"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Freedom of Responsibility (Sunday, January 29, 2012)

            It has been said that wars provide the punctuation marks of history, and it is also true, I think, that different decades also form the paragraphs of this great historical story of which we are all part. Certainly, each decade has its own spirit, its Zeitgeist (how I’ve always loved that word)—its own spirit of the time, which provides each decade with its own flavor, its elan, its color and temperament.

            Think of how severely the changes which society has faced, the issues the world has confronted seem compressed into one ten year period. Think of the changes we all witness during our span of decades on this earth (be it seven or eight or even nine). How the soft spoken and self-satisfied Eisenhower years of the 1950s differ from the “New Frontier” idealism and the “Great Society” pretensions of the early 1960s, and from the dislocations of the second half of that decade that ushered in the 1970s: Civil Rights, Vietnam, Watergate, the rise of Feminism.

            Then think of how the materialism of the 80s gave rise to the self-indulgence and excess of the 90s, then to the hopes, then the fears, of a new millennium. Now, here we are already, well into this second decade of this new century (and what are we supposed to call it? The “tens”? The “twenty-tens”? The “two thousand and tens”? The “teens”? [Not yet] How about “the second decade of the 21st century”?)  God only knows what these years might yield!

Which is why some of us are much more comfortable looking back than looking forward.  But if the 1960s was the “free generation”—with its emphasis both on individual expression (“do your own thing” to use the old expression), as well as idealism and political activism; and if the 1970s was the “me generation” ; then the 1980s, perhaps, represented the triumph of “free enterprise” (with Reagan and Thatcher as the best exemplars of the age, no doubt) .

But what is striking as we take this stroll down memory lane, is that, as distinct as each of these decades was, that the idea of “freedom”—manifested in differing ways no doubt—held a central position in the Zeitgeist of each. The same is true, too, I think, of the decades that have come since.

The quest for freedom is a fundamental precept of American society. It dominates our political history, from the American Revolution and the drafting of the  Bill of Rights, to the Civil War and the fight against slavery, right down to the struggle for votes for women and the Civil Rights movement and the quest for Marriage Equality. It dominates our social history. No other nation has spawned as many vital reform movements—all seeking to enlarge the circle of civil society, that place where freedom becomes alive in people’s everyday lives. Freedom seems to be the vital fuel that keeps American culture and commerce and industry alive and dynamic, truly the envy of nations the world over.

Now, it might be fashionable in some quarters to denigrate or disparage the political freedom we enjoy as Americans. Some would claim that our political system is just as oppressive as any other, that we are no more free than any other people, really. They point as proof  to the huge economic disparities in our nation, to the fact that there is greater economic inequality in the United States than in any other major economy in the world.

These are real problems, and it is right to ask how long political freedom can survive in the face of such economic injustice. It is right to ask whether the advent of a New American Feudalism with the stranglehold of the corporations and the crony capitalists over our society may, indeed, be the greatest threat to our survival as a free nation.

But the greatest hope of our nation still lies in its freedom. So let’s make sure we don’t squander it. Or surrender it to an economic elite who supposedly “know better” – to those same “geniuses” – those “masters of the universe”-- who lost American families somewhere over 19 trillion dollars in household wealth in the Great Recession of 2008 and years following. For our freedom is a precious and rare commodity indeed. It is our birthright. It is more valuable to us than any pay check,the gift not of church or state or government, but endowed to us, from our Creator; the precious legacy of all the men and women of the Earth. 

It is  a commodity all too rare in too many lands, still, in this world of ours. So many people still are not free; they struggle under one form of dictatorship or another—from Cuba in the west, to North Korea in the east, with places like Belarus and Iran and Burma in between, to name just a few. One of the names given to the Statue of Liberty by Italian immigrants entering America around the turn of the 20th century was “Santa Liberta”, “Saint Freedom”.  Compare that to the Chinese students in Tien An Men in 1989, who constructed their own model, and called it the “Goddess of Liberty” to symbolize their struggle for freedom.   

That’s how holy—even religious, even transcendent—personal freedom can seem to those who don’t have it. We should take pride that our nation has been, throughout its history, a beacon of liberty and hope to the oppressed around the world. May we hope that it continues to be such in our own day, as well.

“For those who fought for it, freedom has a taste that others will never know.”

It’s the God’s honest truth, of course. Those who have to fight for their freedom (which is not  most of us) will never take it for granted ever again; they won’t assume (as most of us probably do) that it will be there when we need it; that it is, and always has been, and evermore shall be. Those who fight to defend freedom—or to achieve it—or to regain it—know how precious it is, not just intellectually, but in their bodies, in their very beings. Soldiers on the front line at Omaha Beach knew. The students of Munich of the White Rose knew as they distributed their leaflets under the threat of Nazi tyranny. The man and women who braved East German gunfire to scale the Berlin Wall knew.  The students in Tien An Men who watched their Goddess of Liberty hurled to the ground knew, as did the Chinese student a few days later, who stood silently in front of the tanks that moved down Beijing’s Avenue of Heavenly Peace. The people who marched defiantly in the streets of  Tunis knew, and those in the streets of Cairo, and Tripoli; and those now dying in the streets of Damascus and Homs and other cities across Syria know so well how precious freedom is.

