"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Friday, April 26, 2013

Why Poetry Matters (Sunday, April 14, 2013)

Poets seem a rather winsome group, in the popular mind at least; a bit on the anemic and frail side. Stuck up in their heads. They’re often a bit whiny and self pitying, and oh so self-absorbed and introspective (in a society which seems to have little place for introspection). I don’t know; they seem kind of European. (That’s about the worst epithet you can hurl at someone these days.) “An effete bunch of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” Anybody remember who said that? [Spiro Agnew]. He wasn’t talking about poets, per se. But he could have been.

 “Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden wrote in his poetic eulogy on the death of William Butler Yeats. It cannot change the weather, or the temperament of men and women or nations. “It is difficult to get the news from poems,” wrote William Carlos Williams, another poet. Poetry might seem detached and isolated, kind of ivory-towerish, cut off from the real world of business and corporations and buying and selling and war-making and sports and things that (supposedly) “really matter” in the “real world”.  “There is nothing political about [poetry],”  Laura Bush once said, when the political furor over the invasion of Iraq caused her to cancel a White House conference on poetry.

No, “Poetry makes nothing happen…” “It is difficult to get the news from poems,” as William Carlos Williams wrote, the news of the day—war, war, and more war, usually, in our days, or his— seems to be so much more with us, so much more critical and important.

But then, Williams went on:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably each day
for lack
of what is found there.

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” wrote W.H. Auden. But the remainder of his poem is an ode to the timelessness and the enduring truth of Yeats’s voice. Poetry may make nothing happen, but it abides and survives and speaks on and lives when the ways of the corporate executives and politicians and the war makers and even sports stars and celebrities of our day have passed away, and have passed from memory.

Poets, of course, never speak with a single voice.  Rather, they speak with their own genuine, God-given, Spirit-inspired voices, and encourage all of us to do the same. They may well speak a word of truth to those in power, or a word of affliction to those who are too comfortable. Or, they may speak a word of comfort to those who have been afflicted for too long. They see with their own eyes, and reflect their own genuine experience through our common human lens.

The best poetry is that which is birthed most directly from genuine human experience. For example, there’s no doubt that the deepest and most genuine poetry against war comes from those who have seen war:

Wilfred Owen was the son of a railway worker who was born in Shropshire in the English midlands in 1896. He hoped to enter the University of London, but after failing to win a scholarship he found work as a teacher of English in the Berlitz School in Bordeaux. Although he had previously thought of himself as a pacifist, in October 1915 he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles and joined the Manchester Regiment in France in January, 1917. While in France, Owen began writing poems about his war experiences.

Life on the Western Front was bitter indeed. In the summer of 1917, during the Battle of the Somme, a shell landed just two yards away from Owen and he was forced to spend several days trapped in a bomb crater with the mangled corpse of a fellow officer before assistance could pull him out. Following this experience, Owen was diagnosed with shell-shock, and was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital where he met the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who encouraged him to keep on writing, as did another writer at the hospital, Robert Graves. Over the next several months, out of the horror and pain he had experienced, and the futility of the conflict in which he was engaged, Owen wrote a series of war poems, including “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spoke and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him.
Behold, A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Owen then hurled his own experience of the hell of war against Cicero’s facile pronouncement—“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”—“Sweet and beautiful it is to die for one’s country.”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!--An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

There was no beauty, and certainly no sweetness, in war, Owen knew-- as only one who had experienced the hell of war firsthand could know. (Owen was later “cured” of his shell shock, and sent back to the Front, and was killed on the fields of France in November of 1919, during the last week of the Great War. He was 26 years old when he died.)

“Poetry makes nothing happen…” Wars go on. More young men—and women—and children—will die. New tyrants will rise. There will be the endless struggle for power and position and wealth and resources.

Yet Owens’s voice sings deeper and stronger in his death. His hopes may be unfulfilled, but his vision abides. And that is why poetry matters—

Poets pull our eyes away from the mundane and this-worldly to that which is within, and beyond. They challenge us to be the full men and women we would be, if we allowed the Spirit (call that Spirit by what name you will, or call it by no name if you prefer) to transform our beings, and move within us, and move with us.

