"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Our Story, Our Song (Sunday, June 16, 2013)

            As part of the process of a minister separating from a congregation, our denomination has instituted “exit interviews”, whereby the minister (and separately, the governing board of the congregation) get to sit down with our District Executive and discuss how things have gone during the ministry that is drawing to a close—major accomplishments, whatever challenges there were, lessons learned, pitfalls or ruts that might have been avoided.

            Even though this was something new to me (we didn’t have “exit interviews” twenty years ago when I left Rockland, Maine to come here to Stoughton), I think it’s a useful process. The ancient Greeks used to say that the unexamined life wasn’t worth living, and I suppose the same is true for the unexamined ministry. It’s always good to pause, take a breath, consider where one has been, and where one might be headed.

            So it was that on Monday afternoon of this week, our District Executive, Bill Zelazny, came here to Stoughton, and we sat in the church parlor and chatted for about an hour and a half about the past twenty years (actually, nineteen years and ten months) here in Stoughton. (The Board of Trustees would have their chance to meet with Rev. Zelazny later that evening.) As I said, I think it was a helpful process.

            Bill had sent me a series of questions (over 20 of them, I think), so I’d had my chance to formulate my answers ahead of time, and submit them in writing, and we then went over them. One of the questions in particular, I thought, was quite interesting, and I have been pondering it since. “Imagine this time you served this congregation as a play or a movie,” the question read. “What was the story?”  If this had been a movie we were in over the past two decades, what movie would it be?

            Hmm… The card file in my head got to rolling, and I started to think of some of the movies I had seen down through the years. That was too many to process, so to narrow it down, my mind jumped to this past February, when Elizabeth and I went to the second week of the “2013 Best Picture Showcase” at the Lowe’s AMC Theater on the Boston Common and saw five—count ‘em five!— Oscar-nominated films at one sitting (and it was a blast, by the way). So I went through those five films in my mind, to see if any of them fit:

            Beasts of the Southern Wild was about Hurricane Katrina and Life of Pi was about a shipwreck. It hasn’t been that bad.

            Silver Linings Playbook was about bi-polar illness, promiscuous sex, and ballroom dancing. None of those metaphors seemed especially apt.

            Zero Dark Thirty was about the capture (and execution) of Osama Bin Laden. No, Kids Cook was pretty exciting but it never got quite that dangerous. (Almost as loud, but not as dangerous.)

            That left Lincoln. Now, I think I have a pretty healthy ego; I really do. But Lincoln-esque? I don’t think so. And happily, we have pretty much avoided those “civil wars” to which some churches seem prone. We have been very fortunate in that regard.  

            None of those films fit. So I just wrote that the main plot line of our ministry together would involve a group of people endeavoring to care for one another to the best of their abilities, and succeeding pretty well in fostering the day in/ day out ties that bind us to one another.

            Nothing too dramatic there. But a true statement, and right from the heart.

            Then, after Bill left, I remembered the movie Babette’s Feast.

            Babette’s Feast was a 1987 Danish film (“Uh-oh,” some of you are now saying, “a weird European flick. Figures.”). It was based on a novel by the Danish writer Isak Dineson, who also wrote Out of Africa.

The story is set is the 1880s, and Babette, a woman approaching middle age, was once a renowned chef in Paris, something very unusual for a woman in that time. But in 1871, both her son and husband die tragically in the civil war that was then raging in France. She flees her war-torn city and seeks refuge with two kindly old sisters in a small, isolated Norwegian village. The sisters are poor, but deeply religious, and they are trying with all their might to maintain the small religious community which their father, a brilliant minister, has established years before, but which is now in danger of dying out.

Several years after arriving in the village, Babette wins 10,000 francs in the French lottery—an amazing amount of money at the time—and asks the sisters for permission to prepare a special dinner for their small community, to mark the 100th anniversary of their father’s birth. With some hesitation and with deeply mixed feelings, the sisters agree. The other members of the village aren’t sure the great banquet is a good idea either. They wonder if all this fine food and wine, all this feasting, all these earthly delights, won’t draw them away from their deeper, spiritual calling.

But out of politeness to Babette, and out of deference to the honor of their founder, they all, somewhat reluctantly, decide to go to the feast. And they are transformed by the experience.

Not so much by the food and drink—which was sumptuous and abundant. They are transformed by the grace of sharing this magnificent meal together. The members of the community discover the power of reconciliation and the love and hope that had brought them together in the first place.

All because they had shared a feast together—a feast not so much of food, really, but of love.

At the heart of my vision of ministry, especially here in Stoughton for these past twenty years, has been my desire to feed and to nourish, body and mind and soul alike. In so far as I have succeeded, I owe it all to you, my faithful friends around the table. You have inspired me and uplifted me and have taught me so much more about human decency and courage and hard work than I could ever offer to you.

Maybe it hasn’t been a movie, this life we have shared together for the past twenty years. Maybe it’s been a song. A song that can still echo in our hearts, and can still sing in our ears, even when we have gone our separate ways.

I’m no expert on movies (which doesn’t stop me from enjoying them, and talking about them; not being an expert about something has never stopped me from talking about it.) But I suppose that, according to National Public Radio at least, and the Bio Channel, and various “Classic Rock” radio outlets around America, I do (somehow) rank as an expert on music—or, at least, the music of one contemporary artist in particular.

So, when I had finished cogitating on which movie best represented our ministry together, my mind (such as it is) turned to the question of “Which song”, or more particularly, “Which Springsteen song?” best sums up who and where we have been over the past two decades, and where we may be going.