As President George W. Bush said in his Second Inaugural Address (I know that it’s over 40 degrees outside; but hell really must be freezing over for me to quote George W. Bush for the second time in three weeks)—he said, correctly, in my estimation: “There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom.”

Indeed “Only freedom can work such miracles!”

But it’s one thing to talk about freedom (in that speech, President Bush used the words “free”, “freedom”, or “liberty” an amazing 49 times) , It’s another thing to practice it, or more importantly for a President, perhaps, actually to encourage it and foster it in the real world. As Adlai Stevenson (whom I am much happier quoting) told the American Legion convention in 1952: "Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime."

We may often praise freedom as a glorious ideal. But true freedom is not just an ideal; indeed, it is perhaps the most real, the most embodied, flesh and bones, of human ideals. True freedom cannot exist in a vacuum. It is not merely a god whose name we invoke to cover up our transgressions. True freedom, both in the political and religious sense, is the living force by which men and women are empowered to fulfill their ultimate potential as human beings. Freedom is never an end in itself, but always a means toward an end. The purity of our freedom guarantees the rightness of the goals which we seek.

In the letter to the Galatians in the New Testament, St. Paul put it very succinctly: “For, dear brothers and sisters, you have been given freedom: not freedom to do wrong, but freedom to love and serve each other.”

Freedom does not cut us off from each other, but joins us to them. It does not lessen our commitment to others, but deepens and strengthens the ties that bind. Freedom does not stand in contradiction to responsibility; they are not opposites. Rather, true freedom leads inevitably to our assuming greater responsibility—for our own lives; for the one another; for the life of society and the world.

Emerson once said that when the half-gods go, the real gods finally arrive. Certainly, there are any number of pretenders to the throne of true freedom. A first false idol is, of course, license. License defines freedom as our ability to do whatever we want to do, whenever we want to do it. This false god stresses the sanctity of action, without any regard for consequences. (Like a President, say, who launches an ill-conceived war for “Freedom” without having a clue as to what the consequences of that war might be.)  To this way of thinking, the fewer outside hindrances to our action, the better; the fewer people in the way, the better. In our private lives, this becomes the philosophy of “Live for today.”  Or “Live for the present” or “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. And maybe bring the whole world down with us.”

Those who trumpet an extremely individualistic notion of freedom deny the fundamental reality of our radical interdependence—as individuals, as groups, and as nations. They follow the precepts of Ayn Rand (perhaps the most heinous goddess of false freedom of all time), and deny that politically and economically, we are part of a commonwealth with one another,  and that spiritually and mystically, we are part of an interdependent web of creation with all living things.

            If there is one assumption we need to integrate into our beings if this human race of ours is to survive, it is that  we are not here in this world alone, and that we do not live for ourselves alone. A life which constantly seeks to limit and control its interpersonal responsibilities (even in the name of “freedom”) is a sterile and dead existence. It is a living death. (Perhaps a comfortable one, and a nicely gilded one, but a living death nonetheless.)

            Now, as people who have been here for more than a few years, you and I know what this world can do. Other people (even those we like; even those we love) can be a pain in the… neck… sometimes. They give us grief; they make us cry; they make us mad; they don’t always bring out the best in us. But that is just how this life is.

Just last night, Elizabeth and I watched the film, The Tree of Life. What a strange film. Way too deep for me, I’m afraid. But it had (at least) one good line. At one point, the mother tells her son: "The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by." Only insofar as we are able to love one another will there be any hope for us, will there be a purpose to our lives when the closing bell rings for each one of us.

As the Eagles used to sing:

Desperado, you ain’t getting no younger,

Your pain and your hunger,

They’re driving you wild.

And “freedom”? That’s just some people talking,

Your prison is walking this world all alone.

Very simply, we need one another. Others need us. There is a symbiosis—a balance—in Nature, which needs to be reflected in human societies if they are to be healthy and whole and just.

None of us was created to be slaves to another. Nor were any of us created to enslave others. We were endowed by our Creator with the right to share the Earth together, with the ability to help one another, and with the calling to live in peace with all creatures.

We exist in a continual state of covenant—covenant with one another and covenant with that Creative Force in the universe in whom we live and move and have our being.

Love is a circle, it knows no bounds,

The  more  you give, the more comes around…

It is freedom which allows the circles of our lives to grow wider and wider. Freedom allows us to share just as widely as we may the gifts of our lives and the wealth which they produce. Freedom allows us to be the fully human beings that we would be, that we can be.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Courage of Our Confusion (Sunday, January 22, 2012)

           Someone once asked the great American pioneer Daniel Boone if he had ever gotten lost. Boone said that no, he had never in all his explorations been lost. But then, he paused and added that there had been a few times when he had been mighty confused for two or three days.

