. You possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine. Use it in order to bring more light into the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach to them the kindness and the everlasting love of God.”

Way back in 1770, John Murray reminded us that the true work of religious faith lay not in haunting children’s dreams with imaginings of hellfire and damnation, in divvying up the world into “saved” and “unsaved”. No, the work of true religion lies in trying to bring more understanding and warmth into the lives of those with whom we share this world.

We possess, individually and as a church, only a small light. Such a very tiny light. We don’t get tweeted about very often on Twitter; we’re not even very good at blowing our own horn, if the truth be told. But now, more than ever, we need to uncover the light of the Universalist gospel. We need to let it shine.

The people around us don’t need any more hell in their lives. There are too many preachers of hell in this world, and too many things in this world which are hellish and depraved and evil. But there are many things, too, that are honorable, and just, and true, and lovely. It is on the side of those that we need to stand.

We don’t need to add to the voices of despair and selfishness in this world; there are already too many of those. We all need hope and courage, today more than ever.

Hope and courage: this is the calling of our particular community of faith, blessed with this name of cosmic proportions. We possess only a small light, but may we uncover it in all we do, and let it shine. When it flickers and fades and even goes out, let us have the tenacity and the patience to light it, again and again. For it is still a light which burns forth with the possibilities of a new world. It is a light which burns eternally, our small and steady refraction of God’s love, the illimitable light of the universe itself.

Friday, December 2, 2011

"Saving Starfish" (Sunday, November 27, 2011)

One writer puts it this way: "Kindness is contagious and warms the grateful heart."

Have you ever seen those bumper stickers that remind us to "Practice Random Acts of Kindness"? Well, it seems that the idea all began with a woman named Anne Herbert, as she sat in a restaurant in Sausalito, California in the early 1980s:

She had been turning a phrase-- a few words to sum up her view of life-- over and over in her mind for several days. Finally, as she sat in the restaurant, she scrawled on the placemat in front of her the words: "Practice Random Kindness and Acts of Senseless Beauty."

"That's so wonderful!" the man sitting next to her exclaimed. And he copied it down carefully on his own placemat, and tucked it away in his pocket. Herbert explained her idea further to the man: "Here's the idea," she said. "Anything you think there should be more of, do it randomly... Kindness can build on itself as much as violence can."

In 1982, Herbert, a Berkeley writer and peace activist, published the phrase in the CoEvolution Quarterly (which is now the Whole Earth Review). There it sat for about nine years, attracting little attention, apparently, until in 1991, Adair Lara, a columnist for the San Francisco Quarterly, came across it, tracked down Herbert, and wrote an article about her. The article was picked up nationally by the Reader's Digest (a radical publication if there ever was one!), and reprinted. That got noticed by the editors of Conrai Press, a small publishing house in Berkeley.

Inspired by the people involved in the movement, the editors at Conrai held a reception one evening, and invited their guests to record and share their stories of "Random Acts of Kindness". These stories were combined with others collected from around the country, and in February 1993 was published as a book, title (aptly enough) Random Acts of Kindness. In the years since, the book has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and the phrase has entered the popular vocabulary of our time.

It's nice to know that kindness can sell. It's even nicer to know that it can transform our hearts. And maybe, even, change the world.

Berkeley, the home of the “counter culture", became home of the "kindness culture". Perhaps at this point in the life of our world, there may be few things as counter-cultural as kindness.  

Maybe we could use a dose of kindness in this world: not more loud and strident voices-- not more zealots and ideologues-- but more gentle hearts-- and more gentle souls—with no other concern in life than to help one another.

“I am saddened by all enterprises which seek to save the world,” the Italian writer Ignazio Silone once said, “for they seem perhaps the surest way to lose oneself.” We think we have to save all the starfish on the beach for our lives to be worthwhile, when there is so much real need, right there before our eyes.  

In the face of an incessant culture of selfishness, which tells us that our only reason for being here is to get as big a piece of the pie for ourselves as we can-- maybe the most counter-cultural thing we can do is to say "Enough!":

To remember that, more often than not, smaller is better; to shop at small stores; drive small cars; eat little meals; to do our little jobs with full engagement of heart and mind and soul; to touch those closest to us; love every person we meet to the full degree we can; to remake the world from the inside out-- by changing our hearts first and doing what we can to be kind to one another.

In his book Hymns to an Unknown God, Sam Keane writes:

"Creating a political community based on kindness may seem like an impossibility... [But] We are discovering lately in American society that we can't build a good society on the principles of self-interest and entitlement alone. Without generosity there can be no community. Without the kindness of strangers, a society is turned into an armed camp... The atmosphere of compassion that transforms a mass of alienated individuals into a caring community is created by countless acts of kindness and charitable foresight."

Caring and kindness may seem counter-cultural; but they are also values carved deeply in our innermost souls. Science shows that, as young as 18-weeks, infants will respond instinctively to the perceived pain of those around them. Compassion is part of our hard wiring, as it were.

