By All the Lights of Faith
Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 30, 2014
When I was young I heard stories of Krishna, one of the avatars of Vishnu. This was in a Sunday School class at the Unitarian church in Rochester, NY. Hinduism has three main gods – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the sustainer, and Shiva is the destroyer and re-creator. It is an elegant rendering of the full cycle of life. These three are really just aspects of the impersonal “absolute” divinity called the Brahman behind all the faces of the gods. And each of these three gods has a multitude of forms. Thus, Krishna is one aspect of Vishnu the preserver. There were many stories I remember of him as a mischievous blue-skinned child. He is also one of the main characters in the Bhagavad Gita.
In one story, Krishna swallows a forest fire to save his friends. In another story he is always stealing everyone’s butter because he loves it so. To stop him, his mother hides the butter up high near the rafters. Krishna then gets all his friends together so he can climb on top of them and reach the butter, which he shares with all his friends. Another story tells of how Brahma plays a prank on young Krishna by hiding all the boy’s friends and cows in a cave. Unable to find any of them Krishna takes the form of all of them and returned home. Baffled by this, when Brahma visits all he can see is Krishna, in each and every one.
While the stories of child Krishna were entertaining, what has stayed with me is the concept that there is an absolute unity in the universe that manifests in a multitude of forms – each a particular aspect of the holy. Later, when I was in seminary studying the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, I learned how his concept of the soul and the Oversoul is a parallel to this Hindu concept of the Atman and the Brahman. To this day, my own theology and understanding of the universe lines up well with this Emersonian rendering of this basic Hindu concept: you can visit a village and all you can see is Krishna, in each and every one.
Unitarian Universalism holds that all the great religions of the world are not in competition for describing the truth. Instead we see them as different paths toward understanding the ineffable reality interwoven through the human experience. We recognize that different cultures have lifted up different aspects of life through their holy texts and sacred practices. In the mid-1800’s Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker proposed that all religions have transient, culture-bound elements that need not be carried forward and repeated. And all religions likewise have permanent elements that are the pith and kernel of truth in all ages. In recognizing the differences as cultural elements, we can lift up and honor the universal elements that thread through each of the many religions.
There are many Unitarian Universalist congregations that offer some of the traditional practices from other religions. Mindfulness meditation is rooted in Buddhism. Many UU congregations have Bible Study groups and Pagan rituals. Usually these practices will take a Unitarian Universalist focus while honoring the original source. We engage with the traditions and texts of these different religions as a way to deepen our spiritual lives. Unitarian Universalism is not threatened by the contemplative and devotional practices of other traditions. We are instead inspired by them. In recognizing the commonalities amidst the differences, we also lift up universal values of hope and renewal as well as the ethical teachings of justice and compassion that lead us to treat one another with respect.
I have shared before the Taoist meditation about how we each ride our own donkey to reach high places in the world. When we reach the top, everyone stands in the same place, sees the same view, and the donkeys are not used anymore. The meditation is called “Dismount your Donkey at the Summit.” The donkeys are the various religions and doctrines and beliefs we embrace as we journey up the mountain. “What does it matter,” the meditation asks, “which donkey we embrace as long as it leads us to the summit? Your donkey might be the Zen donkey, mine the Tao donkey. There are Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and even Agnostic donkeys. All lead to the same place.” (From Tao- daily Meditations by Deng Ming-Dao) And then the point of the meditation is that once you reach the top, you no longer need your donkey, we will one day come to a place where we no longer need names to describe what we experience. “All religions have different names for the ways of getting to the holy summit.”
This is not to say that all the world’s religions all say the same thing. People will sometimes say, “We at least all worship the same God;” but that is not accurate. The Tao and Allah are not interchangeable concepts. Each religion does share a general understanding that there is an ‘ultimate’ reality – by different names they point to different concepts: Great Spirit, the Tao, Cosmos, and Allah are not identical but they are each ways to talk about the ultimate reality.