            Sometimes, people who are on the outside looking in at our particular religious movement might get pretty confused about what they see. A woman was once invited by her Unitarian Universalist neighbor to visit her church one Sunday, and she did. After the service, the neighbor asked her friend what she had thought. “Oh!” the visitor exclaimed, “I disagreed with half the things the minister said!” “Great!” her friend replied, “you’ll fit right in then!”

            But some people don’t see it that way. How, they ask, can you have a church that is based upon the idea that there is no single agreed-upon truth (except, that there is no single agreed-upon truth)? How can you have a religion that says that it’s about the journey, not the destination—deeds, not creeds—and that the important thing is for everyone to search for himself or herself, and try to live according to the beliefs they develop for themselves? How can you have a church where some people believe in God—and others do not. Where some people call themselves Christian—and others do not. Where some members are (even) Democrats {gasp}—Republicans (gasp)-- and others are not. It might all seem quite strange to someone more accustomed to something more conventional in religion. It might seem like a sort of religious Tower of Babel.

            Sometimes, frankly, it might seem that way from the inside, too. Like we’re building things a bit too high. As though we’ve risen too far from our foundation, too far from our base. As though we’ve all started speaking different languages, and no longer have a common vocabulary of faith that unites us; no longer have, perhaps, any real reason to be working on building this tower together. Why don’t we each just build our own towers and leave it at that?

            Sometimes, it’s easy to get mighty confused, if not downright lost, amidst all of the diversity, along all the divergent roads, which this church represents. Sometimes, we might be forgiven longing for a more fixed beacon of a staid and steady faith.

            This is especially true in these rapidly changing times in which we live, where there is so much importance attached to “branding”—on knowing what your “message” is and sticking to it—on knowing what the product you’re trying to peddle is, and to whom you are trying to peddle it. The danger of spreading ourselves too thin over too wide a demographic would seem apparent. If we try to appeal too broadly to just about everyone, then we can lose focus, and end up appealing to nobody in particular. But if we narrow things down too much, then we run the risk of doing very real damage to what we truly are about.

            None of this, of course, is especially new to our Unitarian Universalist story. (Here commences the history lesson for today. You have been warned.)

            Samuel Atkins Eliot was one of the great men of American Unitarianism in the years around the turn of the 20th century. He was certainly one of our movement’s leading organizers, and was an important force in transforming the American Unitarian Association into a cohesive national denomination, and not just a collection of individuals and societies.

            When he was just a young man—still in his twenties—Eliot left New England and traveled way out west—to Denver, Colorado—to become minister of the thriving new Unitarian church there. It was perhaps the most lively congregation with which Eliot would ever be involved; but the young man really didn’t really appreciate his new church in Denver very much. So he wrote a long letter to his father back in Massachusetts (who was the president of Harvard, by the way), bemoaning his fate:

            “I was right in supposing that this was more or less a Godless church,” the younger Eliot wrote. “Except for a nucleus of some dozen old Unitarian families [from back home] the church is made up of iconoclasts, agnostics, and ethicists… a few Jews, some Ethical Culturists, some Ingersollites, a number of recently converted [Catholics] and some people to whom religion means free trade and a [uniform tax code]. They want lectures, not sermons—information, not religion. The [Sunday] congregation averages 400 up {Why was this man complaining?}  It is composed of many of the leading business people of the city… Socially, the people are plain, middle class folk, plenty of money in the church, but no style.”

            Now, admittedly, Eliot was a young man when he went to DenverBoston (which Ralph Waldo Emerson had called the “corpse cold Unitarianism of Brattle Street” a few years before). He longed for a church cut from the same cloth that other churches were, perhaps; maybe a little more liberal, maybe a little more intellectual in its approach, but basically the same. He longed, too, for a church made up of his own kind of people—of people who shared his own sense of “style”; people who thought like he did; people drawn from his own (extremely privileged) social and economic class. Samuel Eliot felt threatened by what he encountered in Denver. He didn’t want a church that was a sort of Tower of Babel.

            Now, what relevance does this stroll down memory lane have to us today, as we consider our own church’s future, and try to discern how to keep this church afloat amidst the changing tides of the times in which we live? Certainly, diversity like that found in that church in Denver is now the norm in most UU congregations today, even right here, in our little church in Stoughton. (We probably even have a few permutations of belief and outlook that people of Eliot’s age couldn’t even have imagined.) As churches go, it is our diversity which distinguishes us from others; it is, perhaps, the predominating fact of life within our church.

            So, it seems to me that, however we decide to proceed in the years ahead, that how we learn to live with (and share) our diversity will determine, to a large extent, the success of whatever efforts we undertake.

