Sermons 2013-14

In the Shadow of Lost Liberty

In the Shadow of Lost Liberty
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 27, 2013

 

Parker Palmer has said, of public discourse, “Political civility is not about being polite to each other. It’s about reclaiming the power of ‘We the People’ to come together, debate the common good and call American democracy back to its highest values amid our differences.” With these words in mind I welcome you into an important debate of the common good.

Edward Snowden is in the news again this week. He is a former CIA employee and NSA contractor who disclosed classified details of several top-secret United States and British government mass surveillance programs to The Guardian in May 2013. He is currently living in Russia under temporary political asylum and is considered a fugitive from justice by American authorities, who have charged him with espionage and theft of government property

Snowden has been variously called a hero, a whistleblower, a dissident, a traitor, and a patriot. His release of the NSA material is considered the most significant leak in US history since the Pentagon Papers; indeed Daniel Ellsberg has said Snowden’s leak has been more significant. One obvious result has been the public debate that erupted and continues to roll through our public discourse over mass surveillance, government secrecy, and the balance between national security and information privacy.

A Pew Research study conducted this past June reported that a little over 50% of Americans believe it is acceptable for the government to track phone calls and e-mails without permission to fight terrorism.  
What this tells me is that our nation is yet again divided on an issue of great importance.

The Fourth Amendment to the constitution, written as part of the first pack of amendments known as the Bill of Rights, states that people can expect their “persons, houses, papers, and effects,” will be secure against “unreasonable search and seizure.” So over 50% of our population is saying the current mass surveillance program of the NSA is not ‘unreasonable.’ But it goes even further than that. When search and seizure of this type of information is deemed reasonable, the amendment stipulates that a warrant is required, through probable cause, with details of where authorities may search and for what they are searching.

Maybe what the NSA is doing is considered beyond the scope of this constitutional amendment because telephones and computer e-mail are specifically named in the list of “persons, house, papers, and effects,” mentioned in the 1791 amendment wording. I suspect, however, that the courts have already cleaned up that interpretation, so I don’t think we’re talking about a technicality.

Ben Franklin quipped, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” I think the question facing us revolves around the adjectives ‘essential’ as it relates to liberty and ‘temporary’ as it relates to safety.

Liberty and freedom are among the deepest core principles of our country. The heart of our nation is centered in these values. At our best, what it means to be American is caught up in the values of liberty and freedom. We may argue with some of the nuances of that, with some of the weaknesses therein, but it irrefutable: a key element of the American identity is liberty and freedom.

As such, our form of government has been called an experiment in democracy. Our exercise in self-governance has always been experiment. In the face of the political climate of extremism and fear, it is helpful to reconsider our essential values and aims. Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote, “The only sure bulwark of continuing liberty is a government strong enough to protect the interests of the people, and a people strong enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control over the government.”

Over the past two and a quarter centuries that we have been a country there have been a multitude of crises in which the core concept of democracy has been at stake. Aristotle said, “A democracy, when put to the strain, grows weak, and is supplanted by oligarchy.” An oligarchy is a government run by an elite few. Theocracy, plutocracy, and the various forms of dictatorship are all candidates for the types of government we have flirted with over the years. Some have argued we have already lost. I am not one of them.

Abraham Lincoln, a president who saw our country through a significant crisis to our democracy, said, “Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as a heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism around your own doors.” Frankly when I hear that half the country believes warrantless monitoring of private phone and e-mail communications is an acceptable infringement of our rights, I worry for our country. This isn’t just serving to root out the terrorists among us. It also perpetuates the culture of fear and division.

In some ways it is similar to the anti-Communist efforts of an earlier generation. A Powell Davies wrote, in his 1953 book The Urge to Persecute, about the red scare and the rounding up of suspected Communists in the 1950s. Mid way through his book he has a chapter titled “Must Freedom Protect its Enemies?” It is enlightening to read this inserting the word “terrorist” whenever you hear the word “communist”

Whenever it is pointed out that the methods of current investigations transgress American judicial principles and infringe upon the civil rights which are the very core of our national inheritance, it is protested that Communists are not entitled to the protection that the rest of us may claim, since they are conspiring to overthrow the system of government that provides it. Shall they be given the freedom to destroy our freedom? …

This protest should be carefully examined. It cannot lightly be brushed aside. For it is undoubtedly true that Communists are using our freedom with the intent of destroying it… The notion, held by some, that a free society is bound by its principles to give the shelter of its civil rights to a conspiracy against the society itself, even if the conspiracy is succeeding, is insupportable.

However, let the [phrase ‘even if the conspiracy is succeeding’] be fully noted. … The restrictions of freedom in order to protect it from its enemies all too easily becomes the withdrawal of freedom from its friends. Similarly, rights suspend because they are abused are soon lost to the entire society.

