Truth and Meaning: Frivolous Waste

During the last week of the recent campaign for District 98 State Representative, Midlanders received a barrage of lurid and sensationalist ads predicting all manner of doom and gloom that would befall Michigan should Democrat Joan Brausch be elected. Republican candidate Gary Glenn worked hard to separate himself from these disgusting tracts of fear funded from groups supporting his candidacy. But it must give one pause that if a candidate cannot control his backers before he is elected, what chance has he to be objective of lobbyists and special interest groups after he is elected.

Now, in his first public pronouncement since his underwhelming victory, our new representative has unveiled his first call to action. Nothing about roads or gas taxes. Nothing about job creation. Nothing about saving our retirees from unfair taxes. Nothing about school funding. And nothing about saving Michigan’s traditional families from the scourge of homosexuality and the “gay agenda” he fears so strongly.

No, his first call to action is to request an investigation into the money paid to a consultant by the state. No investigation into the allegations of fraud and nepotism by Gov. Rick Snyder. No investigation into the blatant misconduct of many of the emergency managers given dictatorial power over their cities by this administration. No investigation into the outrageous gerrymandering occurring in recent years. Our new representative’s first request is to investigate how the state spent .0002 percent of its revenues two years ago because he doesn’t like the reason the government spent the money.

What possible purpose could this investigation serve? The state paid a consultant to do a job, which he did. This same consultant was hired by other states to do exactly the same job. Michigan paid him $481,000 while Vermont — a state with 94 percent fewer people than Michigan — paid him $400,000. The consultant did his job and the state chose not to use his recommendations — much to the detriment of the poor and uninsured. So now Glenn wants to throw more tax dollars away investigating an expenditure already made for a job the state legally contracted, and which was completed.

The only purpose of such a call is not to exhibit any concern for the Michigan taxpayer. The only purpose is to discredit a medical insurance program that Michigan conservatives rejected in spite of the fact that many of our citizens have no access to affordable health care. The only purpose is to attack a program that has provided many millions of Americans with medical insurance for the first time. The only purpose is to bring the Washington brand of Tea Party obstructionism full force to Lansing and grind our government to a standstill wasting time on pointing fingers at nonexistent scandals, while at the same time providing no solutions to the problems that serve the interests of the people of this state.

It doesn’t matter that this same consultant also worked on a similar project many years ago. This same consultant was paid by then Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts to design that state’s health insurance program — the exact program that served as the primary model for the Affordable Care Act. So it would seem that Glenn and his conservative backers had no objection to the consultant’s fees charged to create a system for a Republican governor that has worked splendidly. But when a similar program was passed after a year-long debate and signed into law by a Democratic president, all of a sudden Glenn takes issue with that same consultant working for Michigan to implement a similar program.

And let us remember that the Affordable Care Act has been a spectacular success. Health care spending by consumers is at its lowest rate in 10 years. More than 10 million previously uninsured Americans now have affordable insurance, driving the number of uninsured citizens down 25 percent in just one year. The second year sign-up period has already seen one million people visit the healthcare.gov web page. And the overall price tag of implementation has come in at $100 billion less than predicted.

So, I offer a counter proposal to Mr. Glenn’s call to examine the out-of-context statements of an advisor to the project. Let’s take the money that this fruitless display of grandstanding will cost the taxpayers and buy a few tens of thousands of free school lunches; or replace some laid off public school teachers; or fill all of the potholes on I-75; or give a tax credit to a small business owner who will bring 100 new jobs to our region. Let us take the money the state will waste investigating this contract, and put it toward something that will help our citizens, like joining other states that have successfully implemented their own exchanges.

Truth and Meaning: The Character of Candidates

Halfway through writing a posting on brokenness for this week, I walked out to get the mail. Living in a house previously owned by a Republican, I have been exposed first hand to the character of their candidate for State House. Joan Brausch has run a clean campaign based on nothing but her record of service and her stance on the issues. Organizations backing Gary Glenn, on the other hand, have produced some of the most vile and despicable pieces of political trash I have seen in my 58 years.

