Sermons 2008-09

Last Lecture (or Sermon)

Last Lecture (or Sermon)
Rev. Douglas Taylor

Part One: Exposition of the Theme

About a year and a half ago, Computer Science Professor and Unitarian Universalist Randy Pausch delivered his “Last Lecture” as part of the Carnegie Mellon “Last Lecture Series.” Respected academics are asked to reflect on their lives, to consider what matters most to them, and then to deliver a ‘final discourse,’ a Last Lecture. The concept was: If you had one last lecture to give before you died, what wisdom would you offer your students and colleagues? They re-titled the series “Journeys” but Randy brought the old name back and poignantly brought back that original concept. Randy had been diagnosed with cancer earlier that year and had months left to live. It really was his ‘last’ lecture.

Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church had developed esophageal cancer in 2006 and was given months to live. Church delivered his ‘Last Sermon’ and was blessed to offer reprise and encore sermons as his cancer went into remission. He retired from the position of Senior Minister at All Souls in New York City, and became their Minister of Public Theology. Now every time he enters the pulpit, which has been only a handful of times over the past year, every time is his ‘Last Sermon.’ For decades Forrest Church has been saying. “Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” That has been the Forrest Church quote, and now, now he not only says it – he lives it.

From time to time ministers and professors take up this hypothetical topic, occasionally it really is the last time. Country songs, bluegrass and old-timey music will venture into this realm as well. There has been a song on the radio “Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.” The song tells of skydiving and bull riding, offering forgiveness and watching an eagle soar. There is a movie called “The Bucket List” that was quite good. The concept was based on the college assignment: make a list of things you want to do before you die, before you kick the bucket. What would you do? What advice would you impart to others? And if you were offered a chance to tell others about living and dying, what would you say?

I will answer the question myself, but I will also open our time up for any of you to offer your answer.

Part Two: My Last Sermon

If I were really facing one last chance to say something wise and important for you (and anyone who might find this talk later), I suppose it would center on this: Life is too serious to be taken so seriously. I once quipped at a minister’s meeting, “If we’re not having fun, why are we doing it?” In response, one of my colleagues suggested that this was surely my motto for ministry and for life. I’ve considered that. I’d meant it only as a joke, a flip response to whatever was under discussion at that moment; but in a way, Yes, that is my motto. If we’re not having fun, why are we doing it? Well, there could be many very good and important reasons to do something that is not fun. I’m not suggesting we stop doing things that are not fun, there are important things to do which we do because they must get done – not because they are fun. But then, couldn’t we add a little fun into it? I’m not recommending a personal hedonism to trump all else – simply the question: can we add some joy to the task? Can we have some light?

The light we can bring to the difficulties that surround is so valuable a contribution. My call for enjoyment amidst the travails of life is not simply caviler banter. Joy is a powerful agent for spiritual growth; and our capacity for joy is a sign of faith and maturity – both to find joy for ourselves and to offer joy to others. The rotten things in life do threaten to overwhelm; the news is filled with violence and fear, our lives are beset with loss and struggle. And yet there is beauty, and yet there is love. There is laughter and friendship and hope. We are more powerful and resilient then we usually give ourselves credit. And, interestingly, I suspect the root of this sort of strength and power lies not in having something or holding on to something. Instead this strength comes from learning to let go, from learning to open up and be vulnerable. This power and joy is borne of a certain form of forgiveness.

Recently during a conversation, someone commented that I was a forgiving person. I brushed the compliment off saying it came with the territory of being a minister. But in fairness, several people over the years have pointed out to me that I have a non-judgmental and forgiving character. I prefer to see it as being realistic. I feel it is important to have reasonable expectations of myself and others, and to balance those expectations with an appreciation that we are all bound to fail and make mistakes. Another friend once said, to make the point that I was the most non-judgmental person he knew, that if he ever ended up in prison he knew he could call me and I would not think less of him. And to flesh out the story, this friend is about the last person I would ever expect to end up in prison. I suppose I think of it theologically. As a Universalist I believe we are all loved and the power of that love is stronger than any mistakes we can make. This is a really good thing because we all make mistakes: big ones, little ones. We do it all the time.

This past week as we were beginning the Spirit of Life class I was trying to light the chalice. I was having trouble getting the candle to stay lit. After fumbling a few times, a good flame finally took. The next activity was to go around the circle and each say our name and identify a source of joy. Well, the first thought that came to my mind as I began this (my mind still on the fumbled candle lighting) was to say ‘I find joy in my mistakes.’ But that is not what I said out loud. For the group I named my children as a source of joy. This is certainly true (no mistake!); yet my first answer, though flip, holds a creative truth as well.

The mistakes you make count far less than the way you handle them. Do you wallow in them, do you let yourself be defeated by them, do you use them as an excuse to give up? Or you do get back up and begin again? Can you learn from your mistakes? If not, why bother having any! I think mistakes are valuable experiences. They remind us that we are not perfect.

The point of life is not to be perfect, it is not to be whole; the point is to shine your light through your brokenness. I offered a whole sermon on this point at the beginning of the year, but it bears repeating. Ease up, be more forgiving. And start with yourself. That part of the Great Commandment when it says to love your neighbor as yourself implies that must start with yourself. Your own mistakes, your own faults, sins, and failings, these are the cracks through which your compassion can shine. Be forgiving of yourself and begin to see a joy in your mistakes. They happen, you might as well enjoy them, learn from them, grow because of them. Be forgiving of yourself and begin to see how you can be forgiving of others. Begin to see the joy in other’s mistakes because you can take joy in your own. Some people take a perverse joy in the mistakes of others because it helps them to deny and disguise their own mistakes. I counsel the opposite: learn to laugh at your own broken self that you may help others learn to see and enjoy the same in themselves.