A. Powell Davies had the fight against McCarthyism and fear-mongering as a central element of his public ministry. And here, in a book he wrote on that topic, he is acknowledging that there are circumstances under which it makes sense to surrender portions of our liberty for the security of our greater liberty. Davies goes on to argue the point, however, that far too often the Committee on Un-American Activates turned up not evidence of actual Communists – instead they uncovered people whose opinions were not in line with the opinions of those in power. And soon non-conformity becomes akin to treason.

This summer President Obama said, while visiting Germany, “We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information not just in the United States, but, in some cases, threats here in Germany.” That number comes from NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander. Some fact checking has been done on that number and winnowing out the cases that were not focused against the United States and those cases dealing with individuals who provided “material support” to terrorism. And we’re left with about 13 threats.  That’s still worth something – thirteen terrorist threats against the United States thwarted. Clearly there is an ‘effectiveness’ to the surveillance program. If only the NSA kept the scope within the purview of its original intent.

In the news today, the NSA is under fire for its surveillance program abroad. Not only are we doing the bulk mining of data on our own citizens, we are spying on the people and leaders of ally nations. Obviously we are spying on the nations and people we consider a threat as well. But our allies? The massive system of surveillance was sold to the American people as a necessary infringement of our liberty and privacy to stop the terrorist menace threatening our American values of freedom and liberty.

In an article by Glenn Greenwald from The Guardian yesterday I read:
Our reporting has revealed spying on conferences designed to negotiate economic agreements, the Organization of American States, oil companies, ministries that oversee mines and energy resources, the democratically elected leaders of allied states, and entire populations in those states.
Surely we have surpassed the original mandate necessitating this unconstitutional breach of our principles and values as Americans. It seems as though the NSA surveillance program is less about terrorism and more about our economic interests.

What are we to do with this? What is our role as citizens and participants in this great experiment in self-governance? It is a lot to think about. Thomas Paine once said, “When [people] yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.” Paying attention is, in itself, a significant action to take. Pay attention and engage with the issue out loud with other people. Parker Palmer has said, “Political civility is … about reclaiming the power of ‘We the People’ to come together, debate the common good and call American democracy back to its highest values amid our differences.”

Here I turn to a new book by Parker Palmer. Palmer is better known for his books about vocation and teaching and uncovering your true longing and hidden wholeness. But recently he turned those themes to the state of our country in a book entitled Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.

In the book Parker Palmer lifts up five Habits of the Heart that will help ‘heal the heart of democracy.’  Apropos of my focus this morning I will share with you the fourth habit in his list. The five are interconnected and I will need to find time soon to share them with you as a whole for they speak of creating community, holding tension, appreciating the ‘other,’ and recognizing we are all in this together. And they counter the focus on fear so prevalent in our society.

The fourth habit Palmer calls us to is to develop a sense of personal voice and agency. He writes:
Many of us lack confidence in our own voices and in our power to make a difference. We grow up in educational and religious institutions that treat us as members of an audience instead of as actors in a drama, and as a result we because adults who treat politics as a spectator sport.

Parker calls us to develop the habit of speaking up and participating, for to not do so will allow our democracy to atrophy from lack of use. The elite will keep hold of the reins of power so long as we remain complacent.

The issue at stake is not just the NSA’s mass surveillance program. The point is not that the program is or is not a reasonable and justifiable breach of our constitution. The point is not even how much of a liberty we are surrendering. The point is that We the People should be paying attention, should be holding the NSA and the rest of our government to account for how the program is used. I am not saying the government is wrong to behave as it has. I am saying we are wrong to let them behave thus without us really noticing or caring.

Democracy demands participation. Are we ready to let freedom and liberty slip from the center point of our country to be replaced by sensational entertainment and the expectation of cheap oil? Parker Palmer calls us to be actors in the drama of democracy. Lincoln claims that the spirit of liberty must be preserved lest we court despotism. And FDR said the people’s part of the bargain is to be “strong enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control over the government.”

So wherever you find yourself coming down on the debate of how mass surveillance does or does not serve the common good, get informed and speak up. Liberty is always worth it.

In a world without end,
may it be so

 

Good Grief

Good Grief
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 20, 2013

 

Rumi says to be as a ‘guest house’ and welcome each new arrival, even if it be a crowd of sorrows.  Invite them in, Rumi says.  Meet them at the door laughing, treat each guest honorably.  They may be clearing you out for some new delight.

Grief is not a welcome guest at most doors.  Grief is the companion of love, to be sure, but grief is a hard companion.  In her book Companion through the Darkness Stephanie Ericsson says,

Grief is a tidal wave that overtakes you, smashes you up into its darkness, where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces, only to be thrown out on an unknown beach, bruised, reshaped.

