Salvation?

 

 

Five hundred years ago, it was Faustus Socinus, a Polish theologian widely considered to be the architect of modern liberal religion, who said that yes, Jesus saves, but not by virtue of his death. None of this “blood of the lamb” stuff. Jesus saves by virtue of his life and the moral and spiritual example we get from that. If we live like he lived and loved, then we are on the right path.

Furthermore, God’s goodness consists in allowing no soul to endure eternal torment and hellfire. The Christian Bible says, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” To this Faustus Socinus adds: everyone will experience this, not just some.

Salvation has meant this to religious liberals (to US), historically. Following Jesus’ example in our own lives, through works of justice and love. Trusting ultimately in God’s goodness to bring everyone into an afterlife of sweetness despite any failings and mistakes. Salvation as a here-and-now process, and salvation as an afterlife end-state.

But that was five hundred years ago. Where do things stand now?

At first glance, the answer is not easy. I mean, salvation talk is rare in these parts. Just how many times in this space in the past 50 years do you think people have been asked, seriously, Are you saved?

Are you saved, brother? Are you saved, sister?

The closest we might come to talking about it is in a humorous vein. One of my clergy colleagues likes to say, “I believe in Original Sin. The more original the better.” Another tells the story of receiving a certain gift from a member of her congregation: “Wash Away Your Sins” towelettes. The general instructions on the package read:

  1. Carry towelettes with you at all times;
  2. Cleanse thyself before saving others;
  3. Stay alert to sins as they happen;
  4. Approach sinner;
  5. Offer-up a Wash-Away Your Sins towelette;
  6. Remain focused and ready to do-it-again.

We laugh about all that earnest sin and sinner and salvation talk.

And what would Faustus Socinus have to say? How would we explain ourselves?

Fausto_Sozzini

Well, part of the explanation would point to Faustus Socinus’ own theology and that of the long line of successors following him. It’s taught us something about God and something about ourselves: that God’s not a bully waiting for people to mess up so he can swoop in and crush us, and also that all people have inherent worth and dignity. Both insights are things we can’t be untaught. So of course we Unitarian Universalists are not going to be sweating bullets about our mistakes. Of course we are not going to be overly anxious about the eternal state of our souls. Why would we?

I wouldn’t be surprised if the originator of the Wash-Away-Your-Sins towelette idea was one of us.

Faustus Socinus, it’s your fault! (THANK YOU!)

But another part of the explanation must be the distance we’ve traveled in five-hundred years, from a culture that rested in the certainty of one religious vision to our culture which knows many visions and has no collective certainty or common language. Five-hundred years ago, Christendom reigned. Yes, there were varieties of Christianity, but everyone still bowed the knee to Jesus Christ and the Bible. Now, the scene is firmly and thoroughly pluralistic. Many religions are known, and side-by-side with this is 23% of the American population who doesn’t identify with anything. Sociologists call them “nones” (not “n-u-n-s” but “n-o-n-e-s”).

Let me dwell on this last point at length. Once geographical borders were defeated by technologies of travel and communication, all sorts of ideas of salvation came up for grabs, from India and China and elsewhere. All sorts of visions emerged, together with terminologies that are intriguing to our ears. Here are just some of them:

From Hinduism, we learn that salvation is release from samsara, or the seemingly endless round of reincarnations that individual souls experience. Samsara remains firmly in place because of something called karma, which is an impersonal and universal moral law which states: Make a mistake, and you must pay. Karma ties us to earth; and so the way of liberation is to loosen the ties. Do that by pursuing one of the four yogas or spiritual paths; which one depends on your personality type: the path of knowledge, the path of love and devotion, the path of selfless action, and the path of psychophysical exercise.

samsara

For roughly 800 million people, this is salvation.

But now consider Buddhism and its Four Noble Truths teaching: (1) life is suffering, (2) suffering is caused by self-centered craving, (3) the nirvana experience extinguishes self-centered craving and thus suffering, (4) the way to nirvana is the Eightfold Path, which is a middle way between the two extremities of asceticism and hedonism. Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Follow the Eightfold Path, and it will take you into Nirvana.

eighfold path

For roughly 400 million people, this is salvation.

But now consider yet another vision: it comes from Taoism. The Tao in Taoism is the order and harmony of nature, and it is far more stable and enduring than the power of the state or the civilized institutions constructed by human ingenuity. Suffering happens when people are out of sync with the Tao, and life is like swimming upstream; but when we are in sync, all is flow, we flourish, we are effortlessly beautiful, energy (or chi) pulses through us. Taoists call this state of being wu-wei (which means no-action, or action modeled on nature).

tao-simbolottolot

This is salvation, for 20 million people. Actually, for probably hundreds of millions more because the vision of the Jedi Knight that comes from the movie Star Wars echoes the Taoist wu-wei idea. Salvation is when you move through the world like a Jedi master.

This is just a sampling of alternate visions of salvation, coming from religions around the world. And then there are alternate visions coming from closer to home. In 1859 we saw the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Darwin’s thought in itself was complex and he saw room enough for God, but the main impression made on the public was a vision of reality that was stripped of anything supernatural. The purpose of life was survival of the species through procreation and also adaptation to a changing environment. Life is amazing in its diversity, but the struggle for existence is brutal and death is real and final. If salvation is anything, it is about living fully and richly in the here-and-now as well as leaving a generous legacy for future generations. The only immortality is an immortality of influence.

But this is not the only vision we get from science. Even science produces alternate visions. One of the ironic consequences of improved medical technology is a steady increase in reports of near-death experiences. Modern resuscitation techniques have improved to the point where you have increasing numbers of people who’ve been to the brink of death and then come back to tell an amazing story of detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, warmth, the experience of absolute dissolution, and the presence of a light which is intelligent and compassionate and emphasizes that the purpose of life is love and learning. Study after study shows that these near-death experience elements are similar world-wide, irrespective of age, sex, ethnic origin, religion, or degree of religious belief. Studies also show that, following the experience, people go through a transformational process that encompasses life-changing insight, heightened intuition, and disappearance of the fear of death.

NDE

As for explanations of all this? Some scientists bank on purely physiological explanations. Cerebral anoxia, for example. Others, however, argue that these reductionistic explanations do an injustice to all the evidence, and they go on to affirm ideas that were pitched out with Darwin. These scientists are saying that there really is more to existence than our physical, body-focused struggle. That the body is like a TV, and when it is well-functioning, it channels the soul’s signal. When it breaks down, there is nothing, the screen is blank. Of course. But that doesn’t mean there’s no more signal. The signal still persists in a realm of existence too fine for our physical senses to detect. And that realm of existence says: the purpose of life is love and learning.

This is how far we’ve traveled in five-hundred years, since Faustus Socinus. Things like “Wash Away Your Sins” towelettes make us laugh, but for good reason. The singleness of Christendom has disappeared and has been replaced by a manyness of visions. Hinduism tells us that, yes, there’s such a thing as an afterlife but we actually don’t want that. We want to stop reincarnation and, through moksha, lose our unique selfhood and merge with Brahman. Buddhism and Taoism, on the other hand, have a more humanistic focus. Don’t wait for some afterlife to experience salvation. Here and now, learn how enter into the life divine. And then there’s science which, for the most part, has emphasized that humanistic focus; but then it’s also been a surprising source of evidence for a view of reality that echoes more traditional teachings about the afterlife.

Five-hundred years, and this is where we are. And what I want to say this morning is that, as Unitarian Universalists, all this diversity can be an opportunity for us. We can get beyond bewilderment. We can even get beyond the cynicism and apathy that multiple competing visions can lead to, a sense of “what’s the use?,” a sheer lack of caring about our spiritual welfare. What we can do instead, as Unitarian Universalists, is to simply indulge our intellectual curiosity. We take a balcony-view of the diversity—we just step back and look at it all from a larger perspective, and wonder about what we’re seeing.

And what we’ll discover is this. Names will vary (moksha, nirvana, wu-wei, Jesus) and ways will vary (the Four Yogas, the Noble Eightfold Path), but the constant and abiding theme is deliverance from a bad or difficult place and security/protection from harm. Deliverance and security. “Though I walk through the valley of death, You are with me. Your rod and staff, they protect me.” It’s in the 23rd Psalm and it’s everywhere: salvation sustains hopefulness; salvation keeps us fluid and flowing no matter what life brings our way. It’s even in football. It’s the great Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, who said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.”

Salvation is that: what keeps you getting up.

And we need THAT now more than ever. When you have thousands of children in Flint, Michigan suffering from lead poisoning because bureaucrats wanted to save money; when you have United Nations peacekeepers in the Central African Republic raping and sexually exploiting the women and girls that they are supposed to be helping; when you have evil and suffering all up and down the scale (from the personal suffering we hold in our hearts to the collective suffering of a group or a city or a nation or a world or a polluted earth), there is no question about the need for salvation.

“It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.”

As Unitarian Universalists, it’s our privilege to choose the words and ways that energize us to keep on getting up. For some of us, a word like God energizes and brings us into a feeling of a larger life. For others, the word takes all the oxygen out of the room, oxygen that comes right back in when they talk instead of mindfulness meditation, or of the Goddess, or of being in nature. Religiously speaking, some of us are vegetarians; others of us are carnivores; and some are even omnivores. But we all know the sharpness of our spiritual hungers. We all know that. So our responsibility to our spiritual wellbeing is to pay attention to what fills us up and feels good and to partake in that. And, as citizens of a shared Beloved Community, our responsibility is to respect the hungers of others. To know that there’s enough to go around. If a plate comes around and it contains meat and you are a strict vegetarian, don’t fret. It’s your turn next.

And now here is a plate of soul food for you to taste and eat: a salvation story I’m going to end with.

It’s about admiral Jim Stockdale, who was a United States military officer held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War. Stockdale was tortured more than twenty times by his captors, and never had much reason to believe he would survive the prison camp and someday get to see his wife again. But he believed anyway.

ADM_Stockdale

The story comes out in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. In the book Collins and the admiral are taking a walk together, and the admiral says, “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Says Collins, “I didn’t say anything for many minutes, and we continued the slow walk toward the faculty club, Stockdale limping and arc-swinging his stiff leg that had never fully recovered from repeated torture. Finally, after about a hundred meters of silence, I asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

 “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

 “The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

 “The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say,‘ We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

 Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

 That’s the story from admiral Jim Stockdale. Listen to the lesson. Salvation is both works and faith. Discipline to confront brutal facts head on; faith that you will prevail in the end.