 Thriving amid diversity does not mean suppressing what each of us believes and accepting some lukewarm status quo. We will not grow as a church by becoming the Lowest Common Denomination.  We will not find enlightenment along the spiritual path by simply accepting second hand all the beliefs of others. No, that’s how we become confused and lost, overwhelmed in the sometimes conflicting currents we can find in a church like ours.

Thriving amidst diversity means neither accepting in total what everyone else believes, nor believing nothing at all. It means holding fast to what we believe—each one of us, affirming what our own experience, reason, and intuition tell us is true for us—but always remaining open to the insights and inspirations that others have to offer us. It really is like a dance (or like a good marriage). We each have our own steps to take, but always in concert—always in relationship—with those with whom we dance.

I am convinced that we were brought together here, all of us, for a reason. Whether that reason was cosmically-inspired or not I can’t tell you fur sure (I have my opinions, but they’re matters of faith, which cannot be proven.) But I do know that there is a deeper purpose for which this church should survive, and I do know that we all have things to learn from each other, and things to teach those who currently stand outside our doors. The only way we activate that purpose and make it come alive is by treating others not as forces outside ourselves, but as integral parts of our own spiritual journeys. We need each other if we are to grow spiritually. Our communities need us, and we need them, as well.

However this church decides to proceed in the days ahead, something I know that we need are more opportunities just to talk with each other, to talk and to share why we’re here; where we came from to get here; where we see this church going. We need to schedule more experiences like the “Brainstorming for Survival” forum we’ll be having after the worship service today. We need more small circles, where people can come together to share their stories-- their insights into this wonderful spiritual adventure we are on together. We all need opportunities to speak, and to listen to what others have to say. Ministers, especially, need times to listen. We have to make sure everyone’s voice can be heard. That’s how we stay in touch with the heartbeat of our church, and can best judge its overall health.

I guess it is tempting for a minister to want a congregation that thinks and feels always the same way he does, or she does. That sees things from the same vantage point; that reacts to the world in the same way. It can be tempting, I guess, especially in a church as diverse as ours is. Being a Unitarian Universalist minister has been compared both to herding cats and to nailing Jell-o to the wall, and both are apt analogies, it seems to me, sometimes.

But is that what I’d really want? A church where everyone thought the same way I do, and believed the same things, and voted the same way {well, maybe that one!}No, it sounds like a prescription for boredom, if the truth be told. Boredom—and stagnation—and a kind of living death.

For if we are sometimes confused, we are not lost. And sometimes, we see even more amazing things along the ways of our detours than we do along the well-maintained superhighways of our lives. That was true for Sam Eliot in Denver, and for Daniel Boone wandering around the wilderness somewhere, and for us, trying to find the best road into the future.

Deep down, we would agree with Emerson that, while we wish sometimes to be settled, we know that only so far as we are unsettled is there hope for us. The Spirit—Emerson said “God”, and so would some of us—The Spirit offers us the choice between Truth and Repose. “Take which you please,” Emerson said, “but remember: You can never have both.”

If Sam Eliot were here at our little Unitarian Universalist church in Stoughton this morning, he might still be shaking his head at what he saw: “iconoclasts, agnostics, and ethicists… a few Jews…” (even a few Christians, too). To which we could add Humanists and atheists, and pagans and Buddhists, and, yes, “a number of recently converted [Catholics] and some people to whom religion means free trade and an [expanded recycling law].” Some want lectures; some like sermons—some want spirituality; others religion; and all of us dream of a world that is just and fair.

We are just plain folks, and we have our own “style”-- whatever Sam Eliot might think. This little church, this little collection of fellow pilgrims, facing the future together, our way lit only by a faith united and universal—inspired by (to paraphrase Stephen Vincent Benet):

“this dream

This land unsatisfied by little ways,

Open to every one who brings good will

This peaceless vision, groping for the stars,

Not as a huge devouring machine,

Rolling and clanking with remorseless force…

But as [a living church upon a]

living earth

where anything [could happen and]

anything could grow.

May we be bold enough to envision great things for our dear church.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"God Bless the Troublemakers" (Sunday, January 15, 2012)

            Statisticians tell us that, around the world, somewhere over 150,000 people—men, women, and children—die, on average, each and every day. Most of us, of course, pass away unnoticed and unmourned by all but our relatively small circles of family and friends and colleagues and neighbors. Some people die all alone. Some deaths are the stuff of major news stories. Some unleash great tides of mourning and catharsis, with grand state funerals and public wailing and weeping, and great gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts.

            Perhaps you saw some of the footage coming out of North Korea following the death of its “Great Leader” Kim Jong Il on December 17. It was rather bizarre stuff, even by North Korean standards. Men and women seemed to compete with one another in expressing their outward grief. There was crying and screaming and rolling on the ground. All for a second generation dictator who had kept his nation in thrall for the 18 years he was in power; who had quartered absolutely no opposition; who had cut off his nation from the outside world; who had led a life of indulgence and comfort while hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of his people starved.