This is actually a very familiar conversation in Unitarian Universalism. We hold community with pagans, atheists, mystics, and theists along with many other perspectives. We know how to engage with each other theologically even when we don’t use the same words and concepts for the ultimate reality. This makes it easier for us to consider lessons and insight from the other major religious traditions. In our list of the sources we draw from as Unitarian Universalists we include “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life.”
We honor the different paths and acknowledge that we can even sample from them without converting. People all over the country do yoga without believing in the Hindu belief structure that grounds the practice. Many Unitarian Universalists will partake in mindful meditation, a maypole celebration, or a communion service without believing in all the tenets of Buddhism, Celtic Neo-Paganism, or Christianity. Some do, to be sure, but many UU’s are able to participate or engage in such practices for personal inspiration and insight.
I find significant insight for my life, for example, whenever I explore the Tao Te Ching. Taoism speaks for balance. The Tao Te Ching has several chapters about the difficulties of imbalance and the benefits to a calm balance. “Countless words count less than the silent balance between yin and yang. The space between yin and yang is like a bellows – empty, yet infinitely full. The more it yields, the more it fills.” (Chapter 5) I am not looking to become a Taoist. I have every intention of remaining a Unitarian Universalists, but I do so while exploring the wisdom of other religions that inspire me.
Recently I have had more interactions with people from the Islamic faith and one thing I am seeing is the gracious behavior of these adherents. I find myself wanting to be more like them. “Don’t be confused by the images of terrorists,” one of my friends said the other day, “those are not real Muslims. Those men claiming to be Muslims are not acting like Muslims.” Murder, my friend went on to explain, is against the Qur’an. The heart of Islam is Submission to God. The Qur’an (in 6:151) says, “Do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct, save lawfully.” To be truly faithful as a Muslim is to abide by the will of God in all things.
We Unitarian Universalists tend to emphasize our freedom of conscience and individual capacity to discern right from wrong. This Muslim perspective could be considered the near opposite to one of our central values. That’s why it intrigues me. It’s not so much that I want to be more submissive in my spirituality. Instead I am curious to find two near opposite stances – submission to God’s will on the one hand and being responsible for my own choices on the other – to lead to very similar ways of acting with compassion and peace in the world.
The line I mentioned earlier from our six sources, “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life;” offers an elegant framework. The examples I just shared are of a spiritual inspiration from one religion and an ethical inspiration from another. The Taoist text inspires my spiritual searching. The Muslim practice is an example of inspiration for my ethical understanding.
In the readings we had this morning the two forms of inspiration are lifted up there as well. The Patrick Murfin piece uses the metaphor of building temples in our hearts. Our spiritual lives are built from ‘the stones of many alters.’ My spiritual path is well formed by the various incarnations of Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist thought and theology through the centuries. And it is also informed by Taoism, Hinduism, Earth-centered spirituality and modern liberal Christianity.
My ethical outlook on life is also well formed by my encounters with my Unitarian Universalism as well as by prophetic Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and again modern liberal Christianity. The Kendyl Gibbons reading begins with the words of Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. This is the whole of the Law; all the rest is commentary.”
In many ways, of course, it is a false distinction to say some insights are for my spiritual life and others are for my ethical life when the reality is that these two aspects feed each other. The same reason I feel drawn to the spiritual insight of interconnectedness through Pagan spirituality leads me to feel an ethical call to treat the earth and all its inhabitants with care. The call to love my neighbor as myself is both ethical and spiritual.
I very much appreciate that Unitarian Universalism is a religion that features tolerance in the way we come together. We honor and accept the difference of each individual, drawing on the beauty of our differences to enhance our understanding of life, God, meaning, and truth. Tolerance, leaning toward acceptance, of other people’s beliefs is a central aspect of our faith. We say that every person experiences and interacts with that which is holy, with the sacred, with God, in the way that fits for that person. Expanding that basic premise we say that every religious path, when it is travelled with good intention and integrity, can lead you where you need to go.