Poets tell us to turn off the television set—stop listening to the radio— stop reading the newspaper—put the Smartphone away-- at least for little while—and to listen instead, intently, to the voice within. They remind us not to let others do our listening and thinking and feeling for us, but to find our own voice, and to honor own our own experience. In times like these, they remind us not to be swayed by mass opinion, mass marketing, mass thought—but to use our own inner powers of discernment to find our own truth.

Poets remind us that we are not alone. Through the depth of their reflections on their own lives, they reflect our own lives back to us. We sense in their words the uniqueness of their work, the uniqueness of our lives from one another—but the universality of the range of emotions—from deep love to deep rage-- which make us human. Poetry frees us, sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly,  from the small cell of our selfhood. It invites us to join with all the living, to connect with one another (with all creation) in the dance of life.

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably each day
for lack
of what is found there.
Without poetry—indeed, without all of the arts—our spirits would wither and die. We would be no more than cogs in some great inhuman machine. We would squander our humanity and curse our Creator.

Such is the news of the day. We don’t need poetry to read the signs of such times.

But with the poets among us (and the poet within each of us) untrammeled and unafraid to speak—no longer marginalized in the towers of academia, nor domesticized to parade forth as wall decorations at this or that public conference or soiree—we may yet avoid the madness of these times—and finally learn the blessing of our being here with one another.

The great Sufi poet Rumi once wrote:

Love has built its house,
Poetry is its frame…

May we each seek to live truthfully the poetry of our lives, so that we might become good builders of the edifice of tomorrow, an edifice of love. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Why the White Rose is Important (Sunday, April 7, 2013)

          Now that Easter is behind us, I thought I would take a look at the schedule of worship services for the remainder of this church year. It’s that schedule that starts off in September as a largely blank spreadsheet with about forty Sundays, extending from September through mid-June, over our “High Holy Das” like Thanksgiving and Christmas and Canvass Sunday into spring and Easter, concluding with our last Sunday of the year on Father’s Day (June 16 this year).

            It’s always somewhat imposing, as the year begins, to look at that schedule; sometimes, I do wonder, back in September, “How am I going to fill all those Sundays? What will I talk about over all of these weeks?”

            Well, I do always find something to talk about. How well—I leave to you all to judge. Almost always, as the year concludes, I find that I have at least one or two (or three) topics that didn’t quite make it into the year’s worship schedule. They either weren’t meant to be, or will have to wait, until some Sunday in the future.

            That was true this year; there were a few topics that I thought I might preach on, that I won’t have time to. But this year is different, too, of course. There is no “next year” to which laggard sermon topics can be sentenced. Like an old slugger about to lay down his bat (yeah, right) if I haven’t won the batting title or gotten that World Series ring yet, there won’t be another chance.

            Looking at that (rapidly shrinking) worship schedule last week, I saw that there are currently now only eleven Sundays, including this one, remaining in this church year. For some of these, the topic is pretty much pre-ordained: Earth Day; Mother’s Day; Coming of Age Sunday (May 19—save the date!); Children’s Sunday on June 9. So, there are precious few weeks when my mind and imagination (such as they are) can be given free reign, where I can choose the specific topic from that vast universe of sermon possibilities, on which I will preach. 

            So why then, you might ask, why another sermon on the White Rose? I’ve spoken before about this small group, centered largely at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, who spoke out against Hitler and the Nazis between 1942 and 1943.  At least three sermons (probably more) have at least mentioned them.  We’ve shown movies about them on our Free Market of Ideas, several times. I’ve told their story on my history blog. Someday, I am in hopes that there might even be a book, by me, on this subject. So why now, with so few Sundays left to enlighten the masses, am I preaching another sermon on the White Rose?

