Another World

I have been to Arizona before.  But this time, the landscape seems unfamiliar – almost alien.  I know this is still America, so perhaps the purpose of my journey offers a different and even a little scary perspective.

I am here with other Unitarian Universalist ministers and seminarians for a week-long border witness program, coordinated by the UU Service Committee’s College of Social Justice.  Our goal is to explore the circumstances affecting people seeking to live in the United States who lack the money and other privileges that make such travel easier.

Tucson is flat, desert country.  Saguaro and other cacti grow everywhere.  In the distance, the rocky Tucson Mountains jut quickly into the blue sky.  Definitely not the mountains of Appalachia.

I am not a tourist, nor am I here to effect any lasting change on the people of this arid clime.  I am an outsider, an observer, but I am not neutral.  I have set aside the routine matters of church and life to expose myself; to open myself to new perspectives.  I expect some of my worst fears to be confirmed – the immoral treatment of refugees; the heartlessness of a racist system of incarceration; and the madness of using centuries-old solutions to address a nonexistent problem.

But, I also seek signs of hope.  I want to see firsthand how people combat this injustice; how we can welcome the traveler without fear or reservation.  I want to find how to reverse my growing pessimism caused by the erosion of American ideals and basic tenets of human decency.

It is only a week, but I am ready.

One World

Kenneth Patton was one of my ministerial heroes. At the core of his theology lay the idea that all people share a common body of symbols and concepts. These shared icons, often articulated through art, unite us in purpose and community.

16145160_10211987048219858_1759818400_oWhen people seek to divide us, they treat those symbols as inviolate.  In reality, however, art is art and the symbols all represent the same human feelings and behaviors: Love each other; Do no harm; Respect the world; Honor the gifts each of us brings.

On this eve of leadership transition in the United States, the forces of disunity seem strong, almost insurmountable.  Our President Elect seeks unity through fear, acceptance through intimidation, and equality through benevolent despotism.  The challenge looms large.  We are justifiably frightened for the future.  The course of events leaves us bewildered – how did this happen?

Our new President happened because we allowed fear to cloud our reason. We failed to take a stand when oppressed neighbors suffered intimidation.  We confused volume with truth and celebrity with competence.

And so, we march.  Tomorrow, I join hundreds of thousands on a pilgrimage to our nation’s capital.  We march to take back the symbols of universal humanity from those who would desecrate them for profit and sustained privilege. We march for love, for kindness, for respect, and to honor our inherent worth and dignity.

Patton asked the question, “What is equality?”  He answered that nothing is equal since every creature is unique and unmatchable.  At the same time, everything is equal because every creature is equally unique and unmatchable.

America is already great.  Our wondrous diversity makes us strong.  Our commitment to democracy, freedom, and equality leads the world.  And our journey toward Beloved Community and a religion for one world offer everyone hope for tomorrow in spite of any setbacks.

Back in the Saddle

The pizzatorium is open for business again.  I completed a sabbatical over the summer, providing a long-needed break from commentary and agitation. Sadly, the causes demanding attention have not gone away – many have actually worsened.

For much of the fall, I watched the campaign of our now fascist-elect with disbelief.  As a student of the German state of mind in the Nazi era, I could not bring myself to believe that Americans would elect someone like Donald Trump.  And like almost everyone, I trusted the polls that never gave his campaign a chance to succeed.

The unthinkable has happened.  Why is no longer relevant.  What we do now is critical.

The time for sitting on the sidelines is over.  My path is clear.  As a minister possessing most of the categories of privilege this society offers, I must speak out and act up.  The clarion call must resound and signal the need for action.

In the coming months, I intend to be relentless in calling out hypocrisy and raising up opportunities to stand as allies with the legion of people threatened by this regime.  As Rachel Maddow says, “Watch this space.”

Truth and Meaning: A Call to Clergy

I know we do not agree on some matters of ethics and worldly conduct. We do not all share the same views on human development and the nature of the universe. And our churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship have varying approaches when participating in public discussions of political matters.