A different set of file cards started flashing through my mind—a BIG set of all 269 songs recorded by Bruce in a career stretching back to when I was in high school (which gets to be a longer and longer time ago, even as we speak). My mind raced through “Lost in the Flood” and “Born to Run”, right up to more recent fare like “The Rising” or “Working on a Dream”. Some fit; some didn’t (“Cadillac Ranch”? Not around here.) And it always came back to “Thunder Road”.

Because “Thunder Road” has always been a song about change, about graduation, about moving from one stage of our lives to the next.  Which is, when you boil it down, what life is all about.
Often, it is at those times of great transition that we might well feel most unsure of ourselves, uncertain that we have made the right choice. But once we are truly committed to change, deeply committed, then darkness breaks and morning with its immense possibilities finally arrives. Then the river of life delights to lift us free, if we but dare let go.

This is our story; this is our song. The story of decent men and women who have done their best over these twenty years to tend to the ties that bind past, present, and future generations (as only churches can) in a living garment of caring and love. Who have dared to offer this old world a youthful song of acceptance and affirmation and hope and courage.

It has been an honor for me to sit at this table with you over these years. It has been a joy, as well.

You have been so kind to me and to my family, and for this Elizabeth and I are so deeply grateful. You have worked so hard to keep this church going, and when I think back at those others who worked so hard, who are no longer among us, then my heart surges when I consider what a privilege it has been to have been your minister.

Beethoven once said that “Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”

I don’t know how “pure” any of us are. But the soup has been good. And nourishing. And may we pray it will sustain us well for the next stage of the journeys that are ours to make.

Godspeed on your journey. God bless you all. Amen.

Monday, June 10, 2013

In Uncharted Waters (Sunday, June 2, 2013)

           As some of you might know, in this transitional stage of concluding my twenty year ministry here in Stoughton (and my thirty-three year career in the Unitarian Universalist ministry generally), I have taken a job as a First Mate on board a duck boat. In addition to my work as your minister, I am currently also employed by Super Tours of Boston, and a few days a week, I can be found cruising the streets of Boston or sailing in the Inner Harbor, sharing my “vast” historical knowledge with people from far flung corners of the globe and from all fifty U.S. states.

            I have really enjoyed this work thus far. Finding a tour company that would let me talk, without having to drive around the city in a great big tour bus was a godsend. I enjoy being in the city, savoring its sights and sounds and atmosphere. My co-workers are an interesting and friendly group.  It has been wonderful to get to meet visitors from so many different places.

            And most of all, I get to talk about history, almost all day, several days a week.

            I get to tell the story of that dynamic and multi-faceted place we call Boston, from the native peoples who settled the Mishawum and Shawmut peninsulas, to the Puritans and the Sons of Liberty and the waves of immigrants who each transformed the city in their wake. There are many people and places—and stories—along the way, whether on land or on sea. Some of these I had already heard about and known of before starting this job (I was a trolley driver back in the 1990s, some of you might remember): the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere; the Brinks Job; the Great Molasses Flood (to bring you just to the fringes of the North End).

            But I have never kidded myself that I knew everything about anything; so some of the stories I now tell are new to me. None of them more interesting, and enlightening, and inspiring than the story of the Flying Cloud.

            The Flying Cloud was built by Donald McKay at his shipyard in East Boston, and launched in the spring of 1851. McKay was born in Nova Scotia in 1810, moved to Boston as a young man, and eventually became one of the most successful ship builders in America. (There’s even a monument to him at Castle Island, where Boston’s Inner Harbor and Outer Harbor meet).

            The Flying Cloud was to be McKay’s crowning achievement, built as an extreme clipper, the fastest boats to sail back in the 19th century. Gold had been discovered at Sutter’s Creek in 1848, and soon the Gold Rush—the mad dash to get to California as fast as possible to search for riches—was on.  But the journey from the East Coast to the West was a long and arduous one:

The first transcontinental railroad was still almost twenty years away. Trips by wagon train were dangerous, and it could take well neigh a year to reach California. Most critically (for voyages by sea), there was no Panama Canal (yet). So that meant if you wanted to go from New York to San Francisco, you had to sail down the coast of South America; around Cape Horn; then back up the coast of South America; up the Pacific Coast of Mexico; then, finally, to California.  

It took even the fastest ships in the early 19th century six months or more to make that voyage—too slow for those who craved the chance to search for gold out west. McKay’s extreme clippers would attempt to shorten that time substantially. So hopes were high as the Flying Cloud set sail from New York on its maiden voyage, bound for San Francisco, on June 1, 1851.

Eighty-nine days and 20 hours later, amidst fanfare and celebrations and headlines in the national press, the Flying Cloud arrived in San Francisco harbor. A new sailing record had been set, nearly cutting by 50% the time it took to get from coast to coast. (Two years later, in 1853, the Flying Cloud would beat its own record by 13 hours—a record that would stand for over 135 years, until 1989.)

The captain on the Flying Cloud was Josiah Perkins Creesy, one of the most famous Yankee Clipper commanders of his day. His navigator (here’s where the story gets really interesting) was his wife, Eleanor—the daughter of a sea captain from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who had studied sailing and navigation at her daddy’s knee, so to speak.