Others say grief is like a vast and lonely plain where all the echoes are of only one sound.  Some say grief rises suddenly, in unexpected moments; others say it is a constant ache, ever present.  Or consider C.S. Lewis when he exclaimed, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” And Rumi suggests we treat each guest honorably, to welcome them, to invite them in.  No simply task, that’s for sure. 

It is better by far to share it, to speak of it, though it is wrenching to do so.  William Shakespeare noted: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”  The difficult path through grief is the only path that exists. “Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,” invite it in. 

Grief does not always appear as tears, it affects people in different ways.  Grief can make us cry uncontrollably and it can make us go numb.  Grief can make us feel guilty or depressed or fearful or angry.  Grief can cause emotional problems in our hearts and physical problems in our bodies.  Grief can put us in a state of disbelief; it can make us withdraw; it can make us feel like we are going crazy. In other words, no matter what the textbook tells you, the stages of grief do not offer a direct route. 

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s model from her 1969 book suggests the passage is: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  It is often forgotten that Kubler-Ross also said the list is not comprehensive and can happen in any order.

“The Five Stages of Grief” by Linda Pastan

The night I lost you
someone pointed me towards
the Five Stages of Grief.
Go that way, they said,
it’s easy, like learning to climb
stairs after the amputation.
And so I climbed.
Denial was first.
I sat down at breakfast
carefully setting the table
for two. I passed you the toast–
you sat there. I passed
you the paper–you hid
behind it.
Anger seemed more familiar.
I burned the toast, snatched
the paper and read the headlines myself.
But they mentioned your departure,
and so I moved on to
Bargaining. What could I exchange
for you? The silence
after storms? My typing fingers?
Before I could decide, Depression
came puffing up, a poor relation
its suitcase tied together
with string. In the suitcase
were bandages for the eyes
and bottles of sleep. I slid
all the way down the stairs
feeling nothing.
And all the time Hope
flashed on and off
in defective neon.
Hope was a signpost pointing
straight in the air.
Hope was my uncle’s middle name,
he died of it.
After a year I am still climbing,
though my feet slip
on your stone face.
The treeline
has long since disappeared;
green is a color
I have forgotten.
But now I see what I am climbing
towards: Acceptance
written in capital letters,
a special headline:
Acceptance,
its name in lights.
I struggle on,
waving and shouting.
Below, my whole life spreads its surf,
all the landscapes I’ve ever known
or dreamed of. Below
a fish jumps: the pulse
in your neck.
Acceptance. I finally
reach it.
But something is wrong.
Grief is a circular staircase.
I have lost you.

There are patterns, yes; but each person experiences grief in unique ways.  Some griefs are harder than others.  Smaller losses and griefs can serve as practice for the bigger ones.  The grief that comes with the death of a loved one is not the same as the grief that comes with the loss of a job or of youthful friendship or of a role in the community.  These smaller losses (if ‘smaller’ is the right term) are opportunities to meet grief and practice it for the bigger losses.

Joan Didion says “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”  Didion is the author of the 2005 book The Year of Magical Thinking.  The book is an account of the year following the death of her husband.

In a 2005 radio interview, Joan Didion was asked what advice was most helpful to her during this painful time in her life. She answered: “Emily Post.” Post’s 1922 book, Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, offered guidance because, Didion explained, “Death was still up close, still in everybody’s house. Everybody was still expected to know how to deal with it … But at some point after that, we medicalized death. We put it in the hospital. And around the same time, we stopped being able to look it in the eye. We stopped knowing what to do or say.”

I was curious about this suggested source of help and so looked into it.  Chapter 24 of Emily Post’s 1922 book of etiquette begins with this:

AT no time does solemnity so possess our souls as when we stand deserted at the brink of darkness into which our loved one has gone. And the last place in the world where we would look for comfort at such a time is in the seeming artificiality of etiquette; yet it is in the moment of deepest sorrow that etiquette performs its most vital and real service.

Post does indeed talk at length about what one is to wear and what not to wear while in mourning, and how best to make use of your butler, parlor maid, and footman at such times.  But she also speaks of how: “Upon the death of an intimate acquaintance or friend you should go at once to the house, write, ‘With sympathy’ on your card and leave it at the door.”

She says one should always go the funeral of family, friend and business associate.  She writes about the usefulness of offering a bit of warm food for the bereaved in the earliest days of grief; and how brief cards and encounters are valuable and of service to those mourning.  Under the heading, Protection of the Mourning, Post says:

If you see acquaintances of yours in deepest mourning, it does not occur to you to go up to them and babble trivial topics or ask them to a dance or dinner. If you pass close to them, irresistible sympathy compels you merely to stop and press their hand and pass on.