But, my brothers and sisters in faith, a crisis stands before us that our nation’s leaders seem powerless to resolve. The time has come for us to speak out and take the lead in the public conversation before more innocent blood spills on the ground, before we mourn another senseless tragedy of pain and death. As leaders of the faith community, we must stand united against the idolatry of guns in this country. We must speak with one voice and call for common sense laws controlling the sale of guns and the types of weapons available for ownership.

“Thus He will judge among the many peoples, and arbitrate for the multitude of nations, however distant; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks…they shall never again know war.” (Isaiah 2:4)

In recent years, many people have left our churches. Young adults in particular choose increasingly to seek spiritual inspiration outside our congregations. This trend stems from one simple fact: our message is no longer relevant in the modern age. Children slaughtered in schools; women shot in their homes by those who swore to love and protect them; and people seeking leisure in theaters facing a barrage of bullets. Our prayers for the victims are no longer enough. Our community needs to hear our voices raised in alarm demanding that decision-makers take a stand.

“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.’” (Matthew 26:52)

Two years ago, Michigan lawmakers considered a bill making it legal for anyone with a concealed weapon permit to carry guns into pistol-free zones: houses of worship, schools, day care centers, hospitals, college dormitories, and other public spaces. We testified in Lansing and defeated that misguided legislation. Now those same legislators are back calling for the same proliferation of weapons into our sacred spaces and into the other sanctuaries of our most vulnerable people (SB 442). We must rise up again, louder and in more numbers than before. We must crush such senseless bills forever or risk turning over our holiest places to the deification of guns.

“God guides whomever follows His good pleasure along the pathways of peace. And thereby, He brings them out from the veils of darkness into the light.” (Surah 5:16)

Each of our faith traditions classify or embody Evil in our respective theologies. Each of our religions condemn killing, especially the kind of murder we see all too often in mass shootings. Whatever your teachings, our current gun policies could not be more effective in facilitating these evil acts. Anyone can purchase pistols, or even semi-automatic rifles without a single background check. Anyone can purchase as much ammunition as they please without any oversight or control. No test of competency is required to purchase or use a gun, nor does any organized system of gun registration exist. If Satan walked the Earth, he could not design a more perfect environment for mayhem, grief, and death.

“All breathing, existing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain or treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away. This is the pure unchangeable law.” Jain Sūtrakṛtāṅga 

Our fight lies not with hunters, collectors, or those who promote training and responsible gun ownership. Who is our enemy? The fear and paranoia that grips so many now when it comes to gun ownership; the modern fetish for military-style weapons and armor-piercing bullets; and the lawless actions and violent rhetoric of anti-government militias and hate groups that spread lies and mistrust. Our enemies lurk like slavering beasts waiting to dismember and devour our flocks. We can watch over our people passively and cry wolf after the next attack, or we can demand better protections from future threats.

“A man is not an Ariya, an elect nobleman, when he injures living creatures. He is the true Ariya, an elect nobleman, who practices ahimsa, non-violence.” The Dhammapada 19:15

We must end our public silence that currently helps condemn thousands to die every year from gun violence. We must unite to prevent fear from continuing to trample reason and common sense. And we must set aside our doctrinal differences so that faith, hope, and love can replace weapons of mass killing on our sacred altars. Whatever name you use for the ultimate awe and mystery of all existence, guns are inconsistent with its beauty and wonder.