            It is one of those fascinating juxtapositions of history that within a day of the death of Kim Jong Il, another world leader of note passed away—thousands of miles from North Korea, in a small and rustic cottage in the mountains of northern Bohemia. For Vaclav Havel, too, there was mourning in the streets (though of a more restrained and dignified, and no doubt, more genuine, form than that which wracked North Korea); there was also a grand state funeral (with a few more world leaders making their way to Prague than to Pyongyang). There were news reports on CNN, and obituaries in the world’s newspapers.

            But there, the similarities ended. For, to be sure, history could not have produced two more different leaders than Kim Jong Il and Vaclav Havel. The former was a tyrant and a thief, yet another exemplar of history’s dark night, evidence of that fundamental stupidity that stalks the deep recesses of our human nature. The other was, in my opinion, one of the truly great men of our century, a Renaissance man in a distinctly non-Renaissance age; a man who provided hope and inspiration to thousands over the course of his seventy-five years.

            It is Havel that we remember this day; for tyrants come and tyrants go, but the example of a truly decent man (or woman) is a gift of God and a joy to our spirits. 

            Was he perfect? Hardly. No more than Dr. King was perfect, though, he, too, we remember as a beacon of our human race and of our human story.

            In his personal life, Havel could be stubborn and impatient; he not always faithful in his marriage; he a bit overly fond, at times, both of the bottle and the cigarettes which ultimately shortened his life. In his public life, he made mistakes, too, as when he, like so many, got suckered into supporting the fiasco of Gorge W. Bush in Iraq.

            The perfect soul has not stalked this earth for at least 2000 years, and dear Vaclav did not threaten that record. Not even close. No, sometimes we admire the people we do because their imperfections draw their virtues into clearer focus. Their failings serve as a bridge linking us with them.

            Such an unlikely candidate for the halls of honor, Havel was.

            Born into one of the leading families of Prague in 1936, he seemed destined for a life of privilege and comfort and ease, until the Communist takeover in 1948 confiscated his family’s  property and denied him a college education. He found work as a carpenter’s assistant, but suffered from extreme vertigo, so couldn’t climb ladders without taking his life into his hands. Reassigned to a scientific laboratory, he studied at night to get a high school diploma, but was then drafted into the army, where he was assigned to a unit that specialized in mine clearing.

            But then, after being discharged from the army in 1959, his father used his old connections to get his son a job as a stagehand at one of Prague’s vaudeville houses. From there, he moved to the avant garde Theatre on the Balustrade, which produced Havel’s first play, The Garden Party, in 1963.

            The rise to power in Czechoslovakia of reform Communists like Alexander Dubcek, with their dreams of building “socialism with a human face”, brought Havel’s satires of the system to the fore. His position in society rose, and he was even allowed to visit New York City for six weeks in the spring of 1968. Within weeks of his return to his homeland that summer, however, Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Wenceslas Square, and the “Prague Spring” was brought to a crashing and tragic halt.

            In place of Dubcek and the reformers, the Soviets installed a dreary regime of “normalization” in Czechoslovakia under the leadership of an old-line Communist named Gustav Husak. Most Czechs and Slovaks seemed resigned to the blow that history had dealt. They stopped taking any interest in public affairs, and retreated back into their own private lives. For their part, Husak and his cohorts reasoned that if people felt as though their living standards were improving, they wouldn’t seek after political freedom any longer. Consumer goods were imported from abroad and sold in state-owned shops. A dull and dreary complacency seemed to settle over the entire country.

               But Havel realized that his very survival as a writer, as a creative human being, depended upon freedom and the free flow of ideas. Soon, he and a few other of the country’s banned writers began to meet informally in each other’s homes, often at Hradacek, Havel’s country cottage north of Prague (the house in which he died, ultimately). At these gatherings, these men and women would share a meal and discuss a wide range of subjects. They would distribute among themselves type-written manuscripts of their latest writings. These self-published samizdat were the country’s only alternatives to the official literary works of the government’s publishing houses. The “dissident” movement in Czechoslovakia had been born.
          Havel was soon fingered as the country’s leading “troublemaker” by those in power. But by 1975, Havel felt he had had enough of “private life” and “normalization”. He believed that if there was going to be any hope of freedom in his country, someone had to challenge the Communist leadership directly. In April of 1975, he took the daring step of addressing an open letter to General Secretary Gustav Husak himself.

            “Dear Dr. Husak,” the letter began. Havel told Husak that, beneath the calm facade of life in Czechoslovakia, there was a deep fear that crept “like the invisible web” of a “hideous spider” through the whole of society. This fear, though not as harsh and brutal as the terror of the Stalinist period, nevertheless had the same kind of deadening effect on people’s spirits.

            The present repression, Havel continued, would have long-term negative effects on the nation’s well-being. A society based on fear and apathy would eventually become unable to express itself creatively at all. Havel then reminded Husak of the responsibility he, as both president and party leader, carried for the present spiritual crisis in their country:

            “So far, you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outer appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power.”