This was written nearly a hundred years ago.  Convention and fashion have continued to evolve, but the notion that etiquette can show us how to still interact is worth noticing.  Stephanie Ericsson, whom I quoted earlier as saying grief is a tidal wave, also said “[Grief] shoves away friends, scares away so-called friends, and rewrites your address book for you.”  Perhaps the artifice of etiquette allows us the features of interaction where authenticity leaves us artlessly nothing to say.  This, I think, is Didion’s point when she claimed Emily Post as a source of help moving forward through her grief.  Treat each guest honorably, Rumi said.

Let me read to you a few paragraphs from one of the NPR This I Believe essays.  It is by Mary Cook from 2006 and is titled “The Hardest Work You Will Ever Do.”

The day my fiancé fell to his death, it started to snow, just like any November day, just like the bottom hadn’t fallen out of my world when he freefell off the roof. His body, when I found it, was lightly covered with snow. It snowed almost every day for the next four months, while I sat on the couch and watched it pile up.

One morning, I shuffled downstairs and was startled to see a snowplow clearing my driveway and the bent back of a woman shoveling my walk. I dropped to my knees and crawled through the living room and back upstairs so those good Samaritans would not see me. I was mortified. My first thought was, How will I ever repay them? I didn’t have the strength to brush my hair let alone shovel someone’s walk.

Before Jon’s death, I took pride in the fact that I rarely asked for help or favors; I could always do it myself. My identity was defined by my competence and independence. Two hours after Jon died I canceled every obligation in my life. The identity crisis that followed was devastating. Who was I if I was no longer capable and busy? How could I respect myself if all I did was sit on the couch every day and watch the snow fall?

Learning how to receive the love and support that came my way wasn’t easy. Friends cooked for me and I cried because I couldn’t even help them set the table. “I’m not usually this lazy,” I wailed. Finally my friend Kathy sat down with me and said, “Mary, cooking for you is not a big deal. I love you and I want to do it. It makes me feel good to be able to do something for you.”

Over and over, I heard similar sentiments from the people who were supporting me during those dark days. One very wise person told me, “You are not doing nothing.  Being fully open to your grief may be the hardest work you will ever do.  Watching your willingness to be vulnerable and to fully embrace your grief is a gift. The line between giving and receiving is constantly blurred.”

I began to think about how good it made me feel to help people, how the joy was always in the giving rather than the getting, and that maybe that was true for my friends and neighbors, as well. I also came to realize that I didn’t have to repay anyone in kind, but that I could pass on their love and compassion to others who needed it. Most importantly, I could accept their help in the spirit in which it was given – with grace and humility.

“Being fully open to your grief may be the hardest work you will ever do.” There is something in grief that makes a virtue of turning inward.  We need to turn inward at such times.  Though it is a little paradoxical, we also need to be touched by others at such times.  We need both, but the timing and the rhythm of this turning inward and reaching out is not obvious.  There is no rubric that holds always true for when to leave a friend alone and when to impose, when to grieve alone and when to let others in.  So, with no broad recognition of etiquette guiding us anymore, we are each left to figure out on our own how to navigate our grief and the grief of our friends.  It is fraught with uncertainty.

This is that uncertainty that Barbara Pescan wrote about in our reading. 

It is very hard for us middle-class Americans to not do something. It even seems irresponsible to us to not do something, even when we don’t know exactly what to do.

And herein lies the heart of what I would like to offer you all this morning, whether you look at it from the perspective of a person in grief or from the perspective of someone longing to comfort a person in grief.  Letting your grief in opens you to gratitude.  Letting other people in opens you back to life. 

I know this is a lugubrious topic, bringing us to not only consider our sadness but to also feel it this morning.  But also there is gratitude, also there is joy, also there is love.

Sorrow comes only where love abides. Out of sorrow shall come understanding and through sorrow you are joined with all that live.  These are delights that turn grief into gratitude.  This is the heart of the lesson offered by grief – that love still lasts.

Rumi says to be as a ‘guest house’ and welcome each new arrival. Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, invite them in, Rumi says.  Meet them at the door laughing, treat each guest honorably.  They may be clearing you out for some new delight.

In a world without end,
May it be so.