Salvation keeps us fluid and flowing, no matter what. “It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up.” This is what Faustus Socinus was saying five hundred years ago, in essence, and we need to keep saying it today.

ARAOMC

Recently I came across a video message by Jamaican writer Marlon James where he talks about the difference between being non-racist and anti-racist. It’s magnificent and worth hearing in its entirety. But it’s also pointed and might bring up some difficult feelings. Please allow those feelings to be, and as far as possible, just stay with this message, stay with me during this sermon step by step and to the very end.

Several months ago [he writes] in response to Ferguson, Baltimore, the killings of Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice, my friend Caitlyn put up a Facebook post breaking down the difference between non-racism and anti-racism. Most of us are non-racist. Because racism is looked upon as some moral lapse, we feel quite self-assured by simply not being racist. ‘I’m not a bigot. I don’t sing that ’N’ word when my favorite rap jam comes on. I didn’t vote for that guy. I’m not burning any crosses. I’m not a skinhead.’

‘I don’t. I won’t. I’m not. I’ve never. I can’t.’

What you end up with is an entire moral stance, an entire code for living your life and dealing with all the injustice in the world by not doing a damn thing. That’s the great thing about “non-”: you can put it off by simply rolling over in your bed and going to sleep.

So why are you sitting at home and watching things unfold on TV instead of doing something about it? Because you’re a non-racist, not an anti-racist.

Now, do this for me: take the “c” out of racist and replace it with a “p”. ‘I’m not a rapist. I’m not friends with any rapist. I didn’t buy that rapist’s last album.’ All these things that you’re not doing.

Meanwhile, people are still getting raped, and black boys are being killed. It’s not enough that you don’t do these things. Your going to bed with a clear conscience is not going to stop college students from getting assaulted. You thinking climate change is terrible is not going to stop climate change. You being so assured that you’re not anti-Black, anti-Muslim, won’t stop the next hate crime. And it’s wonderful that you recognize how brave gay people are when they’re facing persecution. But they aren’t the ones who need to be brave. We need to get active. We need to hold people accountable. We need to accept that what hurts one of us hurts all of us. And we need to stop thinking that injustice going on in the world isn’t to an extent our fault.

We need to stop being “non-” and start being “anti-”.

This is what anti-racism, anti-oppression, multi-culturalism is all about. ARAOMC, for short. It’s not that UUCA is doing nothing. Far from that. But it’s one thing to be accidental and casual in our approach (where we waver between moments of non-racism and anti-racism) and another thing to be intentional and systematic and focused. Where the proposed Congregational Resolution says, “BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that UUCA specifically commits to…”—that’s where a more intentional and systematic approach is described, in detail.

We need to stop being “non-” and start being “anti-”.

white priviledge

And the need is a legitimate one. That’s the main thing I want to say today. The need is authentic. It grows out of our identity as a Beloved Community. It grows out of:

WE ARE

WE ARE MAJORITY WHITE

WE ARE MAJORITY WHITE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS

WE ARE MAJORITY WHITE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS WHO WANT TO BE BRIGHTER!

Each of those lines of WE ARE is a powerful reason for taking a stand.

WE ARE: by that I mean we are a religious organization. Now some people will stop me right there and say, Yes, that IS what we are, Mr. Senior Minister Man, therefore why are you bringing up such difficult and painful stuff in our midst? After all, life out there is brutal and what I need on Sunday morning is relief from all that, I need distraction, I need chicken soup for the soul. So don’t bring up politics! Don’t mention he who must not be named! Don’t bring the strife and struggle that’s out there in here! Don’t do it!

And absolutely, there are times when we need our congregations to comfort the afflicted and provide spaces where we can just feel safe. But to envision a congregation as responsible for doing just that and only that is simply untrue to the church’s grander purpose of equipping people for life. I like to see church as a place where we aspire to model the kinds of behaviors we want to see in our relationships, in our places of work, in our political processes, and elsewhere. We’re trying to be Beloved Community so we can take that love and increase it, extend it.

Congregations are not hermetically sealed-off from the larger world. Problems in the larger world are going to be problems here. Any and all of those problems, including problems of prejudice and white supremacy bias that’s of course unconscious but it doesn’t make it any less real. We congregants didn’t start that fire. But if, here, we can ourselves be transformed as we work in it, if we can increase awareness and learn solutions, it means that our church matters. It’s doing its job of changing lives.

WE ARE. One reason for taking a stand.

Another is: WE ARE MAJORITY WHITE.

Now once again, I could be stopped right there. If we’re majority white, why do we have to talk about race?

It’s a question that a colleague of mine in the United Church of Christ fielded recently. The United Church of Christ has a membership that is 87% white, close to where we are as a faith community. And as for the Rev. Dominique C. Atchison’s answer: I’ll bet you can guess. But listen to her reasons why.

First of all, unless white people affirm that whiteness is a race like any other—unless they talk about it, wonder about it, appreciate it, trouble it—then the tendency to see whiteness as standard or default stays entrenched. That’s the white supremacy problem we’re trying to fight. Comedian Louis C. K. hits the nail on the head: “I read something in the paper,” he says, “that really confused me the other day. It said that 80 percent of the people in New York are minorities… Shouldn’t you not call them minorities when they get to be 80 percent of the population? That’s a very white attitude, don’t you think? I mean, you could take a white guy to Africa and he’d be like ‘Look at all the minorities around here! I’m the only majority.’”

The second reason is this: how whites have a special role in dealing with other whites. Rev. Atchison writes, “some of the white supremacy that still plagues our culture can only be defeated by the work and commitment of progressive white people. We have been watching Donald Trump,” she says, “gain traction as a candidate for presidency by spewing racist, sexist and ableist rhetoric. His words seem to be appealing to a segment of mostly white Americans who feel offended and somehow suppressed by movements for justice and equality. While their mob-like presence is frightening to people of color, I believe it is also scary and disheartening for most white people. And there is only so much we can do as people of color when it comes to stopping this sort of hate speech and behavior. The hands-on work of dismantling this level of hatred falls upon white people who remember history, who see the danger and want to see an end.”

That’s the Rev. Atchison. So good. And let’s take a moment with her comment about white Americans feeling offended or suppressed by movements for justice and equality. Working with such feelings is central. I turned a small corner in my own mind the other day when someone questioned some language I was using, and at first I went to a place of feeling offended and inside I could hear myself shouting PC! PC! But then I realized how I HATE it when I introduce myself to another person as Anthony Makar and the person goes, “Nice to meet you, Tony.” But who gave them power to name me, against my very own wishes? If I wanted to be called Tony, I’d have introduced myself like that. How dare they presume to have that power? But what would happen, do you suppose, if I were to be bluntly honest with this presumptuous person and let him know how used I felt. What would he feel? I’ll bet offended. I am just asserting my right to name myself, but he thinks I’m taking things too far…. He thinks I’m being kind of PC.

Point is, significant work happens when white folks get inside the feeling of being offended and can see it for what it really is: what it feels like for others to be claiming their rightful power. Less privileged people simply catching up, the playing field leveled. This is not a bad thing. Therefore white folks must reframe the feeling. Don’t allow it to fester into resentment, or guilt. Instead, channel it into curiosity. Someone has come before you, and they are wholly themselves. See them with new eyes. See them as beings with the power to name themselves.

WE ARE MAJORITY WHITE in no way excuses us from facing the ARAOMAC challenge and becoming fully anti-racist. No. It’s just yet another compelling reason for taking a stand.

But perhaps the biggest is this one: WE ARE MAJORITY WHITE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS. ARAOMAC flows out of our religious nature.

Part of it has to do with freedom. How we are a freedom people. 2000 years ago, our people didn’t believe that Jesus was God; they believed in a direct free connection without any intermediary. 1500 years ago, our people didn’t believe that church traditions were equivalent with God; they believed that the freedom way to the Source was the Bible alone. 200 years ago, our people didn’t believe that Christianity with its Bible was the only way to the Sacred; they believed that the freedom way to truth could be found in all the religions of the world. And now, right now, we are saying that white culture is not the only form of freedom through which to reach out and touch God; there are lots of other cultural ways to reach out and touch God, too.

I’ve spoken of this before, but now here is something else you need to know about Unitarian Universalism’s essence. That what it means to be religiously liberal—which is what we are—is to be in active engagement with the culture around us. As theologian Paul Rasor says, “Liberal theology starts with the premise that religion should be oriented toward the present, taking fully into account modern knowledge and experience. As a result,“ he continues, “Unitarian Universalists and other liberals are not likely to feel their faith threatened by new scientific discoveries, for example. Rather than resist new developments, liberals tend to embrace them and incorporate them into their religious worldviews. This is how religious liberals have sought to keep their religious commitments culturally relevant and intellectually credible.” It means that as America becomes more multicultural, so must we. It’s what a Unitarian Universalist would do. WWUUD. A pluralism not just of the head, but of the heart.

WE ARE

WE ARE MAJORITY WHITE

WE ARE MAJORITY WHITE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS

And finally….

WE ARE MAJORITY WHITE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS WHO WANT TO BE BRIGHTER!

This last reason is so cool. From researchers Sheen S. Levine and David Stark comes the finding that “Diversity improves the way people think. By disrupting conformity, racial and ethnic diversity prompts people to scrutinize facts, think more deeply and develop their own opinions.” Here’s the story, from The New York Times:

“To study the effects of ethnic and racial diversity,” say researchers Levine and Stark, “we conducted a series of experiments in which participants competed in groups to find accurate answers to problems. In a situation much like a classroom, we started by presenting each participant individually with information and a task: to calculate accurate prices for simulated stocks. First, we collected individual answers, and then (to see how committed participants were to their answers), we let them buy and sell those stocks to the others, using real money. Participants got to keep any profit they made.

“We assigned each participant to a group that was either homogeneous or diverse (meaning that it included at least one participant of another ethnicity or race). To ascertain that we were measuring the effects of diversity, not culture or history, we examined a variety of ethnic and racial groups. In Texas, we included the expected mix of whites, Latinos and African-Americans. In Singapore, we studied people who were Chinese, Indian and Malay. […]

“The findings were striking. When participants were in diverse company, their answers were 58 percent more accurate. The prices they chose were much closer to the true values of the stocks. As they spent time interacting in diverse groups, their performance improved.