It would be an understatement to say that it was unusual to have had a women as part of the crew on board a sailing vessel back in the mid-19th century-- much less in an important position like navigator. It wasn’t just unusual; it was unheard of! The crew, we can imagine, wasn’t too pleased. I’m sure that officials at the shipping company that owned the ship had their qualms, as well. Indeed, among more superstitious souls at the time (of whom there were many), it would have been considered bad luck to have had a woman on board the ship at all!

But Eleanor proved her stuff. Because of increasingly overcast skies as the ship headed south, she had no stars above her by which to navigate. Her instruments were rendered worthless. She had to rely on a process known as dead reckoning to determine where the ship was, and where it was headed. Dead reckoning (or deduced reckoning, as it sometimes called) entails using a previously determined position, or fix, and advancing that position based upon known or estimated speeds over a period of elapsed time and course. Modern navigational aids—most particularly satellite global positioning, or GPS, have rendered the use of dead reckoning obsolete. But it was all that Eleanor Creesy and the Flying Cloud had to rely on. When she predicted that they would reach the Straits of Magellan within hours of when they actually did, her reputation in the annals of navigation was secure.

But not only was Eleanor Creesy a great navigator; she ranks as a great pathfinder as well: a shining example of the achievements women and men are capable of—when they follow their callings; are true to their deepest natures; dare to sail pathless and wild seas, and set out into uncharted waters on the next stage of their lives’ journeys.

As it is true with individuals, so it can be with churches, as well.

We have all just about reached now the point our own great transition, you and I: that point at which this common journey we have shared as minister and congregation will separate, and we will go our separate ways, on separate journeys. There are just three more Sundays now in our ministry together (counting this one). By August 1, you will have a new interim minister at the helm. (Is the minister, in our tradition, the captain of the ship, or is he or she the navigator, or the steward, perhaps? That’s a question worth pondering as you move forward. I’m not sure what the best answer is. But think about it.)

Ccertainly, at this point in the journey, we’ve all got some interesting and challenging sailing to do, and we are both, you and I, in largely uncharted waters.

We know that in the realm of these day to day lives we lead, there is no such thing as an infallible GPS. Of course, there are the deepest values we hold, the deepest faith to which we cling. I know that, for me, and for some of us, the “G” in my GPS is God, and that, if I am true to my faith and my calling to glorify my Creator and serve His creation, that, in the end, in the big picture, “when the roll is called up yonder”, as they say, all will be well.

For this church, too, if you remain true to your Unitarian Universalist values—including and especially, perhaps, the affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every man, woman, and child, and respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are part—then you, too, will come ‘round to where you ought to be and end up just right, and redeem the important mission that this little church holds along the religious landscape of our community.

But even though we remain people of faith, the pathway of change can be challenging and intimidating and even frightening. That “big picture” GPS, that I do truly believe we each have deep within ourselves, guarantees nothing of ease or comfort or earthly success on these paths of everyday we trod (or sail) year in and year out.

Even the glorious Flying Cloud, which continued to have an illustrious sailing career even after the Creesys went elsewhere and retired from the sea, eventually (in 1874) went aground on a sandbar off the coast of St. John, New Brunswick, and was scuttled and condemned and sold off, piece by piece, as scrap copper and iron. 

There is no guarantee of earthly success (or institutional success) for me or for this church. We don’t know what the future holds in that realm.

But would you have had Eleanor Creesy stay at home, baking biscuits and sipping tea and tending her garden in Marblehead, when she had so many seas yet to sail?

Much more dangerous to our souls, I think, than setting out into new and uncharted seas is to remain holed up in the old familiar waters, even though they have grown stale and stagnant.  Even worse than dashing against the rocks on the way to new ports of call is to stay at home and stagnate and rust and die. To move the metaphor inland, a grave is the same as a rut, only deeper.

No, however sheltered this port may seem, and however hospitable it has been, we cannot anchor here any longer. It is time to hoist the mast and sail those pathless and wild seas.

We can rely on the instruments we have to set our course. We can use the navigational charts drawn up by those who have sailed these same seas before us. The library, and the marketplace, and the internet are full of would-be guides to help us on our journey. We would be foolish not to seek help when we need it, when the opportunity presents itself.

But sometimes, the stars above that guide us are obscured by clouds of doubt and uncertainty and confusion and complication, so we have to rely on our own dead reckoning, rather than on charts drawn up by others.

We have to look back to where we have sailed so far. We each have a history—a story—which has important lessons of discernment to teach us, if we pay attention to it and take it seriously. Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, they say. Those who do study history are doomed (or blessed) to be tour guides in Boston, perhaps.

But our lives largely are a product of the decisions we have made, good and bad, and both have so much to tell us. It is no accident that the most important maxim of the ancient Greeks was “Know thyself”, for in the answer to that riddle lies a pearl of great price indeed.

As we undertake the process of dead reckoning in these lives of ours, we need an accurate appraisal of where, exactly, we are—if we’re ever going to know where we’re headed.

Then, as we reckon, there is a need for us to be almost brutally honest with ourselves, if we’re going to stay on path. I’m sure you’ve heard the computer aphorism, “Garbage in, garbage out.” So it is for these reckoning brains of ours (the brain was really the first personal computer, you know, and it’s still the most important, at least for now). If, as we proceed on our journeys, the data we use is full of wishful or magical thinking, or is inaccurate or questionable, or is just plain garbage—then don’t be surprised if you end up stuck in the middle of the ocean, rather than at the Straits of Magellan.

And finally, here’s one more piece of navigational advice that I’ve learned from the various duck boat captains I‘ve sailed with in recent days: don’t steer toward the rocks.

