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Sankofa – 12/30/2012

In the language of the Akan people of West Africa there is a word, ‘Sankofa’, which can be translated into English as ‘go back and get it’. It is a small word that evokes a large concept, of reconnecting with the past in order to continue into the future. One of the symbols for sankofa in Akan art is a bird with its feet facing forward and its neck craned to point backwards, sometimes reaching for an egg resting on its own back. It is a reminder that remembering what has gone before is a crucial part of going forward.

We come together every Sunday to do just that: to go back and get what is precious and important in what has gone before, to give us courage and solace in our going forward. But this Sunday, we are going to do it in a particular way. As the year is almost ended, we are going to return together to some of the themes and stories we have shared in our worship over the last twelve months. To remember a bit of what was as we turn towards what might be.

 

First Remembrance

“We must learn to awaken and to keep ourselves awake by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.”

Those words come from our ancestor, Henry David Thoreau.

Yet there are a thousand thousand reasons in life for why my expectation proves less than infinite, that lead me to fall into a moral sleep, and forget to hope. Because I was tired, because I was hungry, because I stubbed my toe. Because I was sick or in pain or because someone I love had died. Because I was worried about having enough money, or enough love. Because I was afraid of war, and the rumors of war. Because I was worn thin by the weight of the world; there is so much in it that is broken – and so much that is broken in me. Because the train was late, because the baby was crying, because I lost my favorite pair of socks.

And because of these reasons or some others beside, there were moments this year when you and I and all of us, forgot to expect the dawn. I forgot that the river of life flows out of long eons, touching trillions of hearts and minds, stretching on into the unknowable future, and that in order to get there it first must pass through me. You forgot about the fire that burns in every soul, that bursts forth anew in each generation’s hunger for freedom and for truth, and that that flame also flashes in you. We forgot, that this is no force upon this earth greater than love: no chain it cannot break, no pain it cannot salve, no wrong it cannot redress.

“We must learn to awaken and to keep ourselves awake by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.”

It is hard to stay awake like that; the world will make you tired. I know it wears me out sometimes. So that is why we come together, this Sunday and every Sunday: to be woken up, and to remind each other to expect the dawn.

As Unitarian Universalists, our tradition counsels us to heed the products of reason and the results of science, and to trust in the practice of democracy. But if I were to point to a singular root of hope, at the center of our faith, it would be found in love. Love, to our understanding, is uniquely powerful and important. Our ancestors held a wide variety of opinions on a great many things, but they were united in their understanding that love was central to the meaning of our lives and our world.

Several months ago, one of you shared a story with me, and gave your permission to share it from the pulpit. Your story was about your Uncle Bernie. You and Uncle Bernie do not see the world in exactly the same way, you told me. Because you are an atheist, and he is a priest. Over the years you have talked about this and argued through all sorts of questions about theology many, many times. Those arguments were passionate and heartfelt, and always enjoyable. You disagreed with him, and he with you, but you never lost sight of the fact that you were family, and that you cared about each other. And then not so long ago, you went to pay your Uncle Bernie another visit.

He’s gotten pretty sick, and the medication he’s on takes its toll too. You started into the old debate and you could see Uncle Bernie had a point he was reaching for that he just couldn’t find or couldn’t get out. That was the moment that you lost your will to argue with him: it wasn’t a fair fight any more. There are other ways you and your Uncle can enjoy each others’ company now. You can still talk about this and that, and have a piece of pie together. You still love each other, and that’s what matters.

The existence of God is a point on which people of good will may disagree. It is the existence of love that matters, in a place called here and a time called now. Loving another person teaches the courage to protect them, and the appropriate fear of things that are harmful to life – theirs, or any other. Love teaches us to hope, even if just for a smile, or a kind word, or a touch. Love teaches us pain, at losing a person or a relationship; and love also teaches us how to live with that pain, and still continue to love. Love drives us to free ourselves and each other from systems of oppression: to break chains, confront tyrants, and throw open prison doors. And even the memory of love is a comfort in hard times.

 

Second Remembrance

Death is among the greatest, and the hardest constants of life. Something like 56 million of the people living on this planet die annually. This year held two memorial services for long time members of our congregation. Their eulogies have already been recited, and the stories of their lives continue as a part of those who knew them. But I want to remember just a little bit of each of them with you now.

Thelma Silsby was a member of First Parish for more than 50 years. At her service, her son Brad told a story about her which he gave me permission to share with others, and which I have been very happily retelling in the months since. Back even before they were married, Brad’s parents, Thelma and Roger, used to love to go boating. And one day they were out on the water with Thelma’s dad and they were making their way towards the Cape Cod canal. Roger was at the tiller, and when he tried to make a turn he realized that part of it had sheared off; he was no longer in full control of the boat. So he asked his father-in-law to come take his place and quietly explained the situation to him. “Make it look like you’re still steering, though,” he said. “We don’t want to upset Thelma.” And Roger went to the sails to try and tack to the nearest place where they could dock and get some help.

They made their way like this for a little while and it seemed like everything was going to be alright, when Roger’s grandfather noticed that he hadn’t seen Thelma in a while, and wondered where she was. Where she was, was below deck. The break in the rudder wasn’t the only problem, you see. They were also taking on water. So Thelma was down there running the pump, trying to bail them all out and keep the boat from going down.

Sometimes in life we make the mistake of assuming that we’re the only ones who have problems. We even try to hide the challenges we’re facing from the people who care about us, because we don’t want them to be worried or upset. But this story about Thelma Silsby reminds me that we’ve all got troubles. And in fact, even when I’m working on my worries and you’re wrestling with your concerns, the truth is that all of our struggles are woven together. We are all in the same boat.