“In homogeneous groups, whether in the United States or in Asia, the opposite happened. When surrounded by others of the same ethnicity or race, participants were more likely to copy others, in the wrong direction. Mistakes spread as participants seemingly put undue trust in others’ answers, mindlessly imitating them. In the diverse groups, across ethnicities and locales, participants were more likely to distinguish between wrong and accurate answers. Diversity brought cognitive friction that enhanced deliberation.

The researchers concluded: “When surrounded by people “like ourselves,” we are easily influenced, more likely to fall for wrong ideas. Diversity prompts better, critical thinking. It contributes to error detection. It keeps us from drifting toward miscalculation.”

What do you think about that?

Someone was telling me that he and a friend were just alike, which on the one hand is great. But on the other, in their alikeness it’s as if they’re both looking right, which means they won’t notice the bus that’s coming at them from the left.

Not everyone is comfortable with anti-based language. They want a more positive vision. Anti-racism and anti-oppression, yes, but tell me more about multiculturalism. Tell me more about that vision.

And we have one:

WE ARE MAJORITY WHITE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS WHO WANT TO BE BRIGHTER!
MEANING: WE ARE GOING BEYOND A MAJORITY WHITE WE
TO A WE
THAT’S MULTICOLORED AND DIVERSE AND EXTRAORDINARY
AND NO MATTER WHO YOU ARE,
YOU GET TO BE A PART OF THAT WE,
AND THAT WE FEELS LIKE HOME.

So many good reasons for entering in to the Taking a Stand journey. Yes, risks as well. Everybody loves Dr. King now for taking a stand, but back when he actually did it? Not so much. We risk opening ourselves to that. We risk problems, misunderstandings, complications, snags.

But let the good reasons carry us forward. Let’s get into this thing. Let’s get carried away.

Let us listen to what needs to be said in a spirit of compassion,
let us dry the tears of those who are weeping.
Let us not be skeptical that renewal can come,
that we will see things in this space we have never seen before.
I charge us:
Let us not forget to be grateful.
Let us do our best to stir in each other hope, courage and faith.

**

Nancy and Candi, I’m wondering if you will come down and show us the banner right now.

This is our Black Lives Matter banner, which will accompany me and all who will march with me in tomorrow’s Dr. King parade. I will plainly say that it’s on me that we are marching with this banner. Under this banner, we march unofficially, because only the congregation through a democratic process can authorize statements made in its name.

But I hope for a time when posting a banner like this on our building, making it a 100% official statement of this institution, will be something we can just do, because we have taken an official congregational stand. Because we know who we are.

That’s just it. WHO WE ARE. That’s what the whole thing boils down to.

ARAOMC isn’t the name for some exotic food, or a word from a foreign tongue. ARAOMC is what happens when we are just more deeply who we are.

The Prophetic Environmentalism of Rachel Carson

This past December, thousands of delegates—representatives of 195 nations, including our President, Barack Obama—erupted in cheers and ovations. They had just accomplished a historic breakthrough on an issue central to nothing less than the survival of the human race—an issue that had foiled decades of international efforts. The issue of climate change. Ensuring a livable planet for future generations. Every country on the face of the earth, committed to lowering greenhouse gas emissions to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change. Beginning the great transformation towards sustainability.

The Paris Accords put us on this path.

And you know what? There was near-silence among Republican candidates in response.

But we’ve heard them on this issue before, together with other climate change deniers who are in cahoots with the fossil fuels lobby, the Koch brothers, industry advocates and libertarian think tanks.

When President Obama, in his 2015 State of the Union address, said that no issue poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee shot back with this pearl of wisdom: “A beheading is a far greater threat to an American than a sunburn.” Sometime later he would tweet that what America needs is “a commander-in-chief NOT a meteorologist-in-chief.”

Then there’s Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who described climate change as “the perfect pseudoscientific theory for a big-government politician who wants more power.”

And don’t let us forget the Donald. He thinks climate change was invented by the Chinese to hurt American manufacturing.

This is our present moment. The joy of the Paris Accords and President Obama’s leadership—together with Pope Francis and others. The woe of the willful spread of ignorance similar to what we saw with tobacco manufacturers who kept on insisting that smoking was fine even as they were well aware of what the science showed. Joy and woe woven finely in our present moment…

Which makes this moment precisely the time to recall history. History is uniquely suited to help us appreciate how far we’ve actually come and to give us strength to face what’s ahead. I can’t think of any story more inspiring than that of environmental scientist Rachel Carson and her book Silent Spring, published in 1962. Let’s take a look and be encouraged in our affirmation of our Unitarian Universalist 7th Principle of the Interdependent Web of All Existence, Of Which We are a Part.

rachel carson

Let’s begin by just allowing some of the powerful language of Silent Spring to wash over us. Rachel Carson writes:

These sprays, dusts, and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests, and homes — nonselective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the “good” and the “bad,” to still the song of birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film, and to linger on in soil — all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects. Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called “insecticides,” but “biocides.”

Rachel Carson writes:

For each of us, as for the robin in Michigan or the Salmon in the Miramichi, this is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence. We poison the caddis flies in a stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die. We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become its victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm leaf-earthworm-robin cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life — or death — that scientists know as ecology.

Rachel Carson’s prophetic environmentalism addressed the wholesale and indiscriminate use of chemicals aimed at pest and disease control, like DDT—the detrimental effects reaching far beyond the intended targets, particularly on birds whose song is silenced and thus one can reasonably imagine a nightmare springtime in which no birds sing, there is just silence, silent spring….

The book exemplified the best in science writing: explanations that ordinary readers could understand, claims grounded in meticulous research that is (from a rational standpoint) unimpeachable, and, always, language that soars.

It was a disaster for the chemical industry. To mention one company, Monsanto: it earned $10 million from DDT sales in 1940, but by 1950 those sales had reached $100 million, and the sky was the limit. Rachel Carson threatened all of that. The industry wasn’t going to take it sitting down. It—and its crony scientists—came after her from all sides. Some targeted the fact she was a woman and this somehow disqualified her from doing legitimate science. She’s a “bunny hugger,” a bleeding-heart sentimentalist prone to “hysteria.” She’s a “fanatical defender of the cult of the balance of nature.”

Other attacks portrayed her as anti-progress and anti-American. One chemical industry scientist, Robert White Stevens, wrote, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” The general counsel for another chemical company suggested that Carson was a front for “sinister influences” intent on restricting pesticide use in order to reduce American food supplies to the levels of the Eastern bloc. A former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture was quoted as saying that because she was unmarried despite being physically attractive, she was “probably a Communist.”

At one point, the chemical industry commissioned a book called A Desolate Year, which imagined the horrors of life without chemicals (which is something Rachel Carson never called for). In other words, on top of smearing her gender, her patriotism, and her credibility, the chemical industry counter-attack also spread outright lies and misinformation….

Now, to be fair, this chemical industry bombast was not purely a matter of wanting to preserve profit margins. It wasn’t just sheer cynicism at work. To be fair, we can also say that it expressed the genuine shock of folks who lived in a 1950s’ kind of world who were hearing something completely new. Author Margaret Atwood puts it like this: “It was like being told that orange juice – then being proclaimed as the sunshine key to ultra-health – was actually poisoning you.” She says, “The general public believed the pitch: the stuff [DDT] was safe for people, unless you drank it. One of the delights of our 40s childhood was to be allowed to wield the Flit gun – a spray pump with a barrel containing a DDT preparation that did indeed slay any insect you sprayed with it. We kids breathed in clouds of it as we stalked around assassinating houseflies and squirting each other for a joke.” Atwood goes on to say, “Such carefree attitudes towards the new chemicals were common throughout the next decade. When I worked as a camp counsellor in the late 50s, the premises were routinely fogged for mosquitoes, as were campgrounds and whole towns in many parts of the world. After the fogging, rabbits would appear, running around in circles, jerking spasmodically, then falling over. Might it be the pesticides? Surely not.”

DDT Spray

It was a 1950s’ kind of world. People generally trusted institutions like the government and industry. The American way of life was, without question, good and right. Scientists in their white coats were creating new technologies and new innovations and it was always progress, it was always the opposite of ignorance and superstition, it was always good. So—who did Rachel Carson think she was, impugning the reputation of the chemical industry which was one of those institutions that people with their 1950s mindset just trusted? How dare she? And how dare she criticize the technological progress that was “better living through chemistry?”

But above all, the 1950s mindset saw nature as a thing to be used as humanity saw fit. It did not matter what writers like Henry David Thoreau said to the contrary; their vision was way woo woo for the 1950s. Nature was to be tamed, subdued, exploited—and even as this might create ugliness and chaos, well, that ugliness and chaos stays out there. The human realm is a higher order realm, set apart, and we can breathe in clouds of DDT as much as we want and we are going to be just fine. So—what’s with Rachel Carson and all the talk about ecology, interrelationships, interdependence?

“It was like being told that orange juice … was actually poisoning you.” The message of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was as shocking and as powerful as anything the old Hebrew prophets might have preached.

But the message was received—despite the chemical industry’s blunt force counterattack. People heard her. The media picked it up. Public pressure forced Congress to review pesticide use. Congressional and White House studies confirmed Rachel Carson’s findings. Tragically, soon after Silent Spring came out, she died of cancer. But her legacy kept on. Her vision of the interdependent web of all existence became contagious; for increasing numbers of people the paradigm shifted and you couldn’t go back to that old mindset according to which nature is over there and you are here. We are knit together, we are indivisible, we are one.

The vision took institutional form, for the sake of getting things done. In 1967, the Environmental Defense Fund formed, in reaction to the DDT problem. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency began operations, and we had our first ever Earth Day. In 1972, DDT was banned and a Clean Water Act was passed. In 1973, the Endangered Species Act was passed. When people talk about the modern environmental movement, this is it. And Rachel Carson started it.

Once, naturalist Sir David Attenborough was asked which book, other than the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, had changed the scientific world the most. His answer was Silent Spring.

Then there’s a cartoon from the 1960s, portraying a praying mantis with its front legs folded up, praying, saying “God bless momma and poppa…and Rachel Carson!”

