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The Gender Police – 4/27/2014

In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself in a few different conversations with interfaith colleagues, trying to answer different versions of the same question: “What is Unitarian Universalism’s central story?” This is probably because Easter and Passover have just gone by. The first celebrates the story of the resurrection of Jesus, what is often described as being the central story of Christianity. The second commemorates the story of the Hebrew liberation from slavery in Egypt, which again is usually considered to be Judaism’s central story. So, the question was presented to me in one formulation or another – what’s yours?

My answer, which I’ve given many times before and which isn’t uniquely mine, is that we Unitarian Universalists don’t have a central story, at least not in the sense of a clear parallel with the resurrection or the exodus. That is the point, and indeed the power of our faith: the world is full of stories, no one is supremely true above all others – in fact the deepest truths are to be found in the cracks between them. To make our way in this world, we have found that we need to have more than one story.

Still, there are particular stories that we tell more often than others, that we keep coming back to again and again. The stories of Passover and Easter are two of these. Another, which you might have heard almost as recently if you come here often enough, is the story of the blind men and the elephant. Its lesson on the subjective quality of truth, and the multiple stories to be found in any one thing, resonates with our faith, so we end up returning to it often. I realized when I was preparing my thoughts this morning that I wanted to point to something specific hidden in that story, something we don’t talk about much. So I’m going to use a particular telling of this old familiar tail that might be just a little bit less familiar. The story of the blind men and the elephant originally comes from the Indian subcontinent. There are versions of it told in the Jain, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim traditions – it’s old enough that we can’t say with certainty which had it first. But it was popularized in Europe and the Western world through a poem by John Godfrey Saxe published in the 1800s, and that’s what I’m going to share with you now:

 

It was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.

 

The First approached the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

“God bless me! but the Elephant

Is very like a WALL!”

 

The Second, feeling of the tusk,

Cried, “Ho, what have we here,

So very round and smooth and sharp?

To me ’tis mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a SPEAR!”

 

The Third approached the animal,

And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands,

Thus boldly up and spake:

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant

Is very like a SNAKE!”

 

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,

And felt about the knee

“What most this wondrous beast is like

Is mighty plain,” quoth he:

“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant

Is very like a TREE!”

 

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,

Said: “E’en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can,

This marvel of an Elephant

Is very like a FAN!”

 

The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope,

Than seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope,

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant

Is very like a ROPE!”

 

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!

Here’s what I want us to consider about this story. Normally, we view it from outside: we’re not in the story, we’re just watching it – or rather, hearing it – unfold. Now imagine that you’re actually inside it; not as one of the blind men, though that might be an experiment for another day. Imagine that you’re the elephant. If you’re the elephant, the story comes across rather differently. The headline isn’t, “the truth is arrived at clumsily, in bits and pieces, always imperfect and incomplete.” Instead it’s, “six men assault elephant.”

But don’t run from this now, think about it for a moment. Here you are, minding your own business, when a group of strangers approach without apology or introduction. They prod, they examine, they grope, and they make their own pronouncement as to just what exactly you are. At no point do they ask for your permission, or even more infuriatingly, your opinion. Think about that for a moment.

This sermon is part of a series on the social justice commitments held by Unitarian Universalism, and my particular topic this morning are the social concerns that fall under the broad category of gender and gender expression. In particular, the rights and worthiness of transgender, genderqueer and gender fluid people, the rights and worthiness of women, and the establishment and protection of reproductive freedom. This sort of a slightly disjointed list, and in particular not everyone who might advocate on one side of one of these issues will necessarily feel at home on the same side of another. There are feminists who are antagonistic towards trans* rights, and advocates for the ordination of women who oppose reproductive choice. Yet I’ve grouped these issues together because the analysis that our faith applies to them – the ‘why’ that makes us care about them – tells us that there is really one cohesive system of injustice at work in all of these areas. There is a direct line to be drawn from verbal and physical attacks on trans* people, to the earning gap between men and women, to employers demanding that their employees be denied birth control coverage through their HMO.