            Because, very simply, I think the White Rose is important. Far more important than its small numbers and the relatively limited scope and success of its activities might indicate. This group of students has become something of an obsession (perhaps) for me because I think that its experience has important—even critical—lessons to teach us, in our own times, and for all times.  

            The history of the White Rose pierces to the very heart of the question of evil, and how we are called upon, as men and women of goodwill, to respond to principalities and powers which seek to perpetuate evil in our world. That question could not be drawn into higher definition than it is today, on Yom Ha-shoa, the day upon which we are called to remember the chief historical evil of modern times: the Holocaust (or, in Hebrew, the Shoa, literally “the catastrophe”) in which, approximately six million Jewish men, women, and children were exterminated during the years of Nazi madness. If we broaden the definition of Holocaust to also include the Nazis' systematic murder of people in other groups-- including ethnic PolesRomani (or Gypsies), Russian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian civiliansSoviet prisoners of warpeople with disabilitieshomosexualsJehovah's Witnesses, and other political and religious opponents-- the total number of Holocaust victims rises to between something well over 11 million people, perhaps as many as 15 million.

Interestingly, the official name of this day in Hebrew is Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG'vurah, or "Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day". It’s a day to remember the victims, certainly; but it’s a day to remember and commemorate the heroes who resisted evil, as well. Life isn’t just about what happens to us in these lives we lead; at least as much, it’s about how we respond to the times in which we live.  

            So, in case you missed it the first few times around, then, here is the basic story of the White Rose:

            In the spring of 1942, a handful of students at the university in Munich formed the White Rose resistance group, committed to opposing the government of Nazi Germany and its policies. At the center of the group was Hans Scholl and several of his friends, including Christoph ProbstAlexander Schmorell, and Willi Graf. Later, they were joined by Hans’ sister, Sophie, and eventually by Dr. Kurt Huber, a professor of philosophy. 

The group decided to adopt a strategy of passive resistance against the Nazi regime, and published leaflets calling for the restoration of democracy and civil liberties in their country. These leaflets were anonymously distributed by mail throughout central Germany, at first by simply taking names at random from the telephone book. Piles of leaflets were also left clandestinely in public places, and anti-Hitler graffiti was painted on city walls.  It was not long before the Gestapo became aware of the group’s activities.

There were six leaflets in all, and they would often end with the pronouncement: “People of Germany! We are the White Rose! We are your guilty conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace.” Quoting extensively from the Bible and Greek philosophers, as well as German authors like Goethe and Schiller, the group attempted to appeal to their fellow countryman’s most humanitarian ideals and highest and most aspirations.

The first leaflet begins:

“Nothing is more shameful to a civilized nation than to allow itself to be “governed” by an irresponsible clique of sovereigns who have given themselves over to dark urges – and that without resisting. Isn’t it true that every honest German is ashamed of his government these days? Who among us can imagine the degree of shame that will come upon us and upon our children when the veil falls from our faces and the awful crimes that infinitely exceed any human measure are exposed to the light of day? If the German nation is so corrupt and decadent in its innermost being that it is willing to surrender the greatest possession a man can own, a possession that elevates mankind above all other creatures, namely free will – if it is willing to surrender this without so much as raising a hand, rashly trusting a questionable lawful order of history; if it surrenders the freedom of mankind to intrude upon the wheel of history and subjugate it to his own rational decision; if Germans are so devoid of individuality that they have become an unthinking and cowardly mob – then, yes then they deserve their destruction.”

Words from the group’s second leaflet, distributed in the summer of 1942, were eerily prophetic:

“Since the conquest of  Poland [in 1939] … hundred[s of]  thousand[s of]  Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way. Here we see the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in the whole of history. For  Jews, too, are human beings - no matter what position we take with respect to the Jewish question - and a crime of this dimension has been perpetrated against human beings.”

It was the White Rose, a tiny group of simple students from Munich, who uttered the first recorded condemnation of the Holocaust and the destruction of Europe’s Jews, from within Germany—three years before the Second World War ended, and the full range of Nazi atrocities were unmasked in all their vileness.  For Germans who claimed after the war that they had had  no idea of what Hitler was doing in relation to the Jewish people, the words of the White Rose were, indeed, a refutation of their “guilty conscience”.