Now, the flip side of this is to not spend a lot of your time and energy on the negative things in life. What you pay attention to shapes your outlook of life. Pay attention to the good stuff, not dwelling on your mistakes. I’m not suggesting you spend a lot of time thinking about your mistakes. Instead, when you are faced with your faults and failures, find a way to learn from them, to forgive yourself of them, or to grow beyond them. Don’t dwell on them. Pay more attention to the good things in your life, seek out the good in yourself and in others. Pay more attention to the joy and the light.

So, there you go, that is my message: joy and forgiveness. Oh, also: tell your loved ones that you love them, use your life to bless others, and everyone should wear more purple.

In a world without end, may it be so

Prayer as Spiritual Aikido

Prayer as Spiritual Aikido
Rev. Douglas Taylor

When I pray, my habit is to use one of two particular methods that I have developed. With the breadth of belief among us in this congregation in terms of the nature of God, I will not assume there to be among us any uniform way of accessing or connecting to that which is holy. But prayer is a perennial spiritual discipline and warrants our communal attention by any standard. Myself, I am somewhat eclectic in terms of this spiritual discipline and over the years have fluctuated around several practices and ritual forms. Perhaps this has been the case for you?

I have tried walking meditations, intentional Zen-style emptying meditations, private spoken prayers, communal spoken prayers, daily devotional readings, contemplative journaling, singing, drumming, listening, loving, laughing, weeping, and wandering in the woods. I have sung to the wind my joy and have shouted my pain to the swaying pines.  I have knelt on the floors of cathedrals and at the shores of quiet lakes.  I have held lonely hands at hospital bedsides, have felt the long embrace of dear friends and have listened alone in the long hungering silence. Over the years, each of these practices has fed me, springing up in my need or curiosity. But all through the years there has been, and will likely always be, two practices that have stuck.

In a recent book Simply Pray, colleague Erik Wikstrom writes about a very Unitarian Universalist approach to prayer. He begins by briefly outlining the four classic types of prayer: praise and thanksgiving, confession, meditation, and intersession. Praise and thanksgiving is naming the holy and the sacred in our lives and lifting up our gratitude. Confession is a broader version of a prayer for forgiveness; it involves knowing yourself and seeking after your better self. Meditation is listening in quietness for that ‘still small voice within.’ And intersession is reaching out with love and concern for the hurt in the world. Another way to think of it is that we all have a yearning, a longing to connect beyond the day-to-day mundane ordinariness of life. We seek to connect. Prayer is a vehicle of connection.

In what I believe is the revealing clue that Wikstrom’s book about prayer is a Unitarian Universalist book about prayer is the passage in which – to make that point that the form classic forms of prayer are universal – the author notes the parallel forms in the secular world. The practice of keeping a gratitude journal for therapy is much like the version of prayer known as praise and thanksgiving. Confession is quite similar to the 12-step process of taking a “fearless moral inventory.” Certain forms of basic stress relaxation are clearly meditation. And while intersession is perhaps the most distained form of prayer in the secular world, even this has a parallel found in the notions around the power of positive thinking and the multiple permutations that follow.

But the most compelling argument for talking about the four classic forms of prayer is to notice them and then forget about them. They are useful for labeling and categorizing, but mostly one must begin not with labels but with actual experiences. As with our opening hymn: There is music in the air, there is trouble in the air, there is gladness in the air … these are the experiences. The concluding statement of each verse, ‘there must be a God somewhere,’ is a belief statement that may or may not fit. We begin with our experiences and we then reach for our own ways of naming those experiences. Prayer ought to be a process of articulating that longing.

For me, prayer is a technique for maintaining or restoring balance. And, as I have mentioned so far, while I take advantage of multiple styles, there remain two methods of prayer that are continually of help. I use meditative listening and a form of centering prayer. Both practices focus on balance for me. And in fairness to the theory of four classic styles of prayer, I can fit them into the slots. What I call meditative listening looks very much like classical meditation. And the way I use the centering prayer it is rather like praise and thanksgiving. But functionally, they both serve to help me regain or maintain balance.

The centering prayer is based on the idea or repeating a phrase in your head as a focusing mantra. The one I use is “My God, my One; my God, my All.” A centering prayer can use any phrase. As with the koan from Buddhist tradition, an irrational question is meant distract higher parts of the brain. The phrase gives your thinking self something to focus on while you empty yourself. Repeating the phrase with a certain intent helps quell the other inner noise that arises.

It is amazing how the initial attempts to have inner quiet can call forth all manner of flitting distraction. Often, someone new meditating is lucky to maintain two contiguous seconds of inner quiet. At first, the repeating of this phrase feels more a plea than praise. It is a like a safety line we grasp. It allows the mind a touch-point to return to, to hold to while all else is leaping. There was a time when I could get so discombobulated that I would use two completely different centering phrases to keep myself focused.

But over time, for me this practice developed away from being a struggle to focus, a fight to be in control of my own thoughts. Like with physical exercise when over time the muscles grow used to the work and they strengthen; so too with spiritual exercise, over time the mind or will grows used to the work and strengthens. Now, reciting the centering phrase is as a song of praise. It truly becomes something other than a crutch to help quiet the mind. It becomes a prayer, a focused prayer of praise and gratitude.