That line is composed of our society’s social expectations about gender: about what constitutes masculinity and femininity, and the names, behaviors, fashion choices, hairstyles, hopes, dreams, ambitions and ideas that are permitted or forbidden, based on those expectations. Because these boundaries are social constructions – not in any way natural or readily occurring on their own – they can only survive by being enforced by acts of aggression and coercion, from the very small to the very large. These rules of gender are policed all around us, every day, by a million million individual actions.

Let me get down into some of the specifics. The author Teddy Wayne penned a short article recently outlining the “Heterosexual Agenda.” This piece was a satire of the hateful and frankly bizarre idea that there is a clandestine gay campaign to make straight people feel ashamed for being straight. Wayne imagines a massive, all-heterosexual conference at which strictly gendered food and entertainment have been provided: football and buffalo wings for the men, salad and “Real Housewives” episodes for the women. Following the call to order, the moderator begins to outline the heterosexual campaign:

“First on the agenda: movies, always a central plank in our mission, since they’re where we go for our dates. Specifically those movies that depict a woman who works at a fashion magazine and dates a guy with slicked-back hair in finance, but he’s kind of a cad, and then she meets another guy who does pro-bono law but still makes a lot of money and is really nice, and eventually she realizes that the second guy is much better for her after she catches the first guy cheating on her with his secretary. Let’s see if we can’t up our monthly production to more than fourteen.”

The stories we tell outline the roles that are possible in the world we share. When we keep telling the same story over and over again, it sets a boundary. With the possible exception of a sexless best friend character, Teddy Wayne’s thumbnail description of every romantic comedy of the last 30 years pretty-well outlines the range of accepted forms for men and women in our society: good girl and bad girl, good boy and bad boy. The good ones are supposed to find each other and live happily ever after. The bad ones are supposed to be doomed to a hollow life – unless they find just the right member of the opposite sex, who will transform them from bad into good.

Wayne presented this as an example of the powerful cultural, artistic and economic forces arrayed against gay, lesbian, and bisexual people – teaching overtly and covertly that same-sex attraction is unseemly or unnatural. And those messages are real and powerful, but they are not just aimed at gay folks – they apply to straight folks too. All homophobia is a form of gender oppression: it seeks to establish a fence around gender and oppression – asserting that all men are attracted to women, or all women are attracted to men – and then to police this barrier, punishing anyone who sets foot over the line. It is the same with the boy who wants to wear his princess dress to school, or the girl who wants to be a steam shovel when she grows up. Any variance from the expectation is suspect, and draws some form of punishment or another: stares and whispers, perhaps, or questions and threats, or violence either legal, physical, or both.

People who cross over the boundary, or who mix symbols of one or the other are subject to such violence in particularly large numbers. Trans* people, folks whose self-understanding of their own gender does not match the one assigned to them based on biology, or who otherwise transgress the checkbox of “M” or “F,” face very real threats to their lives just for being who they are. But they face other profound indignities as well. One of the most common is the attitude that their genitals are up for discussion. Only the most recent public example of this came when Katie Couric interviewed Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox, both trans women, and led off by asking about Ms. Carrera’s private parts – she politely turned the question aside. Later in the same interview, Laverne Cox pointed out that besides being astoundingly presumptuous and rude, the ‘what’s under your pants/dress?’ question is also a way of turning away from the person and the seriousness of their struggles, “by focusing on bodies,” she said, “we don’t focus on the lived realities of…oppression and…discrimination.”[i]

This system of gender policing, is not just person-to-person, it is also woven out of laws and the practices of larger groups. For more than fifty years, women in America campaigned actively for the right to vote, with some of their chief leaders being Unitarians. But now, almost a century after that battle was won, that most basic measure of political equality does not mean that the playing field is now or ever has been equal. Which is why our association continues to advocate for equal pay and access to work for women and for trans* folks, as both groups are paid less than men, on average, and suffer from a higher rate of unemployment. We have also long-held it as a matter of conscience, that people of all genders and gender expressions should be afforded basic protection under the law. That day is still far off, unfortunately, in a country where – to site just one example – trans* folks face the realistic possibility that after they die, no matter how up-to-date and correct their identity documents are, they may be assigned the wrong gender on their death certificates.