This is not to say I am interested in creating one grand unified and universal religion. Oh, to be sure that has been the goal of several prominent Unitarians and no small amount of Universalists throughout history. In the 1950s, for example, Universalist minister and poet Ken Patton worked to create a “religion for one world” at the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston. And a century before on the Unitarian side, Rev. Theodore Parker was aiming in part to lift up the unity in all religions.
But I do not believe our goal is to create such a universal religion. I think the particulars of time and place, the details of practice and culture, are important to the religious endeavor. Day to day living is intertwined with eternity. This exact spot is an important place in the effort to experience the vast magnitude of all space. This tree, this river, this building, this hour, this series of steps and movements – the particulars of time and place are the vehicle by which we each access that which transcends time and place.
Our goal is not one unified and universal religion for all people for all time. I believe instead that our goal is to meet and engage with the diversity of particularities that we may learn and grow from the experiences. Our goal is to celebrate all the world’s religions. The various truth claims need not be made compatible with each other. Others may insist on parsing out the particulars. ‘Either water is hot or it is cold. Either God is one or three or a thousand, but not all of the above. Either the practice of praying five times a day is the true way or it is not.’ But I say we do not need to unify all the different practices and beliefs. That is what the concept of plurality is all about. Religious pluralism honors the differences and allows that we can instead live within a plurality of meaning; to recognize the differences, but to really honor the underlying values that make life whole.
Unitarian Universalism holds that all the great religions of the world are not in competition for describing the truth. Instead we see them as different paths toward understanding the ineffable reality interwoven through the human experience. All the religions lift up the various key threads of value found in the human experience: justice and compassion, hope and renewal. Each share, with their own distinct patterns, practices and beliefs that can make us whole. May you find, in your searching for meaning and truth, resources not only from your Unitarian Universalism but also from all the world’s religions that can feed you and challenge you and bring you to a deeper understanding of yourself and of our world.
In a world without end
May it be so
Middle Peace for the Middle-East
Rev. Douglas Taylor
November 2, 2014
Later today, at 2pm over at the Vestal United Methodist church, the Children of Abraham are hosting a lecture and discussion on the topic: “Interreligious Dialogue, in Binghamton, Israel, Palestine, and the region.” The speaker, Rabbi Ron Kronish, is and international speaker on the topic of peace. He leads conversations and programs in Jerusalem and around the world. He has been talking recently about the “Other Peace Process.” He is a strong supporter of the political efforts the Israeli and Palestinian leaders and others around the world working for middle-east peace.
He is not a politician and does not wade very far into the politics of the work. Instead, he is focused on the other peace process. Ron Kronish’s peace process is to bring “people from different religions and nationalities together to encounter each other substantively and sensitively in order to find ways to live in peaceful coexistence together.”
Kronish’s work reminds me of the quote from Catholic theologian Hans Kung: “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions”
In an interview from 2012, Ron Kronish said,
In our interreligious work in Israel, we have been connecting people through dialogue and educational programmes for many years. We bring together religious leaders, educators, women, youth and young adults for long-term (at least 10 months and sometimes for up to 4 years) substantive and sensitive encounters with each other. All our programmes share four stages: 1) getting to know the other well as a human being, created in the Divine Image, 2) studying each other’s sacred texts, 3) discussing core issues of the conflict and 4) taking action in our communities, separately and together.
[from an article, The “other peace process” in Common Ground News]
He says that people are surprised sometimes to hear stories of hope coming out of the region. He and others he works with are hopeful that a peace agreement can be reached between Israel and Palestine. He cites other seemingly hopeless conflicts that have ended as evidence that it is not impossible: Northern Ireland, South Africa and Bosnia. “We have to keep this vision of peace alive,” he says, “and not despair because achieving peace is taking so long.” (Ibid)
Ron Kronish is the founder and Director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. He is an excellent person for Childen of Abraham to bring in as we wade into the tricky conversations. Kronish focuses not on the politics, but on the people. “A lasting peace is not a matter just for the politicians,” he claims. The deeper possibility is found in regular people coming together for interreligious and intercultural dialogue. That is what it will take for real change to come.