I would even argue that without her, we don’t have our Seventh Principle of the Interdependent Web of All Existence. I’ve always been curious why it took so long for UUs to take a corporate stand on the issue, which we did at a General Assembly in 1984. I think it’s because, in the early 1960s, when we adopted the Six Principles, we were not unaffected by the 1950s mindset and the environment had not yet become the priority that it is now. But Rachel Carson changed everything. Her spirit is in our 7th Principle words. Her spirit lives on.

7th Principle

And now our calling is to carry this spirit forward. She once wrote, “The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind — that, and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done.” This is our legacy too. The environmental movement needs to keep moving, through Paris but past Paris and beyond.

In our day and time, part of that has to do with seeing climate change denial and post-truth politics as a kind of DDT pesticide in its own right. The effects of denial and misinformation pollute our information environment as much as real DDT does to the physical environment. When Ted Cruz says that climate change is a “perfect pseudoscientific theory for a big-government politician who wants more power,” and a lie like that goes unchecked, it pollutes innocent minds, minds who take up the cause. “Like the constant dripping of water that in turn wears away the hardest stone,” says Rachel Carson, “this birth-to death contact with dangerous chemicals may in the end prove disastrous…. No person is immune to contact with this spreading contamination.”

I call for a return to truth. No more post-truth. Did you know that in 1994, when Newt Gingrich was elected Speaker of the House, one of his first acts was to get rid of the highly professional, nonpartisan Office of Technology Assessment, which housed Congress’ scientists whose job it was to inform lawmakers and adjudicate differences based on scientific fact and data? Norm Ornstein talks about this in his recent article in The Atlantic, entitled “The Eight Causes of Trumpism.” He writes, “The elimination of OTA was the death knell for nonpartisan respect for science in the political arena, both changing the debate and discourse on issues like climate change, and also helping [bring] in the contemporary era of “truthiness,” in which repeated assertion trumps facts.”

These days, environmentalism can’t forget that information is a part of the environment too, and when we pollute it and pollute it and pollute it, it’s a nightmare springtime where no birds sing, it’s silent as death…. We must fight to keep it clean. We must find ways to hold people accountable for what they say.

The environmental movement needs to keep moving.

It moves through our own personal commitments to live sustainably. It moves through collective commitments to live sustainably.

And it moves through continued hopefulness.

Silent Spring teaches us that it’s not too late. By the time that book came out, the dispersal of pesticide through ecosystems was far and wide. Bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and other bird populations were driven to the brink of extinction. No one could be sure if any degree of action would make things better. But people acted anyway. Regulations were put into place. Resolve led to innovation. New breeding methods were pioneered. “In the mid-1960s,” says National Geographic, “fewer than 500 nesting pairs of bald eagles existed in the continental U.S.; today, thanks to the DDT ban and other conservation efforts, some 10,000 pairs of bald eagles inhabit the Lower 48—that’s a 20-fold population increase in just four decades!”

No matter how desperate things seem, it’s not too late.

Like the praying mantis says: “God bless momma and poppa…and Rachel Carson!”

the web

Mystery, Mystery, Love is a Mystery

Mary Oliver is a poet who is well known by Unitarian Universalists for her focus on nature: very often, on its quiet occurrences: industrious hummingbirds, motionless ponds, “lean owls / hunkering with their lamp-eyes.” But just recently, she has come out with a new collection of poems, entitled Felicity, and the subject is one that she has rarely explored in her other books, but here, it’s given the full treatment: love. “I know someone,” she writes,

 

… who kisses the way

a flower opens, but more rapidly.

Flowers are sweet. They have

short, beatific lives. They offer

much pleasure. There is

nothing in the world that can be said

against them.

Sad, isn’t it, that all they can kiss

is the air.

 

Yes, yes! We are the lucky ones.

flowers-3

 

In another poem, she writes:

 

Not anyone who says, “I’m going to be

careful and smart in matters of love,”

who says, “I’m going to choose slowly,”

but only those lovers who didn’t choose at all

but were, as it were, chosen

by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable

and beautiful and possibly even

unsuitable—

only those know what I’m talking about

in this talking about love.

 

Love is a Mystery, one of the greatest of our lives. We can talk about it, but no amount of talk can take you into the experience of it, in the same way that talk about water will never quench your thirst. And yet we want to talk about it, we want to write poems about it, because it is a Great Mystery whose existence gives us hope and we want to hold that close to our hearts.

 

“When someone loves you,” says Billy, age 4, “the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.”

 

“When my grandmother got arthritis, “says Rebecca, age 8, “she couldn’t bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That’s love.”

 

And then there’s Jessica, age 9. “You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you do mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.”

 

And that’s right. People do forget. So today, we want to remember.

 

However, a sermon that tries to remember fully the fullness of love never ends, there are never enough words, so, with everything going on in our nation and world right now, I want to touch on the curious comment that Mary Oliver makes when she speaks of lovers

 

chosen

by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable

and beautiful and possibly even

unsuitable—

 

In other words, love as a force of transgression. Love which flows wherever it wills and does not respect what society says about who should be with whom. Love which is essentially free and essentially queer and crosses borders of race and class and ethnicity and ability and politics and doesn’t care what your particular set of plumbing happens to be. Love that has political ramifications.

 

William Shakespeare spoke of this in his play Romeo and Juliet:

 

Two households, both alike in dignity

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows

Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.

o-ROMEO-AND-JULIET-facebook

 

Romeo is the son of Montague, Juliet is the daughter of Capulet, and since the two houses are at war with each other, it is completely and utterly unsuitable for Romeo and Juliet to kiss each other the way flowers kiss, but they do, they are “star-cross’d,” they are chosen.

 

And yes, it is terrible to think of the tragedy of their death, but we cannot forget two things here: one is their love’s political legacy: the parent’s strife dissolved, strife that had seemed completely justifiable and completely permanent but no, it was just temporary foolishness. The other thing to remember is that when people are chosen by the sort of love that unites things the world says ought to stay separate, often the result is not tragedy but comedy. In the realm of Shakespeare, this means not Romeo and Juliet but A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this very different play, frustrated people go away from the city into the forest and there, fairy power hilariously confuses everything, and exactly because of that, the initial frustrations are resolved, the right people find each other, and it’s not death but a wedding that closes the action out.

 

Two things to know: transgressive love can but need not end in tragedy. And, by uniting things that “ought” to stay separated, love becomes a political power for healing.

 

So, imagine something with me. Republican and Democrat are a current version of Montague vs. Capulet. So what if two of today’s powerfully partisan pundits happened to be

 

chosen

by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable

and beautiful and possibly even

unsuitable….

 

Say, Ann Coulter and Rachel Maddow. United by the power of Romeo-and-Juliet love. What would that look like? I mean, the partisan mindset is practically impenetrable by reason. Just consider the nature of Congress during the Obama years. It’s like the Republicans and Democrats live in completely different universes (exemplified by the recent Senate vote to reject a ban on selling guns to people on the terrorist watch list, and Democrats go HUH?????) But, what if key standard bearers from opposite camps came together through Romeo-and-Juliet love? How would what they preach change?

 

What if it was Rush Limbaugh and Oprah Winfrey? Oprah feeling deeply that her name is safe in Rush’s mouth, because it’s true love?

 

You bet I’m being silly. But I’m also calling us to honor the Mystery of love, which cannot be controlled and goes where it will and brings together the kinds of things that the world says should stay separate and apart. I’m also calling us to expand our imagination about what’s possible. When things are feeling fatally stuck, and nothing that’s in our control seems to make any difference, that doesn’t mean the Mystery is out of tricks.

 

Love cannot be controlled, but it can be invited. This is something that psychologist Arthur Aron has shown through his research. Essentially, it goes like this: Two strangers meeting for the first time sit face to face and answer a series of increasingly personal questions—36 of them to be more precise. Then they stare silently into each other’s eyes for four minutes. This was a real study, and six months later, the two participants got married. They invited Dr. Aron’s entire lab to the celebration.

 

Now hold on to this, as we bring to mind yet another current version of Montague and Capulet: Fearmongers like Donald Trump, and the Islamic State (or ISIS and ISIL, or Daesh). What’s particularly tragic about this set up is who’s caught in the middle: Muslims and Syrian refugees. Muslims and Syrian refugees who are targets of the foulest hatred. I have heard and seen terrible terrible things, and maybe you too. Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore (Republican)–calling for her state to bar refugees from Syria and saying that she is ready to travel to Paris to shoot Syrian refugees herself. “I’m OK with putting them down, blacking them out, just put a piece of brass in their ocular cavity and end their miserable life. I’m good with that.” That’s what she said.

 

But what if Fiore and Trump and all those crazies actually sat down with a Muslim or a Syrian refugee and asked Dr. Aron’s 36 questions and then just gazed in their eyes for 4 minutes. What then?

 

I’ll never forget a meeting which gathered folks concerned by yet another Capulet-Montague feud, namely Palestinians vs. Israelites. A man talked about the good work he was doing. He would invite individual Palestinians and Israelites to his home for a shared meal, and the only thing he asked is for folks to bring pictures of their families and where they lived. Dinner was just about getting to know eachother as human beings, and while explicit political conversation was absent, love was growing in the room and therefore the dinner WAS political, it was a force for social change, it was a force for breaking down partisanship and uniting hearts and minds.

 

Love is bigger than sex. Love is bigger than romance. Love is a sacred Mystery. Love can succeed when all our rational, calculated efforts fail.

 

A long time ago, a man whose very birth was rumored to have been the result of unsuitable and inappropriate love—although others have tried very hard to sweep it under the rug and reframe it as a miraculous “Virgin birth”—once spoke of the kind of love which unites things that the world wants to keep apart. It’s recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke in the Christian scriptures. Jesus is comparing what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed. From small beginnings, it grows into something big and it grows all over. That’s pretty much what we get from the parable, and on the surface this sounds rather uninteresting. But when you are reading scripture, please, don’t stay on the surface. Dig a little deeper. If you do that and understand more of Jesus’ historical context, you’ll learn that the people he was talking to were oppressed peasants, and they wanted Jesus to compare the kingdom to something more bold, something more triumphant, something that would represent the complete destruction of the Romans and the advent of their long-awaited social and political freedom. But Jesus didn’t give them that. He gave them a mustard plant, low-lying, scrubby, weedy.