This points to the root problem with the entire system of the gender police, this whole network of interlocking social expectations that exists in our government, in our entertainment, in our communities and our families and even in ourselves. Whether it manifests in a cat-call, or a silent leer, or a fashion magazine, or a government policy, or a medical diagnosis, or a hate-crime, the project of policing gender seeks to tell a person who they are, what they are, what is possible for them, in defiance of what they know about themselves. It says, ‘you’re not a boy, you’re a girl,’ or ‘you’re not a girl, you’re loose, or you’re frigid, or bossy,’ ‘the choices you have made with your mind, and the truths you have found in your heart – what you wear, whom you love, what you hope to become – all of that is wrong.’

This is what is so profoundly theologically wrong with that idea. None of us knows ourselves perfectly, but we all still know ourselves better than that. The project of fully understanding and appreciating who we are takes a lifetime, and to do it we need other people and communities, and the insights they can provide about ourselves. But the process of interrogation, contempt, and violence – the way in which gender is constructed and policed – alienates us from each other and from our communities. Our society breaks down gender into two narrow and exclusive boxes, weighed down by thousands of years of privileging one and oppressing the other, and then rejects whatever doesn’t fit. When we are the things being rejected, it breaks the connections we need to grow.

We understand as sacred our gifts and powers as humans, and that means a profound duty to grow and unfold our abilities and capacities, and also to use them responsibly. Doing this requires control over our own faculties, and this is the basis for our association’s standing support of universal access and availability of birth control – the third point under the umbrella of gender justice I mentioned earlier. Not a particularly controversial matter as public-opinion polling goes, but this is still an issue where many faith groups disagree. The greater disagreement, of course, is over abortion. This extends even into our own congregations, and so I want to remind you that this is an examination of what in our shared tradition has led us as a national movement to take certain public positions. But those positions are never binding on us as individuals. The Unitarian Universalist Association has supported the universal right of women to access safe abortions as part of her basic medical care since ten years before Roe v. Wade – a case which, by the way, is deeply bound up in the history of the First Unitarian Church of Dallas, TX. That is not to dictate the choices you make, how you vote, or how you speak in the public square. But the position we have taken as an association – radical for its time and still radical today – has a deep grounding in our theology.

The creation of new life is a stupefying miracle, a fundamentally mysterious magic trick that should not be any less awesome for the billions upon trillions of times that it has taken place. And depending on how you understand it, where you sit with the mystery of a few cells growing into a human child, you might find that you cannot justify to yourself any abortion, or can justify some but not others. That is within your right to assess for yourself, when the mystery is taking place within you. But we each have a right to a fundamental and absolute authority over our bodies – that is what our theology demands. Anything less means the degradation and destruction of the sacred gifts and powers within any person denied the right, and by extension the diminishment of all of humankind. If the body and all its capacities are sacred, and we are each invested as stewards of our own, then that stewardship must be trusted and respected – for we are each just as important to ourselves as you are to you and to the source of all being, whom some of us call God.

The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, talks about the danger of having just one story – whether it is a story about a person, or about an entire category of people. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”[ii] The problem with the limitations of gender in our society, by light of our faith, is not that the particular elements of masculinity and femininity are bad – or at least, it is not that all of them are bad. Rather, it is when these elements become limitations that we get into trouble, and do ourselves and each other harm.