The politicians and diplomats do have their work to do, certainly. Papers and agreements and the macro-level problems of the region are real and significant. Just this week, for example, the United Nations voted to acknowledge the State of Palestine as sovereign over Gaza and the West Bank. There is broad support for the two-state option at the UN. While world leaders such as these have their work, the regular people like you and me have a different level of work. This is where Ron Kronish puts his energy. We have the task to “change the hearts and minds of the people on both sides of the conflict to be able to live in peaceful relations over the long haul.”
It is not a simple task. The Israeli and Palestinian people have many barriers in the way of meeting each other. The ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality is strongly fostered. The sides each claim the same piece of land and have two very different justifications for it. They have different cultures, economies, and religions. A recent five year study showed that Israeli and Palestinian texts books teach dramatically different versions of the same historical events, each side ignoring the other side’s perspective.
One article I read [From Palestinian and Israeli Citizens Bypass Their Governments in Search for Peace, by Evie Salomon] offered the first-hand accounts of two individuals who experienced a change of heart, one Israeli and one Palestinian. They each talk about being raised with messages encouraging them to dehumanize the other. They each talk about taking up arms by joining the Israeli army or a Palestinian militant group. They each talk about a change of heart they experienced.
Here is a little of Mohammad Dajani’s story: “I never looked at an Israeli as a human, I looked at them as the enemy that needs to be thrown out of my country,” Dajani said. “… That was an ‘us and them’ education that I had.”
Dajani continued working with Fatah for eight years until he noticed the leadership was riddled with corruption. Disappointed, he left … The real change occurred in 1993, when his father was diagnosed with cancer…
“I realized that the doctors in the hospital were not treating him as an Arab, they’re treating him as a patient,” Dajani said. “It helped me to look at Israelis in a more humanistic way.”
A few months after his father’s death in 1995, Dajani’s second transformative experience occurred, when his mother suffered a heart attack while the family was driving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Panicked, Dajani’s brother made a quick decision to take the Ben Gurion Airport exit to seek help.
“I was very skeptical they would give help because she is Arab and they are Jews and it was security, but immediately they cleared one of the security gates and called two ambulances and they started operating on her there,” Dajani said.
…“These experiences have helped me move from ‘us or them’ to ‘us and them.’”
Dajani went on to found a political and social organization that uses the Koran’s teachings to promote balance and negotiation rather than religious extremism. And here is a little of Adi Mazor’s story:
Upon turning 18, she enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), just as her father had done… “I loved the army, I was very proud of myself that I’m in a combat unit, serving my country,” she said.
…While patrolling at a checkpoint at the separation wall … she was ordered to toss a stun grenade at children throwing stones. Although Mazor didn’t see any rock throwing, she obeyed the command.
“At first, I was very proud of myself,” she said. “It was the first stun grenade I was throwing as a soldier. I looked at the pin and I said, ‘Wow, this is a nice souvenir of what I just did, I should keep it.’”
But pride quickly turned to guilt.
“I was back in the Hummer and suddenly I saw the faces of the Palestinians from the other side,” she said. “They were so shocked and scared of what I did, and suddenly I was so ashamed. I looked at the pin again and I threw it out the window.”
It was then Mazor realized she was no longer the “good guy” in the story she’d learned growing up… Now 30, Mazor is a member of Breaking the Silence, a network of former Israeli combat soldiers whose goal is to expose Israeli citizens to the realities of West Bank occupation.
Over the past ten years, as the violence and tension and trouble has increase, so has the number of groups working to build a better way. In the midst of the terror and the bombs and the rockets, there are rays of hope, people gathering to build peace. Dozens of NGOs have begun popping up in the region; some of them run by Palestinians, some by Israelis and some are partnerships between the two. Each of these three categories are necessary to make the kinds of changes and reach the kinds of people needed for peace to grow. Israeli and Palestinian people working to dismantle the structures of violence and injustice through whatever means are at their disposal. We rarely hear about the efforts or their successes.