In February of 1943, while distributing leaflets in the main classroom building at the university in Munich, Sophie and Hans Scholl were discovered when a janitor saw them throwing leaflets from a balcony of the third floor into the courtyard below. Soon, both of the Scholls were arrested, and shortly thereafter, Christoph Probst was implicated in the writing of the leaflets as well, and placed under arrested.

The three members of the White Rose group appeared before the High Judge of the People's Court, Roland Friesler—brought in from Berlin especially for the occasion—the very next day, on February 22, 1943. They were, of course, found guilty of treason against the Reich, and were executed by guillotine just a few hours later. Just before he was executed Hans Scholl shouted out: "Long live freedom!"

          In her speech before the court, Sophie Scholl had said: “Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don't dare express themselves as we did.” Within a few years, she told the judge and jury, "It will be you who will be standing trial. It is you who will be judged by history."

            Her words echo sentiments expressed in the group’s third leaflet:

In the months that followed the trial of the Scholls and Christoph Probst, the Gestapo ratcheted up its search for other members of the group and its supporters. Dozens were taken into custody. In April of 1943, twelve members of the group were placed on trial in Munich. Willi Graf, Professor Huber, and Alexander Schmorrel (later declared a religious martyr by the Russian Orthodox Church) were sentenced to death and executed shortly thereafter. Nine other friends and colleagues, who had helped in the preparation and distribution of leaflets and in collecting money for the widow and three young children of Christoph Probst, were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to ten years. Another member, Hans Conrad Leipelt, who helped distribute Leaflet 6 in Hamburg, was executed on January 29, 1945, for his participation.

In a way, the White Rose was like a comet that flashed across the sky of history, incandescent and active for a very short time, less than two years, really. But in other was, their actions had long-term and abiding consequences. Shortly after the trial, the text of their sixth leaflet was smuggled by resistance leader Helmuth von Moltke out of Germany through Scandinavia to the United Kingdom, and in July 1943 thousands of copies of it were dropped over Germany by Allied airplanes, re-titled  "The Manifesto of the Brave Students of Munich."

As she was being led away to her execution in February 1943, Sophie Scholl turned to her cellmate, Else Gebel, and said: 

          “It is such a splendid sunny day, Else, and I have to go. But how many have to die on the battlefield in these days, how many young, promising lives. What does my death matter if by our acts thousands are warned and alerted. Among the student body there will certainly be a revolt.”

            History teaches that tiny seeds sewn long before can often flower with great consequence.

            History also teaches that, if we are to be true to our deepest human calling, that we must be willing to become seeds in the planting of new tomorrows.

May that revolt for which Sophie Scholl yearned occur right now, in the deepest recesses of our own hearts and minds, when we hear of heroes like the Scholls, and Cristoph Probst, and the  other members of the White Rose: A revolt against tyranny in all its forms. A revolt against any leaders—or ideologies—or religious institutions—or prejudice or narrow-mindedness—which exalt one group of people above another. A revolt against all ideas that say we human ones are bound to sin and shame and war and conflict.

          These blessed saints of peace and understanding—and hope and courage—speak to us still. May we remember them always, and take up their struggle, and create at last a world which reflects the love and justice for which they lived and for which they died.

Monday, April 1, 2013

"To Awake with a Winged Heart" (Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013)

   I’m sure that many of you—or, at least, many of you of “a certain age”—remember a song that was made popular by Bette Midler back in the very late 1970’s:

Some say love, it is a river
That drowns the tender reed.
Some say love, it is a razor
That leaves your soul to bleed.
Some say love, it is a hunger,
An endless aching need.
I say love, it is a flower,
And you its only seed.

It's the heart afraid of breaking
That never learns to dance.
It's the dream afraid of waking
That never takes the chance.
It's the one who won't be taken,
Who cannot seem to give,
And the soul afraid of dying
That never learns to live.