This year also saw the passing of Sylvan Menezes, another long-time member of our congregation. His long battle with ALS was deeply felt by many of us, in this congregation which also includes members of his family and close circle of friends. Whenever someone’s life is remembered after having closed with such a harsh and terrible illness, there is always the temptation to valorize their courage and strength in the face of it. I did know Sylvan to be strong, and to have been supported by some amazingly dedicated and compassionate caregivers, but I don’t think he was particularly interested in being held up as an inspiration for how to go through a debilitating illness. He was always a lot more interested in living than in dying.

Sylvan came of age during the tumult and upheaval of the late 1960s, and graduated from high school at the top of his class. He was named valedictorian – a testament to his talents and to the hard work that he would be known for throughout his life. That same quality in Sylvan that drove him to academic success also demanded of him that he stand up for what he felt was right. So at just as he was completing his high school education he was taking his own position against the war in Vietnam, and he was not shy about where and when he would advocate for an end to the conflict. So it was that though he was named valedictorian, he was not given an opportunity to speak at his graduation, as the school’s administrators felt they could not take the risk of giving him a live mic and an open forum.

So for those of us who remember Thelma and Sylvan, and those of us who don’t, let us take from this year a deep awareness that all of our problems and trials are ultimately interconnected, and let us carry a determination to act with the courage of our convictions behind us.

 

Third Remembrance

A gracious welcome says much about the people who offer it; and the opposite is also true.

Mulla Nasruddin is a witty and clever folk character in Islamic culture. In one of his many stories he was invited to a great feast with many distinguished guests. During the month of Ramadan it is the practice in Islam to fast during the day, and to break the fast in the evening with a celebratory meal, so this was the sort of party that Nasruddin was set to attend. When the sun set that day, Nasruddin was still out working in his field, and he realized that he did not have enough time to go home and change without being late. So he dusted himself off and went to the party as he was.

When he got there, he saw that everyone else was dressed in their finest garments. And as he made his way through the house, he found that no one seemed to want to talk to him or even acknowledge that he was there. So the mulla went home, changed into his very fanciest set of clothing, and returned to the feast. The response could not have been more different: everyone wanted to talk to the fascinating and famous Mulla Nasruddin. In fact the host made sure to seat him at his right hand.

As the plates were passed, the people sitting beside Nasruddin began to notice that he was doing something rather odd. He was taking food, like everyone else, but he was not eating it or setting it in front of him. Instead, he took a few dates and stuffed them into his coat sleeve. He picked up a stuffed grape leaf and tucked it into his pocket. He gratefully accepted a piece of bread and slid it into the folds of his turban.

After watching him in confusion for a few moments, his host asked, “Nasruddin what are you doing?”

The mulla replied, “From the two receptions I received, it is quite obvious to me that it is my clothes who were invited here to break the fast, and not me. So I am simply feeding my turban and my coat.”[i]

And In the Parable of the Sower, one of the stories attributed to the teacher Jesus, the seeds the sower cast on the ground fell in four different places. Some by the way, where they were eaten by birds. Some on stone, where it sprouted but withered away for the lack of roots. Some among thorn bushes, which choked the seedlings before they could bear fruit, and some on fertile ground, where the seeds could grow and flourish. Our tradition as Unitarian Universalists teaches us that in every human life there is a seed of possibility and potential. Every moment is like one of those four patches of soil, and while we never control everything about the present in which we find ourselves, we always have some choice to make, and those choices shape who we are, and how the seed within us grows or does not.

On the cusp of a new year, we are like the hosts of a dinner party where both the old year and the new are guests. It would not be right to treat one with respect, and ignore the other. Both require our attention. Today is the soil in which the seed of our heart is planted. So too is tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. For each of us, there are, no doubt, things we need to let go of. But let us not lose sight of the past in our speed to reach the future. Rather, let the year to come set its roots into what has gone before.



[i] Different forms of this story can be found in many Muslim countries; this version descends directly from the one collected in Ayat Jamilah by Sarah Conover and Freda Crane (Eastern Washington University Press, 2004).

Birth and Taxes – 12/24/2012

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin, that great early American statesman, inventor and whit, wrote a letter to a friend which included the line, “in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death, and taxes”. For more than two centuries his words have been quoted again and again to express the contempt that Americans, his descendants, have for the very concept of taxation. In one classic episode of the Simpsons, the family patriarch, Homer, leads an angry mob to city hall to demand quick and decisive action against the threat of bear attacks. The mayor’s response is to fill the streets with patrol cars, helicopters and stealth planes, maintaining constant vigilance throughout the city. Homer is satisfied, until he discovers that the bear patrol is funded by a new tax on his pay check. He then leads the same mob back to city hall. So it goes.

The story of the birth of the teacher Jesus in the Gospel according to Luke begins with taxation. It explains that Mary and Joseph were travelling that night because of Roman tax policy. It makes a fitting start to the story, given how much the Gospels have to say about the evils of life under the Roman occupation, and in particular the suffering caused by Rome’s taxation. The job of the tax gatherer was particularly reviled in Jesus’ time. So much so that at one point in Matthew’s account, the prophet chastens the religious authorities by declaring that tax collectors would enter the Kingdom of God before they would.[i]

Yet there is something in this world more certain than taxation or death, and that is the other subject that Luke opens with: birth, the great prerequisite of life. And in fact, the lesson of Jesus’ life and ministry is that birth is a greater thing than death. Even Rome, the greatest empire of its age, could not extinguish the teachings of Mary’s son with all their instruments of horror and war.

What made the taxes of Jesus’ day an evil in need of confrontation was how regressive they were: how they placed a greater burden on the poor as a means of transferring wealth to the already rich. In the early decades of the first century, debt in Judea had swollen to epidemic levels, causing people to forfeit their farms and their homes to those holding their loans. Every financial crisis may be different, but each is also the same.