There are legal organizations working to support justice as well as business organizations advocating for a two-state solution for economic reasons. There are activist groups formed by former combatants and other formed by people who have lost family members to the violence. There is a chain of four Arab-Israeli schools called “Hand in Hand” that teach both Arabic and Hebrew. There are theater groups, such as “The Freedom Theatre,” and music programs, such as “Heartbeat,” using art to build bridges. “New Vision” uses graphic novels and other forms of creative media to highlight the efforts of Palestinian and Israeli activists who are nonviolently working to build a future of freedom, dignity, equality and human security.
Countless non-violent groups are actively working for peace. Did you know that? Did you know there were so many groups and individuals working for peace from inside Israel and Palestine? And we won’t hear about it in the usual news media. Yes the situation between Israel and Palestine is daunting and seems impossible, but there are many stories of hope and possibility.
And all of that brings me back around to the Children of Abraham lecture and discussion happening across town later this afternoon. There is a local component to this conversation. The reality is that Israel and Palestine are far across the ocean and have been in turmoil since before I was born. I willingly admit that the conflict has not been central in my thoughts, barely even peripheral. But over the past few years I have developed deeper relationships with people of Muslim and Jewish faith as well as people who are from or have family back in the Middle-East. Slowly this conflict has become more than just an abstract news story for me.
Several years ago a handful of clergy and laypeople gathered to create the Children of Abraham here in Binghamton, NY. The focus of the group has been to build mutual respect and understanding among believers of the three monotheistic religions. The first program was in May 2009 at the Islamic Center and it drew nearly 200 people. I was not involved in that first event, but I became involved over the course of the next year and have been involved ever since.
One of the goals of the Children of Abraham is to help people become ambassadors of religious peace and understanding; to encourage and empower more people in the Broome County region to see themselves as ambassadors of religious peace and understanding.
This year’s program was a bit of a stretch for us. We had been avoiding politics and hot button issues in favor of establishing and building relationships with each other and out in the community. Our topics have been about respecting the other, interfaith dialogue, and hearing our common stories. In preparing for this year’s topic: “Interreligious Dialogue, in Binghamton, Israel, Palestine, and the region,” we felt we had built up sufficient relationship to open this topic with each other.
This summer’s violence and strife put some of the religious leaders here in Binghamton in a difficult position regarding this topic. The event planners had a meeting in mid-September to consider cancelling. They decided to meet here in our building for that conversation because we Unitarian Universalists are considered neutral and open ground. So we gathered to consider what we would do about the trouble brewing for some among us. The purpose of our group, you may recall, is to build relationships and mutual understanding. If hosting this speaker would cause strife within the Muslim or Jewish communities I was certainly not willing to participate. I was among the initial advocates for cancelling unless we could find a way forward that didn’t put our relationships at risk.
Obviously we found a way forward because the event is happening. We shifted our expectations of how each religious community would endorse the program and asked our speaker for support in framing the circle discussions after his talk. This may seem like minor changes, and in a way it is. What really happened is that we all sat in a room and talked with each other. That’s the piece that really made it so we could move forward. We sat down and listened to each other.
If there is to be peace in the middle-east, it will begin with people seriously listening to each other. Issues of rockets and property, political positions and ideology all weigh heavy in the effort toward peace. The way forward will certainly involve politicians and activists, advocacy and witness. But it will also need a strong base of individuals who have gathered in groups to listen to each other, to hear each other, and find a way forward together.
Even here in Binghamton; even here there are things to gain, steps toward peace that are not insignificant that we can make. Let us do our part. Let us do what we can to move our corner of the world a few steps closer to peace.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Be Thou My Vision
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 26, 2014
The hymn, Be Thou My Vision is full of theistic imagery and Elizabethan ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s. While it doesn’t capture the exact form of my theology I still find in it something powerful and moving. My vision for the future, for the people we can become and the person I strive to be is caught up in something transcendent, something larger than myself. It draws me into a perspective that is both humbling and empowering. It is that sense that who I am and who I yet maybe is held and nurtured and encouraged by something more than my own ego. As a religious community I see a part of our task is to be a channel or a focal point for that experience for people. Our work is to hold, nurture, and encourage the best within each of us and in all the world.