Just as we could reasonably expect for the elephant in the famous story, none of us wants to be prodded and poked and examined on a whim, or told what we are by people who understand us less than we understand ourselves. Encountering anything or anyone that is different, there is an understandable impulse to stare, to whisper, to gossip, even to try to declare that we understand before doing the hard work of understanding. It is understandable, but it is not the best that we have to offer. That best is respect first, curiosity second, and humility over all. Each of us needs space enough to be who we are, and the support, encouragement, and counsel, necessary to become whoever and whatever we hold the promise of being. So let us remember the elephant – the difference between active companionship and casual judgment – and do what we can to create a world no longer defined by the gender police.



[i] These words reflect what I said during the service, but after the conversations I had with some of you afterward, if I had it to preach over again, I would reframe this passage to be clearer in my intention: not to criticize Katie Couric particularly, but to highlight a very real, systemic problem faced by trans* people – the sort of thing that happens thousands of times in the course of ordinary lives for every one time it occurs on television.

[ii] Much more detail can be found in her excellent TED Talk, here: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story

The Gates of Mercy – 4/20/2014

We just heard the choir sing the words of Leonard Cohen, and they included these lines: “Behold the gates of mercy, in arbitrary space. And none of us deserving of the cruelty or the grace.” We live in – we are each a part of – a world that is made up of wonder and terror. At any given moment, our planet is saturated with both. A lost plane in the Indian Ocean, a ferry sunk in the Korea Straight, a terrible shooting in Kansas City, civil war in Syria and the Central African Republic, and the threat of more to come in Ukraine. At the same time, children are being born all over the world today, as scientists ask grand questions of the cosmos, artists at the canvass and the keyboard craft new things of beauty and imagination, while families and friends and strangers practice kindness towards each other in a million million tiny, precious ways.

The one side does not cancel the other out, in either direction. The good cannot justify the evil, just as the cruelty of life cannot desecrate the sanctity of its gift. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke considered this conundrum in our essential condition by asking what it is we gain by being human, rather than only a laurel bush or some other form of plant. He wrote:

 

Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely
in the form of a laurel, slightly darker than all
other green, with tiny waves on the edges
of every leaf (like the smile of a breeze)–: why then
have to be human–and, escaping from fate,
keep longing for fate? . . .

Oh not because happiness exists,
that too-hasty profit snatched from approaching loss.
Not out of curiosity, not as practice for the heart, which
would exist in the laurel too. . . . .

But because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
Once
 for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

 

The fleeting world keeps calling to us, to pass through the gates of mercy, to be, to become, again and again and again. For as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the great author who died this week, said “human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but…life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” We are eternally becoming who we are, so that life is less like a walled garden, where we enter by one path and exit by another, and more like a house of many small adjoining rooms, where we are constantly crossing over thresholds and under lintels, through doorways into new spaces beyond.

What we each shall find in the next room we enter is uncertain, and that uncertainty raises that nagging question of why. Good fortune prompts it just as well as bad. The story of Moses being saved as an infant is spectacular, all the hope and courage that made his survival possible is inspiring. But what of the other male children who did not have quite so many breaks in their favor. The story of Lazarus has been told for the better part of 2,000 years to inspire faith, and yet, could he have been the only person who lay dead in Judeah that day? Or his sisters the only grieving women in the world?

However you understand the world, whether it is with one God, or many, or none, it is plain that life gives us things that we do not deserve. And this places before us two choices for how we will go about living our lives in response: resentment, or gratitude. I hope it will surprise none of you that I am here to lobby for gratitude. I don’t mean to be grateful for every single thing that comes – for heartbreak or homelessness or HIV. But to be grateful for the gateway into life in the first place, and for the new doorway, always in front of us, into the next unknown room of the house of being.

The alternative is to stay put, hunker down and make a nest of our resentments. To refuse to take a risk on the next doorway out of spite and fear. To choose not to defy an unjust king, or to weave a little boat for an infant in danger, or to watch over our brother as he floats on the river, or not to take in a strange child who winds his way into our life. The choice of resentment means walling ourselves up in one of life’s rooms, and refusing to go any further. There is a word for a place such as that: we call it a tomb.