Many years ago, when I still lived in Pittsburgh, I was represented in Washington by a gentleman named Doug Walgren. He had served many terms quite successfully and was a popular Democrat. Then, Walgren ran against a political newcomer whose entire campaign was based on the fact that Walgren had moved his family to D.C. out of convenience. His opponent argued, therefore, that Walgren couldn’t possibly represent the people of Western Pennsylvania adequately. Of course, it didn’t matter than Walgren maintained two homes and paid taxes on both. This opponent was slick, avoided the issues and kept hammering this inconsequential point and managed to get elected. Literally one month after the election, he moved his family to Washington D.C. as well. That flagrant hypocrite was Rick Santorum.

So, folks, let me tell you that I have seen this act before. And believe me, it is an act. When he pulled that stunt about the American Legion with Karl Ieuter, I revisited the politics of the Big Lie again. I am a pacifist, and I have been a member of the American Legion because of my father’s service, so I knew Glenn was making a political mountain out of a mole hill just to scare veterans. And now, according to Glenn’s ads, electing Joan Brausch will turn Michigan’s men gay, get our young women raped, and infest our population with Ebola. I wish I were kidding, but that has been the content of these ridiculous and sensationalist ads.

If you want to vote intelligently on Tuesday, you must look into the soul of a person. Someone who claims to be pro-life, but would continue slashing funding for public schools, cut access to birth control, and interfere with women’s basic health care will say whatever it takes to scare conservative voters. Someone who claims he can revitalize our economy, but walks lock step with the Koch Brothers and the Mackinac Center will say whatever it takes to scare business owners and rich people. And someone who claims the moral high ground, but stoops to the low tactic of calling LGBT folk pedophiles worthy of being fired or evicted because of who they love certainly isn’t moral.

If you can’t bring yourself to vote for Joan Brausch, then at least reject Gary Glenn’s Tea Party obstructionism and simply abstain. We have more than enough fear mongering in government. We need people with hope and vision, people willing to listen to all points of view and do what is best for the people. Reject the slick words and the insulting scare tactics and look into the souls of the candidates. Then vote for the person who respects the dignity of every person, speaks to the issues, and doesn’t resort to cheap theatrics to garner your support.

Truth and Meaning: What is Racist?

Regular readers of this blog know that I have several enthusiastic contributors to the comments section. One of them openly supports the Ku Klux Klan and some Midland residents may remember his 2008 demonstration in full Klan regalia at the corner of Eastman Avenue and Saginaw Road here in Midland Michigan. Sometimes, people advise me to ignore his postings because of their extremist slant. I believe, however, that people of faith must try to engage anyone, at anytime, and at any place where the opportunity for spiritual growth presents itself.

I was rewarded for my diligence when, in response to my blog posting last week, this individual asked me several important questions on the subject of race. He posted the questions as they were written in an article titled “The Answer to Crime Among Young Black Males” by Tim Wildmon. I will quote Mr. Wildmon’s words exactly and then provide answers to each. Perhaps you will hear your own voice somewhere in the text.

He began by asking, “For example, without knowing skin color, when someone tells me they saw an awesome basketball player I immediately think he is Black. Why is that? Because most awesome basketball players in America are indeed Black. Does that make me a racist?”

Yes, it does! Most basketball players in high school are White and there are awesome White high school basketball players. At the college level, according to the latest NCAA Student-Athlete ethnicity report, there are still more White players than any other racial/ethnic group, and there are awesome White college basketball players. Only at the NBA level does one see a marked dominance of African-American players. And of the NBA’s 49 majority owners, only Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Bobcats is a person of color. And that is because of PRIVILEGE. Predominately White public schools generally get more funding than predominately Black schools. White families can usually afford college more easily than Black families. Blacks have far fewer opportunities than Whites to escape systemic poverty. And Blacks have far fewer opportunities open to them in other occupational sectors. So, yes, assuming that an awesome basketball player is Black is a racist observation.

He continued, “In the same way, when I hear of a convenience store robbery, without knowing the skin color, I immediately think it was a young Black male who committed the crime. Why is that? Because night after night I see the faces of young Black males on the news arrested for crimes. Does that make me a racist?”