 

Peace Prayers

Peace Prayers
Rev. Douglas Taylor
September 22, 2013

 

Prayer during Anthem “We Pray” by Nick Page

O Spirit of life, God of us all
We gather for healing and for peace this day
We see conflict in the world and indeed even in our own hearts
We long to build a peaceful world and to be a peaceful people
May we be restored and made whole

For peace in the world, for peace among all nations and people
For peace in our neighborhoods and in our families and for peace in our hearts
But not only for peace, O God, we pray also
For hope and understanding, grace and strength to lift us up

With humble voices we lift our hearts seeking a balm
When we are discouraged help us know we strive not in vain
Fill us, O Spirit with faith and with courage
And with the audacity to believe we can make a difference

 

Sermon

This morning between services we have planted our Peace Pole back in the courtyard.  It is Patty Parsons who made the Pole for us back in 2008.  She did the design and the wood burning.  She removed it last year to clean it up and refurbish it.  A Peace Pole is a monument, often a 4 x 4 wood post, with the words “May Peace Prevail on Earth” in the language of the country where it has been placed, and then usually 3 to 7 additional translations as well.  The movement began in Japan and came to our country in the 80’s.  A unique feature of our Peace Pole is that instead of translations of the prayer “May Peace Prevail on Earth,” our pole has symbols of the world’s religions, local leaf prints, and local animal prints on the remaining sides. 

Spirit of Peace and Life, may our Peace Pole stand as a symbol of humanity’s common vision of a world at peace.  May it remind us to seek peace and harmony in our lives as well as in the world community.  May peace prevail on earth.

A companion to the story and meaning of the Peace Pole is the story and meaning of Peace Day as September 21.  There has long been an international United Nation’s Peace Day.  Through the 1980’s and 90’s it was celebrated at the opening session of the United Nations each fall on the third Tuesday on September.  It was a relatively unnoticed day until a young man named Jeremy Gilley worked over four years to get it changed from the third Tuesday of September to the 21st of September, and then he continued to work over the next several years to raise global awareness for the day.

One of the important aspects that Gilley also pushed for was an expectation that it would also be a 24-hour cease-fire around the world; a “day of global ceasefire and non-violence… through education and public awareness and to cooperate in the establishment of a global ceasefire.”  This is important because Gilley was advocating a shift not only from a private UN observation to a globally celebrated event, but also a shift from a passive effort to celebrate the ideals of peace to an active effort to create peace through the cessation of violence.

It took four years of effort, but Jeremy Gilley did manage to bring the United Nations delegates a resolution that passed unanimously.  The vote happened on the 7th of September twelve years back now.  A press release was scheduled for four days later to announce to the world that International Peace Day was now officially September 21st and officially a day for non-violence. 

It is a painful irony that the date of this press release was September 11, of 2001.  At 8:45 as part of the press release, children from around the world were performing music meanwhile planes were crashing into the World Trade Center.  Jeremy Gilley and his press release for peace had to evacuate the building.  It was not an auspicious beginning.  Yet it does highlight the hard reality that peace does not happen just because we make an announcement, pass a resolution, or plant a peace pole in our church courtyard.  It takes continued effort. 

Spirit of Peace and Life, may this day of peace shine as a reminder that every day can be a day of peace.  May the violence and horrors we still find in the world neither dishearten us nor tempt us into cynicism.  May peace prevail on earth.

The prayer to not be disheartened despite the events of our world is an important one.  Have you been watching the news lately?  I trust many of you are aware of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on their own citizens a month ago.  The past few weeks have been tense, watching the global community respond.  The use of chemicals weapons, like sarin gas, was banned by United Nations agreement, a document signed by the vast majority of the world’s nations.  Syria, it is noted, is one of the six nations who have not yet signed on to the agreement.  It is heartening to hear about the progress toward diplomatic solutions.

The situation was distressing as it unfolded.  I felt conflicting values within me as I watched.  As people of faith we talk about our values of peace and compassion and justice.  I am certainly rooting for peaceful and diplomatic solutions to win out.  I have great confidence in the power of diplomacy.  I will certainly be watching this coming week’s news about the proceedings at the United Nations with great interest.  It seems like there is an opening for that third way of negotiating mentioned in the How to Get to Yes reading.  Not soft negotiation with concessions and capitulations, but not hard negotiations either with a test of wills and winners and losers.  The third way, the diplomacy way, values the principles at stake and honors the people involved.

It is heartening to see Syria coming to the table to talk about signing the ban and destroying their stockpile of chemical weapons.  But I am well aware that a key component to bringing the Syrian government and its allies to consider diplomatic talks was the threat of swift and extreme force on the part of the United States military.  The threat of violence was one of the steps to the current possibility of peace in Syria.  This fact is something I have been struggling with.

I try to live out the statement “There is no path to peace, peace is the path.”  And yet here is a real example of the threat of violence being instrumental in opening the way for the possibility of a peaceful resolution. 

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” says the first line of St. Francis of Assisi’s famous Peace Prayer. “Make me an instrument of your peace,” and I have taken this prayer to heart.  This is the prayer of my heart of how I live my life. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”  That’s my work.  That’s what I am doing every day – or perhaps more accurately, that is what I strive to do every day.