Look inward, with me, for a moment friends. Examine the chambers of your heart, the places where the deepest pieces of yourself reside. See how many of them are stopped up with bitterness, stifled rage or frustrated dream. Let us resolve, together, you and I, to cross through the next gate. Let today be a day when we pluck new hope from the river, when we stumble out of the tomb, and into the light. May we give birth to ourselves anew this day, and may all of us serve as midwives for each other.

 

 

The Blessed Curse – 4/13/2014

In the Buddhist tradition’s understanding of itself – in that religion’s story about how it came to exist as a religion – the pivotal moment takes place in quiet and stillness. At the instant when he became the Buddha – the Awakened One – Gautama was sitting under a tree, seeking the truth through meditation. And then it came to him. He understood the nature of existence at its deepest level and became liberated from hatred, greed, and fear. The essential religious conundrum of Gautama’s place and time – 2500 years ago in northern India – had to do with a cycle of death and rebirth. That people were reborn into new lives after dying was taken for granted, and so many theologians and philosophers and other just thoughtful people began to see this as a terrible fate – like being locked into a prison from which there could be no escape. The Buddha’s enlightenment meant that he had solved this critical question of his age: he had found a way to break out of that prison.

This is the axial moment in Buddhism, its central ideas bursting forth into the mind of Gautama. And it was followed, soon after by the beginning of the religion itself, as the Buddha left his tree behind and went to the city of Varanasi. There he preached is first sermon, made his first converts, and began to form the first sangha, the first community devoted to the mutual practice of his teachings. The beginning of the idea and the beginning of the community happen right next to each other, which is what makes the story of what happened in between so fascinating. It is said that the first person Gautama met after attaining enlightenment was a fellow traveler on the road, just a few miles from his tree. That man, whose name was Upaka, stopped him. He could see that Gautama had a look of clarity and serenity about him, as though he had just discovered something important. He asked what it was.

So for the first time, to the first person, the Buddha explained himself: that he had come to see the truth behind the illusion of existence had transcended the frailties and imperfections of his own mortal form. Upaka asked if this meant that he had found what others had sought and no one else had achieved: a way to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. “Indeed, friend,” responded the Buddha. “And now I go to Varanasi, to beat the drum of deathlessness.” To this grand pronouncement, the solving of a cosmic riddle that vexed entire generations of wise and holy people, Upaka simply said, “Well, maybe so,” and then, shaking his head, he travelled on by another road.

It is attractive to think that if an idea is profound enough or a message true enough, the world will simply sit up and recognize it. Opposition will melt away, and the insight will be embraced by the sheer force of its rightness. But the story of Upaka, the first person to hear the message of the Buddha, points in a different direction entirely: there is no wisdom so great that the human will is incapable of ignoring it. Prophets and teachers from the beginning of human history to the present have learned this the hard way.

In the mythic history of ancient Greece, Cassandra was a princess of the city of Troy. She was blessed with the gift of foreseeing the future, and cursed that no one would ever believe her predictions. She saw that her brother was about to cause the Trojan war, but he ignored her warning. She knew that her city would be destroyed, but no one listened to her cries. And according to one play by Aeschylus, Cassandra went to her death, fully aware of her fate but unable to stop it.

It is a heavy burden to be a prophet. This could easily be the tagline of the current Hollywood blockbuster Noah. It tells its own version of the biblical story you’re no doubt already familiar with, if only from that children’s song about the animals in twosies, twosies and the elephants and [clap] kangaroosies, roosies. In the sanitized picture-book version, it’s a nice-enough story about animals and boats. Even in the biblical account, details are recounted in a very matter-of-fact way – no reference is made to Noah’s internal psychology. The movie, though, puts the imagined inner life of a prophet front and center, and it is a grueling ordeal. I’m not particularly encouraging anyone to see this film – I still haven’t decided what to think of it as a film, but it was extremely difficult to watch. Some of the scenes and images were more grotesque than the stuff of the average horror movie. Though the film departed radically from the biblical text, much of that horror was true to the original story, which is, after all, about the obliteration of an entire world’s worth of people. In one particularly chilling moment, Noah sits inside his ark as the waters rise and the screams of those clinging to the last bit of dry land can be heard from outside. The man looks broken by his appointed task: to rescue an uncountable number of animals, but only a tiny handful of the human variety. No wonder he eventually turns to drink – a character insight that actually is in the bible.

