"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

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.

Francis of Assisi: Patron Saint of the Earth (Sunday, April 21, 2013)

On March 13, when the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was elected as the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church, and took the name “Pope Francis”—after St. Francis of Assisi—his intent was clear to almost everyone. This would be a papacy that would seek to model humility, simplicity, care and concern for even the lowliest creatures of the earth.

That is how indelibly a deep impression of the life and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi has been carved into the mind of the West. That is how clear a picture we think we have of St. Francis, and how he entices us still. He is a saint that even we Unitarian Universalists can love. St. Francis has a special place in the hearts of many people who are not otherwise especially religious, or even especially spiritual for that matter. Even many of the un-churched remember his famous prayer which calls upon us to be “channels of peace” in the world:

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

His famous hymn (which we’ll sing shortly) sings praises to all aspects of nature (all five verses full; and that’s been shortened from the original version). I mean, Francis could have written our seventh UU principle: “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” That was what so much of his ministry in this world was about. Francis loved nature; he even considered the birds and bees and the sun and moon to be his brothers and sisters. One of my colleagues has written that St. Francis even qualifies as a sort of “UU superhero” based on his love of the natural world!

But, of course, Francis was more complicated and complex figure than that. As a man of the 12th century, we have to resist trying to import his teachings and worldview in total into our modern age. Nonetheless, there is something about him that calls out to us across the centuries and across differing religious traditions. There is something that speaks to our times still, in spite of the passage of these many, many years.

             So I think that it is right and just, as we approach Earth Day, to take a fresh look at the life of this holy man of central Italy.

            Francis was born either in 1181 or 1182 (they’re not sure which) to a wealthy family in the town of Assisi, in the region of Umbria, about a hundred miles north of Rome, smack dab in the middle of the Italian peninsula. According to legend, he was born in a stable, because his mother, when about to give birth, listened to a passing beggar who told her that if she wanted everything to be all right, that her baby should be born in a stable, just like Jesus. She named her son Giovanni—John—in honor of Saint John the Baptist (or in honor of John, the beloved disciple; they’re not sure which; 1182 was a long time ago). Either way, he was named John because his mother wanted him to lead the life of a religious and become a great man in the Church. This did not please her husband, Pietro di Bernadone, one of Assisi’s leading merchants, who was away on business at the time. Pietro had the baby re-baptized as Francesco, or Francis, in honor of his commercial success in France—and to show his love for all things French-- including his wife.

             Francis was raised with the full intention that he would follow his father in business. He led a comfortable childhood, and something of a dissolute youth. He was popular with his friends—who even named him their dominus, their “Lord” or “King”—an honor sometimes conferred upon the “coolest” (and usually the richest) kid in town. He was a party animal, who drank and caroused and generally fooled around—but even here, he showed a certain sensitivity; he was considerate of others, and generally very popular with the people around him.

            In 1201, when he was about 19, he joined the military expedition against Perugia, and spent a year as a prisoner of war at Collestrada, an experience which seems to have changed his whole way of looking at the world. On his return to Assisi after the war, he resumed his former carefree ways. But then came a serious illness that left him broken and depressed, wondering about the purpose of his life—and triggering the great spiritual crisis that would change everything.

            He stopped hanging out with his friends, gave up the life of partying and carousing. When his friends asked him if he planned on getting married, he replied: “Yes, but to a fairer bride than any of you have ever seen.” Meaning Lady Poverty, perhaps; or the Church; or the Christian faith—he had decided by this time that his would be a religious life. In embracing the lepers outside of Assisi, he confronted both his greatest fear—death—and his greatest temptation—the carnality of the body.

             Francis started spending more time in lonely places like caves and forests and abandoned churches. He made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he begged at the houses of the rich for the needs of the poor. Returning home to central Italy, Francis had the first of his mystical visions—this one of the old abandoned Church of Saint Damiano, in the hills outside Assisi . As he knelt in prayer, the crucifix before him began to speak: “Francis,” the voice told him, “Francis, go and repair my house, which you can see, is falling into ruins.”

             Francis took this to mean the church of Saint Damiano (it may also well have meant the Catholic Church in general, not in a good state at the time). To get funds for the project, he sold all his possessions, including his horse. He also sold off some his father’s possessions, as well; about which, as we might imagine, Pietro di Bernadone was none too pleased.

             Francis sought sanctuary in a local monastery in order to avoid his father’s wrath. His father had him kidnapped, hauled back home, imprisoned in the family’s cellar, and severely beaten. But to no avail. So his father then had him arrested and put on trial, and attempted to disown his son, once and for all. Because Francis had sought sanctuary in a monastery, the civil authorities in Assisi passed the buck (or the lire) to the local bishop. During his trial before the bishop, it was Francis himself who severed his connection with his family; repudiated his inheritance; even stripped off all of his clothes. Before the court, he declared:

             “Listen to me, all of you, and understand. Until now, I have called Pietro di Bernadone my father. But, because I have proposed to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so upset, and also all the clothing which is his, wanting to say from now on, ‘Our Father who is in heaven,’ and not ‘My father, Pietro di Bernadone.’”