I aim to be a person who uses peaceful means to reach peaceful ends and to advocate for others to do the same.  I am grateful to see the situation with Syrian moving toward a peaceful, diplomatic end. But I am well aware that the present progress toward peace was won through a very real threat of violence on the part of our president.  And, I am conflicted inside because I understand that threat of violence.  I see the point of such a threat.  And it worked.

The United Nations banned the use of chemical weapons, along with nuclear and biological weapons. These weapons due to their scope were deemed too inhumane to use.  In the face of the use of such weapons, in the face of nearly 15 hundred Syrians dead, almost a third of them children, is there not a moral imperative for us to act?  Is there not a moral imperative for us to respond with a strong condemnation to this atrocity?   There are some behaviors and actions so heinous we simply cannot allow them to happen without response.

Yet one of the prayers in our hymnal (#508) offers the phrase “save us from the weak resignation to violence.”  Save us from being resigned to violence, from thinking of it simply as a given fact we can do nothing about. 

There were some people who saw and heard about the use of chemical weapons against Syrian rebels and innocent citizens, and they were resigned to the violence.  “That’s not our problem.  Syria’s civil war is going to involve bloodshed and casualties, that’s the nature of it.  We can’t do anything about it.”  That sentiment is a resignation to violence and it is a weakness in us we must resist. 

There are some people who saw and heard about our president threatening to launch cruise missiles at Syrian targets, and they were resigned to the violence.  “That is the reality of the situation; we must send a firm message that will be taken seriously.  The use of chemical weapons cannot be allowed to occur without firm response.  We must at least send a few token bombs so they know we will respond.”  That is a resignation to violence and it is a weakness in us we must resist.

Spirit of Peace and Life, may we always stay open to the possibility of peace though our words and our actions.  May we remain maladjusted to violence and discontented with easy solutions involving violence.  May peace prevail on earth.

This leaves me in tension.  I want to rail against the violence the Syrian government wrought upon its citizens.  But knowing my country’s threat of violence is what brought them to the table is sobering and takes the wind out of my sails.  I wish I had a clever solution for this to share with you. 

I am striving for peace and I do not want to strive in vain.  I want to have an impact, I want to be effective.  What can I do?  The evidence is that the world is not a peaceful place.  The evidence is that violence and the threat of violence is an effective way to bring global bullies to the negotiation table.  The evidence is that my small efforts are insignificant.  Or is that really what the evidence shows?   

When I stop to think about it, I do have influence in certain circles.  We all do.  And more than that, we each know people or maybe even are the people who move through several circles of influence.  How you treat people in your circle of influence, how you advocate for peace or any other high principle that guides your living, how you negotiate your conflicts will influence the people around you.  And that has an impact.  It isn’t a direct impact on the conflict involving the chemical weapon attack in Syria, but it is a start.  And it shifts the conversation about peace from ‘peace as an issue’ to ‘peace as a way of living.’

Thich Nhat Hanh, who quipped “peace is every step,” writes in his book, Being Peace, about the amount of frustration and anger he noticed in the peace movement.  This was in 1987 when the book first came out, but surely it is a timeless observation.  He wrote,

The peace movement can write very good protest letters, but they are not yet able to write a love letter.  We need to learn to write a letter to the congress or to the president of the United States that they will want to read, and not just throw away. 

Can you imagine the letters Thich Nhat Hanh sends to the leaders of the world?  Could you imagine writing such letters?  Or does anger or frustration or hopelessness get in the way of writing a compassionate letter to our political leaders?  I would think the point would be to say what you need to say about war and violence, but to say it in a way that the can be received. 

Spirit of Peace and Life, may the meditations of our minds and the words of our mouths be set on peace and compassion even when we would have the nerve to speak truth to power.  May peace prevail on earth.

That is one of the classic answer I hear to that question of feeling insignificant.  School your own heart first, make the change within yourself and let the impact ripple out through your words and actions.  Inner peace is a necessary prerequisite to world peace.  Gandhi advised us to be the change we wanted to see in the world. 

The world is filled with turmoil and trouble.  But it is also filled with example after example of people who have made a difference, people who listened to their conscience and spoke out for what is right, people who were effective in building a better way for the future.  People like you and me who struggled with the issues and did not turn away in resignation. 

Spirit of Peace and Life, may our minds be set on peace with freedom and justice.  And may a song of peace take root in our hearts and sing to us gently through all the tumultuous days ahead.  May peace prevail on earth.

In a world without end
May it be so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Intention over Impact

Intention over Impact
Rev. Douglas Taylor
September 15, 2013

 

You know how a new car depreciates in value the minute you drive it off the lot?  And it’s not even a fair depreciation!  If you try to turn around a sell the car and month later, it is not as if it is only a month’s-worth less in cost – it is simply not a new car anymore. It is a used car and so its value is measured by used car standards.  It is assumed there are a few dings, some wear, some user-error that has taken place since it left the sales lot.