When I was a child I attended the Unitarian Universalist church. I remember the big hallways and the huge sanctuary space where the adults gathered. I remember the crowds of adults with their coffee mugs and name tags standing around and talking to each other on Sundays. I remember the Sunday school classes where my friends and I learned about different religions and about ethics and the stories of our UU history. I remember feeling small, but then I felt small everywhere in a way that I am sure is quite normal; but there was something else because though small I also remember being noticed. I remember feeling like this building was open to me; it wasn’t just a place I would visit as a guest, it was a placed I belonged and it belonged to me.
I am a minister now, serving a Unitarian Universalist congregation and I see the children running around here, coming to Sunday school classes, listening to the stories I tell them in the sanctuary, enjoying the craft parties and the dance parties, paying attention during the Faith in Action Sundays where we talk about ethics and people. I imagine they are feeling some of the things I felt. I imagine they will remember some of the things I remember about belonging to a religious community.
Fifty years from now, in the UU Binghamton congregation of 2064, I hope the congregation is still alive and noisy with children. I hear about other congregations, Unitarian Universalists as well as other traditions, in which there are few or no children. Our congregation today has a full range of elders and children, parents and people in their middle-years. The various stages of life are here and honored. My vision for our congregation into the future is one that holds this vitality and joy – not just for the children but perhaps especially for the children.
As a teenager I remember spending time with my friends at church. We built bonds across the cliques created at school. The musicians and the jocks, the princesses and the nerds, the losers and the class presidents sat in the circle together on Sunday morning in my youth group. It wasn’t always smooth sailing but it was real. I remember times when I was able to practice leading, when other teenagers looked to me for what to do next – something I did not experience at school. I remember taking part in a peace vigil and in a stewardship dinner and in musicals for the church. As a teenager I was a valuable contributor even though I had no income and therefore no financial contribution to offer. I remember being held by that community through the tough times.
Over the years as the minister of this congregation I have seen many of the youth grow up and move through our youth group. I know the youth who were brought here by their friends and kept coming without their parents because they found the community so important. I know the youth who have been hurt by life and found support here. I know the youth who excelled in school and I know the youth who have not. I know the youth who have come out as gay or transgender, those who have questioned and wrestled with their sexuality. I know the ones who have had trouble with drugs and the ones who considered suicide and the ones who have spent time on the psych unit. I know the youth who have been leaders and the ones who will be and I think I know most of the quiet ones. Our youth today are some of our strongest assets of creativity and energy and authority. I know I am blessed by every youth in this community who has been part of my life.
This congregation loves to see young people contributing music or other talent in the worship service or pitching in at a faith-in-action event or offering reflections from the pulpit. Our Coming of Age services and our Youth services are consistently among our most highly attended services because this congregation values the youth among us. This community is not focused on youth, we are not a youth-empowerment institution; yet our youth are highly valued.
Fifty years from now, I envision a community in which our youth continue to build bonds across the divisions and are entrusted with leadership opportunities and a voice around matters of importance.
Of course, the ministry of this congregation does not reach only to the children and youth. I have seen many examples over the years, indeed just over the past few months in which this congregation has been a life-giving force in the lives of people. We change lives. In many ways the strongest asset we have is as a community of acceptance.
I hesitate to share the personal stories I have witnessed and participated in because they are not my stories but I must tell you they nurture me. The stories of welcome and acceptance and support are each unique but paint a larger picture of what the ministry and mission of this congregation is at this time. I know people in our congregation who wrestle with deep grief and the ones still suffering the consequences of abuse. I know people here proud of their prison time in the name of justice and those ashamed of their prison time. I know those of you who are impassioned to save the planet and those of you who want to build bridges across racial and cultural chasms. Our work is to hold, nurture, and encourage the best within each of us and in all the world.