Yes, it does! In 2010, the National Institutes of Health published a definitive article on the portrayal of lawbreakers and victims in crime news (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2904566/). In their conclusion they wrote, “Starting with the results for portrayals of offenders, we would expect Whites to have a higher likelihood of being reported on if reporting reflects offending incidents, because they are the most populous group. We did not find evidence of a significant difference in the number of portrayals of White perpetrators relative to Blacks in our base models. To us, this suggests a relative over-reporting of Blacks compared to Whites. We also found under-reporting of Hispanic perpetrators relative to Whites. We interpret the results for Blacks as consistent with power structure, racial threat and racial privileging arguments.” People are led to believe that Blacks commit more crimes because our media highlight the race of suspects far more frequently when he/she is a person of color. When that presentation is not challenged, we cooperate with the racist portrayals in our media. In 2011, White people committed nearly 250,000 violent crimes in this country, but just because the news shows more Black suspects than White does not make them more prone to violent crimes. So, yes, immediately assuming that a criminal is Black is racist.

He concluded with this question. “Which begs another question: does a stereotype only become racist when it is negative? Or can one have a positive stereotype based on race? What about the idea that “White men can’t jump”? Is that racist?”

Yes, it is! Saying that “all Asians are good at math” is a negative stereotype of what a racist would consider a positive observation. Research shows that perceived positive stereotypes, when brought into the forefront of an individual’s mind, can actually make them do worse at the thing they are supposed to be able to do better. One such study discovered that when Asian-American women were made explicitly aware of their ethnicity (and the expectations attached to it) right before testing their math skills, they were more likely to collapse under the pressure and do poorly in the test (http://pss.sagepub.com/content/11/5/399.short). ANY stereotype reduces the complex humanity of individuals, making it easier to dismiss each person’s inherent worth and dignity. And ‘White men can’t jump’ derives from an evil and ignorant stereotype that somehow Blacks are more closely tied to jungle animals than Whites. So, yes, attempts to compliment a group of people through stereotyping of any kind is racist.

The comments and questions posted by this individual represent classic examples of privilege — of how White, or straight, or male, or American-born people are often oblivious to their privilege and in complete denial of their prejudice. Systemic racism oppresses people of color, just as systemic sexism oppresses women, systemic hated of LGBT folk oppresses gays and lesbians, and systemic anti-immigration laws and opinions oppress undocumented immigrants. And those with privilege benefit ONLY by accident of birth. Those who possess privilege did absolutely nothing on their own to earn that privilege. Therefore, those who choose to take advantage of their privilege and do nothing to level the playing field, ARE racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or xenophobic.

But, here is the most important point. HAVING privilege is nothing to be ashamed of. No one is trying to lay a guilt trip on you for being White, or straight, or male, or a native-born American citizen. But those who accept the advantages of privilege do so at a cost to those who do not have privilege. Thus, those who accept the benefits — and do not work toward eliminating privilege — do so from the suffering of others. I am a White, straight, male, American, too. But I fight to eliminate privilege. I defend the poor, the hopeless, the oppressed, the exiled. As long as privilege exists, there will be oppression. And so long as the oppressors do nothing to stop it, then they are complicit in the resulting discrimination and suffering.

 

Revelation

Recently, the Islamic Center of Midland hosted the public as part of the Choosing a Culture of Understanding program in celebration of Ramadan. Attendees shared wonderful interfaith understanding, as presenters explained the month-long observance. The evening also revealed a surprising element of our programs this year, the auspicious coincidence of a recurring theme — revelation.

In May, participants discussed the meaning of Sabbath at Temple Beth El, and Rabbi Chava Bahle explained the Jewish practice of Counting the Omer (a measure of grain used in ancient times). Beginning on the second day of Passover, the idea of counting each day represents the Jews’ spiritual preparation and anticipation for God’s revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

In June, we celebrated Pentecost, the festival that marks the revelation of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers of Jesus Christ as described in the Acts of the Apostles 2:1-31. And this July, we observed Ramadan, the month in which the Qur’an was first revealed as guidance for all the people.

An Evening of Meditation on Sacred Writings is planned for Sept. 23 at the Creative 360. Participants will be invited to meditate silently while sacred writings from many of the world’s religions, including Eastern traditions such as Buddhism, are read. And on Nov. 1, we invite the public to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship to observe Samhain (pronounced Sow’-in), a holiday shared by many religions as the day in the year during which the veil between the spirit world and the world of the living is at its narrowest. This is a time for honoring our beloved dead and seeking their revelation and guidance.

In many religions, periods of revelation come with some form of sacrifice. During Ramadan, for instance, Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset and avoid other behaviors deemed sinful, such as swearing, arguing, gossiping and procrastination. For some Protestants, the nine days between Ascension Day and Pentecost are a time of fasting and world-wide prayer in honor of the disciples’ time of prayer and unity awaiting the Holy Spirit. Similarly among Roman Catholics, special Pentecost Novenas are held and the Eve of Pentecost was traditionally a day of fasting.