Collectors of rare books or trading cards or things like that will talk about how much more valuable an item is if it is in the original packaging from the store or from the factory.  As soon as you take the item out of the box, it is assumed that handling the item will have an impact on its condition.  Thus the value drops. 

Relationships are like this as well.  I don’t mean the value drops.  How we value relationships actually tends to increase with use – so that part of the analogy doesn’t follow.  But the part where as soon as we step off the starting block, we can assume our relationships will have a few dings, some wear, some user-error taking place… that part is the same.  Over time, every relationship is strained with imperfections. 

Or to think of an organic analogy rather than a mechanical one, our relationships are dynamic and ever changing.  If they were static it would be a problem.  Instead they are always moving always growing and becoming something new.  With either the mechanical analogy or the organic one, the point is that static perfection cannot exist in a relationship because it is the nature of relationships to have bumps and changes, growth and rough patches.

So for things like cars, we have repair shops to fix them up when they have problems beyond simple wear.  Similarly, we also do what we can to maintain the health of our friendships and family relationships.  Forgiveness is one of the primary tools at our disposal.  Compassion, kindness, gratitude, respect, and mutual trust are also important values to cultivate.  But Forgiveness is particularly valuable when we consider the wear and tear that occurs by the everyday (and not-so-everyday) use of our relationships. 

Religious scriptures the world over advocate for a forgiving heart.  Every religion has something to say about the value of forgiveness in the face of others’ mistakes and even offenses or injuries.  In the Qur’an it is written, “If you efface and overlook and forgive, then lo! God is forgiving, merciful.” (Qur’an 64.14)  Jainism has a text that reads, “Subvert anger by forgiveness.” (Samanasuttam 136) Taoism teaches, “Show endurance in humiliation and bear no grudge.” (Treatise on Response and Retribution) A Jewish text puts it like this: “Who takes vengeance or bears a grudge acts like one who, having cut one hand while handling a knife, avenges himself by stabbing the other hand.” (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9.4)

The most recognized Christian prayer, the Lord’s Prayer or the ‘Our Father’ has the line “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”  It is one of those well-known and recognized phrases in the culture around us; most people – not just Christians – know the line. 

Scriptural lessons the world over speak of how holding a grudge and seeking revenge are perspectives that poison the spirit.  These behaviors and attitudes injure us as much as the one we call our enemy.  As the Chinese Proverb has it: “Before you start on the road to revenge, dig two graves.” A message that comes out clearly is that forgiveness is good not only for the forgiven person but also for the one who does the forgiving.  Both people are involved, both are tangled, both can gain through the repair and release. 

For some it is simply a trick of recognizing when the ‘check engine’ light has come on for a particular relationship and having the resources to deal with it.  Not always easy since we don’t have an actual “check relationship” light the flashes at us like our car will offer.  And most people actually have great skill at avoiding and not seeing problems when they arise.

Consider a simple example.  My friend and I get into a fight, we both say things we later regret – but of course he doesn’t understand that I only said those things in response to his words.  Or the things I said are not nearly as cruel as the things she said.  Or I didn’t mean it the way he took it.  I want my intention to count more than my actions.  This is true for simple things and even more so for big rifts in our relationships.  And it is made all the harder to really look at it clearly because feelings of shame and guilt are often involved as well. 

Guilt is not so terrible.  Not really.  Guilt is our psyche’s way of letting us know something is wrong, that we’ve done something we feel bad about doing.  It’s information.  Shame on the other had is not all that helpful.  Shame is more overpowering and doesn’t dissipate as easily even if we do acknowledge we’ve done something wrong and make amends.  Guilt can be dealt with, but when it lingers it can turn into shame.  And shame is one of the poisons of the soul. 

Unfortunately shame and guilt get lumped together as if they are the same thing.  So we are often hesitant to acknowledge guilt lest it lead us to shame.  But in truth guilt is a natural and healthy response to a situation in which we have offended or hurt or frightened another person even unintentionally.   Shame is not a healthy response, shame is a deadening experience.  But because we lump guilt in with shame we avoid both and focus instead on our excuses and our justification and our intentions rather than our actions.

Do not we all wish to be judged by our intentions rather than our actions?  I must admit that I want you all to take into account my intentions and motives when you consider any actions of mine that have caused hurt – unintentional hurt as they say. It is fairly common when we have an argument with another person to attribute more credence to our own good intentions than to the supposed good intentions of the other party.  As the reading from Kettering and Hazard put it, “Sure I’ve done things wrong.  I’ve sinned.  But not like that.”  Not like the other person did.