            So the die was cast, and the credo of the dissident was uttered in the most direct and unflinching terms.

            Havel paid for his dissent—not with his life, perhaps, as he might have in Stalinist or Nazi times (or as he might have had he been a North Korean addressing his letter to Kim Jong Il)—but with one jail term after another; with constant surveillance and harassment at the hands of the authorities; with severe limitations on his freedom of movement and expression, by powerful men who would not let such “troublemaking” go unchecked. 

            But in another letter he wrote around this same time (a few years before, actually), this one to Alexander Dubcek, the great reformer whom Husak had toppled, Havel had implored Dubcek not to recant his former positions, but to hold fast to them, though all seemed lost. Havel went on to remind Dubcek that, in the long sweep of history, that ideas which once seemed discredited eventually can become more powerful than ever. Though the freedom and decency of the Prague Spring had been forced underground, Havel wrote, those ideals would remain alive in the hearts of their nation’s people and would come to flower again someday.

            In less than twenty years, Havel and Dubcek would be embracing on the stage of the Magic Lantern Theater in Prague, and toasting each other with champagne, as Husak and his minions surrendered their hold on power.

            If it wasn’t for the troublemakers, this human story of ours would not progress. It has been said that “Well behaved women do not make history”, nor do any of those who refuse to stick out their necks in defense of unpopular ideas. It is usually the children of those who stoned the prophet who use those same stones to build monuments in the prophet’s memory. Even though history is not a long and inevitable progression  onward and upward forever, we can affirm, with the great Unitarian abolitionist Theodore Parker (whom his more staid and respectable colleagues in the Unitarian ministry often derided as a “troublemaker”, too) -- and with Dr. King who used his words more than a century—that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends inexorably toward justice.”

            It bends toward the just because there are men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit who choose not to live for themselves alone.   

            Men and women like Parker and Dr. King—and John Brown and Rose Parks—and Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman—and the hundreds and hundreds we don’t remember, who lit the light of freedom in this American land, and kept it lit with their lives.

            Men and women the world over who defended truth, who refused to accept the Big Lies of their own day. Men and women like Havel, and Sakharov, and Lech Walesa. Like Mandela, and Steven Biko, and Oliver Tambo, and Helen Suzman.

            And in our own land, in days that some of us still remember, add the names of Rev. James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister killed in Selma in 1965; and Viola Liuzzo (a Unitarian Universalist lay woman)  and Emmet Till, and Medgar Evers, and Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman, and all the others lynched and gunned down and beaten to death and dumped into ditches by the side of the road, because they would not—could not—accept an evil and unjust status quo.

            On this King Weekend, let is remember people like Burma’s brave voice of freedom, Aung San Suu-kyi. People like Sophie and Hans Scholl and the other students of Munich and Ulm and other German cities who defied history’s most hateful regime armed only with the courage of their own convictions. Men like Franz Jaggerstatter, a simple Austrian farmer, who dared to stand as the only man in his entire town to vote “No” to the German takeover of his country.

So great a cloud of witnesses encompasses us on our human journey. And make no mistake that often those who stood in solitary witness to the evils of their day, were sore afflictions to those who were comfortable and powerful and seemed to have it all.

But everything can change on a new year’s day. That is, often, because there are those among us who dare to make trouble. Men and women, sometimes with extraordinary talent, sometimes not, somehow inspired by a spark from heaven, or by the light of truth in their own souls, to put aside the easy well-worn path of lukewarm living, and find within themselves a little more love, a little more courage, a little more responsibility, a little more hope.

Another of Vaclav Havel’s favorite mottos was this: "Pravda a láska musí zvítězit nad lží a nenávistí.“ For those of us who don’t know Czech, that means: “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate.”

So it must. But it will only happen, though, if we make it so.

"The ABCs of Modern Life" (Sunday, January 8, 2012)

One day, the story goes, God is Upstairs at that Great Big University in the Sky. He’s reviewing applications for admission. As he’s reading all these applications he has before him, a common theme comes through: “I would have done [so and so],” he reads, “but I didn’t have enough time.” “Couldn’t finish [this or that] because I needed more time.” “I would have done more…” or, ‘I would have done better…” or whatever, but “there weren’t enough hours in the day…” Over and over, God reads: “I would have been a better person, but I didn’t have enough time…” “Not enough time… Not enough time…” “Well,” God finally says, “that’s something I’ll do different next time!”

But, of course, the fact of the matter is that the amount of time we have is a given. We have no less time than our most ancient (or even more recent) forbears did. There has never been more—or less—time than there is today, than there is right now. Why, all of a sudden, this need to bemoan our fates and try to spread ourselves too thinly over the whole mass of what we need to do, and hope for the best?

Maybe the problem is not in the way the world was created but in the way we live and act, right now. Perhaps our fault is not in our stars—not in the cosmic makeup of existence—but in ourselves (more particularly, in our cultural selves, our social selves, and even our economic selves) that we are running roughshod over the “better part” of life in this way.