Eastern traditions, such as Hinduism, often include a period of asceticism on the path to enlightenment, releasing oneself from worldly desires and connections. The Anishinaabe Naming Ceremony (Kchitwaa noozwinkewin) requires a person seeking a spirit name to undergo prayer and fasting for months, even years, before a name is decided upon. And Unitarian Universalism, as a noncreedal faith, offers its adherents no universal answers to the great mysteries of life, but rather places the burden of finding truth and meaning on each person. The struggle for revelation can be difficult and painful.

We might be tempted to view depriving ourselves as a harsh price to pay for revelation. But, as the Qur’an says in Sura 2: “God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful.” The Hindu Mundaka Upandishad says: “They who practice austerity and faith in the forest, the peaceful followers of who live on alms, depart passionless through the door of the sun, to where is that immortal Person, even the imperishable Spirit.” Isaiah 58 tells us: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.”

In explaining the Counting of the Omer, Rabbi Bahle told the story of two brothers with adjacent farms. The younger brother married and had a family, while the older brother lived alone.

One year at harvest time, both brothers bundled their stalks of grain into sheaves, counted them and took them into their barns to store. The older brother worried that his brother’s family might need more grain and so, in the dark of night took as many sheaves as he could carry across the field to his brother’s barn. At the same time, the younger brother knew his brother had no family to help him. So he too rose, dressed and took as many sheaves as he could carry to his brother’s barn.

The next night they did the same thing and in the morning, each brother stood in awe and counted their grain, which was as much as before they had given it away. Finally on the third night, both brothers rose and again, gathered as much grain as they could carry and headed out across the field to their brother’s barns. It was so dark, that they almost collided in the middle of the fields. They stopped, smiled and hugged one another for a long time. Then they knelt and thanked God for giving them such a thoughtful and generous brother. That spot became the Holy of Holies because the holiest place in the world is in the human heart where we bless and love and are generous to each other.

Whatever religious path we walk, we can all see that there is wisdom to be found in sacrifice and refraining from negative behaviors. In fact, some lessons in our lives can only be learned when we come to appreciate the gift of life, the comfort of community and the love of the divine — by whatever name we apply. So, let us join together with our neighbors of all faiths, thoughtfully and with generosity, in search of revelation of a better world.

Civil Rights for All

As the Boy Scouts considered an historic (and long overdue) elimination of their ban on gay scouts and leaders, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights released its report on LGBT Inclusion Under Michigan Law. The report contains shocking and compelling stories from gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals across Michigan who have faced discrimination in the workplace, schools and housing. The study concludes that there is indisputable evidence of alarming rates of LGBT discrimination in the state and outlines the negative economic impact discrimination has not only on LGBT residents, but also on employers and students in Michigan.

Whatever your personal opinion about sexual orientation and gender identity, legalized discrimination against LGBT individuals must end. Just as we did with women and then people of color, we have learned that discrimination against people on the basis of who they love has no foundation in science, law or morality. Discrimination against gays and lesbians is unjust and should be made illegal.

The Report called for the expansion of laws that protect people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression in employment, housing, and the full and equal utilization of public accommodations, public service and educational facilities. The current nondiscrimination clause used by the City of Midland Human Resources Department “considers all applicants for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, handicap or disability, or status as a Vietnam-era or special disabled veteran in accordance with federal law.” I call on our city officials to be proactive and take the steps needed to add “sexual orientation and gender identity/expression” to its nondiscrimination clauses for hiring, for contracts, or for any other public use.

Let’s join other progressive communities in Michigan, like our neighbors in Mount Pleasant, and support this action.

A Community of Loners

I walked alone through the woods. Only the distant sound of engines and the narrow, sandy trail before me recall that human civilization lies not far away.

Shriveled ferns now cover the forest floor and the once abundant mushrooms have nearly vanished. A squirrel hops calmly in the distance. A rustling reveals the striped back of a chipmunk in the brambles.

A snake wriggles across the path and freezes in expectation of my departure. The hated snake; so reviled in our culture. The image of Evil and of the Fall. And yet, this little fellow wants nothing of me other than to be left free to pursue his life.