But the evil of those taxes was in their application and their consequence; not the concept of taxation itself. And so I would offer my own version of Ben Franklin’s famous words, “in this life, nothing can be said to be certain, except that you were born, and that you owe”. You see, while the political truth and wisdom of a statement made by another statesman earlier this year has been hotly debated, as a theological assertion it is beyond reproach: “You didn’t build that.” Each of us arrived here by the same means, kicking and screaming, bleary eyed, beautiful and in abject need, just like everyone else who has ever lived, including that famous infant in Bethlehem. We inherited a world that was not made by us. Yet, it was entrusted to us.

None of our lives could have proceeded to this point without a staggering quantity of generosity and goodwill from ancestors and friends and people we will never know. What Corey Booker, the current mayor of Newark, NJ calls “the conspiracy of love”.[ii] Because of this, we owe a vast debt to one another, to the earth that bares our weight, and to the totality of all existence, whom some name God. According to the lessons of Jesus and so many other teachers, our lives are for the paying of it. To clothe the naked, care for the sick, house the destitute and raise up the downtrodden. It is the fair tax of the universe, assessed on the gift of our having been born.

It is a bill that comes due frequently and not only when we are feeling flush and comfortable, with ample reserves of the milk of human kindness. When a child cries, when a stomach growls, when a hand reaches out or a face turns away – the world’s need does not wait for a more convenient time. People can come together to work for many purposes. Sometimes that means waging a war, or building a prison, and sometimes it means building a house for people who have none, or providing a school for the education of children. But whether or not the label ‘government’ is applied to the things that a people decide to do together, we each owe a tax on the gifts of living. In this season, it is traditional to give to others, and that is good. But remember that the spirit of December 25th is just as much needed on March 8th, or August 13th, or October 27th, or on any other day of the year. We live because we were born, and so we owe to everyone else the means to their lives as well.



[i] Matthew 21:31

[ii] Commencement address, Bard College, 2012

Accomplished and Delivered – 12/23/2012

The King James Version of the bible has many deep flaws as a translation but many beautiful turns as a work of poetry. And there is a passage from it which is no doubt familiar to most of you, as it or pieces of it are read often at this season.

“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”[i]

A great many things

have been said about these verses, but I want to look at just one of them for the moment. “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” Mary’s pregnancy had reached full term. She was ready to give birth; the wait was over. And how much of our time do we spend waiting, anticipating this thing or that thing? Counting down the days until Christmas will arrive, or marking on the calendar the day your son will come home. Living in the dream of when you’ll get that raise at work, meet the right person, or take that vacation, or finally have a home to call your own. Spending minutes, hours, years, with our minds fixed on anywhere but here and now.

There is value in having goals and ambitions, of course, but too much focus on something we expect or hope is coming next can prevent us from experiencing the present. It’s a little bit like Zeno’s paradox, a philosophical problem about movement. In order to get from where I’m standing to the other side of the room, I would first have to go half the distance there. And then half the distance between my new starting point and my original destination, and again and again and again, so, Zeno’s puzzle says, I really shouldn’t ever be able to get anywhere at all. When we become fixated on something we want or expect, we can become almost as paralyzed. Waiting for the days to be accomplished, that our desire should be delivered to us

The story goes that the original answer given to Zeno’s paradox, the first time he posed it, was another philosopher standing up and walking around – thus proving that however interesting the argument was, it couldn’t be right. Similarly, the answer for over-anticipation is action: taking a concrete step in the direction of a dream, or simply into the present moment. But in any case, reaching out to touch what is, rather than obsessing over what will or might be. Right now, the days have just been accomplished, and this hour is now delivered. That is true every instant, every moment, every day. The present is always precious, because it is the place where we live. The past is immutable, the future is unknowable; the now is the most important time there is. We need to live with an awareness of what has gone before, and what may come after but we do that living in the present – not just the high notes and the low notes, but all of it.

In certain Christian denominations, the year is divided into different sections. We’re near the end of Advent now and Christmastide – sometimes called the twelve days of Christmas – is almost here. After that comes a stretch of days called simply “ordinary time”. It lies between major festivals and rites. It is normal, mundane. But however ordinary the time that any of us experience, each moment remains filled with possibility. It has been made possible by a vast procession of centuries that came before, and it will shape the future ahead in ways that can never be fully predicted. Life and the world are constantly being delivered to us. So it is our great task, to treat this eternal succession of deliveries, with the great

care and attention they deserve.



[i] Luke 2:1-7

Keep On Giving – 12/16/2012

I would guess that in the offices of my colleagues across the country right now there are a good many half-finished manuscripts resting in filing cabinets or hard drives. Because whatever it was that we were planning to preach on Friday morning seemed suddenly less meaningful on Friday afternoon, after the terrible news of a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, CT. Like all human beings, we preachers make our plans, and then sometimes an immediate reality intervenes. I only wish that such intervening realities were not always so bloody or so heartbreaking.

When I was an undergraduate, I went to see a student production at the school theater and was so affected by it, that I had to go back for the closing performance the next day. It was a play about school shootings, centered around a fictional teenage assailant and the psychiatrist meeting with him in prison. At one point in the play, a woman, playing a reporter trying to cover the story, stands up from the audience and interrupts the action on the stage. She has done her best, she says, to tell the facts of the case as they happened. To transcribe the names, the sequence of events and the body count. But no one really cares about any of that, she says. “The who, the what, the where, the when: they’re all accessories. The why is the only thing that matters.”[i] And it’s the only thing she cannot give.