As the differences between the stories of Gautama, Cassandra, and Noah suggest, the term prophet has a range of possible meanings. Probably the most common meaning in modern speech is the ability to see, predict, or otherwise know the future. It’s a term that gets thrown around and applied to a whole range of figures, from the Oracle at Delphi to political pop-statistician Nate Silver, and from Nostradamus to Paul the Octopus – the German cephalopod who predicted the winner of the 2010 World Cup. This is the classical understanding of prophesy in the Greek and Roman cultures, and it strongly influences the term’s use in orthodox Christianity. But even more important to the Christian meaning is the model of prophesy established in the Hebrew bible.

According to the reckoning presented by the ancient rabbis in the Talmud, there are fifty-five prophets mentioned by name in the Tanakh – the Hebrew name for the Hebrew bible. Predicting or anticipating the future is still a common theme for many of these figures, but not for all of them. And there are also biblical characters granted visions of the future who nonetheless are not considered prophets. Instead, the uniting factor between all fifty-five prophets was their role as spokespeople for the Holy; their words or actions particularly serve the Divine in some way. For most of these prophets, this meant some sort of special relationship with or closeness to God. Abraham and Moses are both described as talking regularly with God, even to the point of arguing with divine judgments. And so many stories of the biblical prophets involve miraculous visions received during sleep that the Book of Jeremiah mocks a corruption of this convention: “I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy falsely in My name: “I had a dream, I had a dream.”[i]

Rev. Dr. James Forbes, who led New York City’s progressive Riverside Church for many years, explains the model of biblical prophecy in three syllables: ‘Ho, Go, and Lo.’ ‘Ho’ is like ‘hey’ or ‘yo’ – it’s an interjection meant to get someone’s attention. A prophet’s career begins with a ‘ho’ – a moment when the Divine seizes her attention. The ‘go’ that follows is a purpose or a mission: do something, say something, go somewhere. And the last component, ‘lo’ means ‘look’ or ‘pay attention’.[ii] It introduces the heavenly promise of accompaniment: the prophet doesn’t do his work alone, she is a coworker with God.

Our tradition as Unitarian Universalists tends towards a third way of understanding what it means to be a prophet. It is not exclusive to us, and it does not preclude the other two types of prophecy. It is pointed towards in the second source called out by the covenant between our congregations: “The words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Whenever I quote this source, I point out that there is no reason why we ought not to replace “prophetic women and men” with “prophetic persons” – there are people for whom the gender binary does not describe their place in the world, and they are as capable of being prophets as anyone else – and perhaps just a little bit more so. But I’m getting ahead of myself: that’s a sermon for later this month. Prophetic words challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil. Prophecy stirs others to action in the service of justice and love. A vision of the future or a transcendent experience of God is optional. Prophesy is declaring the truth – or otherwise acting based on the truth – when it is difficult, dangerous, or inconvenient to do so. When there is a wrong to be answered, or an error to correct.

This is intentionally a very inclusive definition, and it focuses more on the action than the actor. In fact, it might be fair to say that as Unitarian Universalists we don’t necessarily believe in prophets – though certainly many of us do – what we believe in is prophesy itself, the act of meeting wrong with right. In this sense, each of us has the prophetic potential not just in the course of our lives, but inside every moment. The salient questions are, ‘are you acting from the truth?’ and ‘how far are you willing to follow it?’