A few bright green and healthy ferns defy their surroundings. One tattered mushroom, then another nearly perfect specimen boldly stands watch in the grass. They stand alone. And yet, they are not alone.

They share with each other an energy, a spirit of living in the midst of the declining season. Here with the snakes and ferns and mushrooms, I am among a community of loners, an army of life energy battling the forces of conformity and resignation to Fate. I am a Chaplain in a hospice of hope and perseverance.

I walk in a hospice because, after all, everything must eventually die; that is, the organic shell binding us to this particular reality will one day cease functioning. But, everything thing exists forever in the Spiritual Realm.

My path joins a much larger trail. At the junction, a bench invites me to sit and jot notes. Two women on horseback ride up. As they pass, one inquires, “Are you drawing?” A short time later, a father and his young son approach. “Is he fishing?” I hear the child ask. “It’s a nice day for reading,” the man poses to me. A young woman comes up. She commands her spotted spaniel to “Heel!” several times. I feel for the animal who clearly wants to know, “Can I come over and greet you?”

What exactly am I doing?

I am feeling empathy for creatures no free to pursue their wishes and whatever brings them joy. I am experiencing and learning all the time, letting the omniverse speak to me; and I am actively seeking out that mystical voice. I am also creating my own interpretations of those messages.

And I am in solidarity with the fighting ferns.

Frogs Redux

The morning after the frog serenade found me on the path once more. I felt somehow compelled to return to the site to experience the amphibious aria again.

Splashes accompanied me as I walked along the pond. Unlike other local wetland areas, the turtles here seem skittish and retreat to the water as I come near. The area laid still and quiet. The morning was more humid than I had expected and the mugginess seemed to repress activity.

I passed the place where I had picked up a handful of molted Canada Goose feathers the day before. Then up a rise and I heard it begin – the distant tones blurted in rapid succession from hundreds of throats. Unlike yesterday, I did not just smile – I actually laughed out loud at the sound.

As the volume increased, so did the activity around the pond. This morning, frogs were hopping around unconcerned and it was now the turtles’ turn to sit still in observation. Unlike before, I could see little green heads popped up all over the surface of the water, the sun picking out each singer clearly in the algae-laden pond.

Motion drew my eyes upward. I saw a Loon swoop past, and just seconds later a graceful white Egret flew in the opposite direction. I hardly had the chance to appreciate those views before an even larger figure attracted my attention yet higher. Overhead, there it was, the B-52 of birds – a Bald Eagle. I had seen examples at the Pittsburgh Aviary, but never in flight. The massive wingspan seemed to dwarf the surroundings.

Once the majestic bird left my sight, I returned my attention toward the never ending din from my frog friends. I saw movement in the leaves just a few feet below where I stood. I moved carefully around, but could not pinpoint the cause of the unnatural shaking. I moved to the other side of the tree trunk before me and stooped to see a muskrat busily munching away, clearly oblivious to my presence.

All the while, the frogs continued their racket. They sounded like a crowd of old men laughing at a dirty joke that I could not understand. I began to wonder if these other animals were attracted to the site just as I had been. Could this gigantic noise coming from such tiny creatures actually lure other animals?

I suppose the answer lies in whether or not one believes that animals do things for reasons beyond satisfying basic needs – food, shelter, procreation. Of course, that raises the question, “What qualifies as a basic need?”

I know that laughter qualifies for me. No matter how good things get, I must have fun. Is it so unreasonable to imagine that animals find each other funny? When you think about it, if anything, the frog orchestra should chase other animals away. Predators could sneak up more easily under cover of the croaking. And the noise would certainly attract attention from far around.

I believe that dogs and cats clearly show pleasure when scratched just right, or when snuggling with us on the sofa (especially if they are not supposed to be there). So, why can’t other mammals, birds, and turtles have the same emotions? Humanity certainly does not own a monopoly on feelings.

Concert on a Summer Morning

After many days of sweltering heat, the morning was glorious. I veered off the main trail onto a side loop past Wood Duck Pond. As I walked past smaller inlets toward the larger body of water, I heard occasional movement through the trees. The sound resembled something larger moving through the dense brush, like a deer. So, I stopped frequently, peering through the leaves.

Seeing nothing, I suddenly heard a remarkably loud noise ahead on the trail. I walked toward the sound, growing ever louder. Honking? I had heard a similar cacophony when geese were fighting over ownership of a particular spot. The volume increased with each step.