It continues to amaze me what breathtakingly stupid things people have done (and continue to do) down through the ages. I like to think that, in my own life, I’ve avoided most (if not all) of the Really Big Mistakes that have, from earliest times, landed people in hot water time and again. But I have had enough little screw ups of my own over the past 58 ¾ years to keep me humble. As have we all (or most of us, at least). Many of these rocks I found myself cast up upon were avoidable, had I engaged my brain, my critical thinking, my God-given powers of reason and common sense (and sometimes, had I disengaged my tongue, which gets even the most even-tempered of us in trouble so very often).

But it’s a journey, isn’t it? This journey we make through life is often difficult and seldom predictable, and that’s the way it is supposed to be. For in the greatest challenges lie the greatest rewards, and in the greatest mysteries lie encoded the biggest surprises. It is wonder and surprise and the joy of new discoveries that make this life worth living. For that is how we know

…the universe itself as a road—
As many roads—

As roads for traveling souls. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Of War and Peace (Sunday, May 26, 2013)

           As someone who can trace half of my lineage to the Old South, I have always felt a special poignancy in the story of the origins of Memorial Day (or, Decoration Day, as it used to be called generally). According to the most common story, one day in late April, not too many years after the Civil War ended, a group of Southern women in Columbus, Mississippi, were laying flowers on the graves of the Confederate soldiers in their town. Among the 1500 Confederate graves, there were also the graves of 100 Union soldiers who had been killed near there, but whose bodies had never been identified or claimed. Spontaneously, it seems—because it was the right thing to do-- because these mothers, wives, sisters would have wanted their sons, husbands, brothers to be treated in this way—they decided to lay flowers on the graves of the Northern soldiers, as well.

It was as though these simple women were taking the first, tentative steps toward putting the great Civil War which our nation had just lived through behind them. It would be a process which would take generations. But those women knew that they had to begin somewhere, if the nation’s wounds (and their own wounds for that matter) were ever to be healed. So, they piled high the japonicas, and jasmine, and magnolias on Northern and Southern graves alike, and lived out the words of Walt Whitman’s “Twilight Song”:

You million unwrit names all, all--you dark bequest from all the war,
A special verse for you--a flash of duty long neglected--your mystic roll strangely gather'd here,
Each name recall'd by me from out the darkness and death's ashes,
Henceforth to be, deep, deep within my heart recording, for many future year,
Your mystic roll entire of unknown names, of North or South,
Embalm'd with love in this twilight song.

To re-member is to re-join; it is to reconnect; to bind up again that which has been severed. When we re-member we begin the process of making ourselves whole once again. We rejoin ourselves to the land of the living and the Spirit of Life.

War is hell for everyone involved, and there’s not one of us who would not wish to see the scourge of war banished from the pages of human history. It’s even been tried. About a decade after the end of the “Great War” – as the First World War was then known—leaders of dozens of the world’s nations met in Paris on August 27, 1928, and affixed their signatures to the “Pact of Paris”, usually known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact, after the two diplomats from the United States and France who drafted it. This treaty solemnly declared that war was henceforth “illegal” as a tool of international relations, and provided for “the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy."

War will be no more, the diplomats commanded; a new age of peace was at hand.

Within three years (by 1931), Japan had invaded Manchuria. Within five years, Hitler was in power in Germany. Within seven years, Italy invaded Ethiopia. Just a decade after the Pact had been signed, a second, so much more destructive world war had begun.

So much for the declarations of the diplomats. So much for wishing away the scourge of war.

History is a complicated thing, and all the wishful thinking and lyrical pacifism and mere words on paper are not going to remake the map of the world, or remake the human psyche. We may be bound in a mystic body of Oneness, as many of us deeply believe; we may be but drops of rain in a great cosmic sea. But knowing where my raindrop ends and yours begins may well be neigh impossible at times, and is always a constant struggle.

It might be tempting to wall off this world into neatly divided parcels of “yours” and “mine”—to erect an impenetrable security fence around those who are “different” than we are; who are inconvenient to us; who challenge us, and challenge our assumptions about what is “right” and “just” and “the way things ought to be”.

But now, in this world of ours more than ever, we understand that we just can’t fence off and isolate ourselves from people different than we are. The world has grown too small, too interconnected-- and too dangerous.

That means there’s going to be an inevitable amount of stepping on toes—of transgressing boundaries. That means, if we are ever to have hope for the future, there will inevitably be a need for confession, and forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Asking forgiveness of another—and daring to forgive another—is like piling flowers on the graves of our former enemies. It is a profound acknowledgement of our deeper, shared humanity. Not to forgive—not to seek reconciliation—is to imprison ourselves in our rage, our grief, and our despair. It is to snuff out the light of our humanity, and suffer future generations to be bound by our sins and failures.

A Tibetan Buddhist story talks about two monks who meet each again after being imprisoned for many years, and tortured by their captors. “Have you forgiven them yet?” the first monk asks the other. “No!” the other replies. “I will never forgive them for what they did to me. Never! Never!” So the first answers: “Well, I guess they still have you in prison then, don’t they?” Or, as an old Middle Eastern proverb reminds us: “If you seek revenge, then dig two graves: one for your enemy, and other for yourself.”

Too often, we find ourselves mired in the same old cycle of revenge and retribution. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” Gandhi once said.