This practice also opened up the second regular technique I’ve been doing: the meditative listening. When I think about it, this is pretty much the centering prayer without the mantra. It is simply listening to the world around me, to the world within me, to the person before me, to the still small voice of God. This helps me maintain balance, an aspect of living that has not always been in sufficient quantities before I learned to pray. But this is not simply because I had grown up in an alcoholic home. I suspect many people are out of balance, especially nowadays. The standard template of living these days is, in a word, “busy.” And ‘busy’ simply is not naturally balanced. It is, by definition, impossible to pay attention to what you are doing when you are multi-tasking on three or four different things!

Paying attention is key to balance. And what do you do if something major comes into your life when you are out of balance? What if there is a serious illness of the death of a loved one, job loss, or other significant tragedy? Let me invite you into an extended metaphor that may illuminate this well. It may even prove to be not simply a metaphor, too.

When we were living down in the Washington D.C. area, our older two children became involved with a martial art called Aikido.  We found the Aikido lessons of such value for the kids, we did not mind in the least the 45 minute drive each way to get to the dojo, a trek we took at least three times a week.  Aikido is a martial art based on non-violence.  It emphasizes rolls and how to fall without getting hurt rather than punches and how to throw other people.  Aikido is about balance. It was founded in Japan in the first half of the 20th century and has developed a noticeable following in America after World War II along with many martial arts, of course. The principle difference from other martial arts such as Karate and Jujitsu is that in Aikido you do not try to meet your opponent’s force and overwhelm it, you try to move out of the way of your opponent’s force and control it.  Instead of blocking a punch and hitting back, you step to the side, allow the punch to follow through by grasping the other person’s wrist and pulling them off balance.

There is an elegant connection to some of the concepts of Taoism. On conceptual rendering the 69th chapter of Tao Te Ching reads, in part, “The martial master understands how to yield and triumph.  When his opponent’s blow arrives, he is not there.  He moves, yet maintains position, bends, but stays balanced.  … Thus in yielding, you will truly triumph.”  (The Parent’s Tao Te Ching) Do not meet force with greater force; allow the energy to flow past you. When a person is off balance they are not a threat.

Seeing the philosophy spelled out I cannot help but think of Dr. King’s concept of ‘soul force’ and Gandhi’s non-violent direct action. In each case there is a great deal of work on self-control rather than controlling others. In the Dharmmapada it says, “If a man practices himself what he admonishes others to do, he himself, being well-controlled, will have control over others.  It is difficult, indeed, to control oneself.”(#159) Aikido certainly taught my children balance and how to deflect and control another person’s energy with balance.  I have seen that it also gave them an inner balance to control their own energy.

The primary work of Aikido is to learn how to receive the energy of an attack and transform that energy back onto the attacker. In other words, the enemy’s own energy is ultimately used to defeat them. Now, I am far from the first to suggest that such ideas are not limited to the tangible physical world. The “enemy” need not be a thug with a knife set to mug you. Indeed, the principles of Aikido can be applied to emotional and spiritual “enemies” such as anger or spiritual despair. We can learn techniques to receive and integrate the energy of internal or external enemies and to transform this energy back onto that which attacks us.

One practitioner offers this simple example:

There are times when you’re just turning a bolt on a wrench and I find myself at arm’s length to the job. I think “Well, am I in my range of effectiveness?” and I pull in and it’s easier to work because I’ve found the proper distance. [In Aikido,] it’s the same principle. I’m in my range when I can naturally turn the wrench. I’m out of it when I’m extended.

… [Another one shares] an application of Aikido in a social situation.

I practice Aikido every single day of my life. I’m in sales, and it’s been the greatest thing for my sales. It has been. The idea of, if I’ve had a lot of unhappy customers, a lot of rejections, whatever it might be, and for me, that’s an attack. And to be able to take this energy, and redirect it to a more neutral position, so it ends up in a win-win scenario, that’s Aikido. That’s the best Aikido.
(from “Aikido as Spiritual Practice in the United States” by Peter W. Boylan, M.A.)

Another practitioner commented on the applications to a spousal relationship, seeing an argument with his wife not as something to win or lose. Instead, notice the level of the argument that plays out in the energy. You may still get angry – if you are human, you will still get angry at times – but (if you think of it as energy) you can remain in balance and allow the other person’s energy to move past you. And maybe this is not just at the level of metaphor anymore, I’m not certain. But I caution you to not consider your spouse to be the “enemy” or the “attacker” as Aikido terminology would have it. Perhaps your own anger is the “enemy.”

Think of something that causes you to become angry or disheartened. Now think of that external negative stuff in terms of energy coming toward you and your anger or despair is the counter energy you are presenting back. In the same way an Aikido practitioner would see an attacker in terms of energy and would step to the side, grasping the attacker’s wrist and allowing the energy to sweep past – you can do that with those things that cause you anger or despair. We can practice a spiritual aikido. We can learn to apply a peaceful redirection of energy deeply grounded in the principles of nonviolence. We can pay attention to the energy, step to one side while grasping a corner of it to be sure it keeps moving along.

A recent search has turned up an Aikido club on the BU campus and a dojo up in Norwich that I think I will look into. But Aikido is meant as an extended metaphor about how prayer can be a vehicle toward restoring and maintaining balance. Whether you use prayer as a development of a relationship as the western religious traditions and certain indigenous religious traditions teach, as an internal dialogue as the secular understanding offers, or as the process of enlightenment into the oneness of the universe as eastern religious traditions hold – however it works for you, I believe we all need the balance we can learn from prayer.

In a world without end
May it be so

Creation Unfolding

Creation Unfolding
Rev. Douglas Taylor

The part that really caught my attention was the idea that evolution is not a meaningless, blind process driven by chance and random happenstance. Because I was sitting in the room listening for the connections that where promised and that was one of them. The topic was ‘The Marriage of Science and Religion.” The speaker was Michael Dowd. He spoke here last summer. And one of the points of connection he offered around the marriage of science and religion was that evolution is not a meaningless, blind process driven by chance and random happenstance; which flies in the face of our conventional understanding of evolution.