 

Jaws dropped when he said it, also because Jewish religious law dictated that the mustard plant was unclean. Jewish gardens of the time followed the religious injunction that different kinds of plants should never mix and need to stay separate from each other. But you know what would happen if a mustard plant got in there? It would grow and spread like a wild weed, mix itself up into everything, become the thing in common that all the different plants would share. Jewish religious law didn’t like mustard seeds. Too bad, said Jesus. Mustard seeds reveal how the Kingdom of Heaven works. It’s a love which overcomes all differences, a love which reconciles all who are separated, a love which is always already here and now among us, a power just waiting to be recognized in this very moment!

 

Unitarian Universalists, let’s get out there and throw mustard seed all over the place. We aren’t necessarily talking instant change, bold and triumphant. Just mix things up that usually stay separate. Just one example: really get to know someone who is Muslim. Look them in the eye, and be seen by them in turn. Share a meal. Share pictures. Let transgressive love move in your life. Doesn’t have to be about sex and romance. But it will be about the garden of your life becoming less ordered and more rich. It will be about feeling that your name is safe in another’s mouth.

 

I have been in despair recently. These past several weeks have been so troubling. Paris; the Planned Parenthood shooting; the San Bernardino shooting; the inane and cruel things that have been said about Syrian refugees and Muslims; the racist thing said by a Supreme Court Justice about the ability of African Americans to succeed in higher education—his thought that they should attend “less advanced schools”–; and then this factoid: no less than 35% of Republicans say that Donald Trump is their man.

 

These are worrisome times.

 

But something that Bill Clinton once said has been helping me. He said, “Follow the trend lines not the headlines.” The headlines are one thing, minutely sensitive to extremes. But the trendlines track a more enduring reality and tell us where things are really going.

 

Follow the trendlines. And what I know is that, in the largest scheme of things, the trend line is love. Mustard seed love spreads and grows like a wild weed. Romeo-and-Juliet-love happens and the ancient grudge between Montague and Capulet crumbles.

 

Love happens, and it is a Great Mystery.

 

Yes, yes! We are the lucky ones.

Explorations into Mystery

This sermon is a dialogue between Rev. Rogers and Rev. Makar

Rev. Jonathan Rogers:

I beat Rev. Makar in a game of table tennis this week, so I get to go first…it only took me three tries!

Someone asked me this year as I was getting ready to step into my new role as Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth: Why is UU RE important to you? My answer is very simple: I would not be who I am without having grown up as a participant in a UU RE program. A serious commitment to system-ically improving the lives of others and a sense of playful levity are both essential to who I am. I can-not live without both “saving and savoring the world”, as you put it in a sermon last year. Those are really hard truths to persistently, simultaneously hang onto. Our UU congregations are the only places I have found in my life to consistently honor both of those aspects of who I am, while continuing to meet new folks and share this journey with them. Without having the experience of children’s and youth RE in a UU congregation from 1992 to 2003, I don’t know where I would have developed these two crucial strands of my identity.

So, when I contemplate the opportunity to create Religious Exploration programs for our children and youth where they can become who they are, that is a profound and meaningful responsibility for me. Knowing what UU RE meant to me growing up makes me want to do everything that I can to pass along to the next generation the gifts that I received, and to help our congregation to do everything we possibly can together to pass along those gifts. Even when that means risk, change, hard work and the emotional discomfort that accompanies major change.

One of the great privileges for me this year as associate minister has been seeing the spark in your eyes as we have discussed the opportunities for improving UUCA’s Lifespan Religious Exploration programs. I am curious where that spark comes from for you? What in your life has made it feel like Religious Exploration is important?

Rev. Anthony Makar:

When I was six years old, my favorite books in all the world were part of a series called How and Why. I still have some of them. The Wonder Book of Dinosaurs. The Wonder Book of Stars. The Wonder Book of Weather. All were things that aroused curiosity in me, because they were at once obscure and fascinating. They were mysteries. The Wonder Book of Sea Shells. The Wonder Book of Insects. The Wonder Book of Rockets and Missiles.

stransw01

I confess that I was too impatient to actually read the words–or at least many of the words. I wanted to drink the knowledge in. Which in my case amounted to looking at the pictures–drinking those in. The picture of Triceratops and his three enormous horns, together with the bony shield protecting his head, neck and shoulders. A picture of the Earth positioned in front of the yellow burning Sun, so as to illustrate their comparative sizes. The Earth flea-sized, the Sun impossibly giant….

I felt alive reading those How and Why Wonder books—that’s what I’m really trying to say. Filled with life. My imagination fired.

That’s where the spark in my eye comes from when I think of Religious Exploration and what’s possi-ble through it, for all ages and everyone. Together with hearing stories like yours, Jonathan. Our backgrounds are different. In the religious community I grew up in, I was taught that God loved me but he was also just waiting for an excuse to toss my soul into eternal hellfire and damnation—and in this way, the church of my youth simply recreated my home, where my mother (with her borderline personality) loved me and hated me with maddening unpredictability and I could never know when it would be heaven and when it would be hell.

So I wonder what it would have been like to be six or seven or eight and grow up in a church commu-nity that wasn’t a love/hate place but just all love. To grow up learning that religion and How and Why Wonder books go together like peanut butter and jelly….

You bet, I have a spark in my eye!

But now, tell me about your philosophy of children’s religious exploration….

Rev. Jonathan Rogers:

My philosophy of children’s Religious Exploration is that from the earliest times they are able to un-derstand, we teach them our values of sharing, acceptance, love, creativity, and compassion. We do it in age-appropriate ways because we know we have to meet folks where they are. I have always felt like I was loved, to a degree that sometimes seems bizarre for those around me. I think a big part of the reason it has been natural for me to feel loved is that from an early elementary age I was part of a congregational community where I was persistently encouraged and affirmed. I was corrected a lot, too, because that was definitely necessary! But I always knew that I was loved, and that I could go there to be with friends of all ages.

We want this congregation to be a place where children and youth make friends, but not ONLY make friends. It ought to also be somewhere they grow and lead. I believe that the meaning of being human is to participate in the dialectical process of God getting to know God’s self; there is no other time in our lives that embodies this holy, burgeoning self-awareness than adolescence! I think that is the most sacred time in our lives and that we ought to be finding AS MANY WAYS as possible to include teenagers in the life and work and leadership of the congregation.

And it’s not like that process ever ends… in adulthood we are still very much in the act of becoming. Often it is when things change or break down that we are suddenly most open to the process of be-coming. That is why we have linked the Lifespan RE and Pastoral Care programs under the respon-sibility of one minister. That will be a place from which to grow in this congregation. So, that is my philosophy of Religious Exploration; how do you approach this work philosophically?

Rev. Anthony Makar:

There’s an old Hasidic story where a disciple asks the rebbe, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words IN our hearts?” The rebbe answers: “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”

Yes, when life changes or things break down, we are opened up to the next phase of our becoming. This is for sure a part of my philosophy of Religious Exploration too.

Another part has to do with the conviction that there is a natural hunger in the human psyche for ex-periences of deep connection and meaning. Our brains are hardwired to seek out intimacy and ulti-macy. William Ellery Channing spoke of our “Likeness to God”: Ralph Waldo Emerson borrowed from the Quakers when he invoked the image of the “inner light.” That’s what they’re talking about. This big spiritual hunger we’re born with.

And single experiences of satisfaction are never enough. If you are physically hungry to the point of hangry, sure, a big meal will fill you up. But you’re guaranteed to get hungry again. Same thing goes with spiritual hunger. We always want more. It’s big.

Now, in itself this big hunger is neutral, which leads to a very important point: It can be shaped to serve good ends or bad ones. There is nothing in the desire to seek out intimacy and ultimacy itself that prevents it from being linked to unworthy ends. Racism has its own definition of intimacy and ul-timacy; and so does fascism, so does militarism, so does sexism, so do all the other kinds of –isms, and the ultimate result is you have someone who murders innocent people for God instead of being the sort of peace that God really is. Instead of Dr. Martin Luther King, you have the Christian terrorist and Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Lewis Dear.

We must very carefully tend to the spiritual hungers we are all born with. We don’t have a choice in this. The hungers are just there, hardwired in. And they’re BIG. They can be destructive if not culti-vated carefully and directed to serve the ends of love and justice.

That’s why we exist, why Unitarian Universalism exists. We protest against anything that twists peo-ple’s natural spiritual hungers and makes them serve unworthy ends. We profess religious values and engage people in ways that aim to put all that spiritual power to better use, to beautiful use.

We protest and we profess. Religious Exploration is a key part of this.

Which leads to our own Religious Exploration program here at UUCA…. What are your thoughts on this, Jonathan?

Rev. Jonathan Rogers:

Being religious is a transgressive act. Affirming the inherent worth of every person in a capitalistic so-ciety where we are each commoditized is transgressive. Creating spaces where the voices of tradi-tionally marginalized folks are heard, not just those lifted up by the dominant culture, is transgressive. If we accepted the mainstream stance on everything, Religious Exploration would be a trivial matter, because we could content ourselves with not exploring beyond everyday societal messages in any important way. But since we collectively choose to transgress against unjust practices in our world, Religious Exploration is not a trivial matter.

If this were a trivial matter, we could show a movie to the children, roll out a basketball for the youth, and make cooking classes our central offering for adults. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE movies, bas-ketball, and cooking. But we are called to the difficult and persistent work of transgression with our Religious Exploration, to teach ourselves and each other non-trivial values at every level. If we really want to get better at social justice work, at the work of anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multicultural-ism, at saving and savoring the world, worship is a necessary but not sufficient element of that. We also need to find a way to persistently incorporate Religious Exploration for ourselves as well as our children. I really believe that that is what’s at stake here, how about you?

Rev. Anthony Makar:

One of Jay Leno’s favorite jokes goes as follows: “I went to a McDonald’s yesterday and said, ‘I’d like some fries.’ The girl at the counter said, ‘Would you like fries with that?’”

I can just see that girl in my mind’s eye. She is not listening. She is on autopilot. She is sleepwalking. Aliveness is slipping away, but she is numbed out and doesn’t know….

Besides Jay Leno, another favorite philosopher of mine speaks to this: John Stewart Mill. In one passage, he describes healthy spiritual hunger as “a very tender plant, easily killed.” “People,” he says, “lose their high aspi-rations as they lose their intellectual tastes, because they have not time nor opportunity for indulging them; and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying.” In other words: “would you like fries with that?”