“This is a violent system…I don’t believe it can be defeated by violence…The system can be dismantled if we mobilize our radical imagination; if we create an alternate so inspiring and compelling that the masses of people who yearn for freedom and abundance will join us.” Starhawk

My brothers and sisters, we are not merely faith leaders. We are prophets and visionaries. We are healers and oracles. We are Abraham and Moses, Jesus and Mohammad, Gautama Buddha and Krishna, Brighid and Nanaboozhoo. If we speak as one against the senseless proliferation of killing weapons in this country, people will return to our churches. If we stand together, people will join us on this quest to make this a nation founded on the principles of love and caring for our neighbors, and not on the principle of “might makes right.” If we invoke our radical imaginations, then people will be drawn to our compelling message of inspiration.
As foretold by the prophet Hosea, that day will come when the bow, sword, and war will be banished from the land and we will dwell in safety. Let us join to make that golden age a reality.

Truth and Meaning: Hijacking God

Why do so many people drift away from the churches of their childhood? And why do so many of these individuals stop going to any type of church altogether?

I suspect the answer lies in frustration. I was raised in a Christian tradition. As a teenager, however, I found that the church of my birth lacked answers to the questions I was asking. So I went to other houses of worship — Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Jewish, Catholic, Methodist — and none provided satisfactory answers to my basic questions about the mysteries of life. The more I searched, the more frustrated I became. How could so many churches claim to have “the” truth when they couldn’t even answer my simple questions? How could each church proclaim to know the true nature of God without all of the other churches being wrong?
According to the “World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions,” there are 34,000 separate Christian groups in the world. Let us put that into perspective. There is nearly one distinct Christian group in the world for every Christian living in Midland. That means thousands of spiritual practices, thousands of Biblical interpretations, thousands of answers to great questions, and thousands of definitions of God. Major denominations, groups within denominations, sects within those groups, and an untold number of non-denominational, independent entities — and most claim to profess the uniquely correct understanding of the nature of God.
In Midland alone, there are roughly 100 Christian churches. Is it possible that each of these religious communities somehow has a different notion of God and how we should live our lives connected to that God? If so, what possible hope does the world have for peaceful co-existence?
In his song “Imagine,” John Lennon sang the words,

Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try
No hell below us, above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today.
Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too
Imagine all the people, living life in peace.

Some interpret Lennon’s life and words as those of someone opposed to religion; even an atheist. But this was not the case. Lennon was quite religious; just not in the same way as many other people here in the West.
What Lennon opposed was the unnecessary fracturing of the world of God’s children into separate religious tribes. Lennon opposed the arrogance of churches claiming to know truth, when no one can know for certain the nature of God.
I have my opinions on the nature of existence. I have discerned answers to the big questions in life that work for me. Whatever your religious affiliation, I respect your right to your own opinions, to your own discernment process. All I ask is that you respect mine in return.
Because no one gets to hijack God. No matter how strong your conviction, you don’t get to define God for others. If you allow your opinion about God to justify bad behavior toward those who do not share your views, then you are responsible for your prejudice and discrimination. You are responsible for the pain you inflict on others.
In the end, we are all flawed human beings. We cannot possibly know all truth because our brains are too wired with conflicting emotions, petty distractions, and learned biases. But, like Hindus, we can come together and agree that all spiritual paths eventually lead to God, whatever its nature. We can respect the paths we are on and not use our different journeys as an excuse to hate.
And if we agree with the Universalist attitude that God is love, then we can begin by practicing that belief. Whatever name we use for God, or even if we do not use the construct at all, we can love each other. We can help each other, serve each other, and walk with each other on the path of life.

Truth and Meaning: The Irony of Narrative

“How can you be a minster and have such hatred in your heart for the white race and the nation in general?”

No, I did not receive this message. This sentence was in one of the thousands of pieces of hate mail Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received during his lifetime.

But, I have received similar expressions. People have called me a hundred different derogatory names, belittled my credentials and misrepresented my opinions. If that is the price for taking public positions and seeking to expand the discourse on difficult, even painful issues, then I accept.