Recently I was part of a group,( not a group involving anyone here in the church, I mention that so you know I’m not telling stories on you or someone sitting next to you.) In this group, one person felt his concerns were dismissed by the leader of the group.  Later he brought it up during a processing meeting near the end of our time together.  The leader listened and tried to explain saying she had not been dismissive, she had been keeping the conversation on track; because in that earlier meeting he was referring to there had been a prescribed end time with no flexibility.  He persisted that while he understood she had not intended to be dismissive, he nevertheless felt dismissed by her. 

The people involved in this example are all good people and we all like and respect each other.  So it was easy for us to stay at the table when this came up at the end of our process meeting.  But after circling around the experiences and explanations for some time without a comfortable resolution I reflected to the group that one of the lessons we had been working on in the Anti-Racism work the group was doing offered an insight for this incident: both the intention and impact are true.  Roadblocks arise when we deny one or the other. 

In the reading from this morning, (Kettering and Hazard) the authors talk about our impulse to defend or justify ourselves.  My image of myself is as one who does not harm other people.  Or at least the harm I cause is not that bad, it’s unintentional, it is small.  Do you think of yourself so differently?  Most people see themselves as basically good people who make a few small mistakes here and there but over all we are not the type to cause great hurt to others.   

I’m not suggesting that we’re really all much more horrible people than we let on.  I’m not saying that.  We are basically good people who make mistakes, but we do make mistakes.  Most people are not out to hurt others.  Yes, there are examples, lots of them, of people purposely and cruelly hurting other people.  And forgiveness is a complex interaction involving the severity of the injury, the relationship between the people, as well as the spiritual maturity of those people involved.  But this morning I am mostly interested in you and me and the majority of humanity who regularly make mistakes with each other. 

It is difficult for most people, when there is a break in a relationship, to acknowledge the felt impact of our actions.  Yes, what I did hurt you (we might admit) but you need to know that I was trying to do something good.  My purpose wasn’t to hurt you, my purpose was to help. How hard it is to offer your intent without minimizing the impact the other party experienced. 

And herein lies the graceful elegance of forgiveness:  Forgiveness is not about keeping an account of who was right and who was wrong.  It is not about an even exchange and accounting so the tally marks add up and everyone is even.  Instead forgiveness is about never putting another person out of your heart. Forgiveness is about healing and repairing the relationships worth saving. 

And forgiveness at its finest is the salve for any relationship.  Oh, it is also good for your spirit, but mostly it is for relationships.  There is certainly a time and place for one-way forgiveness, for a person to do their private personal work to forgive someone without that someone’s participation.  It can work.  There are situations when that is healing and good – when the other person is deceased, when the other person is still able and willing to abuse you if you but offer the chance, when the other person is physically removed and not available to enter back into relationship.  There are situations in which one-way forgiveness can be healing and good.  But most of the time, forgiveness is for both parties to do together. 

Consider again that phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”  Or forgive us our debts or our sins if you prefer.  I enjoy the moment in an ecumenical gathering of Christians when the Lord’s Prayer is recited and this phrase is the one where there is some cacophony.  “Forgive us our mumble, mumble as we forgive those who mumble, mumble against us.”  Because some people are sinners, others are debtors, and a few are transgressors.  Different communities use different phrases and when they are all together for an ecumenical meeting, they each use the term they are comfortable with.

Usually when there is a significant discrepancy in English translation of a biblical verse or a word in a verse it means the Greek or even the Aramaic words are referring to a concept that doesn’t correspond exactly with our English concepts. 

Neil Douglas Klotz is a biblical scholar who focuses on language.  In his book Prayers of the Cosmos he rendered this line from the Lord’s Prayer several different ways.  Klotz poetically offers a sense of the concepts Jesus might have actually said in Aramaic. 

“Loose the cords of mistakes binding us, as we release the strands we hold of others’ guilt.”
“Erase the inner marks our failures make, just as we scrub our hearts of others’ faults.”
“Untangle the knots within so that we can mend our hearts’ simple ties to others.”

The Aramaic word for ‘forgive’ is literally: to untie, to disentangle, to let loose.  Forgiveness is a way of getting unstuck, of loosening the knot.  You have perhaps stumbled across that great aphorism, “Forgiving means giving up all hope of a better past.” Forgiveness is the art of loosening and untangling the relationship.  Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.

Forgiveness is about relationships, and every relationship is imperfect and is strained; every relationship has its share of dings and wear and user-error.  When we remain open to the truth of both our intention and our impact, we also hold open the possibility of forgiveness and keep the integrity of the relationship at heart. The good news of forgiveness is that when we let go of our battle to be right and our need to be seen as having good intentions, we release ourselves from the rigid and legalistic mindset and so open ourselves up for forgiveness and for growth and life.

In a world without end
May it be so.