In the weeks to come there will be much said about the ‘why’ of this tragedy. All of it will be guess work, and there will be little to prove this theory or that theory right or wrong. But there are a few things that are said over and over again in the face of such horrors and which are always wrong. Any theology that would teach that senseless and violent death is a part of some larger plan, serves some ultimate purpose, or should otherwise be filed under the heading “mysterious ways” – any theology that would make that argument is broken and in need of repair. As the biblical figure Job said to his friends, as they tried to explain his personal tragedy with similar arguments, “Your proverbs are like unto ashes, your platitudes made out of clay.”[ii] If you could not look into the face of a parent who is burying their child and say it, then it is not worth saying on this matter.

But there is a ‘why’ that I would like to talk about this morning. Not the ‘why did this happen?’, but the ‘why, in a world where this did happen, where things as awful or worse have happened before, and will most likely happen again, why is it worth going on?’ In the congregation where I was raised, we used to say these words by Marjorie Montgomery together every Sunday, both in the sanctuary and in our religious education classes: “Life is a gift for which we are grateful. We gather in community to celebrate the glories and mysteries of this great gift.”

The gift is great, but it is not simple. It is glorious, but it is not perfect. It is mysterious in its complexity, but sometimes it seems only full of pain. From the depths of grief and anger that are sometimes the sane and appropriate response to life as it is, gratitude for life can seem very hard to manage. When something is truly, terribly wrong, and nothing else feels right. Dismissing or diminishing real pain and suffering, deep loss, or hard truth, does no one any good. But the picture is always wider than our temporary and narrow view of it.

Many of you are already familiar with this quote from the Rev. Fred Rogers, who was a mainstay of children’s television for 35 years. But it is so good, I’m going to tell it to you again, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” Viewed one way, the world is full to brimming with injustice and wrong. Somewhere, right now, a child is crying. Somewhere a body is bleeding. Somewhere a heart is breaking. Yet, viewed another way, kindness and compassion fill the earth – so much so that none of our lives would be possible without their constant outpouring.

If you are looking for meaning in a tragedy, or for the will of God, if that phrase is relevant to you, it is not to be found in the violent death, the gun that dealt it, or the hand that accomplished it. Nor will you find it in the society which manufactured the gun, that failed to stay the hand and that taught its children violence as the means to security, freedom, and power. Instead, you will find the purpose, the gift of life, in the people who tried to stop the killing, and in everyone who tried to help. We are called to help others, to keep on giving in response to the gift of life – both out of gratitude and out of grief, for joy and sorrow and anger are all resources that can be put to work in pursuit of change.

We are called to keep on trying, keep on giving, even though the world isn’t easily fixed, and not everything works out the way we expect it to. Last month, a police officer in New York City saw a man sitting on the sidewalk, on a cold night, with no shoes. Feeling he had to do something about this, the officer, Larry DePrimo, went to a nearby store and bought the man, Jeffrey Hillman, a sturdy pair of boots. Nearby, someone was moved by the scene and took a picture of it, and that picture ‘went viral’, as they say. A simple rendering of a simple kindness in action.

Of course, in these days of internet celebrity, the story is never definitively over, and in the inevitable follow-up, when both the men in the photograph were identified, came the detail that Jeffrey Hillman was seen on the street again in bare feet. The boots, he explained to a reporter, were too valuable to just wear around; someone might try to steal them.[iii] Poverty and homelessness are huge, messy problems that cannot be resolved through quick fixes. Like so many other evils they are tied into systems of interlinked injustice and oppression – layer upon layer of wrong settled into the strongest possible configuration, like the atoms in a molecule. And absolutely none of that does anything to diminish what officer DePrimo did. One human being saw another human being with blisters on his bare feet, in the cold night, so he gave him a pair of shoes. It matters to work to be effective; we can always learn more and move steadily from addressing symptoms to treating the cause of injustice. But what matters first is to pay attention to the world as it is, and to let yourself be moved by it. We give back to the world because the world has already given to us. Given us life and the means to reach this moment. So there should be no need for an expectation of further reward in order to give back to the world.

Yet, there is such reward, and in amazing abundance. It feels good to help others; it lifts the spirits and it satisfies the soul. Some years ago the French photographer, Sacha Goldberger was worried about his aging grandmother, Frederika. She had not had an easy life – she was a holocaust survivor and a refugee – and now in the autumn of her years, long retired, she seemed at loose ends with herself: depressed. So he resolved to find a way to bring some more excitement into her life. He managed to convince her to pose for some portraits for him; not staid, plain affairs; instead ones full of wonder and whimsy. A few photographs became more and more until they were able to fill a whole book called Mamika: My Mighty Little Grandmother. The title comes from one of the recurring themes in these shots: Frederika as a superhero named Mamika, wearing a red and silver costume with a silver cape. In one picture this short, 90-something woman is seen walking her dog while flying, or appearing to ride on the wing of an airplane; crashing (almost) through a brick wall, riding in a tiny red car, and then lifting it, and then playing with superhero action figures.

The project has become so successful to that Goldberger has expanded it to other models and other characters. There is Mister Papika, Mamika’s costumed love interest, and Dark Papouka, a suave villain who may also be Papika’s rival for Mamika’s affections. Sacha reports that just taking the photographs lifted his grandmother’s spirits, but since their publication she has become a bit of a celebrity. She gets quite a bit of fan mail, with people writing to say things like, “You’re the grandmother I have dreamed of. Would you adopt me?” And her grandson gets amazing satisfaction of the smile on her face, and helping a woman who has seen so much, to see the world in a new way.[iv]

Now, in the midst of the holiday crush, is not an easy season for many of us, and there is never a time when all of us are without hardship or trial. One of you here this morning has been bearing an especially hard burden, and for a long while. We talked about it a bit, and like everything that is hard and real, it’s not a thing that has any easy answers. But there is something just in sharing our stories that connects, and helps us. And just this week, you wrote me a note not about what you need, but about how good it feels to give aid to others. About a connection you made with someone else around grief and loss, and how your story spread out through that one connection to reach others. And you said, if it helped “even one person to feel less alone or comforted in any way, it will be the best gift I have received in a long time.” Knowing that we have given some help to others doesn’t erase our own worries and cares, but it expands our vision beyond them; it allows us to see that life is larger, and more beautiful.