I am here, and I believe you are here, because you don’t want to be sleepwalking through life. What you want is a way of life that keeps your high aspirations alive and carves out space and time to in-dulge them. What you want is a practice and a discipline that empowers you to resist inferior pleas-ures.

Our Religious Exploration program, together with everything else we do, wants to meet you right there. It wants to support you in that.

Which is why we are so hopeful today!

Rev. Jonathan Rogers:

When I’m in a small group and we talk about our hopes for a project together, I’m usually the one with huge, bombastic goals: I’ll want the outcome of our weekend retreat to be an instantaneous elevation of all the world’s people to another level in Fowler’s stages of spirituality. Or for our 8-week adult RE course to conclude in the United States government experimenting with Democratic Socialism. In re-ality I know that we can only do what we can do.

I tend to be less concerned with whether everyone shares my goals than whether we are working ef-fectively toward the ones that we do share. Too often, it seems like our strategies for working toward spiritual maturity or justice-making run along the lines of shaming, panicking and quitting. We are talk-ing about some of the hardest endeavors in a human lifetime, and yet if we are not careful, it’s easy to resort to shaming ourselves and each, panicking that the work wasn’t done yesterday, and storming out in a huff because we did not get our way. I’m qualified to comment on that process because I happen to be an expert in all three! But there are better ways, and we have to give ourselves better opportunities to practice them. That’s what Supercharged Sunday is all about. I’d love to hear how your hopes tie into that!

Rev. Anthony Makar:

My hopes…. How about Donald Trump stops saying that he has the world’s greatest memory—or world’s greatest anything?

Far more reasonable and realistic are these hopes I have for Religious Exploration at UUCA:

The hope to make Religious Exploration classes and experiences for all ages more widely available. The challenge here is mainly people’s crazy busy schedules. Most people have time only for “one stop” at church during the week; and if we can make worship and Religious Exploration for all ages more easily available in one stop, we will create a much greater capacity for involvement.

A second hope: to strengthen children’s and youth Religious Exploration programming. But to do this with a special focus on adults. Karen Bellavance-Grace, the 2013 Fahs Fellow for Innovation in Multi-generational Faith Formation, says that “Our [UUA] curricula and Religious Education ministries have been largely created and supported with a goal of helping children and youth grow into Unitarian Uni-versalist adults. At the same time, we know that an excellent indicator of youth and young adult religi-osity is the consistent religious practice of their parents.” To the degree we develop the consistent re-ligious practice of parents and other adults, we will support the religious practice of our children and youth.

Hope number three: more support for Religious Exploration teachers. No more having to miss wor-ship; no more choosing between teaching and singing in the choir; no more showing up to teach at 9:30 only to find just 1 or 2 students in your class.

Hope number four: doing better at growing lifelong Unitarian Universalists. Students ages 11 and up attending worship more regularly, which will not only make UUCA a more well-integrated worship community, but it will also help our teenagers to grow spiritually as UUs.

These hopes and more: we’ll make progress, I believe, by implementing what I’m calling the “Super-Charged Sunday” initiative. Starting in August of 2016, we will make Religious Exploration classes FOR ALL AGES more easily available on Sunday morning. Statistics show that participation in church decreases as people feel that they are making little headway in developing and deepening their faith. For this reason, we must provide as many opportunities for faith formation experiences as possible, far beyond what we do now.

In conversation with lots of folks, I am considering several paradigms for “SuperCharged Sunday” which have already been implemented in other UU congregations around the country. One is the “Middle Hour” paradigm, in which we maintain our two services (in shortened form) and expand the time between them so that Religious Exploration classes can take place then, during that “middle hour.”

Another paradigm is the “Multiple Worship Space” paradigm, in which we start Sunday morning with a single service in the sanctuary and stream that service simultaneously to multiple other spaces in the building such as the Family Room in process of being developed, the Chapel, 209-210, the social hall), and perhaps others. We’d want each of the spaces to feature a unique worship experience; as in, the Family Room would be boisterous and child-friendly; the Chapel would be quiet, and so on. Following the single service would be a 15 minute transition time in which folks could grab some cof-fee and have a quick chat, and then we’re all off to a Religious Exploration class. People of all ages will have something wonderful to go to. Following that second hour, there’d be more time for coffee and conversation—and that’s Sunday morning at UUCA.

Hearing this, I imagine you might be teeming with questions. To pull it off, we must manage the logis-tics very carefully, we will need to have lots of conversations, and we will. But may we keep one eye constantly on the big picture. Our Long Range Plan envisions UUCA as becoming “among the most engaging and enriching congregations in Atlanta” and an obstacle to this is the fact that some of the ways we do things are out of sync with the changing times. We need to get in sync. So we are trying things. For the sake of our Mission, we are being experimental and bold.

Annie Dillard once wrote that “At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, lis-tening.” This is what I hope for—that UUCA is going to be there for as many people as possible when they are ready. When they say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, to the world: I am ready.

Let’s be ready too.

Terrorism Has No Religion

terrorism has no religion

Listen to these sobering and soaring words from Dr. King:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny.

Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that.

One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal.

We shall hew out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

Right here we experience some of the best stuff religion has to offer, religion that rallies us around peace and hope, religion that takes our separate spiritualities and shapes them, holds them to a higher standard, says “don’t succumb to fear, don’t be a slave to fear,” seeks out the ways of love. In all of history, religious ideals and commitments have inspired some of the very best examples of human behavior, and it is happening right now among us, in our very midst.

So it is undeniably jarring, whenever we see the reverse—in the name of religion, people committing acts of terror. Religion as a source of the very worst examples of human behavior too. It’s jarring—deeply disappointing and disillusioning. Practically every week, we hear about some kind of violence connected to religion, happening somewhere on our globe.

And now this week. The horrific rampage of bullets and explosions that left 129 dead in Paris on Friday, carried out by suicide bombers connected to the Islamic State. Add that to equally egregious travesties in Beirut and Baghdad.

It brings to mind 9/11. All these years later, there’s still lots of unresolved issues, lots of open questions, and one of them, undeniably, has to do with violence. Ever since 9/11, there’s been literally thousands of articles and books published about this very issue, and here’s just a sampling:

In the Name of God: Are Violence and Religion Natural Bedfellows?
The Age of Sacred Terror
Religion’s Misguided Missiles
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Religion
The Disarmament of God
Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After Sept. 11

And on and on and on….

Thus our focus today: Why do people do bad things in the name of religion? How to understand this? And how to respond, as a religious people?

I want to start out with an observation that I’ve already alluded to: Religion has inspired some of the very best examples of human behavior, as well as some of the very worst. Let’s call this the “best/worst effect.” And so, for example, you have the best from Christianity, Jesus, who was clearly a peacemaker and made that plain: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt 5:9). “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:43). “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). This is an example of the best, but now, consider an example of the worst: How, on March 10, 1993, Michael Griffin shot and killed Dr. David Gunn outside an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida, because he saw himself as a soldier in the Army of God and believed that murder, to stop abortions, is what God wants.

The best/worst effect. We see it in Buddhism as well. The best of them all once said, “In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.” He also said, “Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.” The best of them all, the Buddha, said this. But consider an example of the worst: How Nichiren in the 13th century found himself deeply distressed by the diversity he found in the Buddhism of his time—all the different kinds of texts, teachings, and practices available to seekers—because he was absolutely certain that there was only one way to enlightenment, and it was HIS way. So he openly taught his followers to kill all those whose teachings differed, and he promised that their actions would not come back to haunt them in the form of negative karma.

Best and worst. Here’s a final example: Muhammad, saying that the greatest form of Jihad or “spiritual struggle” is that of inward purification of heart and mind and doing works of justice and compassion for the betterment of humankind. How he did affirm a lesser form of Jihad, which involved taking up arms in defense of Islam, but he set forth clear guidelines regarding what was OK and not OK in this, and it was NEVER OK to commit suicide, NEVER OK to target and kill women, children, and noncombatants. This is best, but we also know about the worst. 9/11. We can’t possibly forget about it, even ten years after the storm. Suicide bombers, harming people their own prophet tells them they are not to harm….

How do we understand this? How to wrap our minds around this?

One approach comes from a book I mentioned a moment ago: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Religion. In it, author Sam Harris argues that religion is inherently divisive and destructive; in its essence it is zealously absolutist; in its essence it creates people who are blindly obedient, who declare holy war, who believe that the end justifies the means… Religion, says Sam Harris, is the direct cause of violence in the world, and so it’s no wonder that religious people do bad things. In this view, the only real question is how people like Jesus and the Buddha and Muhammad (and you and I!) have done and do GOOD things in the name of religion—how they and we have somehow risen above its bad influence to espouse wisdom and peace and love!

Unitarian Universalists, what do you think?

But there’s another perspective to consider, and it comes from Michael Nagler, founder of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of California-Berkeley. Here’s what he says: “There seems to be this feature of human nature that the best can become the worst when it’s not lived up to, and I think religion is our biggest example of that.” This is what Michael Nagler says, and while reflecting upon it, I had this kind of weird but interesting thought (which is par for the course—weird and hopefully interesting is what I do). I was reminded of that old story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. You know that story? An old sorcerer asks his apprentice to clean up his workshop while he’s gone. After a while, the apprentice gets tired of fetching water for the clean-up and so enchants a broomstick to do the work for him, using magic he’s not yet fully trained in. Soon the floor is awash with water, drowning in water, and it’s too much, he tries to stop the broom but he can’t because he doesn’t know the right magic words. Despairing, he takes an axe and splits the broom, but each of the pieces takes up a pail and continues fetching water, now faster than ever. All seems lost—and that’s when the old sorcerer returns, who quickly breaks the spell and saves the day. That’s the story, and it’s really another way of expressing Michael Nagler’s idea about religion. Jesus and Buddha and Muhammad are each sorcerers, and the rest of us are sorcerer’s apprectices. When we misunderstand or misuse the magic that Jesus and Buddha and Muhammad are masters at, that we are being trained in, bad things happen. Best becomes worst.