The recent growth of the Black Lives Matter movement has given rise to some interesting and ironic arguments. Many Americans take tremendous pride in the manner by which our nation was founded. As oppressed peoples, we rebelled violently against our oppressors, even resorting to nontraditional tactics in that day to kill our enemy. We rebelled against unfair taxation, under-representation, restraint of our livelihoods and the excessive militarization of the government’s law enforcement agents.
Does this sound familiar? In the wealthiest nation in the world, we still have aggressively systemic poverty that disproportionately affects people of color. Our criminal justice system detains and convicts African American suspects to a far greater degree than those with light skin. The voting rights of minorities are under constant siege. And hardly a week passes without another brutal and almost completely avoidable execution of a black person by police.
We fund a war machine to the tune of trillions while we cut funding to school lunches and early childhood education. We call welfare recipients freeloaders and leeches while candidates for president brag about declaring bankruptcy and defaulting on their debts to hard working people who performed services for them in good faith. We begrudge people a living minimum wage while corporate CEO pay exceeds the cost of a minivan for one day of work.
If Tamir Rice had been your son playing in Plymouth Park, wouldn’t you be angry? If the police pulled you over routinely for “driving while white,” wouldn’t you be frustrated? If your child got sent to prison for the possession of marijuana while bankers who destroyed our economy received a bailout, wouldn’t you feel hopeless?
If so, then you feel a fraction of what most Black people in America feel every day.
The American narrative rightfully evokes a spirit of pride and patriotism. Like hundreds of millions, I love America. But, I have trouble loving America when it resembles 18th century England in its treatment of those it treats as lesser citizens. I cannot meld the theory of American freedom and justice with the current reality faced by our poor, our people of color, our gay and transgender people and other oppressed Americans.
The Founders of our country were religious men and women, people of faith. They had faith that their cause was just and that they had the right to self-determination and fair treatment. Americans today have those same expectations. But the promise of our Founders remains unfulfilled because of racism, homophobia, sexism, ageism, xenophobia and many other forms of intolerance.
I support the #BlackLivesMatter movement because it serves as a wake-up call to those who love America. This movement reminds us of those left behind by the American dream, those still abandoned by our lofty principles. The time is long overdue for us to make good on the promise of the American Revolution to free all of the prisoners, to feed the hungry and house the homeless, and to give hope to those without hope.

Elephants in the Room Interfaith Presentation

I led this presentation at the Mid-Michigan Interfaith Dialogue Symposium in Freeland on April 19, 2015.  The topic was how to make “church” more relevant, especially for Millennials, by rationally addressing difficult moral issues, such as abortion and homosexuality.  My contention is that many religions are declining because of dualistic thinking on these issues when, in fact, the sacred texts are ambiguous at best.

Truth and Meaning: Brokenness

We live in a society intolerant of difference, of error, of being less than whole. And yet, our society is populated by human beings, who are by definition imperfect, frequently wrong, and broken.

Many organized religions attribute this circumstance to our separation from the sacred center of the universe or whatever name for the oversoul one prefers. A strictly scientific view simply recognizes the biological reality that organisms suffer from natural diseases, mutations, and variations within ecosystems filled with challenges to our survival. A third view is that our historic ancestors angered god who subsequently punished us with imperfection for our failures.

Sadly, humanity has killed itself by the millions arguing over whose story is correct, rather than focusing on fixing the brokenness. Whether we are broken because we lack enlightenment, good enough science, or strong enough faith, the fact is that these are not mutually exclusive concerns. A Buddhist can still agree that scientific research has great value reducing human suffering and that Abraham, Jesus, Mohammad were great bodhisattvas. An atheist, humanist scientist can still find worth in the calming practice of meditation and the soothing ritual of devotion and commitment to religious community. And a believer in Original Sin can find solace in the notion that we will eventually achieve the gnosis to attain salvation and that reason can ease our path along the way.

Our brokenness is not the problem. How we cope, or fail to cope, with our brokenness is the problem. Mental illness is not the problem. Stigmatizing the mentally ill and providing inadequate care for sufferers is. Addiction is not the problem. Failing to provide treatment and support for the addict is. Domestic violence is not the problem. Continuing to promote the objectification of women in our rape culture is. Poverty is not the problem. But failing to dismantle institutionalized systems of social, economic, and political oppression is.