In her poem The Poet Speaks, Georgia Douglas Johnson asks:

How much living have you done?
From it the patterns that you weave
Are imaged:
Your own life is your totem pole,
Your yard of cloth,
Your living.

How much loving have you done?
How full and free your giving?
For living is but loving
And loving only giving.

We owe ourselves to a broken world; life is imperfect, and yet we could not be without it. Confronted by terrible things, we can give into fear, crawl into despair, or insulate ourselves with hollow comfort and false security. Or, we can make the decision to keep on giving: return to the people we share this world with some of the hope, strength, and sustenance which is not truly ours, but which we hold in trust on behalf of all existence. The true spirit of giving is not in what is bought and sold. It is not in tinsel and colored lights, or at least not there alone. It is giving of ourselves, one to another, in the daily work of healing the world.



[i] From The Why, by Victor Kaufold (2000)

[ii] Job 13:12

[iii] http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/homeless-shoe-guy-history-rejecting-article-1.1212779

[iv] You can read more about Mamika, and see a few of her pictures, here: http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/grandmas-superhero-therapy-18

Light One Candle – 12/9/2012

The story goes that 3 pious travelers were making their way over the mountains. The journey was long, their reserves were meager, and it came to the point that all they had left to eat between them was a single slice of bread. All three of them believed in the power of dreams to provide divine guidance, and so, rather than quarrelling over the last bit of food, they agreed that they would wait until morning. They would consult their dreams, and choose who should receive the bread based on that.

The next day, the first traveler made this report, “I dreamt of a far away land of plenty, overflowing with abundance and every pleasure and experience that I have turned away from in my lifelong quest for truth. In that place I met a wise man who told me, ‘You who have renounced the world in pursuit of the divine, you who have given up more than any other, you are the most deserving of the last slice of bread.”

“How odd,” the second traveler said. “In my dream I saw the life of holiness that I have led up until now, and I also saw into the future, when I shall be a great teacher after whom many important students shall follow. And in this dream I, too, met a wise man who said, ‘You have a great destiny before you. To complete it you will need strength and sustenance, and so it should be you who receives the last slice of bread.”

“That is strange,” said the third traveler. “I envy you your great visions. As hungry as I was, I slept fitfully last night, and did not dream at all. I was so hungry in fact, that I woke some hours after midnight. And that’s when I ate the bread.”[i]

So often in life there appears to be a tension between the spiritual and the practical. Between the world of ideals and the world as it simply is. Between the wondrous possibilities contained in dreams and the harsh reality of an empty stomach. This tension is always at play when we talk about religious stories and traditions and it is particularly relevant to the Jewish festival of Hanukkah which began last night.

We heard one version of the story earlier, and you may already have been familiar with its shape. How, 2200 years ago, the Greek-Syrian king Antiochus outlawed the Jewish religion, and officially replaced it with his own. How a faction called the Maccabees led the people of Judea in a rebellion, and won against long odds. And how, when the Maccabees reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem, there was only enough oil to keep the eternal flame there lit for one day, and yet it miraculously lasted for the eight days needed to make more.

This is the story being commemorated this week in Jewish households all over the world, and in the homes of some of us here today. At the same time, for most of us here, Hanukkah is not a holiday that we practice in our homes and its story is not one which we feel deeply connected to. But even if you fall into that category, there are still at least three reasons this should matter to you: As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm that there is wisdom to be found in all the world’s religions, which means we need to take a spiritual interest beyond what we’re already accustomed to. And, the commitment we share as a congregation to teach, learn, and work to, from, and with each other, means that what matters to one of us matters to all of us simply because it matters to one of us. Some of us celebrate Hanukkah, so all of us have an interest in what it means. And finally, this particular holiday happens to several topics that are very dear to us as Unitarian Universalists.

Now, it is also a matter of our religious practice that when we care about something – an idea, a story, a tradition – we examine it deeply. Not to tear it down but to try to really understand and internalize it, rather than glossing it over with an easy, pat explanation. And so, I want to dig a little bit deeper into the Hanukkah story with you now, particularly around this tension between idealism and practicality.

The first item: this is a story about a struggle for religious freedom: a people’s traditions are banned, their scriptures and their holy places are seized, and so they are forced to fight in order to worship as they wish. And, the Maccabees who led that struggle were themselves examples of profound religious intolerance. The revolt, as described in the first Book of the Maccabees, began when Mattathias, the literal and figurative father of the Maccabees, was commanded by one of Antiochus’ officials to make an offering to the Greek gods. Mattathias refused, and when another Jew agreed to make the sacrifice in his stead, Mattathias killed both that man and the official who had given the order. Jews who collaborated with the Greek authorities, or simply adopted Greek customs or religious practices were targeted by the Maccabees throughout the revolt and after it.

As spiritual descendents of the early Puritan colonists here in Massachusetts, we should have some appreciation for this sort of history: a people yearning to be free, but confusing freedom with the opportunity to oppress others. And right now in several countries in the Middle East, including Syria, revolutions are in various states of progression, all of them messy, conflicted, and without any one side being entirely pure and perfect. But the human determination to be free is powerful, and enduring, and worth celebrating. Even though the chaos of revolution can be tumultuous and dangerous, it is preferable to the certainty of a profound, entrenched injustice. As Frederick Douglass said, “The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.”[ii]

On November 17, 1989, a group of university students held a demonstration to commemorate the death Jan Opletal, a student killed fifty years before by the Nazis during their occupation. Riot police intervened to break up the event, and there was a great deal of violence. After words, the word began to circulate that a student had been killed by the police, echoing Jan Opletal and stirring up popular resentment towards the repressive government. More and more people took to the streets, and by the end of the year, the government had fallen and new, free elections had already been held.