Religion is the arena of meaning and the purposefulness of existence. Religion offers us why while science sticks to the realm of how. Right? Science asking questions of what and how, religion asking questions of why and what for; together they lead us into deeper understanding of nature and human nature.  Most of the work of bringing them together lies in not confusing them. Don’t look to religion to find out how old the earth is or how to cure disease. Don’t ask science to explain suffering or hope or the mystery of existence.  Science and religion are two tools for discovering truth. But they are used for different kinds of truth. If you want to cut a piece of wood, the tool you choose should not be a fishing net. If you want to write a love letter, don’t use a hammer. Different tools accomplish different tasks. Science and religion are two tools for discovering truth, best not mix them up. Right?

So, when someone comes along suggesting we not exactly mix them up so much as to mix them together, well it peaks the interest.

The part that really caught my attention, as I said, was this notion of directionality – that evolution holds an implication of purpose. All along, Darwin and other scientists have claimed evolution rests on random chance of mutation to make the next step. Science offered no concept that the change that has occurred through the random mutation could be considered progressive, that there is a direction. It has always been religion that says life is the way it is on purpose and is moving forward according to plan. God had this plan and created the tongue of the anteater to fit down the ant hill, the beak of the hummingbird to fit into the depths of the flower, the slight S curve of the human spine to facilitate an upright position, the hollow bones of a bird to aid in flight. It’s all part of the plan, part of the design. And then along comes Darwin debunking ‘design.’

His theory of Natural Selection describes the mechanism for adaptation among species. Darwin’s grand contribution to science and the theory of evolution is the articulation of the process of natural selection. And what are selected are mutations that happen randomly; by definition, mutations are accidents. Life evolves by accident, evolutionary science tells us. Yet religion offers a plan for life. Choose between the two, you can’t have both. Either it is by plan as Religion tells us, or by happenstance as science offers. Choose.

Into this milieu comes the foray of Michael Dowd and others who choose a third path. In his recent book Thank God for Evolution, Dowd writes this about randomness vs. directionality:

“Stephen Jay Gould popularized an understanding of evolution that focused on the roll of randomness and chance. “Rewind the tape” of evolution, he would say, and imagine the whole process unfolding from the start once again: everything would be different. At one level, this interpretation is indisputably true: the species would surely be different: there would be no white oak, no gray whale, no emu. But at another level, the level that matters most to me and surely many others, the central issue is whether there would be eyes to see, whether there would be trees reaching into the sky, whether there would be creatures scampering on land, flying through the air, and perhaps swimming in the sea but needing to surface for air. We wonder, too, whether there would be a form like us, who would come to know and celebrate the 14-billion-year story of the Universe. I am convinced that the best answer is an unqualified Yes!”
(Michael Dowd, Thank God for Evolution p 31)

I’ll be specific with an example Dowd offers against the idea that evolution is a meaningless, blind process driven by chance and random happenstance. If you have ever followed the debates against the randomness of evolution by the creationists and the proponents of Intelligent Design you will be aware of the argument of Irreducible Complexity. Look at the eye, they say, or the wing. For the eye or wing to evolve by a random series of mutations is neigh on inconceivable. It’s mindboggling. For there to be a workable eye or wing, there must be some hundred or so mutations occurring all at once, half an eye doesn’t work. Half a wing is less than helpful, it is a dramatic hindrance. It must be the whole wing. And, then for the Natural Selection portion of it to work, there also has to be another member of the species of the opposite sex who has the same hundred or so mutations occurring simultaneously; and then these two need to find one another and mate for the mutation to be naturally selected. It is something like the monkey’s typing scenario. Yes, eventually – given enough time – a thousand monkeys will randomly type out a Shakespeare play, but one computation has the probability at one in a billion billion years. And if the Big Bang theory of the Universe is even remotely correct, the time span we’re talking about for quote “all of time” is a mere 14 billion years, and less than 4 billion for quote “life as we know it.”

And yet we have eyes. We have eyes like a squid’s, but our eyes are very different from an insect’s eyes which are more like those of a lobster’s. And the pinhole eye of a nautilus and the eye of the snail are each wildly distinct from our eyes. And yet, the universe has again and again produced simple photoreceptors capable of distinguishing between light and dark, and more complex organs able to sense shape, color, and texture. Again and again: eyes. Not once, but at least a dozen different times the evolutionary leap of eyes has happened. As Dowd says, “Surely the Universe was determined to see itself!” (p31)

So, what exactly is being suggested here? That the Intelligent Design people re scientifically right? Is Dowd suggesting that he and other noted scientists, theorists, biologists, and philosophers like John Stewart, Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, Simon Conway Morris, David Sloan Wilson, and Ken Wilber, are conceding the debate to the Intelligent Design folks. No. Instead they are acknowledging compelling evidence that evolution has something of a trajectory. Something other than chance is at play. But saying that ‘chance’ does not explain everything is a far cry from saying that the description of events in Genesis will fill in all the blanks. No, what is being suggested is not a concession to the Creationists. But there is a clear claim that evolution is not as random as was once believed. There is a pattern or series of patterns that suggest a direction, a general trajectory. No one is claiming that the pattern is pure progress. It has been said that evolution meanders more than it progresses. Progress carries the tone that every step is a step forward, an improvement. But over the long haul there are clear indications of increased differentiation and depth, greater complexity and integration.