There seems to be a new innovation every day—some new gadget to make our lives more efficient and more productive; some new way to help us communicate faster and faster and faster. As I have said before, every time I walk into Best Buy, I feel like Rip Van Winkle, as though I have slept through the latest generation of technological innovation. And it is at our own peril, we are told, that we do not utilize all of these new innovations; if we do not take advantage of everything that’s offered us, we risk rendered hopelessly old fashioned and out of touch and redundant.

As a result, the American-Buddhist teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Our entire society suffers from attention deficit disorder, and it is getting worse by the day…. We are literally being driven to distraction by our delicious opportunities and choices… It has given rise to a dance of inattention and instability of mind.”

Zinn continues:

“The relentless acceleration of our way of life over the past few generations has made focusing on anything something of a lost art. Things come at us fast and furiously, relentlessly. These assaults on our nervous system continually stimulate and foster desire and agitation, rather than connectedness and calmness…and, if we are not careful, they rob us of our time, of our moments… So many of us feel trapped, yet at the same time addicted to the speed at which our lives are unfolding. Even our stress or distress can feel oddly satisfying or even intoxicating.”

            Our mad rush to do more—more—more, and to accomplish it faster—faster—faster—is, quite simply, making us sick.

In her book, Awakening in Time: Practical Time Management for Those on a Spiritual Path, Pamela Kristan offers something of a sure for our modern disease in terms of three overall components: Attention; Boundaries; and Choices— it really is as basic as A-  B-C:

Cultivating focused, yet flexible attention either to hold onto what we’re doing in spite of all the distractions around us, or to let it go; 

Establishing task boundaries that contain what we’re doing and make decent transitions from one thing to another; boundaries that allow us to be who we are, while keeping us connected to others in a healthy and compassionate way;

Then finally, making good, healthy, decent choices in our lives; choices which keep us in tune with our truest values, and ground us sturdily in what is really possible for us to do and achieve. 

A-B-C—Attention; Boundaries; Choices--  those are the real Christmas presents we modern men and women need, Pamela Kristan says in her book, Awakening in Time (and she gives all sorts of practical pointers for how to do these things, too; it really is quite a wonderful little book).

So first: Attention.

Managing our time depends upon our ability to direct our attention, Ms. Kristan writes. Paying attention is also fundamental to our overall spiritual health, and entire spiritual systems, both ancient and modern, rest on paying attention (or practicing mindfulness or staying in tune to what’s happening right now) as their core practice.

But, “For most of us, attention is a kind of hit or miss affair,” she writes. “Sometimes, we focus on whatever is right in front of our noses. Other times, we slide off to the e-mail pop-up, the person walking in, or the ringing phone. Or maybe we immerse ourselves so deeply in a project that it’s difficult to come up for air.”

We need to cultivate our sense of Presence, Kristan says—of Being Present—our sense of conscious contact with ourselves.

Thich Nhat Hahn once wrote about a trip he took with Jim Forest of the Catholic Peace fellowship, a close friend and an anti-war activist.

            “One time when we were together,” Thich Nhat

“I said to him, ‘Jim, stop!’ He looked at me, and I said, ‘Eat your tangerine.’ He understood. So he stopped talking, and began to eat much more slowly and mindfully. He separated each of the remaining sections of the tangerine carefully, smelled their beautiful fragrance, put one section at a time into his mouth, and felt the juices surrounding his tongue. Tasting and eating the tangerine that way took several minutes, but he knew that we had time for that. When he finished eating… I knew that the tangerine had become real, the eater of the tangerine had become real, and life also had become real at that moment. During the time you eat a tangerine, eating the tangerine is the most important thing in your life.”

Of course, when we eat a tangerine nowadays, it’s most likely to be at a desk, or before a computer screen, or while we’re driving—in a word, when we’re doing something else. We do an awful lot of the things we do in our lives when we’re doing something else. No wonder we so often look back at our days as we climb into bed at night, and ask, “Now, what exactly did I accomplish today?” It all seems to us a great gray blur.

“It’s all too easy to let our attention run like a Springer Spaniel on the beach,” Pamela Kristan writes. “We talk to the visitor, answer the e-mail, and pick up the phone. Sometimes, we do all three at once!”

Woody Allen once said that 80% of life is showing up. But it’s probably in the other 20% of life  that the real extra-ordinariness of our lives takes root. That other 20%-- beyond just going through the motions—is where “showing up” is not all that’s required. It’s where “being present”—really paying attention-- is what’s called for.

“With a measure of constancy and control of our attention,” we read, “we gain an internal coherence at the center of our beings. We more easily take our cues from within, rather than deferring to external authority. No longer are we at the mercy of every passing event or tossed about by surface storms. Our lives follow the slower-moving currents beneath the surface where life is less chaotic and dissatisfying, and more cohesive, resonant, and rich.”