All of that happened despite the fact that no student was actually killed during the demonstration; it was just a rumor, and nothing more. The story of what had happened before during the Nazi occupation was so powerful that just the idea of its happening again helped push the country into revolution. It didn’t come out of nowhere, of course; the government of Czechoslovakia was notoriously repressive and its people had long called for reform and freedom. Eventually, a moment and a story emerged the matched the need of the people.

Hanukkah is a celebration of this sort of moment, and of this sort of story, even if that story is more necessary than strictly true. Hanukkah is a post-biblical holiday; the Books of the Maccabees were written too late, and were perhaps too troubling, to be included in the Hebrew Bible. They still exist, though, and their account is the basis of the Hanukkah story – with one exception. The describe the injustice of Antiochus, the uprising, the war, and the restoration of the temple. But there is no mention of any sort of miracle involving oil. That item doesn’t appear in any source until about 600 years after the Maccabean revolt, in the Gemara, a section of the Talmud. When we think of Judaism today, we think of a tradition that is really defined by the Talmud, the central text of Jewish law and custom. The early rabbis who created it had good reasons to dislike the Maccabees: their violence, over-zealousness and intolerance, and the new injustices that they created after they won the war with Antiochus and established their own government in Judea.

So the rabbis promoted another dimension to the holiday, beyond a simple military victory. Whether they invented the story about the oil, or just magnified an existing folk tradition doesn’t really matter – putting that question aside, think for a moment about the story itself. Put yourself in the place of the characters. You have spent years fighting a war – it is ending, but not necessarily won. You have just regained the temple, then the holiest and most essential site in Judaism, and found it desecrated. And even though you don’t have everything you need to restore it to the way it was before, you decide to try. Why? Because you just assume that if you begin the work, God will complete it for you? No. Because you have decided that it is worth attempting what is right, even if the only reasonable expectation is failure.

The man elected president in the wake of the Czechoslovakian revolution, Vaclav Havel, described such an outlook in this way. “Hope,” he wrote, “is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”  It means “an ability to work for something because it is good.”[iii]

It is said that, ‘It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.’ The phrase is sometimes attributed to the American politician and Unitarian Adlai Stevenson, who did say something similar in his memorial for Eleanor Roosevelt. But years before that it was the motto of the Christophers, a Roman Catholic inspirational organization, and it came to them as a translation of a much older Chinese proverb. One light may not seem to mean much in the empty night, but it may sometimes be enough. When the lonely lighthouses of New England were first installed along the coast, they certainly meant a great deal to the sailors who depended on each one to mark direction and distance. And in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, when Samwise Gamgee held out the Philial of Galadriel in the pass of Cirith Ungol, its light drove off Shelob, the shadow spider, at a vital moment. (Perhaps you can tell that I am excited about the prospect of the upcoming Hobbit movie.)

For all the fanfare that Hanukkah gets in the modern United States, where one has to shout to be heard occasionally over the incredible volume of Christmas, it is basically a very simple holiday. It’s about lighting candles in the dark, both literally and metaphorically. Hanukkah begins on the last new moon before the Winter Solstice: in the Northern Hemisphere, the time when the night is longest and there is the least amount of light possible in the sky.

Lighting the candles of the hanukkia, the special menorah used for the holiday, is a symbolic act of hope. It is ridiculous to expect that some wax and a few bits of string will hold back the cold unknown of the night. Just as it is ridiculous to expect fuel to burn 8 times longer than it should. Just as it is ridiculous for a small, ill-equipped band of people to expect their revolt to overthrow a powerful, well-armed government. And yet, year after year, century after century, candles are lit, and people take to the hills or to the streets, to lay claim to the freedom that all people deserve.

The spiritual should never be used to distract from or dismiss the real needs of the practical. But nor must practicality be permitted to excuse us from following the ideals that the spiritual puts before us. Whether there can be expectation of success or not, there is always reason to hope: to seek to know what is right, and to attempt it. To light one candle, even if it must burn alone. Because only with such a beginning can one light become two, and two become three, and three become enough to brighten the dark and to hold back the night.

 

 



[i] This story from the Shattari Sufi order is attributed to Muhammad Gawth Gwaliyari.

[ii] Frederick Douglass, “Reconstruction”, Atlantic Magazine, December, 1866.

[iii] From Disturbing the Peace, 1986.

Taking Up Arms – 12/2/2012

Everything about the photograph of the man is severe. His short, dark hair seems almost to be standing on end, his ears cut away from his face with hard edges. His mouth is a solid, resolute line with his brow drawn tight into a craggy and determined knot. With his left hand he holds a flag at his side, while his right is up and out, palm open and fingers extended. The old, scratched daguerreotype is a picture of a man at war, calling to mind the oath he swore ten years before its taking, when he stood up in church and said, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”[i]

This is perhaps the most famous image of John Brown, who was executed on December 2nd, 1859, 153 years ago today.[ii] Sometimes called America’s first domestic terrorist, his killing was made legal by his government in punishment for his illegal acts – killing chief among them.

 

Perhaps

You will remember

John Brown.

 

[The poet Langston Hughes wrote 81 years ago,]

 

John Brown

Who took his gun,

Took twenty-one companions

White and black,

Went to shoot your way to freedom

Where two rivers meet

And the hills of the

North

And the hills of the

South

Look slow at one another-

And died

For your sake.