Ken Wilber writes, in A Brief History of Everything, “Evolution has a direction, yes, a principle of order out of chaos, as it is commonly phrased. In other words, a drive toward greater depth.” (p36) Progressive evolution, as Wilber is advocating here, is an idea that takes Darwin’s theories to the next, more complicated and creative level. Not all evolutionary scientists support this idea. This notion of ‘progressive evolution’ is in open debate among scientists today. It has been said that Darwin’s great contribution was not the idea of evolution so much to identify the process by which evolution happens: natural selection. This week marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. It is a fitting occasion to recognize his monumental impact on our understanding of life. Darwin demonstrated that from this process, natural selection, the natural and inevitable result was evolution. Centuries before Darwin, people saw patterns, relationships that suggested something like evolution. An analogy that helps clarify this is from John Stewarts’s book Evolution’s Arrow in which he writes (p9) “Like patterns of stars in the night sky that resemble shapes significant to humans, the consistencies could be dismissed as the product of creative imagination, not the result of real, causal relationships.” But it was Darwin who supplied the mechanism. Before Darwin, people noticed the patterns and wondered. Now we see the same patterns and recognize the causal relationship of common ancestry and natural selection. Thus the analogous question arises today: what would be the mechanism for the pattern that appears to be an evolutionary trajectory?

If evolution has a drive for greater complexity and creativity, depth and differentiation, then what is that drive? Well, it is something as simple as Natural Selection. It is Cooperation. Evolution organized molecules into cells and cells into organisms and organisms into societies. The model is exemplified by a single cell bacteria merging with another single cell bacteria to form the first Eukaryotic cells. This evolutionary innovation of cooperation opened the door for all multi-cellular organisms. Science says “cooperate!” But isn’t that religion’s line? “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” or to paraphrase: ‘help one another.’

The next question would have to be ‘why?’ Why would any single organism cooperate with another? Well, for religion, the reason is because the book says so, or better, because my heart knows it is the right thing to do. Neither of those answers will serve for science though. So, scientifically, why would any single, Self-interested organism cooperate with another? Stewart tackles that question early in his book.
“How can evolution progress by exploiting these benefits of cooperation when, as Richard Dawkins and others have shown so clearly (in books like The Selfish Gene), evolution favors organisms that put their own selfish interests above all else? We will see that there is a solution to this apparent paradox: cooperation can flourish without organisms giving up their self-interest. Organisms can be organized so that beneficial cooperation is also consistent with their self-interests. When organisms are organized in this way, it is in their self-interest to be cooperative.” (Stewart, John Evolutions Arrow p10)

Cooperation is the root of the argument for the trajectory of evolution. Organisms who cooperate will out-compete those who do not! Cooperation is in an organism’s best interest. Evolution moves toward greater cooperation and thus greater depth and complexity, integration and differentiation. Now, from what I can understand, this is not necessarily a happy consensual agreement as we think of ‘cooperation’ today. The general theory of the development of that first Eukaryotic cell includes the notion that the oxygen-related mitochondria was originally a parasite; and similarly, the precursor to the photosynthesis structures in plant cells was originally ingested as food but was thankfully resistant to the digestive juices. (from Dowd, p36) Yet, that cooperation led to the dramatic innovations allowing life to evolve to such depths of creativity and complexity.

And thinking about this beyond the disciple of biology, (in case you are completely lost by all this biology,) the concept of society is rooted in the notion that we can evolve greater complexity when we cooperate. Our modern society is nothing if not a study in increased complexity in terms of technology, economy, politics, relationships, and entertainment. But much of that complexity is a product of societal cooperation: a commitment to the concept of the commons. Indeed one of the strongest religious critiques against society now is the insufficient respect for the potential benefit of cooperation. If our laws would actually punish greed rather than reward it we might find some of our best and brightest working to make the world a better place rather than just getting as big a piece of it as possible for themselves. But our society is far more reliant on cooperation than our news headlines would suggest. I’m guessing every one here has access to a pen. How much did you do independently to get that pen? Aside from the invention and innovation and improvement of design and style over the years, your particular pen was crafted by a machine, quite likely. But who built that machine? Who cleans the pen-making machine? Who packaged your pen and who delivered it to the store where you bought it? Who stood behind the counter and rang up the price of the pen? Who determined what the pen would cost? It’s endless.

And all that cooperation was not in the form of some altruistic effort to get you your pen. At each step the goal was more self-interest than a passionate effort to further the cooperative aspect of human evolution. Consider any aspect of your life. You would not exist if not for cooperation. And we lift up individuals as inventors, heroes, presidents, ministers, scientists, athletes, CEOs as if we’re going to get anywhere by having a single person do something wonderful on behalf of everyone else – when on the grand scale it is quite the opposite: countless numbers do countless little things leading up to a benefit for you as an individual. What would we be if self-interest was the only consideration? But when the self-interest is lined up along side cooperation for the community then all manor of creative and complex possibilities arise.

This easily leads into theological reflection around the nature of the universe and our place in it. Our existence is interconnected with all that is. Scientifically and theologically, we are radically connected to one another. And when we realize this truth and act in accordance with its implications we open ourselves up to the furtherance of not only our own spiritual and personal growth and deepening, we also line ourselves up as one more aspect of creation unfolding into the new day. And that is both a heady and humbling notion: we may be at a point in this evolutionary venture of life where with care and cooperation we can catch a glimpse of where we are headed in the broad view of life unfolding.

In a world without end,
May it be so.

Was Forty Years Long Enough?