There is a parable told in many ways about a village next to a river. One day a villager noticed someone drowning in the river. The villager quickly swims out to save the person from drowning. The next day, the villagers save two drowning people. The following day, four people are caught in the rushing current. The villagers organize themselves quickly, setting up watchtowers and training teams of swimmers who can resist the swift waters. Rescue squads are soon working 24 hours a day. But each day the number of drowning people increases, reaching the point where the villagers cannot save all of the drowning people. Finally, someone asks the question, “Where are all these people coming from? Let’s organize a team to head upstream to find out who’s throwing all of these people into the river in the first place!”

America is drowning. All the watchtowers, lifeguards, and band-aid solutions will never solve the problem. We must venture upriver to stop those who are throwing people into the river. We must stop those who love power and money more than people. We must stop the lunatics who believe that we can bomb enemies to freedom. And we must stop electing willfully ignorant politicians who cater to the wealthy to the detriment of the People.

Letting Go of Religion

We spend our whole lives letting go. We let go of things, places, people and ideas. Sometimes letting go is easy — we make a gift to give to a friend, we leave one job for a better one, we pack our belongings and move into a new home.

Other times, letting go can be challenging — we end a relationship with a loved one, we lose an heirloom, a favorite store closes its doors. Sometimes, letting go can be traumatic. A thief steals a car or valuable property. A fire destroys your home. A cherished love one dies. But, perhaps most traumatic of all is letting go of ideas.

From birth, we are blank slates, constantly written upon by parents, siblings, teachers and perfect strangers. Every scribble enters our mind and gets categorized into our identities, our sense of self, and our moral compass. And when we enter our teen years, we naturally begin to question whether or not that developed identity indeed reflects who we really are. We begin to question the easy dichotomies of Western thinking: good/evil; rich/poor; liberal/conservative; male/female; believer/non-believer.

The regressive mind will resist these questions, falling back on stock answers and dogmatic teachings learned throughout childhood. They will refuse to let go of comfort, privilege and even irrational beliefs that give them satisfaction.

Others will explore, willing to consider letting go of ideas, but the quest is a perilous one and not without its dangers. The act of questioning alone may cause us to let go of seeming truths and of self-obvious paradigms. These explorers may fall into a valley of doubt; they may climb a mountain rejecting everything and become hardened skeptics; or they may simply become lost and hopeless facing a foggy world they cannot change and are doomed to endure. But, those who make the quest along the valleys, over the mountains and through the fog emerge as seekers.

And the seeker is prepared to develop a progressive mind. And it is the progressive mind that is best suited to keep ideas that make sense and to let go of those that do not. The progressive mind thinks beyond its own happiness and comfort and concerns itself with the common good. The progressive mind lets go of asking “Why?” in favor of asking “Why not?”

As a minister, my expertise is religion. Young progressive minds often let go of religion once they find that their Sunday School stories don’t match the world’s reality. Young progressive minds often let go of religion when it makes irrational demands, rejects people who think differently and disempowers women, LGBTQ folk and other oppressed people.

But, letting go doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” proposition, either. I can let go of a label without completely erasing all that comes with that label. The choice is not between being Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or not. The question is whether there is truth and meaning to be found in any religion — perhaps in all religions — as you continually reshape your identity.

Sometimes, we rationalize letting go as an irretrievable loss. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even if you feel betrayed by your religious upbringing, I believe that there is value in religion for the young progressive mind. For me, of course, Unitarian Universalism is one such religion. We support same-sex marriage, reproductive justice, environmentalism and most other progressive causes. I am a religious atheist and mystical humanist, serving a congregation with a wide range of opinions and beliefs.

So, as you let go of ideas, as you question the teachings of your youth, always leave the door open to keep the pieces of the past that make sense. The progressive mind never closes any door completely.

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.