I crested a small rise and could now see the pond stretching into the distance. I realized that the voices I now heard were not birds, but a vast chorus of frogs. Their range was somewhat limited, but I could still pick out dozens of croaks ranging from second alto to perhaps baritone in pitch.

I walked carefully, not wanting to interrupt the performance. But, my presence seemed to affect the singers little. I approached the edge of the path, which then dropped a dozen feet or so quickly into the water. The overgrowth, however, kept me from seeing my crooners.

In my mind, these frogs could only be massive. The local acoustics were certainly not conducive, and yet they belted out their notes clearly. I envisioned soccer ball-sized amphibians crouched along the shore, with perhaps a conductor perched on a convenient lily pad.

A splash. Then another. Finally, I managed to follow one into the water and spotted his head. Why, these creatures were surprisingly small, no larger than the palm of my hand. Once I got the knack of spotting them, I saw them everywhere. Heads popping up out the water all around, with bellowing cheeks puffing up. Absolutely amazing how so much sound can come from such a tiny body.

I don’t know why, but I felt giddily joyous and could not repress a smile. Listening to this ensemble brought me true glee as I listened. The sound overwhelmed everything and I become lost in the music. The sound dominated the area, almost assuming a physical presence.

In the last years of his far too short life, jazz musician John Coltrane worked on a concept called a “wall of sound.” The intent was for the music to come together literally into a solid wall, so that the listener no longer distinguished individual notes. Some of the best examples seem, to ears unaccustomed to this music, almost noise. But, Coltrane had experienced a spiritual awakening and was pursuing what he considered cosmic music.

The din of my little green frog concerto brought me close to that sound. And when you hear that cosmic wall of sound, only joy results.

(please forgive the poor quality of the video – I didn’t even realize my phone took videos until I tried this morning)

Fear and Everyday Courage

This morning, as I drove to my Fellowship, an SUV flew by me in an active school zone going at least 45 MPH.  I watched him pass two more vehicles and pull into a gym parking lot.  I am still replaying the next 60 seconds in my mind.

I debated whether to act upon this opportunity and decided after a couple of seconds of deliberation that it was my duty to do so.  There were no children present and even the crossing guard had left.  But, that is not the point.  What if a child, late for school, had darted across the road?

So, I pulled into the parking lot and behind his vehicle.  As he got out, a large muscular fellow dressed in work out clothes, I rolled down my window and told him calmly that school zone speed limits exist for a reason.  He responded with a string of obscenities and moved threateningly toward me.  He obviously wanted to instigate a physical confrontation and intimidate me. I drove away.

As I came around to exit the parking lot, he stood in front of the car, again calling me names and picking a fight.  I felt I had made the point, drove around him and left.

I hate confrontation.  I guess to be more honest, I fear confrontation.  I suppose most reasonable people do.  That is why bullies are so often successful in getting their way regardless of the consequences or whatever rationale they have for their actions, if any.  Sitting here in the safety and security of my study, I’m not sure how I could have handled those 60 seconds any differently and still lived my principles.

I was afraid this morning. I am still shaking a little as I type this message.  But, if we all stand up to the bullies in our lives, who knows what good can come out of our actions down the road.  I talk and preach about Unitarian Universalism being a religion that emphasizes courage from my pulpit all of the time.  I also preach about nonviolence and peaceful conflict resolution every chance I get.

So, to that nameless driver this morning, I bear you no ill will and hope that whatever caused you to ignore our laws this morning in your haste will resolve itself.  Yes, you succeeded in making me feel afraid.  I left not only out of fear of the physical pain you seemed intent on dealing to me, but because it was apparent that any additional dialogue at that moment would be fruitless.  I can only hope that the next time you drive that road, you hesitate before putting a few seconds of your valuable time ahead of the safety of innocent children.  Staying to confront you further would have only provided you a destructive outlet for your anger.  I hope your gym work out provided a more constructive outlet.