I am not a pacifist, even thought I have the deepest respect for those who are. But in all honesty, I think that, in some ways, pacifist absolutism (which says that violence is never justified as a matter of policy) is as much a form of disordered thinking as militarist absolutism (which says that violence should be our default reaction whenever we are challenged). Gandhi also once reminded us that sometimes, when the choice is between violence and cowardice, we must choose to fight. Sometimes, in my opinion, there are human creations so irrational and evil that they need to be confronted directly. I hate the thought of going to war (and I hate even more the thought of my children, or your children, going to war). But sometimes war is the price of confronting evil.

But in spite of that, the drumbeat of peace continues to sound in our hearts, and our deepest vision of peace can continue to guide our living.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. The call to be peacemakers is found in all of the world’s holy scriptures: Jewish and Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim. We approach closest to the Divine, closest to God, when we put aside the man-made weapons of war, and take up the soul-inspired tools of peace. We are human; we are not gods. We will not always realize the full potential that dwells in our souls. We do make war upon one another; at times, perhaps unavoidably, at times perhaps even justly. But let our faith proclaim that we can make peace as well!

It seems to me, this is the best way to remember those who have died in times of war: not by glorifying war, but by counting honestly its cost; not by glossing over its evil, but by facing honestly its harsh and painful and haunting memories.

As Archibald MacLeish reminds us:

[The young dead soldiers] say,
Whether our lives, and our deaths were for peace and a new hope
Or for nothing
We cannot say.
It is you who must say this.

They say,
We leave you our deaths,
Give them their meaning.

The true memorial to our fallen heroes will arise in building the world of peace and freedom of which they dreamed. We do this neither by surrendering our values, nor by capitulating in the face of tyranny, nor by retreating back into isolation. We do it by seeking to be living models of reconciliation and new beginnings.

The human spirit is more powerful than the human-made hell of war because the human spirit is part and parcel of the indestructible spirit at the heart of the universe, the indestructible power of the Creation. We are limited only by the boundaries we place upon ourselves and upon our consciousness. My faith tells me that we can draw a new map of this world of ours—if we but dare to break free of the patterns of domination and control of the past, and see the world in new ways, and then learn to live the world in new ways.

This is not easy work. It takes more than wishful thinking, and baseless pieces of paper. It takes more than sermons. To choose to live a life based on non-violence in a world gone mad with violence tests the limits of our strength, and our patience, and our courage.

But even amid all of its violence and destruction and despair, human history also gives us so many shining examples of the human miracle of reconciliation.

For 27 years, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned by the apartheid government of South Africa on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town. As one writer has put it, “[Mandela] went into prison a young man and emerged an old man… If ever there was a person who should feel bitter, it was he. But he never expressed any bitterness. He never sought revenge.”

“I always knew that deep down in every human heart there is mercy and generosity,” Mandela wrote after his release. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin… People must learn to hate, they can be taught to love… Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going.”

We are called in this life to kindle those glimmers of humanity (and divinity) in one another. We do this by remembering our common Source, our common Oneness, and seeking to model that deeper unity in every aspect of our beings. As the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said:

If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.

If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.

If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.

If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.

If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.

          There is much truth in that little song that says, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

Or, as Vaclav Havel put it: “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human humility and in human responsibility."

The heart of Memorial Day lies in our hope that the sacrifices which others have made were not senseless or futile or devoid of meaning—but that they stood for something; that they were deep with meaning. What that meaning is—what it will be—now depends on us.

From the flowing river of our memory of them may there arise the wonderful and life-giving fountain of our hope for those who will come after us.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

"Men have forgotten God' (Sunday, May 5, 2013)


     If you have been paying attention (and I know that you all have) during the conversation we have been having here now for more than nineteen years, you might realize that there have been certain names that keep popping up. One, of course, is a certain rock singer from New Jersey. In more recent months, you have been treated to in depth analysis of the lives and legacy of the heroic members of the White Rose resistance group from Germany during the 1940s. There have also been numerous references to theologians and scholars like Matthew Fox and Joseph Campbell and even our own Ralph Waldo Emerson.

            And, of course, there has been the Czech philosopher, playwright, and political leader, Vaclav Havel. My first book was a biography of President Havel; I even met him once. I think his life story is inspiring and exciting; his words have stirred me and moved me; they have found a deep place in my heart and mind. I remember the first time I heard him speak. He had me at “anthropocentrism”.

            It was in an interview with Barbara Walters early in 1990, on the 20/20 television program, I believe, just a few weeks after Communism had been toppled in Czechoslovakia, and the unlikely Mr. Havel, dissident and playwright, former political prisoner, had become the country’s president. 

            “What is the most important issue the world faces?” Ms. Walters asked the new head of state.

            I thought he would say the arms race, nuclear proliferation, war and peace, fixing the economy, something like that. But Havel—ever an unorthodox world leader--  responded that the most important problem in the world was anthropocentrism: that is, that humanity had lost its sense of humility toward the cosmos, and had put itself at the center of creation, rather than acknowledging those greater forces of which it was part.

            His words reminded of those I had read from Solzhenitsyn some years before:

            “If I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God.”

            They were words from the address Mr. Solzhenitsyn had given in May of 1983, on being awarded the Templeton Prize, a prestigious award (sometimes called “religion’s Nobel Prize”) conferred on people who have made “exceptional contribution[s] to affirming life's spiritual dimension.” Other recipients have included Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Rev. Billy Graham, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama.