             Francis then retreated to the outskirts of town, where he set to work restoring several abandoned old churches, one after another. He dressed in a rough garment fashioned from coarse brown cloth, with a rope tied around the waist. He walked around barefoot; talked to the animals, continually sang hymns of praise to God. Many of the townsfolk of Assisi thought he was crazy; others, however, were impressed by his simplicity, his piety, and his dedication to the literal ways of the Gospel. In the movie version of the events from the 1970s, at least, a young woman named Clare (who would later become a saint in her own right, and founder of her own order, the Poor Clares) comes to Francis and says to him, “People said you were fine when you went off to war and killed and plundered, but now they say you’re mad because you sing like the birds, chase butterflies, and look at the flowers. I think they have it backwards.”

             Soon, Francis had gained his first follower—a prosperous lawyer from town named Bernardo; within a year, he had eleven followers, who declared themselves to be, not priests, but fraters minores, or “lesser brothers”.

             Some of those in power feared these Lesser Brothers, lest they drain off support from the established (and Establishment) Church, and spread ideas which might be “heretical”. Others, however, believed that Francis and his followers were simply living radically the very message of the Gospels. One of these was Bishop Guido of Assisi, who had draped his cloak over the naked Francis as he stood before him on trial in his court. Now, Guido again offered protection to the radical young son of Assisi, and argued his case before Innocent III , the pope in Rome .

            Innocent was also a complex figure: a wily politician, who had greatly expanded the power and wealth of the Church. He was also one of the intellectual heavyweights of his day, known as a learned theologian, and generally considered, even by contemporary historians, as somewhat “more spiritual” than your average pope.

             Initially, Innocent seems not to have been impressed by this young ragamuffin from Assisi. The first meeting between the two didn’t seem to go very well; he would not endorse the new order, the Pope said; instead, he told Francis to “go home and pray”.

             But then, the night after that first meeting, Innocent, apparently, had a dream:

            He saw the basilica of St. John Lateran, the pope’s “official” church in Rome. The towers creaked, and the walls cracked, and the whole edifice seemed about to fall down—while the Pope himself stood by helplessly. He then saw a small, young man, dressed as a peasant, barefoot, with a rope around his waste, approach the church. The young man then stood against one of the walls of the basilica, until it steadied, and stood upright again.

            You didn’t have to be a learned theologian to interpret the sign: Francis was the one sent by God to uplift and uphold his sagging Church. The Pope called Francis back into his presence, embraced him, and granted ecclesiastical approval to the Rule of his new order—the Fraters Minores, who would henceforth become known as the “Franciscans”.

Back in Assisi, now with the approval of the Pope himself, Francis began to preach even more boldly his Gospel message of repentance, simplicity, and most of all, compassion for all the earth and its creatures.

Francis himself would live only seven more years. But even within his lifetime, miraculous stories became attached to him. It is said that one day, as Francis was traveling with some companions, they happened to a place along the road where birds filled the trees all about them. Francis told the others to wait, “while I go preach to my sister the birds.” Not one of them flew away, as Francis preached to them.

 They say that Francis calmed the ferocious wolf of Gubbio, by reminding him of his birthright as a creature of God. He removed worms from the middle of the road, so they wouldn’t be crushed by the feet of travelers.  It is even said that, on his deathbed, Francis thanked his donkey for carrying him all those days of his ministry. And the donkey, they say, wept when Francis died.

His was a circle of compassion that knew no bounds. His was a reminder to us that we human ones did not weave the web of life, but are only one part of it, and that we are inseparably bound with all other species of creation in that great web of life.
His was a call of service to all of us, whatever our stations in life, to take up our crosses and follow in the ways of Love. 
His was a call to heed the voice of the Greater Self within our souls—for by heeding that voice we hear the echo of the divine voice, the voice of God, reminding us of our holy purpose.
His was also a reminder that, so very often, this world does get it backward.  Our true power is not found in the accumulation of power and riches and fame, but in serving these, the least of our brothers and sisters.

   If we would dare to live it, the revolutionary spirituality of Francis of Assisi would turn the pecking order of human society upside down. His was a ministry to all of God’s creation, with the poorest of the poor and the simplest creatures at its very heart. His was also a ministry to the poor and broken and sick within each of us. His was a call to us to find our full humanity—and glimpse the divine that is within us—through humility and simplicity and compassion.

“Compassion is a kind of fire,” writes Matthew Fox, “…it disturbs, it surprises, it ignites, it burns, it sears and it warms. Compassion incinerates denial; it especially warms and melts cold hearts, cold structures, frozen minds, and self-satisfied lifestyles. Those who are touched by compassion have their lives turned upside down. That is not necessarily a bad thing.”
Through our compassion for all creation, Francis reminds us, we kindle the very Kingdom of God, which is in our midst, but which we so seldom see. Through our compassion, we reclaim our holy birthright as children of God, divine sparks of that great Spirit of Life.