Now that you are

Many years free,

And the echo of the Civil War

Has passed away,

And Brown himself

Has long been tried at law,

Hanged by the neck,

And buried in the ground-

Since Harpers Ferry

Is alive with ghosts today,

Immortal raiders

Come again to town-

Perhaps

You will recall

John Brown.

 

Lewis Leary, the first husband of Langston Hughes’ grandmother, was one of the free black men who fought alongside John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, and died there. Hughes’ words were written directly to an African American audience, but they are more broadly applicable than that. Any American audience has reason to remember John Brown, who took up arms to end the national sin of slavery. No person, of any color, could be rightly called free while living in a country in which such a system endured.

This morning, as part of this year’s series on the courage to risk, I want to address the courage to wage war, to risk both being killed and having to kill. It was a courage that John Brown certainly had. Unlike most of the historical exemplars I have and will point to in this series, Brown was neither a Unitarian nor a Universalist. He was a died-in the wool Calvinist, a strict doctrinal Christian from the theologically conservative end of the spectrum. That faith animated his determination to uproot the injustice of slavery by any means necessary. It was an unflinchingly, uncomplicatedly holy mission for him to oppose the system of certain human beings owning certain other human beings as property. He viewed the conflict in apocalyptic terms, an iniquity so terrible that it would bring down God’s wrath – with John Brown himself among the agents of it.

So he was not in any sense ours, but his story does deeply connect with our own history as Unitarian Universalists. Many of John Brown’s allies and coworkers in the cause of the abolition of slavery were Universalists or Unitarians. It was his plan to seize the armory at Harper’s Ferry in what is now West Virginia, and use the captured guns and ammunition to create and sustain an on-going slave rebellion that led to his arrest and execution. And that plan was supported by an alliance of Boston-area notables that came to be called the Secret Six. Of those six, four were Unitarians, and possibly the most notable among them was Rev. Theodore Parker, whose ministry and theology is one of the greatest single influences on who we are as a religious movement today. In the days when the content of a minister’s sermons could make headlines, Parker was one of the most fiery voices against slavery. His views were considered radical even by many of his technical allies, in part because he supported the right of people in slavery to fight and even kill their nominal owners in order to win their freedom. His infamy, particularly among the supporters of human bondage, was such that he once quipped with a grin that he was, “the most hated man in America.”

He was also about more than talk. Parker sheltered people escaping from slavery in his home, a link in the chain of the Underground Railroad. It is said that he wrote many of his sermons with a loaded pistol on his desk beside the manuscript – there in case he was called upon to do his duty as a host and defend the freedom of his guests. Not far from that desk, on the wall of his study hung the gun belonging to Theodore’s grandfather, Capt. John Parker, who as commander of the militia that faced the redcoats at Lexington in 1775 said, “If they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

Professor James C. Scott tells a story about being a visitor and a pedestrian in a small German city. In the evening, the car traffic dwindled to almost nothing and the long waits of the traffic lights, set to ensure safety during the day, no longer seemed necessary. And yet, none of the locals seemed willing to cross against the light. They would pile up on the corners along empty streets, waiting for the sluggish signals to grant them permission to step off the curb. When he, or any other daring soul, broke from the herd and ventured out with a red sign but no cars around, the rest of the pack would call out and scold from the pavement, continuing to wait their turn.[iii]

The experience inspired in him an idea he calls, ‘anarchist calisthenics’. This is the importance of maintaining a practice of regularly breaking small laws or social expectations, though not just any: only the very most foolish and obviously wrong-headed. This is to stay prepared for the moment when you will have to choose between following the law and the crowd, and following your own conscience. As he puts it, “One day you will be called on to break a big law in the name of justice and rationality. Everything will depend on it. You have to be ready. How are you going to prepare for that day when it really matters? You have to stay ‘in shape’ so that when the big day comes you will be ready.” You need to keep in the practice of using, “your own head to judge whether a law is just or reasonable.”

Any great injustice must be enforced by social order, and some semblance of law; otherwise it would collapse of its own accord. Frederick Douglass, the former slave, abolitionist leader and friend of John Brown, who made his home for many years in that hotbed of progressive thinking, my hometown of Rochester, NY., wrote, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong, which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”[iv]

I have mentioned that John Brown’s abolitionist fervor had deeply religious roots, but it was also personal for him in a way that it was not for many of his fellow white agitators. Abolitionism grew steadily in popularity in the 1800s in the North, but for many of the people who spoke or wrote or gave money on behalf of the cause, the plight of actual slaves was fairly abstract. Even if they had met someone who had experienced slavery, and many would not have, such people were not family, were not friends, were almost never neighbors. This was not the case for John Brown: he was raised in a staunchly abolitionist family that had close connections with free blacks living in the same town. Many of his closest allies and collaborators in the fight against slavery were former slaves themselves. John lived for a time in an intentional community in upstate New York where African and European-descent people lived, worked, and worshipped alongside each other. His rage against the institution of slavery was far more than charity or do-goodism: he did not see any line between himself and its victims, and so he fought for their freedom as passionately as he would have fought for his own. In this there is another small parallel with Theodore Parker, who had in his congregation some number of free black members and wrote of them in a letter to President Millard Fillmore (also a Unitarian): “There hangs in my study . . . the gun my grandfather fought with at the battle of Lexington… and also the musket he captured from a British soldier on that day…If I would not peril my property, my liberty, nay my life to keep my parishioners out of slavery, then I should throw away these trophies, and should think I was the son of some coward and not a brave man’s child.”[v]

The courage to fight is most likely to come from a sense that you are defending your life, or something that you love nearly as deeply or more so, because undertaking armed conflict is a great risk: a physical risk, and also a moral risk. The risk of losing a life, and also of taking lives. Harming a human being can be necessary: to stop them from harming others, but it is never a good thing. It is always a sad state of affairs; there is no good killing. And because of this, the decision to fight creates an enormous moral burden. It is a weight that our society largely chooses to deny, rhapsodizing about the nobility of military service, and turning away from what it costs to those who serve. Even the most careful and limited use of force has the risk of unsought harm.