The Muslim mystical poet Hafiz described an exchange with a man who believed he had seen God. But he sought Hafiz for confirmation asking, ‘Are these wondrous dreams true?’ Hafiz answered with a series of his own questions:

          “’How many rose bushes in your garden,

          How many children,

          Are your parents still alive,

          Do you feed the birds in winter?’”

The man was perplexed by these questions, so the poet explained:

          “’You asked me if I thought your visions were true,

          I would say that they were if they make you become

          More human,

          More kind to every creature and plant

          That you know.”

One of the classic questions of prophecy – whether the visionary gift, the divine calling, or the simple confrontation of evil with truth – has always been how the prophet can know it is real. How can we recognize the real prophetic dream, the legitimate sacred mission, the true truth? The standard proposed by Hafiz seems to me the finest and clearest answer to this question: the impulse that leads to magnify humanity, and produce the greatest kindness – this is the truest sort of prophecy.

One of the essential ideas of Christian Protestantism, tracing back to Martin Luther, is the priesthood of all believers: The spiritual authority and responsibility which is universal to humankind, rather than being limited to a particular class of religious officials. This idea, incidentally, like many other elements of Protestantism, draws from the Jewish tradition “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”[iii] James Luther Adams, one of the most crucial voices in Unitarian Universalist theology, expanded this understanding to the priesthood and prophethood of all believers: adding an entire mode of spiritual authority and responsibility, as well as a far more expansive understanding of belief than Martin Luther’s. We are called as human beings, by anything and everything greater than our individual selves, towards the confrontation between what is, and what ought to be. And the duty of the religious congregation – ours or anybody else’s, whatever religion you like – is to spur us on and strengthen us, compassionately and creatively, in this confrontation.

I’ll offer a prophetic example, then, not from ancient and treasured story, but from our own present. Tim DeChristopher is a Unitarian Universalist. In 2008 he was living in Salt Lake City, attending the University of Utah and the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake.  In mid-December of that year, there was an auction held in Salt Lake City, and not the good kind. The auction was for oil and gas rights on federal lands across the American west and adjacent to several national parks. The auction was a rushed affair – a virtual give-away to major energy companies designed to ink sweetheart deals just before the handover from one administration to the next. It drew protest from folks committed to the preservation of natural spaces and opposed to the slow-motion self-destruction of fossil fuels. Tim was one of those protestors. But when he got to the place where the auction was being held, he decided that the people inside weren’t going to notice or care about him and the other people opposing them unless they went inside. So he did just that. And apparently he looked just enough like someone who might be there to participate rather than to disrupt, because they offered him a bidding paddle. Caught off guard by the offer, and with no plan or preparation, he took it and sat down.

There saw a friend from his church, Krista Bowers, who was there to observe the proceedings. She was already crying over what she saw: the right to despoil and exploit public land was going very cheap – it would all be sold in short order. So Tim, a penniless undergraduate, raised his paddle, and he started bidding. At first, he thought he would just drive up the prices a bit and cut in slightly on a few bottom lines. But then he kept winning, so that by the end he had agreed to purchase leases on 22,500 acres of federal land, at the price of $1.8 million. He might as well have bought all the water in the ocean for the price of the moon – he had no intention to use the leases, and no ability to pay for them.

As you might guess, Tim’s next stop was court, and after that, jail. For the crime of disrupting the auction, he was sentenced to two years in prison. His disruption had gummed up the process enough and brought enough negative attention to it that when the new administration came in months later it annulled the entire thing. Tim served out his time, and catalyzed a network of activists seeking to confront the powerful, interconnected forces of climate crisis. Tim’s choices were his own, and their consequences were born by him alone, but they also took place in a context. There was the moral influence of his fellow congregant Kim Bowers, the encouragement by his congregation’s witness work on environmental issues before the auction, and their support of him throughout his trial and incarceration that followed. The individual prophet arises from a community, and their work can be sustained and magnified by that community. As the Jewish festival of Pesach and the Holy Week of the Christian tradition begin, we should be mindful that often prophets pay more dearly for their prophecy than with a two-year sentence, but also that a prophetic community can carry on a message whatever might happen to the prophet. “If I die,” Archbishop Oscar Romero said, “I will be resurrected in the people.” His violent death later proved his statement true: tragedy and triumph are woven fine in the cloth of prophecy.