            It dawned on me the other day that in my (almost) one-third of a century in the ministry now, I have probably delivered thirty Easter sermons, give or take a couple. It also dawned on me that that little song pretty much says all there is to say about Easter, from a Unitarian Universalist perspective, at least. I could just sing the song, and sit down (and you would be relieved to have me sit down, were I to sing the song). But I won’t, because it’s Easter; my last Easter sermon from this pulpit; my last Easter sermon ever, in all probability.

            So what have I been trying to say about Easter for the past thirty-plus years?

            It also dawned on me (light breaks on Marblehead yet again)--  it also dawned on me that few have said it as clearly as Kahlil Gibran did in his essay on “Love” from his book, The Prophet. And I understand that it is probably only those of us of “a certain age”, as well—we who came of age in the 1960’s and 1970’s, really—who even remember Kahlil Gibran. (Though St. Wikipedia tells us that Gibran is the third best selling poet of all time, after Shakespeare and Lao Tzu.)  I remember that Elizabeth read (beautifully) Gibran’s meditation “On Love” at our wedding service back in 1978. (At that service, I read Gibran’s meditation “On Marriage”; other people could officiate at the service, but we didn’t trust anyone else to do the readings, I guess.)
            “When love beckons you, follow him,” Gibran wrote, “Though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you, yield to him, though [his] sword… may wound you.

            “For even as love crowns you, so shall he crucify you.”

“It's the heart afraid of breaking
That never learns to dance.”


“[It’s] the soul afraid of dying
That never learns to live.”

None of us gets out of here alive, Jim Morrison once said. And none of us gets out of here uncrucified, either. Or unharmed, or unbroken.

We’re crucified by betrayal. By disappointment. By misunderstanding. By our own sins, and limitations, and addictions. We’re crucified by disease and depression and despair, by anxiety and hopelessness. For hundreds of thousands—probably millions—of people the world over, the images of being whipped and scourged and tortured (and, yes, even crucified) are not religious metaphors—they are all too physical realities, day in and day out. Their experience is a direct, physical reflection of the experience of Jesus in ancient Palestine two thousand years ago.

We all bear our crosses in this world, and sometimes we stumble and fall, time and again and again, under the weight of them. We are tired; we are weary; life sometimes feels like a winter that has gone on for just too long.

But the book of nature gives us hope here, a hope reflected clearly in the pages of holy scripture. Just as certainly as the spring follows winter, so there is planted within the human heart the capacity to transcend pain and despair, and the power to transform pain and despair into a spirit of new life and new hope.

That spirit, planted deep in the human heart, is love.

Life will wound us. The deeper we live—the deeper we love—the deeper our wounds may well be. The deeper the winter, the more majestic the spring that can follow.The deeper our wounds, the deeper the love that can flow from them.

For those of us who are Christian, we see that most clearly in the figure of Jesus on the Cross. But this is a universal human impulse, not just a Christian one. Every tradition knows this truth. There is a Yiddish proverb that says, “There is no heart so whole as a broken heart,” and the Buddhist writer Joanna  Rogers Macy has written, “The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.”

Our pain and suffering can give rise to compassion. And compassion is the most heightened form that love takes.

Kahlil Gibran was from Lebanon originally, before coming to America, and settling in Boston, actually. His mother was Christian, and his father a Muslim, and he was heavily influenced by the Sufi mystics. The symbol of the Sufi movement is a heart cleft in two (as hearts will often be), but from which wings have sprung.

A broken heart, but a winged heart, too. An earth fallowed by winter, with a surge of new life already eastering forth.

A winged heart, by which we fly beyond the bonds of this life, toward the boundlessness of life eternal—not a life that lasts forever, but a life which lives to its fullest, and loves to its deepest, and sings ever a song of praise upon its lips.

When the night has been too lonely
And the road has been too long,
And you think that love is only
For the lucky and the strong,
Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed that with the sun's love
In the spring becomes the rose.