Was Forty Years Long Enough?
Rev. Douglas Taylor

Once a year we liberal minister types dust off our copies of the “I Have a Dream” speech to check in and see how we are doing. Have we made progress? Are we closer to realizing the dream now than we were before? Have we reached the Promised Land that King had seen before he died? Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed a little over forty years ago. On the night before his assassination, King delivered a speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee in which he closed saying:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (-MLK 4/3/68 “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”)

This reference to being on the mountain top and seeing the Promised Land is a reference to the story of Moses and the Hebrews wandering in the desert for 40 years. Why forty years? The Bible is always talking about 40 days or 40 years. Is 40 a special number? Well, one interpretation is that anytime you see the number 40 in reference to time it means “long enough.” The Israelites were in the desert ‘long enough.’ Noah and the ark floated with no sign of land for ‘long enough.’ Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness for ‘long enough.’ Long enough for what? Well, specifically for the 40 years of wandering in the desert the Bible actually makes that pretty clear. God decided forty years was how long it would take for the men of fighting age that fled Egypt to die and the next generation to be ready. Throughout the Scripture the reason given is that God is punishing the original generation for their sin, for worshiping the golden calf while Moses was up on the mountain getting the Ten Commandments. Another interpretation might suggest that the generation who had the will and the understanding to leave Egypt behind did not have the will and the understanding to enter the Promised Land. Another generation with new will and a new understanding was needed.

And so it has been a little over 40 years since the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King. Was forty years long enough for our walk through this wilderness? Are we almost there? Almost sixty years ago, whites and blacks learned in separate schools, drank from different water fountains, ate at separate lunch counters, and sat in different parts of the public bus. Within 20 years, much of that had changed. In 1961, (48 years ago) attorney general Robert F. Kennedy predicted that the country could elect a black president in the next 40 years. That’s how fast race relations were changing in America. Four decades back Massachusetts elected the first black man to the Senate. And nearly two decades back Virginia elected the first black governor. And now the nation has elected the first black president. There has been change. There has been progress. But it is premature to say we have arrived in the Promised Land. In the midst of all of that great progress there has also been the Rodney King beating, the O.J. Simpson farce of a trial, the rise and fall of the King of Pop Michael Jackson, and hurricane Katrina; all of these events were deeply tied to race. There has been a dramatic amount of racist vandalism over this past fall, much of it connected to Obama winning his parties nomination and then the presidency.

One person quipped that Rosa sat so that Martin could walk. Martin walked so that Barack could run. Barack ran so that we all could fly. I think this poem, though well arranged and poignant, falls into the trap of believing we have arrived at the Promised Land. I certainly agree that the election of Barack Obama as president signals a very significant moment in the history of race in the United States, I think it may be more accurate to say that we all are seeing the Promised Land rather than entering into it. Barack Obama is not our savior or our new Moses. Neither is he our Joshua who led the Israelites into the Promised Land, as the analogy I have been working may lead us to conclude. No, I don’t think Obama is even our Joshua. I think that, as with all analogies, this one breaks down eventually and fails to predict the future.

Let me, therefore step away from my elegant analogy of Moses and 40 years and the Promised Land to talk in plainer terms about this moment in time. The whole concept of ‘race’ is undergoing a shift, one that is necessary for us to recognize to be able to fully appreciate our present situation. When we talk about Dr. King’s dream, the Promised Land, the ultimate goal along the lines of race – we are talking about living together as one people, as a multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic united community. We are talking about bridging the differences.

How many remember that commercial for Coke back during the 1980 Super Bowl when a little kid tells Mean Joe Greene that he’s the best, gives the huge football star a coke and turn to leave. Greene turns to the boy and say, “Hey kid,” tosses his soiled jersey to the boy who responds, “Wow! Thanks, Mean Joe!” It was, arguably, a watershed moment in race relations. Here was this big black warrior-type being idolized by a young impressionable white kid. This commercial still makes the list of top ten best commercials ever on most lists I checked this weekend. The contrast of a big black man and a little white kid was simply that to the people who put the commercial together: a contrast. The goal was to sell Coke, not to make a leap in race relations.

Yet, the other contrast that happens in this commercial is the initial build up of racial tension and the resolution to racial harmony. And a bridge is built. Nat King Cole sings about chestnut roasting on an open fire and mainstream stores eventually carry his albums; and a bridge was built. Now it seems ridiculous to consider a music store not carrying a CD because the artist is not white. There are white hip hop artists and black pop stars. How many people have seen a movie in the past three years staring Will Smith, Hancock, Seven Pounds, I Am Legend, The Pursuit of Happyness. Do you need to go back further, I, Robot, Men in Black, Ali, Shark Tale? Smith is a movie icon. The mainstream culture in the form of movies, TV, sports, and music has largely transcended race.

In 2002, Leon Wynter, a seasoned columnist who focuses on business and Race, wrote a book entitled American Skin. The subtitle is, “Pop culture, big business, and the end of white America,” which signals the reader to the bold claim made by Mr. Wynter – namely that business marketing is impacting our cultural sense of race. And further, that mainstream culture is no longer ‘white.’ For the bulk of the history of our country, mainstream was synonymous with ‘white.’ This is way in which the concept of ‘race’ is shifting.

Race is a cultural construct rather than a genetic reality. There is no single genetic marker for race – race has no genetic basis. Modern scientists have discovered and continue to prove that no single gene, trait or characteristic distinguishes one race from another. Thus, race is a socially constructed concept. Not all social constructs are negative. Take ‘fairness’ for example. Life is not fair. And yet we work in our society to create fairness and equality. Fairness is a socially constructed concept. Race also is a social construct. Humanity is not made up of distinct biological ‘races’, yet it has been seen as politically and socially expedient over the years to have had definite divisions of humanity into various subgroups. Professor Kenneth Kennedy of Cornell University sums it up saying, “In the social sense, race is a reality. In the scientific sense, it is not.”