Now, I need to come clean with you—it’s probably obvious by now anyway. I REALLY struggle with the Sam Harris perspective on religion, and I think that the Michael Nagler perspective is far more accurate, and, frankly, far more useful. I have about six books on my shelf at home telling me that religion and spirituality and God are literally encoded in our bodies–neurophysiologists talking about God genes and God spots and on and on. Religion and spirituality and God aren’t going anywhere, so long as we have bodies. So if Sam Harris is right, and religion is in essence evil, then what we have here is a contemporary version of the doctrine of Original Sin. People born inherently evil. And I’m just not going to go there. No way. Give me instead what my Unitarian Universalist RELIGION says: that all people have inherent worth and dignity. Amen!

But there’s other reasons I struggle with the Sam Harris perspective that “religion is inherently destructive.” One is that his underlying argument is flat illogical. He’s essentially saying that religion is bad because it can have bad effects. That’s like saying marriage is bad because it can lead to hard times, or life is bad because it can lead to suffering. Chris Lehman, writing in the magazine called Reason, echoes my own thinking when he says this: “Reasoning backward under the impression that the destructive results of this or that piece of [religious] writing invalidates its purchase on our serious attention could make ‘E=mc squared’ the most taboo phrase in the language.” This is what Chris Lehman says, and he’s right. “E=mc squared” is what made nuclear bombs possible, and Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and on and on, but this can’t automatically mean that “E=mc squared” is inherently bad. Lots of other things, good things, have sprung from that equation. Same thing goes for religious texts, or religion in general.

Yet another problem with the “religion is inherently flawed” perspective is that it ignores the degree to which religion is interwoven with factors that are non-religious. How easily religion can be taken over by them. David Niose, writing in a magazine called The Humanist, describes this very well. He says that Sam Harris “almost completely ignores other forces–imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, militarism, economics, politics, as well as social and psychological factors–in bringing about the ills of the world. As such, many of his arguments smack of oversimplification and imbalance.” In short, Sam Harris’ “single-bullet theory” simply does not stand up to scrutiny. Religion is not so much inherently destructive as eminently manipulable. Religion is like that powerful magic of the Sorcerer in the story—it’s E=mc squared power—so why would manipulative leaders NOT want to steal it and use as they see fit?

I mean, here’s the ground-floor reality of many would-be terrorists: They feel betrayed by their government’s inability to provide basic services and protect human rights; they are shaken by the collision of modernization and globalization with traditional values and commitments; they endure some historical injustice that seems like it will never be righted; they suffer the failed promises of military intervention in their country to bring security, rebuild the economy, and ameliorate poverty. All this amounts to a felt sense of humiliation and weakness and pent-up rage. And into this picture comes the terrorist leader and the terrorist group. Leader and group bring these people in, who are feeling humiliated and weak and angry, and they give them friendship, they give them them a sense of adventure and purpose, they give them the glamour of belonging to a militant group, they give their families cash payments and all sorts of goods, and above all, they mix social and political disaffection with religious longing. They take a social and political conflict and elevate it into a cosmic war of good vs. evil. They preach that true faith is in jeopardy and emergency conditions prevail. They preach that what is morally wrong is now proper religious duty. They preach the creation of heaven on earth “by any means necessary.”

This portrait I’ve just painted comes from a book entitled Terror in the Name of God, by Harvard professor Jessica Stern. In it, she shares her interviews with all sorts of terrorists. “All religions [says one of her interviewees] allow people the right to kill in self-defense, or to defend their land.” That’s what this terrorist says, and it is simply not true! Yet at this point, what you have is a person who is under the full weight of colonial, national, historical, economic, political, social, and psychological forces bearing down upon him. But his terrorist organization has come to the rescue, giving him a way out, a way to cope. Of course, the language of religion has been instrumental in recruiting him and giving him a sense of the goodness of what he’s doing; but the true spirit of religion is long gone. It’s disappeared. The Sorcerer’s magic has been stolen, distorted and perverted, used to achieve what it was never meant to achieve.

Religion is simply not so much inherently destructive as eminently manipulable. It’s why journalist Fareed Zakaria says, “The trouble with thundering declarations about Islam’s “nature” is that Islam, like any religion, is not what books make it, but what people make it.” People, who by their very nature are so easily tempted into groupthink and scapegoating; people who, as leaders, can get sucked into the temptations of power and so cynically use whatever tools are at their disposal to get what they want. All of this making it so easy to lose sight of the basic nonnegotiable principles of religion, which include taming our egos, emptying the self so that peace can grow. Violence and destructiveness are evidence of corruption in religion and NEVER the real deal.

So we are back to the viewpoint that, for me, does true justice to the “best/worst effect” of religion: That religion is positive at the core, but the best can become the worst when not lived up to. The Sorcerer’s magic is real—it’s E=mc squared power—but when apprentices are motivated by despair and anger and greed, they steal the magic, chaos ensues, and all seems lost. The magic broom of the story takes on a life of its own, we don’t know how to stop it, what happens next are 9/11s of one form or fashion, and even ten years after the storm, we are still afraid, fearful of what’s coming next….

These are dangerous times we live in. So what can we as a religious people do?

One is to address the concrete political and social and economic conditions that cause people to steal the magic. To wake people up. “I think back to my childhood,” says writer Bill Ayers, “to the houses in trim rows and the identical lawns and the neat fences; I remember everyone sleeping the deep American sleep, the sleep that still engulfs us and from which I worry we may not awake in time.” “Violence,” he says, “is one of the most terrible things in all the world…. But violence exists in all kinds of official and invisible ways that we’re not always aware of…. In our names the US project shatters communities everywhere—in the Middle East, in Columbia, in the Philippines. The world roils in agony and despair, the catastrophe deepens, and our ears are covered, our eyes are closed.” That’s what Bill Ayers says. For our religion to be meaningful and relevant, it must open our eyes and uncover our ears. We have to wake up! Imagine the global difference it would make to finally resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine—the domino effect of this! Imagine the difference, if America decided to realize the dream of one of our Universalist forebears and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush—his dream of a Department of Peace, rather than of war! Imagine the difference! We have to wake up to the official and invisible forms of violence that cause or are related to tragedies like 9/11.

That’s the first thing. The second thing we can do as a religious people relates specifically to Islam, which, as we all know, has been on precarious terms in America ever since 9/11. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong says that the American Muslim community is one of the most important assets in the fight against terrorism, because it proves beyond a doubt to the entire world that that you can be a faithful Muslim and a faithful American at the same time. But if Americans keep on defining Islam by what extremists do, Muslims here are going end up feeling like no matter how hard they try, it’s a losing battle. We end up creating a self-fulfilling prophesy dynamic, and that’s tragic.

We have to allow Islam to be different from the version the extremists give us. We have to befriend Islam!

And it can happen in large ways and small. One large way is illustrated by the great work of one of our UUCA congregants, Robin Stinson. Robin was at a Lilburn Town Council meeting several years back, where the issue of building a mosque was center stage. Lilburn has been struggling with this for years … the mosque’s zoning application rejected again and again, out of concerns about traffic and noise, even though Lilburn allowed Baptist and Hindu worship centers to be built that dwarf any of the plans of the Mosque. What’s really happening in Lilburn is prejudice, bias, fear. But there’s Robin at the town council meeting, openly speaking out of her Unitarian Universalist values in favor of allowing an Islamic Mosque to be built, and as she does this, people around her are hurling insults. The mood is ugly. But Robin stood up for what is right. We need to stand up for what is right!

It’s about befriending Islam. All these years after the 9/11 storm, it can be so hard. “I was fearful of Muslims and Arab people after 9/11, and frankly angry,” says another UUCA congregant. But now listen to what she says—her way of stepping outside this fear and anger: “around 2003 I went to a belly dance class in Little Five Points taught and run by Muslim women. There I was able to break down some of my mistrust and anger. They were and are wonderful women. I became a belly dancer for 7 years.” Befriending Islam can happen in large ways and small, and all are important. It’s happening. We’re doing it!

As a religious people, we’ve got to wake up, we’ve got to befriend Islam, and, finally, we’ve got to bolster religion’s internal immune system. Strengthen its capacity to defend itself against hostile takeovers. We do this in the only way we can, by starting where we are, with our Unitarian Universalism. We model religious health, and we let our light shine. If there are unsavory characters who, for example, unleash religious terror because they know how to manipulate the Bible, we learn how to read the Bible for ourselves, we learn how to do it responsibly and faithfully and we learn how to talk about it with others. If there are those who, out of despair, argue that the end justifies the means, that 9/11s of one form or fashion will ultimately bring about heaven on earth, so it’s OK, we say NO, we say NEVER, we remember the words of Dr. King and we have them inscribed upon our very hearts:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny.

Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that.

One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal.

We shall hew out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

How Proust Can Change Your Life

It was Pride Sunday several weeks ago, and the parade was done. I was headed home. I caught MARTA and took it to Lindbergh Station, where I’d parked my car hours earlier. The parking ticket was carefully tucked away in my wallet, for I knew that the parking was free but only if the ticket was validated. Lose it, and there’s a stiff penalty. The sign on the pay station says something like, “Lost ticket pays maximum.” “Maximum” as in $75!

So, your fearless Senior Minister gets to his car, deep in the dark bowels of the Lindbergh parking garage. He is exhausted, but in a wonderful sort of way. What a sweet day. Before he gets rolling, he fishes into his pocket for his wallet. Opens it up and … no ticket. But that’s ok—it’s in his coat pocket, left inside.

No, it’s not.

Suddenly he has a bad feeling about this.

He digs into his right inside coat pocket.

He says a bad word.

How about the other pockets, on the outside of the coat?

Nope.

Well, then it must have fallen under the passenger side seat.

Not there either.

He says that bad word again, but three times in a row, like a charm.

Then he re-checks his right and left inside coat pockets again, his outside pockets, the passenger seat, underneath the passenger seat—nothing different from before, only more frantically—and the lesson is: charms don’t work.

It’s not to be found.

He drives up to the pay station. There’s that sign about having to pay the max. The lady there grates open her window, reaches her hand out. He tells her he doesn’t have the ticket. He tells her that he’s been at the Pride Parade. He’s hoping she’ll take mercy on this minister that had been sweating for justice all day. He Iooks at her with minister eyes. She asks him when he got the ticket. She calls her supervisor, and the cars behind him are lining up one after the other because this is taking forever. Finally, the verdict: just pay eight bucks. Thank you Jesus.

He’s out of there. I’m out of there. Home.