There is a second half to the tale of Upaka, the man who shrugged off the Buddha’s enlightenment. And that is that he went on after that chance meeting to lead his life, to fall in love and marry and start a family. And yet, the possibility of the insight from the man he had met on the road lingered with him. Eventually he set out to find him again. Years later he found the Buddha, who recognized him immediately, and welcomed him into the sangha. Often the prophet is defamed, ignored, persecuted or destroyed. The truth is powerful, and therefore dangerous. You will not always be heard, all you who are potential prophets by dint of being human. But sometimes, some holy times, somebody does hear and answer. Even if it takes a while.



[i] Jeremiah 23:25

[ii] You can watch Rev. Forbes explain his idea much more fulsomely and engagingly in a sermon he delivered to members of the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association in  a video found here: http://www.uuma.org/?page=2013InstituteFriday1

[iii] Exodus 19:6

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Mostly Grateful

“Some say that we get what we deserve in life, but I certainly don’t believe it. We certainly don’t deserve Bach. What have I done to deserve the Second Brandenburg Concerto? I have not been kind enough; I have not done enough justice; I have not loved my neighbor, or myself, sufficiently; I have not praised God enough to have earned a gift like this… Since we have not earned Bach—or crocuses, or lovers—the best we can do is express our gratitude for the undeserved gifts, and do our share of the work of creation.”

–Robert R. Walsh, from the collection Noisy Stones

 

When I first read these words from Bob Walsh, I could not immediately bring the Second Brandenburg Concerto to my mind. (In case you can’t either, you can listen to a piece of it here.) Baroque music is not exactly my strong suit. But once I found a recording of it and sat down to listen, I found that I could enjoy it, and not just as something casually pleasant – the way in which I normally experience classical compositions. I could relish Bach’s work more deeply because I had been invited, challenged almost, to listen to it by someone who so clearly loved it. Robert Walsh lifted this music up together with the joys of romance and the beauty of spring flowers; knowing that drew out just a little more of my attention, and helped me to hear through another person’s ears.

Of all the world’s great joys, this is the most wonderful: that we have other people with whom to share the things we love. And there is so much to love in the world. So rather than focus on what is deserved and undeserved, earned and unearned, I am drawn far more to the subject at the close of the quote above: gratitude. Not, ‘what do I deserve?’ but ‘where does my gratitude lead me?’ What piece of the work of creation will be big enough to match the wonder and appreciation I feel at this ever-spinning world?

Of course, life is not all gratitude or the makings of it. Yesterday I walked down the street with a cold, strong wind cutting through me. The temperature was fluctuating between the low teens and the high single digits. It had technically been spring for almost a month. Normally, I’m

Attempt about this Finish could that. Supposed get the were.

a “make the most of whatever season it is,” guy, proud to be able to handle whatever winter dishes out. But I have now officially worn out my appreciation for the cold.

No, we don’t always (or often) get what we deserve – for good or for ill. We can only, must only, be grateful for what it is possible to be grateful for, and continue on in the face of those things which are beyond our gratitude. Sometimes those are things that need changing, and can be changed. The weather is usually not one of those things, although if the harsh and erratic winter we’ve had finally wakes enough of us up to the climatic disruption that we humans are inflicting on the earth and ourselves, perhaps it can be. But for the things we can’t change, and can only endure, we have the opposite of gratitude: lament, and perhaps commiseration with those who share the affliction.

So today I take a moment to lament the all-too-slow turning of the season. I load the NOAA webpage and shake my fist at the 7-day forecast. But only for a little bit. I, and you, have much more to do in the work of creation. And much more to be grateful for – the Second Brandenburg Concerto, and so much else besides.

 

In Faith,

Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson

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