            It has been exactly thirty years since Solzhenitsyn received that award in 1983. So, I thought it a good time to get his address out of the files; quite literally (almost) dust it off; and take a look at how his words and insights reflect the landscape—religious, political, historical, even personal—that has developed in the years since. What has changed? What abides? Was Solzhenitsyn (and by extension, perhaps, Havel) a prophet, whose words ring more true than ever? Or was he a mere religious reactionary, clinging for dear life to the ideas and trappings of an age that was already dead and gone?

            Certainly, Solzhenitsyn ranks as a prophetic voice in stripping away any illusions the West might have had about the allure of Communism and the superiority of the Leninist way of life. The heroic experience of dissidents throughout Eastern Europe (like Solzhenitsyn, and like Havel and Walesa and so many others) exposed the Bolshevik lie so clearly that, in the end, even its defenders and  practitioners had to give up the ship—and, before our very eyes, overnight it seemed, the Empire fell, and the world was changed.

            It’s hard to believe, sometimes, the inordinate power that the fear of Communism held throughout the childhoods and youths of many of us (of a certain age, at least). (For a few of us, even, the allure of radical Marxism was an all-too-powerful siren, as well.)

            But now, with the exception of a bizarre place like North Korea (and perhaps Cuba), traditional Leninism no longer exists on the face of the planet (good riddance to it!). China is nominally Communist, but its rather strange hybrid economic system is really more state capitalist than socialist. (China does not even have universal health care any longer—in that and other respects China is even less “socialist” than France, or Germany for that matter!)

            So, it’s getting hard to remember those days when the ideology and practice of Communism held sway over broad swatches of this world of ours. But not only that:  this world changes so quickly that it’s even getting hard to remember those heady and dramatic days when Communism fell, and people’s revolutions won the day in one country after another—even in Solzhenitsyn’s own Soviet Union, for God’s sake.

            It is as though we have lived through several successive generations of change in the mere thirty years since 1983, but that in spite of all that, the world has changed little (in essential ways, for the better at least) in the years since. Many of the great hopes that were kindled when Communism fell have been deferred. Economic injustice has not been vanquished. Economic inequality (in the industrialized world, at least) has actually grown. Political turmoil is still the rule of the day. The ideal of a “unified Europe” faces extreme pressures and is far from being a dream fulfilled.

            The world has changed. And yet, it hasn’t. And we have grown much older in the last thirty years.

            So what, then, are we to make of Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s explanation for all of the world’s ills—“Men have forgotten God.”?

            Certainly, his words had a certain veracity to them when the “enemy”—the chief cause of the world’s woes—was “Godless Communism”—a political system which denied the Almighty, and exalted human reason and human achievement as the pinnacle of all life.

            But what of our world today?

            Is it even possible to believe that the precipice this world stands at now—the dangers it faces; the threats that imperil it—have been caused because there is “not enough God” in people’s consciousness?

            Hmmmmm… A cursory glance at the news of the day would indicate that we can hardly lay the threat of international terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism  on the “lack of God” in its practitioners worldview.  No, there seems to be “too much God” there, and not “not enough”.

            Atheistic Communism in the Soviet Union killed millions (60 million Solzhenitsyn says, though I haven’t checked where he gets that figure from). The Communist Chinese regime may have killed as many as 70 million. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia killed over 2 million men, women, and children (in a total population of about 7 million).

            Horrifying figures certainly. But what of the countless dead killed by marauding and crusading armies who marched “with the cross of Jesus going on before”? What of the blood-soaked land created by Columbus and those who came after him through the genocide of the native peoples of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries? All coming to the New World with the blessing of their Church, to spread their Faith far and wide, at the tip of a sword, if need be.

            Technology has allowed 20th century tyrants to kill more efficiently, to be sure. But men of faith have hardly stood blameless in this ongoing mayhem we call human history.

            Too often, “Men have forgotten God” and the result has been tragedy and evil. But all too often, too—as the world’s current experience with Islamic terrorism would seem to indicate—it has been men (and women) “of God”—those who ostensibly shout God’s name—Allah’s name—the most loudly, who have forgotten God most profoundly. It is they who have turned their backs on the deepest ideals of their faiths. It is they now who are pulling the world forcibly into the whirlwind of terror and depravity.

            “Remembering God” is not the same as remembering all the teachings of this or that Church or Faith; or being able to quote whole chapters of your holy scripture from memory; or always being able to find the perfect Bible verse—or the perfect verse of the Koran, or the Torah—to beat your opponent into submission.

            Not turning one’s back on God means remembering the deepest ideals of your faith, and striving to live them out, every day of your life. Not turning your back on God means not turning your back on all of God’s creatures—on all of your brothers and sisters in this great human family. If you truly believe in a Divine Creator, then how can you not see all people as all God’s children? And if we are all God’s children, then how can you knowingly hurt or harm or even kill one of your very own brothers and sisters?

            Not to forget God means not forgetting the fundamental reality that on this, God’s world, we are all One. That in the ways of the world, we should strive to take care of one another, especially of the weakest and most vulnerable among us. That, along the way of the world, we should strive to walk together, just as far as we can. Never forgetting the one who made us, never turning our back on the holy, never closing our ears to the monitions of the Spirit, and God’s voice in our souls.

            But always striving for ways that weave the web of life, and strengthen its fibers, and reinforce its connections. Always striving for ways to unite with those most different from us—even if that means putting aside the particular preferences and practices of our chosen faiths for a little while, and finding ways to work together and make the world better.