Occupy Church – Christmas Day Sermon

Occupy Church
Christmas Day Sermon, December 25, 2011
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland
Rev. Jeff Liebmann

Chalice Lighting

We light this chalice as the flame within us,
But also as the beacon light for seekers,
The hearth flame for the homeless and hopeless,
And as the torch to engulf injustice

Opening Words
From “The Mood of Christmas” by Howard Thurman

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

Time for All Ages – Jericho Road

Throughout his ministry, learned people questioned Jesus, testing his knowledge of Hebrew law and his understanding of the Kingdom promised to the Jewish people. On one of these occasions, a lawyer asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied (one might imagine in a slightly condescending tone), “What is written in the law? What do you read there?…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Now, perhaps the lawyer saw this as an opportunity to trip up the young rabbi, for Jesus gave what might be considered a stock answer, quoting Leviticus 19:18 “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So, the lawyer asks a seemingly innocent question, “And who is my neighbor?” In his usual fashion, Jesus replied with this story, but with a somewhat shocking twist.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Now, any listener of the day knew that this road was notoriously dangerous and difficult. The Jericho Road was known as the “Way of Blood” for all the victims that had fallen to attacking thieves on its winding curves that were perfect for ambushes. Jesus continued, explaining that the man indeed fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

Jesus continues, saying that a priest (possible a Jewish Pharisee) was going down that road; and when he saw the prone victim, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite (who in this context is likely meant to portray a Jewish politician), when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. Now, we must be careful here. Our quick temptation would be to assume that Jesus is skewering Jewish religious and political leaders – which may well have been his intent. However, on the Jericho Road, one’s likely first assumption might well be that this situation may well be a trap and that a stopping traveler would himself be ambushed. Also, strict purity rules applied to priests and Levites that could well have prevented them from touching an apparently dead body.

Now, here comes the big twist. A Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

Now, the people of Samaria were not Jews. In fact, Samaritans were hated by Jesus’ audience. The Samaritans in turn hated the Jews. Tensions were particularly high in the early decades of the first century because Samaritans had desecrated the Jewish Temple at Passover with human bones.

So, when Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” the lawyer likely grudgingly says not “The Samaritan,” but rather, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

This important parable is only one of many times when Jesus clearly articulates that his message was not meant for only one people, but for all.

Reading
From “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” by Rev. Martin Luther King
(Speech delivered on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City)

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…

The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” …A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death…

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood….

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

Sermon – Occupy Church

When I tell people that I am a Unitarian Universalist minister, their faces usually assume a quizzical gesture that often does not go away even after I explain what that means. Sometimes, people have actually heard of us, even attended one of our congregations.

The reactions differ significantly when I attend a gathering of clergy. Non-Christians – rabbis, imams, Buddhist priests – almost universally welcome me into the group. Among the Christians, the reactions can vary across the widest spectrum. Some smile broadly, and share discussions of their participation in social action projects with Unitarian Universalist ministers. Others simply turn away.

Then there are the rare few who do little to hide their disdain, but stay to engage in theological debate. These ministers often dismiss my assertion that there are many Unitarian Universalists who consider themselves Christian. And when they learn that I consider myself a religious atheist, the intensity of the debate kicks up several notches. It is not uncommon to be grilled regarding my definition of words like “prayer,” “religion,” and other reverential terms.

When I have the opportunity, I ask them to describe to me the God they worship. Interestingly, they often articulate an essential, universal mystery that they are surprised to learn that I believe in, too. Often, the only real stumbling block arises over the nature of the man Jesus.

I explain that I believe that Jesus (or an amalgamation of concurrent prophets preaching the same message) existed. I agree with the essential teachings. I simply do not believe in his purported resurrection from the dead, the actual details of which the four canonical gospels wildly disagree.

But, that is enough. For these clergy, that one dogmatic assertion is all that matters to turn me into one of “them.” And this is such a shame. Because right now, at this critical juncture of our history, the great teachings of all the world’s religions have come together in common purpose.

For every major world philosophy and religion teaches against the pursuit of unbridled wealth, against greed, and against failing to care for your brothers and sisters as you would care for yourself. Charity is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. In the Mahabharata, Bhishma, one of Hinduism’s great yogis, names greed as the source out of which all other evil arises: “Covetousness alone is a great destroyer of merit and goodness. From covetousness proceeds sin. It is from this source that sin and irreligiousness flow, together with great misery. This covetousness is the spring also of all the cunning and hypocrisy in the world.”

The Tao Teh Ching tells us that, “There is no crime greater than greed.  No disaster greater than discontentment. No fault greater than avarice.” The Adi Granth, the holy book of the Sikhs, asks: “Where there is greed, what love can there be?” The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism teach us that enlightenment cannot be achieved so long as we suffer, and that suffering is caused by desire. Greed, hate, and ignorance are the Three Poisons that bind us to desire.