But I'm enough of a realist to know that sometimes history is cruel, and that compassion can lie crushed and beaten down, and the light seems to go out.

The fire smolders, but is not extinguished. Always the forces of love lie in wait-- to emerge again, breaking through this hard, crusted-over ground. For we know there is within us this Spirit of Life which is always, ultimately, stronger than any forces that can be mounted against it. In the end, we see this Spirit most clearly in the caring and kindness we extend to those around us.

It amazes me sometimes to think of how many opportunities we have to be kind to one another-- how much good we can do in the lives of those around us-- even in the lives of those we don't know.

They say it takes half as many muscles to smile as to frown. It probably takes half as much energy (and half as much time) to be kind as to be cruel. Cruelty is hard work! Indeed, it probably doesn't take any more energy to be kind than to be apathetic (let alone cruel). Because I really don't think that most people are cruel to one another. We're just sort of absent, unengaged.

But why do we close in on ourselves so often, and stop the currents of kindness from flowing?

Why do we insist that it's not enough to save just that one starfish... or two... or three... or four... or five... or six... or seven... That we have to save the whole beach, or ours lives won't really matter?

We see things only as we're "supposed" to see them... We interact only with those we know, only those we like, only those like us. We think that people outside of our little boxes have nothing to offer us, so we offer them nothing in return.  We ask ourselves: What could I possibly have in common with someone so much younger than I am... or so much older... or of a different color... or of a different persuasion... or of a different religion? So we close into our little group. And pretty soon, life can grow dull and boring and pretty drear, because we've become too small in our love, and too selective in our compassion...

Or maybe we're afraid that we won't really be able to do anything for someone else. We can't take away their pain. We can't solve their problems. We can't make it all better for them. Throwing starfish back into the water is relatively easy, after all, once you get over the sliminess of the whole situation. What do we do in real human situations, real tragedies, where it seems there's nothing anybody can do? So often, I think, we do nothing. We retreat away from engagement, and back into ourselves. We can't solve the problem, so we do nothing.

We forget that sometimes-- oftentimes-- just being there is enough.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells this story:

One day, a boy came home and said to his father, "Dad, I'm really proud that I was able to help my friend Billy today.

"Tell me about it," the father asked. "How did you help Billy?"

His son replied, "Well, Billy was riding down the street and took a bad fall, and his bicycle was all twisted out of shape. He couldn't repair it, so he sat down on the sidewalk and he cried."

The father said, "I don't understand. You don't know how to repair bicycles. How did you help Billy?"

The reply was, "Well, I sat down and cried with him."

Oftentimes, the only gift we can offer to a person in need is our presence, so they don’t need to face the darkness alone.

Therese of Lisieux became a revered saint of the Catholic Church, and in 1997 was even named a Doctor of the Church. But she is best known for her “Little Way”. In her quest for sanctity, Therese realized that it was not necessary to accomplish heroic acts, or great deeds, in order to express her love of God. The smallest act, if done in love, reflects as much of God’s love as any great accomplishment. The height of virtue, Therese believed, was to practice small acts of kindness, with a heart filled with love.

Sometimes, we pile so many complications on things-- on religion, on life. Perhaps when we boil it down, it's a whole lot simpler than we realize. Maybe our religion boils down to three simple things, as one of my colleagues has suggested:

Love your neighbor.

Wonder at the mystery of all that is.

Be thankful for the gift of life.

At the heart of all of these-- of love, wonder, and gratitude-- is compassion. There are weaker rocks than kindness upon which to build a life. As Wordsworth wrote:

That best portion of a good man's life,--

His little, nameless, unremembered acts

Of kindness and of love.

 It is through blessing others in our lives that we find ourselves most blessed.

Another writer has put it this way:

"We can resolve [all of us] to be kinder, gentler beings. All day, every day. We can treat those closest to us with the same respect and politeness that we reserve for friends and colleagues. We can refuse to litter the life of others with negative energy. If we do this, we will be doing our part to create a world in which kindness is never a random act, but rather a way of life."

As Gandhi said: We need to be the change that we want to see in the world.  

We must do what we can to help one another where we can. For there lies all the meaning and purpose these lives of ours might ever have.

Richard Gilbert has written:

“The touching of hands is an ancient ritual, written deep within us.

As greeting, it welcomes us into the intimacy of others.

As farewell, it assures us that we shall be missed.

In bereavement, it speaks our common hurt.

In love, it is silent, sure sharing, needing no words.

The touching of hands in a human circle welcomes all into its warmth.

In steep places it gives an receives strength in climbing.

The trembling touching of hands is a cry for help none may ignore.

The tentative touching of hands is an invitation to reach out, to include.

The touching of hands is [no] small thing:

It is the sharing of life with life.”

Our hands are small. But they are the only hands this world of ours has.

In the end, it is, perhaps, only our kindness for one another that matters.

May these hands reach out, and do what they can, and touch, and bless the world.