But that’s not the end of the story. Next day I’m off to work and I open the driver’s side door and there it is. The ticket. It had fallen into the space between the door and the driver’s seat. It was so easy to find. I had just not imagined, somehow, that my frantic search for the ticket should have extended to my left-hand side. I had focused exclusively to my right, and to my pockets. Don’t ask me to explain.

All I know is that failures of imagination make us pay. When we don’t look at all there is too look at, when we don’t look broadly enough or deeply enough, when we rely on charms to solve the problem for us—we pay.

And here is where where we pick up with today’s topic: the humanistic vision of early 20th century French writer Marcel Proust. Ultimately, it’s a vision of living more gratefully, more richly, more deliberately, by paying attention more fully. Says the great Unitarian forbearer Hendry David Thoreau, “I wish to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Then there’s this from writer Susan Sontag: “Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.” That’s the vision of Marcel Proust, too.

Marcel-Proust

Back in 1895, he submitted an essay to an arts magazine in which he sought to illustrate the vitality-giving power of attentiveness. The wonderful Alain de Botton, in his book How Proust Can Change Your Life, tells the story. It begins with “a gloomy, envious, dissatisfied young man.” This man is “sitting at table after lunch one day in his parents’ flat, gazing dejectedly at his surroundings: at a knife left lying on the tablecloth, at the remains of an underdone, rather tasteless cutlet, and at a half-turned-back tablecloth. He could see his mother at the far end of the dining room doing her knitting, and the family cat curled up on top of a cupboard next to a bottle of brandy being reserved for a special occasion. The mundanity of the scene,” Alain de Botton tells us, “would contrast with the young man’s taste for beautiful and costly things, which he lacked the money to acquire.” “To escape his domestic gloom, [he] might leave his flat and go to the Louvre, where at least he could feast his eyes on splendid things, grand palaces painted by Veronese, harbor scenes by Claude, and princely lives by Van Dyke.” But that was just an escape. His eyes wanted to feast but there was nothing in his own life, it seemed, that they could really feast upon. So the young aesthete felt, essentially, that he was starving to death.

But was he? Proust felt that things could very much be otherwise. His healing prescription was that the young man should adjust his museum-going habits. Let the galleries hung with paintings of great palaces and gorgeous harbor scenes and princely lives go for a time, and instead, go to a different part of the museum. Go see the works of a certain Jean-Baptiste Chardin, whose main focus (as Alain de Botton says) was “bowls of fruit, jugs, coffeepots, loaves of bread, knives, glasses of wine, and slabs of meat. He liked painting kitchen utensils, not just pretty chocolate jars but salt cellars and strainers. When it came to people, Chardin’s figures were rarely doing anything heroic: one was reading a book, another was building a house of cards, a woman had just come home from the market with a couple of loaves of bread, and a mother was showing her daughter some mistakes she had made in her needlework. Yet,” continues de Botton, “in spite of the ordinary nature of their subjects, Chardin’s paintings succeeded in being extraordinarily beguiling and evocative. A peach by him was pink and chubby as a cherubim; a plate of oysters or a slice of lemon were tempting symbols of gluttony and sensuality. […] These paintings were windows onto a world at once recognizably our own, yet uncommonly, wonderfully tempting.”

Jean-baptiste-simeon-Chardin-Still-Life-with-Tin-Glazed-Jar-Fruit-and-Bottle

Proust’s vision was that the young man, absorbing the message of these paintings, could return to his own flat, sit down at his table, look around and say to himself, “this is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like a Chardin.” “I once felt myself starving, but Chardin has shown me that even in my ordinary life, the things my senses can feast on are endless. The heroic is not the only source of value. Value is everywhere.”

This is the essay he submitted in 1895, and since he was still a nobody—he wasn’t Proust yet—the editors at the art magazine rejected it. But the vision he put out there gives life. People can find themselves starving, but it’s not because they need more stuff or better stuff or they need to hang out with different people or they need some other change to the circumstances of their lives. It can simply be that they’re trapped in unhealthy habits of perception. Maybe the enthusiasm they have for some things is way too much; and for other things, the enthusiasm should be way more. The world loves ostentatious scenes, grand scenes; but look at what this does to our appreciation of what is closer to home, more modest, and yet beautiful in its own way. As de Botton says, “The happiness that can emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust’s therapeutic conception. It reveals the extent to which our dissatisfactions may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them.”

Proust is a doctor of the spirit. His father might have been world-famous for his thirty-four books, all addressing practical, physical health issues. But Proust the son became world-famous for his focus on the spirit.

That fame came with his masterpiece novel, In Search of Lost Time, and the title telegraphs his intent. Failure to attend to the world in fresh ways—in ways that escape habit and cliché—cause us to pay. We pay with our lives, with our time. So redeem time. Go in search of it. And that’s what we see the Narrator—who is really Proust himself—doing, throughout all seven volumes of the work. Like a twentieth century version of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Perhaps the signature moment comes in the first volume. The Narrator, feeling sick, feeling dispirited, sits down to a cup of herbal tea and madeleine cookies. He breaks off a morsel, drops it into the tea, takes a sip, and that’s when it happens: “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory…. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?”

img.finedininglovers.com

It’s a real question, and Proust’s answer, being the humanist that he was, was not God. God is not the source of this all-powerful joy. Proust had been baptized and later confirmed as a Catholic, but it was a religion he never practiced. As an adult, he saw himself as a mystical atheist—infused with a spirituality that had nothing to do with God and everything to do with life lived richly. He once said that “the highest praise of God consists in the denial of him by the atheist who finds creation so perfect that it can dispense with a creator.”

Listen to that. “Creation as perfect.” One side of this is suggested by how an artist like Chardin can teach us that even the most mundane external scenes of our world can be bliss to the senses. And then the other side comes with In Search of Lost Time and the famous madeleine scene. “Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?” Not God, but the world within us, of memories fully released. “When,” he says, “from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment…. And once again I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in [tea] …, and immediately the old gray house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theater.”

This is just not regular remembering. With regular remembering, we merely recollect names and images in the abstract. The feeling is flat. But the kind of remembering that Proust is talking about is when the past rises up like scenery in a theater—it is triggered suddenly, by some unplanned and illogical detail—and we are immersed in the details and we appreciate smells and sounds and tastes. “So we don’t believe that life is beautiful,” Proust says, “because we don’t recall it, but if we get a whiff of a long-forgotten smell we are suddenly intoxicated, and similarly we think we no longer love the dead, because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.”

“Creation is perfect.” Not that there is no evil or suffering—that’s not what Proust is trying to say. Get to know Proust better and you’ll see how much evil and suffering he endured. But it’s that the world is full of the glory of beauty and meaning and delight. The challenge is to develop oneself spiritually so that one knows how to escape perceptual habits and cliché so that one is free to really look, and sense, and know. To seek out artists like Chardin when you are stuck in the rut of scenes of great palaces and gorgeous harbor scenes and princely lives. To learn how to be open to the unplanned and illogical details of life so that you, too, can experience Proustian moments when the past in all its rich detail rises up like the scenery of a theater and you feel renewed and restored, you feel solid with history, you feel the joyful depths of your life.

That work’s on us. To develop spiritually. Why call on God, then, Proust seems to be saying…. When we are miserable and we call on God, is this nothing more than a way of postponing the real work of uncovering unhelpful habits of perception and of learning better ones? It’s like you’re in the checkout line at Publix, and the person in front of you has what seems like a thousand items, and it’s been a long day, and you have a headache, and what do you do? You pick up People magazine and flip through all the pictures and articles about celebrities because there’s instant ecstasy to be had from invoking celebrities. There just is. And it’s only more so when you invoke the Celebrity of celebrities. God. Call on God as a shortcut way to ecstasy—when, in fact, there can be no shortcuts to getting to the point where you can sit down at your table and look around you and say to yourself, “this is interesting, this is grand, this is beautiful like a Chardin.”

Now in saying this, I’m going out on a limb. I’m extrapolating. I don’t think Proust ever addressed the issue explicitly. Nevertheless, it’s something to think about. If you are a God-believer, why do you reach out to God? How does this relate to your doing the ongoing work of living more gratefully and more richly by paying better attention to the world without you and within? How?

As for the humanists and atheists among us, does it come as a surprise that the word “spirituality” is still relevant to you? At least as Proust defines it?

I want to close with an acknowledgement of what seems like the fly in the Proustian ointment. The man could not write concisely to save his life. Proust’s brother Robert once said, “The sad thing is that people have to be very ill or have a broken leg in order to have the opportunity to read In Search of Lost Time.” It’s the longest novel in the world. Two million words. Editors, being invited to publish his novels, would say such things as: “I may be dense, but I fail to see why a chap needs thirty pages to describe how he tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep.” “It explains,” says Alain de Botton, “the inspiration behind the ‘All-England Summarize Proust Competition,’ once hosted by Monty Python in a south coast seaside resort, a competition that required contestants to précis the seven volumes of Proust’s work in fifteen seconds or less, and to deliver the results first in a swimsuit and then in evening dress.”

It’s hilarious. But we don’t want to miss the deeper point. To save time, we must look and look again at our lives, we must not go faster but slow down. Thirty pages to describe the nuances of tossing and turning? Why not—if you are trying to extend beyond dull clichés and get to the joy of what’s really going on?

It’s 1919. The young diplomat Harold Nicholson meets Proust at a party. Nicholson had just been at a Peace Conference following World War I. About their conversation, Nicholson wrote this in his diary:

A swell affair. Proust is white, unshaven, grubby, slip-faced. He asks me questions. Will I please tell him how the Committees work. I say, “Well, we generally meet at 10:00, there are secretaries behind….” “No, no, you are going too fast. Start over again. You take the car to the delegation. You get off at the Quai d’Orsay. You climb the stairs. You enter the room. And so? Be precise, my friend, be precise.” So I tell him everything. The sham cordiality of it all: the handshakes: the maps: the rustle of papers: the tea in the next room: the macaroons. He listens enthralled, interrupting from time to time—“Mais precisez, mon cher monsieur, n’allez pas trop vite.”

Do not go too fast.

That day I had lost my MARTA ticket–I had been too fast. And so I had to pay.

Don’t be too fast.
Look and look again at your life.
That’s humanist spirituality.
Attention is gratitude.
Attention is vitality.

N’allez pas trop vite.

Slow down and look.