But to cultivate this deeper sense of being, we need Boundaries. All things have boundaries:

“Bodies have skin; cells have membranes; water droplets have surface tension. These enveloping, containing boundaries allow a thing to exist. Without them, there is no ‘thing’, just an undifferentiated mass of stuff. With them, whatever it is can grow, flourish, and explore its unique way of being.”

Our boundaries define who we are.

Our boundaries also mediate between us and the wider world of which we are a part. “Think of a cell’s membrane. It not only defines the cell but allows the cell to interact with its larger environment. Through it the cell takes in nourishment and information and releases chemicals and unneeded substances.”

The health of a cell depends on the health of its membrane. Our health depends on the healthiness of the boundaries we establish.

Our boundaries need to be permeable, but not indiscriminately open. If we habitually accommodate all of everyone else’s needs—if we are constantly at the beck at call of the requests, desires, demands, specifications, what have you, of everyone else—if we habitually accommodate others’ needs and ignore our own—then we let in too much of what’s “out there” and deplete our own internal reservoirs. Then, there goes our time! There go our hopes and dreams! There go (often) our health and peace of mind!

On the other hand, if we get so caught up on our own concerns that we ignore what’s going on around us, and run roughshod over the needs and desires and aspirations of others, then we become closed off and unable to participate in life’s richness. Our lives shrink. We isolate ourselves and end up alone. If we concern ourselves only with our own needs and wants, then we worship at an altar that is just too small.

Of course, the emotionally mature person (and emotional maturity may, or may not, have much to do with how old someone is) knows that life is seldom an either/or proposition, especially when it comes to setting boundaries. The emotionally mature person knows that there are times when we need to turn the focus within, when we even need to be quite self-absorbed. Like when we’re sick, or in the process of changing careers, or going through some other major life transition. At other times, accommodating others’ needs more than we might otherwise is appropriate: as when we have small children to care for; or when we’re caring for someone who is sick, or for (say) elderly parents who can no longer make all of their own decisions or do everything they need to do for themselves.

But (usually) these times of high intensity, of one extreme or the other, pass. And when they do, and “ordinary time” descends upon our lives again, then it is possible for us to reestablish a healthy balance of inward and outward focus, which provides the basis for a healthy and fulfilled modern life. “Boundaries that are firm and flexible protect and connect us,” Pamela Kristan writes.  “We take on some tasks, expectations, and proposals, and reject others.”

In a word, then, we make Choices.

We human beings are, to an amazing degree, the sum total of the choices we make. “When we say ‘No,’ we realize that the rejected request is someone else’s choice, not ours. When we say ‘Yes,’ we recall what it is that makes our hearts sing.”

At the very heart of who we are as conscious beings is a great deal of free will—freedom to choose who we are, and how we will respond to this world. In his great work, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl points out that even in a concentration camp—the most horrific and constraining experience possible—we have a choice about how to respond, what to think, even how to feel. Even though our environment—the culture in which we operate—seems to hold its heavy hand over us—be it the restrictions of a traditional culture, the demands of an overly-controlling family, the dehumanizing pace of 21st century corporate culture—we nonetheless, ultimately, choose at every moment, what to do and how we going to do it.

It’s not that we don’t have choices that we make. It’s that we’re not always (often? usually?) conscious of the choices we are making:

We’re distracted  by the “squeaky wheel”, so we  do something  someone else asks just so we won’t be bothered by their demands any longer. We have only a certain amount of time available, so we do whatever happens to fit into that slot, as inconsequential and unnecessary as it might really be to our overall goals.  An uncomfortable task awaits us, so we avoid it as long as we can—until it returns to bite us in the backside. We feel burdened by (seemingly) endless demands and expectations, so we rebel and do what we want, rather than what we should. Conversely, we feel guilty about assert our own needs and wants, so we do what is expected of us, and within us there grows an increasing sense that life is joyless  and drear.

Sometimes (oftentimes?) it’s not just our consciously bad choices that get us into hot water. Sometimes, it’s our less-than-conscious choices, too, that cause us trouble. We do what’s not so important and neglect those things which are. We burn out and grow ill or depressed. We feel we’re missing out on our lives, so we get resentful or angry and our relationships fall by the wayside. In the end, living for ourselves alone or completing whoring after the approval of others are both symptoms of the same disease. We end up neither enjoying life nor serving the cause of our common-wealth.

The answer, of course (or, at least, an answer) lies in paying Attention to these lives we are leading, so that we can come to Know Ourselves better.  Then in setting firm but flexible Boundaries that define who it is we truly are. And finally, in making conscious Choices that we can stand behind, and live with, and affirm with the fullness of our whole beings—body, mind, and soul.

Then it is that we embrace these limits of Time and Space that both the natural world and modern society place upon us. Then it is that we embrace the blessed limits that living on this good Earth requires—with grace and gratitude and a full share of good humor.