            We were not put on this Earth in order to win a theological argument and score points for our religious team.  We were put here to practice acts of mercy and to further the cause of justice. That is how we who are people of faith glorify the one who made us, and repay the debt we owe, pennies on the dollar, but the best we can.

            The choice that the West faces (that the world faces) is not just narrow fundamentalism on the one hand or cold and strident atheism on the other.

            In many ways, I think that Solzhenitsyn—stern judge of the weak and dissolute Western world-- was quite right back in 1983. His words still speak to our times. It may well be that we are immersed today in an age of unparalleled callousness and selfishness. In the name of “freedom” and “libertarianism”, our culture worships at the altar of Ayn Rand, and our material possessions have become our gods. In banishing the evil spirit of collectivism, we have forgotten the debt we owe to one another. In our love for freedom, we have allowed ourselves at times to be tempted by false gods of license and decadence.

            But freedom and reason—those dear offspring of the oft’ derided Enlightenment-- still stand as the West’s greatest defense against the whirlwind of history. If we each just cling stubbornly to our own self-imposed, man-made orthodoxies, then we face a Dark Age even deeper than that from which the civilization of the West once emerged. But to accept the truth that our ideas can change, that the forms and rituals of faith must be transformed in the light of new experience, is to embrace wholeheartedly the power of a Spirit which makes all things new.

            In our purely human reckonings, we have forgotten God all too often. We have failed to heed that infinite voice which speaks to each individual heart and conscience. “Only a God can save us now,” the German philosopher Heidegger once wrote. Or perhaps only being attuned to the deepest and fullest that is within us can give this world hope.

            There are forces of evil alive in this world, which only the most naive can deny. May we strive to join with men and women of goodwill everywhere—whatever their faith, and even if they profess no faith--  to stand in opposition to these forces. May we act bravely and boldly in the face of the challenges ahead of us.

            But may we also stand humbly and quietly and listen for the voice of God within. Then, deeply immersed in a spirit of love, let us resolve to build for those who will come after us a world dedicated to justice and to peace.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Toxic Religion (Sunday, April 28, 2013)


         Religion can be a dangerous thing. We have had more evidence of that in the last two weeks, right in our own backyard, in the very streets of Boston. Religion—confused, misused, abused—can be deadly, terrifying, toxic, not just to its particular adherents, but even to all society.

            Religion can kill. When one thinks of all the countless men, women, children killed in the name of religion down through the centuries (and we haven’t seen much let up in our own century), then we can understand why so many people sometimes want nothing to do with religion—why they want it out of their lives—why they might stand in favor of the Surgeon General posting signs on every church, temple, and mosque in America that reads: “Warning: Religion may be hazardous to your health.”

            When religion is not rooted in love (love of God; love of the earth; love of our fellow men and women) then it often turns dangerous. It becomes toxic. Not only does it cease to be a transforming and transcending force in the world—not only does it fail to serve people—it becomes a force of murder and mayhem and oppresses people instead.

            I am a person who seeks to be religious. I try (often quite unsuccessfully, but I try) to live my life according to religious values and ideals. My faith is important to me (more important as I get older). But even more than that, I am someone who loves religion—not just my own, but everyone’s. I love learning about the history of different religions, delving into their beliefs and practices, visiting their holy sites. Nothing gives me more peace than being in an old church, the grander and more ornate the better. I was a callow and immature youth when I visited Turkey with a school group back in 1974. But I can still remember being in the great Blue Mosque in Istanbul and being moved by the sense of the transcendent and the eternal I felt there. No, I come to praise religion, not to bury it.

            But I will admit that many of the things done in the name of religion make me sick. Physically ill. Emotionally distraught. Sad and depressed. And I can understand why so many people want nothing to do with it. Nothing to do with warped theologies which leave pressure cooker bombs on busy city streets. Nothing to do with moribund and ingrown institutions which turn a blind eye on the abuse of children. Nothing to do with self-righteous and hypocritical false prophets who judge and condemn and heap fire and brimstone on thoroughly decent men and women because of their sexual orientation or personal perspective or choice of lifestyle, while perhaps practicing the widest possible array of the seven deadly sins in their own lives.

            I can understand, fully, why people say to such false prophets: “Be gone from my sight!” and why thinking, compassionate women and men often look upon religion as the spawning ground of hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness at best, and downright terror at its worst. Who needs it? Not this old and troubled world of ours, certainly.

            There are extreme examples, of course. History is littered with names like Jim Jones and David Koresh, groups like Jonestown and the Branch Davidian. But extreme and sensational examples like these may be the exception and not the rule when it comes to religion’s destructive power. How many thousands of other lives that we’ve never heard of have been damaged by abusive religion? How many others have been poisoned by toxic religion—poisoning which only years and years of care and therapy and hard work will be able to undo? Not all negative religious experience is extreme or wounds a soul for life. But whenever religion harms rather than heals, it’s toxic, and potentially fatal to people’s spirits. Whenever religion seeks to control and judge and punish, it is starving the soul, rather than nourishing it.

            If you starve the soul forever, it dies. “When half gods go, the gods arrive,” Emerson wrote. Not necessarily. Sometimes, just emptiness abides. Too often, when people turn their backs on abusive and belittling religion, they then refuse to choose anything else to take its place. They’ve had enough. They choose to live totally secular and earthly, materialistic lives, devoid of any contact whatsoever with those deeper things in which we live and move and have our being. The soul doesn’t get fed that way, either; so it continues to wither and starve.