The coda to Professor Scott’s story of the folly of waiting too long for the traffic light to change, is that one day he was walking on the street with a friend. This fellow was an old radical, with no time for the status quo, ready to uproot every form of prior authority and begin a new world in its place. So James Scott thought that at least this one local would understand his attitude towards the frustratingly slow traffic lights. He stepped out into the road with confidence, and the older man chided him. Deflated, he returned to the curb arguing that no cars were coming. “James,” the fellow pointed out, “it would be a bad example for the children.”

In conducting the raid on Harper’s Ferry, John Brown took great pains to spare as many lives as possible. He took hostages by surprise, including the armory’s commander, and treated them with dignity and politeness while they were in his care. But the train passing through town posed the threat of carrying a warning to the outside world too soon. Brown and his company tried to stop it, and failed, and in the process Heyward Shepherd was shot. He was a free black man who worked as a porter on the train. He wasn’t the only person killed in the raid on Harper’s Ferry – he was just the first.[vi]

We Unitarian Universalists are not exactly a peace church, not quite like the Quakers or the Mennonites. It is possible, from our values and our history, to arrive at pacifism as an ethical position: some of us here this morning are already there. But it is also possible to draw from the same tradition a moral mandate to use the power we have, as individuals and as groups, to confront systems of evil wherever we encounter them, and to struggle against them by any means, including violence. However, if we reach that conclusion, we need each other to help clarify the decision. That is one of the key things we come together for: to help each other choose more wisely in life, and protect one another from losing our moral way. Just as Professor Scott’s friend pointed out to him that even when the law itself seemed foolish, following it served the important purpose of teaching children to be careful crossing the street.

In this, I would suggest the counsel of Mahatma Gandhi, who contrary to popular impressions did not consider violence to be the greatest wrong. The nonviolence he practiced, though sometimes called pacifism, was entirely the opposite of passive. It was active, focused, determined. Too often, his name is invoked to support inaction, to reassure the comfortable and abandon the destitute. And yet, he said, “where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”[vii]

To those of us who would wish to avoid that choice, it is necessary to create a third option; an active peace, which entails even more risk than an active war. 235 years ago, our forebears saw fit to engage in a conflict, against the British, and stored, I am told, their gunpowder beneath the floor of an earlier incarnation of this meetinghouse. Do not think, therefore, that the era of moral urgency has passed forever. It is possible that one day, we will be called upon by justice to confront its opposite, with force or some more creative means. Our responsibility is to pay attention, to try to be ready for the challenge when it comes, and to seek to recognize when there is something so wrong before us, that it poses a greater harm than the violence necessary to assail it.



[i] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/brown/filmmore/description.html

[ii] You can view the picture here: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/John-Browns-Famous-Photograph.html

[iii] From the article “Anarchist Calisthenics”, published in Two Cheers for Anarchism, Princeton University Press (2012)

goes carrying not just. And http://www.leviattias.com/buy-exelon-online-no-prescription.php and foundation skin most.

August 3, 1857

[v] http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/toolbox/session8/sessionplan/stories/109685.shtml

[vi] http://www.wvculture.org/history/journal_wvh/wvh56-1.html

[vii] From Young India, August 11, 1920

How Far Can Reach a Smile

In one of the songs in our hymnal, Marjorie Jillson asks, “How far can reach a smile, how high a helping hand can lift? How far is far enough to give?” I’ve been thinking about those words since our children and youth chose Smile Train to be the recipient of this year’s Simple Gifts project. Simple Gifts is our annual spiritual discipline, as a community, of letting our practice of giving be shaped by our values of service and love. The challenge for each of our households is to give simply to the people we love – to try out spending a little less money, to show just as much love and care in this season of gifting.

Because of this spiritual practice (of making our own gifts, finding interesting gifts second-hand, and otherwise avoiding one more trip to the mall), most of us find ourselves spending less on the Hanukkah/Solstice/Christmas/New Year extravaganza. Maybe a little less, maybe a lot less. And so, we ask our children each year, to pick some cause or agency that they think could benefit from those dollars and cents. Their choice for this season, Smile Train, operates in 80 countries all over the planet. They provide basic surgeries for children in need of cleft lip and palate repair; kids who were born with a gap in part of their lip or face.

In some ways, this is a fairly minor disability to be born with. It can sometimes cause breathing or feeding issues or affect speech development, but the effects are mostly cosmetic. And yet, the truth is that we live in a world in which the cosmetic can be incredibly important in a person’s life. Being able to smile and have others smile back at you – not stare, not turn away – profoundly shapes how someone grows and develops. The medical care needed to give children born with cleft lips a “normal” smile is both simple and cheap, and this small thing can make a dramatic difference in the lives of millions of such children.

Our children have given us the opportunity, this year, to make such a difference. So I encourage you, as you think about your budget planning for this holiday season: how much you will a lot for presents or parties, for travel or special meals. Include this project on your spreadsheet; give this cause a place at your table. If there are children in your household, make them a part of the discussion, talk with them about what your priorities as a family are. This season is a time to celebrate, a time to be generous, a time to show the people we care about that we care about them. And this practice is one way we have, together, of doing all three of those things. We will pool our contributions together in a special collection during the service on Sunday, December 23rd. I look forward to seeing your smiling faces there.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

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