From the commandments against stealing and covetousness, to countless citations against greed, the Hebrew Bible abounds with warnings against the love of money. And, as one of the seven deadly sins (arguably the most important), Christian texts have spoken against greed for centuries.

But, let us return to the focus of this day. The four canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John generally portray Jesus as a relatively even-tempered, if passionate, person. When is the one time in all four accounts that he completely loses his temper? When he enters the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest place of his faith, and sees people buying and selling animals and changing money. He overturns the tables, and chases them away, even using a whip of cords in John’s account. One must find it interesting that even Jesus, the Prince of Peace and avowed opponent of taking up the sword, was moved to violence when the house of prayer was corrupted and perverted by those pursuing money.

My clerical colleagues and I often have very different concepts of “God,” of that unifying principle of life. Whatever form that force takes, however, we can all strive to tap into its power. Our Universalist ancestors preached this message by simply saying that “God is Love.” Even a nonbeliever, whether you are non-religious, agnostic, even atheist, can develop a willingness to accept that simple definition. We engage with the wonder and mystery of our universe, of all existence simply by loving each other. And if it helps some people to call that “God” so be it.

I know that many people struggle with that concept – not just the “God” label, but implications of accepting that God is Love. How do I love a stranger? How do I love my nameless neighbor, the co-worker I barely know, that clerk that makes my coffee in the morning? We start by caring. We start by stopping on the road and helping the beaten and robbed – by being as concerned for the well-being of everyone as for our own well-being.

Dr. King described this beginning in his speech: “This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all…This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept – so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force – has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of [humankind]. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:
Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

But, this is just the beginning. The next step is to tear up the Jericho Road we have paved with unchecked greed, corrupted oversight, and indifference. We must rip up that pavement and lay a new surface. We must root out the hiding places of the bandits, lining the highway with inviting paths and resting points. We must remove the tollbooths restricting access to free travel. We must straighten out the dangerous curves and widen the road so that all can walk together, side by side.

This work may be back-breaking. We will not always agree on the direction of the road, or how to traverse obstacles that arise. At times we may find ourselves laboring over a lonely stretch with no end in sight. And, let’s be realistic. We will not want for nay-sayers, people with money and power wishing to stop us in our quest, and for masses too consumed with their own lives to help us wield the picks and shovels.

But, this is the real work of Christmas – not pageants and concerts; not mangers and myth; and certainly not layaways and credit cards. The real work of Christmas is the message of Jesus, not the details of his birth – but rather to find the lost, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, and to rebuild the nations.

On several occasions during his ministry, Jesus articulated the roadmap for creating this new highway, the Kingdom he foresaw. The Beatitudes were blessings Jesus bestowed on all the people as a blueprint, a design for this new world that included Jews and Samaritans, priests and paupers, politicians and prostitutes.

Today, in the 21st century, we who are working in the here and now, striving to create a human world of equality and justice, can learn from these teachings. We can adapt them to our own actions in this life.

  • Blessed are the dispirited: for they most understand and welcome necessary changes to our broken and corrupted economic, political, and social systems.
  • Blessed are they that mourn: for they help others comprehend the depths of sorrow created by war, hate, greed, and ignorance.
  • Blessed are the nonviolent: for they shall model a better way to those who equate force with power and killing with justice.
  • Blessed are the searchers, the questioners: for they shall be open to new experiences and to finding new answers to our problems.
  • Blessed are the merciful: for every act of love and caring is returned to us one hundred-fold. A universal law of every human philosophy teaches us to love our neighbor as we would ourselves be loved.
  • Blessed are the sincere and innocent: for they understand that the business of humankind is not profit, but is humankind itself.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall lay the way to common purpose and understanding in society and in concert with our planet.
  • Blessed are those persecuted in the name of justice: for their sacrifice motivates us all to act and to have faith in the power of commitment and love.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins.

Prayerful Reflection

Spirit of life and love that we know by many names, be with us as we enter an attitude of reflection, meditation, and prayer.

Dr. King continued: Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.  Let it be so.

Extinguishing the Chalice/Closing Words

At the end of his speech, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Unitarian poet James Russell Lowell:
Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow keeping watch above his own.