And then last week I read an article in Newsweek that seemed at first to throw that whole question of a biological basis of Race back up for debate. The article was about disease and pharmaceuticals. It began by acknowledging the long held understanding among geneticists that race is not genetically based. Then it mentions different health risks and drug responses among population groups. For example, studies found that people who identify themselves as African American benefit from a drug that relieves hypertension, but other racial or ethnic groups do not. Well, they had trouble marketing that without sounding like they were saying there is a genetic marker for race.

But one professor of health law, (Timothy Caulfield of University of Alberta) offered this clarification:

“Someone whose ancestors came from Nigeria is very different from a descendant of Kenyans, but if the two of them are walking down the sidewalk in New York, they’re both ‘black,” he says. “You can try to make those distinctions in your research, but once it gets into the hands of drug manufacturers, there’s going to be slippage … marketers want to sell to the broadest possible categories.” (Jerry Adler, “What’s Race Got to Do With It?” Newsweek, Jan 12, 2009 p16)

One can deduce, therefore, that researchers may find a genetic mark based on ethnicity or ancestral geography, nut marketers turn it into race. The article ends with the view that science and pharmaceuticals will eventually move past racial (or more accurately ethnic ancestry) groupings to the specificity of each individual’s genetic make-up. Which, I believe, is where all issues of race will eventually end. And that is the Promised Land we now see today. To judge one another not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. To see each person before you, not as part of this group or that group, but as an individual.

Today, young people feel they are post-racial, as in: their race is not limited to black, white, red or yellow. People like Tiger Woods are multiracial. He made news as a phenomenal golfer and the media was tied up trying to label him as black or as Asian. In an interview with Oprah he said. “Growing up, I came up with this name: I’m a ‘Cablinasian.’” As in Caucasian-black-Indian-Asian: Cablinasian. Technically he is ½ Asian, ¼ black, 1/8 white, and 1/8 American Indian. But this is also a way of saying, ‘see me as an individual, not as a Black individual or an Asian individual; simply as an individual.’

Even being biracial like Barack Obama is complicated enough. He is African American, and he is at the same time ½ African-American and ½ Caucasian. This can be true because there is not a scientific definition of race, the definition is cultural. But to go even deeper, he is half Kenyan and half (or nearly half) Irish. And if you read or at least have heard about the book How the Irish Became White, then you see that this both clarifies and complexifies the race and ethnic ancestry of our first black president.

Which brings us back to the earlier definition of race as a ‘cultural construction.’ To say he is our first black president is to sweep over his ethnic ancestry and simply label him as black. A label he accepts, of course. But it is only accurate if we understand race as a social construct rather than a genetic fact. And the election of Barack Obama as our president is another mark of the shift in the definition of ‘mainstream.’ Mainstream is becoming multicultural and multiracial. Mainstream America is no longer ‘white.’

Have we arrived? No. But the day is coming when our mainstream culture will regularly hold up images to which each American can say, ‘I see real and positive role models for myself and my children.’ The day is coming when the bridges built between our divisions will be stronger than the hate which longs to tear it all down. The day is coming when every American will be seen as an individual rather than as a racial category. The day is coming, the Promised Land has been glimpsed, the dream is waking to a new day dawning with room for us all.

In a world without end
May it be so

Broken Wing

Broken Wing
Douglas Taylor

A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on each end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water in his master’s house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfections, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.

After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.” “Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?” “I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work and you don’t get full value for your efforts,” the pot said.

The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot and in his compassion he said, “As we return to the master’s house I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again it apologized to the bearer for its failure.

The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.”

Each of us has our own unique flaws. We’re all cracked pots.

Emerson said, “There is a crack in everything God has made.” All of existence is flawed, broken. For Christians this manifest in humans as Original Sin – a tricky concept even semantically as there is a significant distinction between little ‘s’ sins and capital ‘S’ Original Sin. Little ‘s’ sins are about behavior while capital ‘S’ Sin is about existence – a state of being broken, flawed, of having a crack. But it is easy to mix the two ideas together and see our brokenness as somehow our fault: something to feel guilty for. But that is not a fair rendering of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. We are not bad, we are broken. There is a crack in everything God has made.

I remember a favorite children’s story by Shel Silverstein called The Missing Piece. I used the story once as a jumping off point for a major theology presentation in seminary. The story tells of a pacman-like circle with a slice missing. The opening lines reads: “It was missing a piece. And it was not happy. So it set off in search of its missing piece.” The story then tells about the adventures it has along the search, the complications encountered when it finds what it thinks it is after, and the resulting decision to remain broken. You see, when it finally found its missing piece after searching and making up songs about its searching and discovering the wrong pieces over and over … when it finally found its missing piece it was geometrically a whole circle and thus there was no opening through which it could sing. So it decided that it was better to sing of the longing to be whole than it was to actually be whole. It decided to remain broken so that it could sing.

(“Blackbird” by the Beatles)

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

And so I would speak today upon the benefits of being broken, as if there were any other way to be – for there is a crack in everything God has made and it is through that crack that the light shines. It is the blackbird singing in the dead of night with broken wings that learn to fly and sunken eyes that learn to see. It is the amazing grace of having been lost then found, blind but now you see … into the light of the dark black night.