            So, then, if toxic religion can happen anywhere (and it can: it’s not just a “Muslim problem” or a “Catholic problem” or a “Fundamentalist Christian” problem), then what are the warning signs? Where are the clues? What are the chief characteristics of toxic and abusive religion?

            One characteristic is hypocrisy. Toxic prophets preach suras of unity and gospels of peace, but they practice dividing up the human family and they further enmity and spite and the harsh judgment of those different than they are. They may have the words right, but their behavior puts them to the lie. Their behavior does not match their teaching. Usually, our eyes do not lie; if someone preaches love, but spews forth hate, or preaches care and concern for the poor, but surrounds himself with luxury and conspicuous wealth, then you don’t need a PhD in theology to see that there’s a glaring disconnect there.

            Another characteristic is oppression. Toxic prophets seem to have an inordinate need for power over others (especially those who belong to their group) and control of them.  Their approach to religion is all about rules and regulations. “Do this. Don’t do that.” – or (even more frighteningly) “God says, ‘Do this!” God says, ‘Don’t do that.” Their holy scriptures are always seen chiefly as rule books, with all the  I’s dotted and the T’s crossed. Rule books interpreted and translated in one narrow and particular way, of course, and always by the leader himself (and it is, as far as I have seen, almost always a man).

            Wouldn’t it be great if we all saw our own holy scriptures as guidebooks, rather than rule books—as travel guides for this journey through life, and not as regulatory statutes to which all must adhere at their own peril?

            Toxic religion is also pretentious. It’s intended for public consumption. Its leaders “love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues,” as Jesus said in the Gospel. They want to be seen, to be noticed, to get their names in papers. Religion, to them, is all about “show biz” and all the world’s their stage.  They are all about public consumption and image—“branding” we’d say today-- rather than private piety and fostering relationship with the Divine. Or, in the rather stark and direct language Jesus uses in the gospel of Matthew, they “are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth” and decay. You can’t get much more toxic than that!

            In a word, toxic religion is arrogant, and its underlying sin is blasphemy—that is, in the very name of God, in the name of the sacred, it abuses the sacred and holds God in contempt. They profane God by creating a God as hateful and vindictive and narrow as they are.

            Anytime we say that God is as small and petty as any of us can be at our worst, that’s blasphemy.

            Anytime someone says that God listens to the prayers of only this or that particular religious group—

            Or anytime someone says that God favors only this or that particular race or nation or ethnicity—or favors one group more than others—

            Or anytime we say that God wills disease on a particular group of people because of whom they love, or whom they want to spend their lives with—or whenever we say that God sends disease and sickness and personal affliction in order to punish people for poor or ill-thought choices they might have made earlier in their lives—

            Anytime we ascribe to the Holy One one of our stupidly human concepts of prejudice, intolerance, narrowness, and rigidity—then that’s blasphemy.

            It’s blasphemy because it slaps God in the face (if God had a face) to make God as small and mean-spirited as human beings can be when we forget the wonder of our birth, and in whose image we were created.

            It is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which, Jesus says earlier in Matthew, is the only sin which cannot be forgiven, because it seeks to usurp God’s transforming truth and life-giving love, and replace them with human-made idols of power and control and even terror.

            As I’ve already said, the question of toxicity in religion isn’t a Muslim thing or a Christian thing or a Catholic thing or an Evangelical thing. Toxicity isn’t about theology. It’s the attitude that a believer takes toward his or her faith that differentiates whether it’s going to be nourishing and sustaining or poisonous and deadly.

            First of all, healthy religion is an extension of who we are. It isn’t something we borrow second hand from a guru or imam or pastor. It doesn’t emerge all at once, overnight. It is something we’ve worked on for a good chunk of our lives. It is something which grows gradually within us, until that which we believe becomes that who we really are—until, in effect, we become our faith. This isn’t just a matter of subscribing to a particular interpretation of this or that holy book; or going to Mass and taking communion as a sort of inoculation against the Devil; or coming to church to visit with friends and listen to a sermon and sing a few hymns. Truly healthy religion has to be a lifelong, every day of the week process.

            Second, healthy religion can’t be a matter of doctrines or ideas alone. A faith that relies on ideology alone can too readily be used to de-humanize and marginalize others, especially those who do not believe or belong. Healthy religion exists in the real world, and not just in our heads. It exists in the real world with real live, conflicted, imperfect men and women like us—whom we cherish all the more because of the imperfect humanity we share.

            Third, healthy religion might honor the past, but it doesn’t cling to the past. It doesn’t constantly hearken back to some lost kingdom or golden age. Healthy religion does not allow previous generations to do all of our religious footwork for us. It seeks to nourish us today, to speak to us today, in language of our own times, through revelation that speaks to us now, through our own stories and experiences, through our own culture, in our own world.

            Finally, healthy religion allows us—encourages us—forces us, even—to think for ourselves and act for ourselves. It forces us to question, to seek, to doubt, to wrestle with our own angels and demons. One Buddhist school teaches, “If you meet the Buddha along the way, kill him.” If any minister or imam or priest or rabbi or minister starts tells you how to think—insists on his interpretation as the only one acceptable to God—then that’s a sure sign it’s time to dust off your sandals and continue down your religious road.
            Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: "When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. Where evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek to bring into being a real order of justice."
            May this be our watchword in this time that has been given us, as we seek to build those places where people’s souls may be seen and made safe, as together we seek to keep alight the precious flame of faith, hope, and love.