The children’s story I offered as I began my theology presentation that day in seminary was not a presentation on some general aspect of theology such as ‘Human Nature’ or ‘Faith and Suffering’. It was a presentation of my personal theological journey. I was missing a piece and I was not happy. So I had set off in search of my missing piece … into the light of the dark black night. And my experience was very much like the paradox of Paul McCartney’s poetry: to find the light within myself, I sat with the dark black night of my brokenness. I looked into my heartache and depression until I found the mix of love and fear at the root. I turned toward my suffering rather than away from it.

Back in the early 70’s, Henri Nouwen wrote a powerful book called The Wounded Healer.  The book quickly became a standard for pastoral theology.  The premise of the title is that “in our own brokenness we can become a source of life for others.”  The bulk of the book, however, is centered upon a critique of culture.  Nouwen said that we live in a dislocated world, a fragmented society, a rootless generation, and that we are a hopeless and lonely and isolated mix of people.  Nouwen said we are driven apart by forces in the culture.  Healing comes from a radical stance of hospitality, a welcoming in; it is a standing forth with all that you are and inviting others in.

Suffering is solitary work. Each of us experiences suffering – there is a unifying community of sufferers to be sure; we all suffer and thus are kin in this. Yet each person’s heartache and pain is unique to that person and is experienced inwardly. Howard Thurman, reflecting on this, writes: “Suffering tends to isolate the individual, to create a wall… It makes his spirit miserable in the literal sense of that word. Initially, it stops all outward flow of life and makes a virtue of the necessity for turning inward.” (Disciplines of the Spirit p75) But later he adds: “Openings are made in a life by suffering that are not made in any other way.” (Ibid p 76)

Initially it isolates you and creates a wall; then it offers an opening. Maya Angelou writes: “No one knows what it costs the bulb, the onion bulb or the tulip bulb, to split – to crack itself open – to allow the thin tendril of life to emerge.” (Maya Angelou in Restoring Hope) Kabir says: God first has to drill a hole in your heart so he may fit his pipe there. At last the notes of his flute come in, and I cannot stop from dancing around on the floor. (Partly from Bly’s translation) Sometimes the brokenness is not the same as suffering – certainly there is pain and suffering involved, but the brokenness is an opening into a greater depth of joy and meaning. As Kahlil Gibran wrote: “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. … The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

This is not to say that suffering is always an opportunity to grow into joy or new life. Only that is can, that it is an opportunity. I am not preaching about the saving power of suffering as if suffering is a great good for our spiritual growth. Indeed I think our capacity for joy is a greater agent for spiritual growth than suffering ever has been. And besides, I am speaking of brokenness more than suffering. Our brokenness – my brokenness – is a source of power and beauty, it is the crack through which some much compassion and understanding can flow. It can cause me suffering only when I work to hide my flaws or be ashamed of them, when I allow myself to be limited by my failures. Rainer Marie Rilke has said, “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” At times I will playfully say that my hope is to make new and more glorious mistakes rather than to repeat the same old tired mistakes I’m used to.

Like the circle who was missing a piece, the end goal is not to reach perfection. It is to learn how best to make use of the brokenness. You are full of flaws and failings, suffering and sorrow: yet you also have so much to offer. And your gifts are available not just in spite of your brokenness – but oftentimes because of it.

I had a professor when I was in undergrad studying theater who would talk to us not about acting or set design or directing, but about life as an artist. His philosophy was ‘if you know who you are as an artist, everything else will fall in place.’ This professor was a bit of an odd duck, but you grow used to that when you work in theater. There was one lesson in particular that I found and still find of great value. He was talking one day about the role of suffering in the life of an artist and he said it is important to name and own the pain you’ve experienced. This way, for example, when you are getting into character, you could relate to your character’s hurts and suffering by saying “I know that fire, I’ve been through that fire or one very similar.”

That image of talking about suffering in our lives as fires we have lived though stuck with me when I switched my major from theater to psychology, and when I then went through seminary as I trained to become a minister. This idea that we all have been though fires that have burned and informed us has taught us much of how we interact with other people. And it is an analogy that seems to fit better and better the more I think of it and live with it. For it leads us compassion. The experience offers wisdom and deeper meaning through the understanding that comes with compassion.

According to Henri Nouwen we live in a dislocated and isolating world. Healing comes from a radical stance of hospitality, a welcoming in; it is a standing forth with all that you are and inviting others in.  It is not in fixing another person’s brokenness; rather it is in welcoming another person, flaws and all, to be present with you. A poem from May Sarton illustrates this well when she advises us to move among the tender with an open hand. (From “An Observation” by May Sarton)

True gardeners cannot bear a glove
Between the sure touch and the tender root,
Must let their hands grow knotted as they move
With a rough sensitivity about
Under the earth, between the rock and shoot,
Never to bruise or wound the hidden fruit.
And so I watched my mother’s hands grow scarred,
She who could heal the wounded plant or friend
With the same vulnerable yet rigorous love;
I minded once to see her beauty gnarled,
But now her truth is given me to live,
As I learn for myself we must be hard
To move among the tender with an open hand,
And to stay sensitive up to the end
Pay with some toughness for a gentle world.

Nouwin contends that even in our own brokenness we can become a source of healing for others. Thurman witnesses that openings are found through our brokenness that are not found any other way. And if we can learn to move among the thorns without a glove, Sarton observes, you can stay sensitive to another’s brokenness. There is a crack in everything God has made. We are all cracked pots. Do not despair for that within you which feels lost, sunken, or broken. What feels like a weight holding you back may be the other side of the coin of your great gift to offer the world. You can still learn to fly though your wings be broken.

Black bird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
all your life(Amazing Grace)
you were only waiting for this moment to be free

Blackbird fly, Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

At least, thus it has been with my experience of life. May it be so for you as well.

In a world without end
May it be so.