Our mission and ministry is to heal and to hold and to challenge when necessary. I’m thinking about the person who said “I really needed that sermon” whether the topic was forgiveness or world peace. Something touched him, something shifted for her. I’m remembering the young adult who met with me to share something she was struggling with and said “I just needed someone to know that this is a thing in my life, someone who won’t judge me or think I am terrible.” I’m remembering the elder who asked for a hug in the receiving line after the service; he wasn’t one of the usual ‘huggers’ in the line but something important happened for him that morning.
I am reminded of the visitor from a few years back who came only two or three Sundays and then came out as transgender to several people from the congregation – we had been a community of acceptance and support during the questioning and testing time for him. When he told us he is really she, the response was “welcome.”
I am reminded of the widower whose introduction to this community was his wife’s funeral, ‘would we please open our doors and perform this ceremony.’ And he found not only a welcome and a life-affirming ritual but also a weekly connection as he joined the congregation and made new friends.
I am reminded of the activist trying to balance the urge to save the world and to savor it. And the parent trying to keep all the balls in the air and still find ways to make an impact for justice. This community means so much to so many.
I am reminded of those who find ways to share their gifts, ways to serve and ways to play here in this community. I am reminded of those who debate the words for our liturgical covenant or the way we do Joys and Sorrows, or who point out errors in the order of service or the spelling of someone’s name in a document – because we know that the words and the rituals and way we do these things matters on this deep level of acceptance and meaning.
Fifty years from now, I imagine a congregation still connecting people in new ways, reaching out and healing the broken places in our lives and in our communities.
The Long Range Plan we vote on next week calls for some infrastructure improvement – let us do the good we need to do and let us do it more wisely. Let us build on member connections, helping people find those life-giving ways into the community and into the call of the spirit. Let us get clear about the use of our physical space and what we need. Let us build on the call to serve with strong leadership training and support.
There are also elements in the Long Range Plan around outreach into the community – outreach to promote the life-giving message of our faith and outreach through justice ministries in which the whole congregation can engage. And more, the Plan calls for the development of a financial strategy so we can express our values more effectively. Let us get real about the money.
Our congregation is at a crossroads. Do you see the road diverging ahead of us in this yellow wood? We stand at a moment in time in which we must move forward with decisions about our mission and vision as a religious community and the allocation of resources that will shape who we are and where we are headed for decades to come.
It is a crossroads of our own construction. Where we have been and the ministry we have had in the past has been good and life-changing for many people. With our vote for the Long Range Plan next week and our Super Goal Sunday pick-up pledge campaign today, we are in a moment when our actions will set the tone and the scope of how we move forward through the next several years or even decades for this congregation.
Let us remember to give thanks for the vitality and the challenges we have before us – if our congregation were irrelevant or meaningless we would not have financial troubles or conflicts because no one would care. No one would have clean up because we would never make a mess. If this community were insignificant we would not have to figure out who will make coffee next week or how to change the light bulb the regular ladder can’t reach. If this place were irrelevant we wouldn’t have disagreements or need grace and forbearance and covenants.
But this congregation is relevant. I see the evidence every week, sometimes daily. Our mission and our ministries matter. But that is not what is at question. The question is what we will do with the challenges and the direction of our mission and ministry.
In a world without end
May it be so
Habits of a Healthy Community
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 19, 2014
Typically when we are talking about being healthy, we mean physically healthy. And healthy habits include things like good diet, exercise, rest, play and going to the doctor when you are sick. Emotional health is also a common enough concept – laugh and cry, when you are angry you should talk about what’s bothering you, and seek help and support when you are emotionally unwell. I’ve preached about Spiritual health before and talked about healthy habits that echo those mentioned from these other aspects of health: good diet of spiritual nourishment, spiritual exercise, spiritual rest and play, seeking help and support when you are spiritually unwell.
So I wondered if the echoing could continue when talking about habits of healthy communities. And it does not; or at least not without the rigorous contortion of concepts and manipulation of semantics… which might have been fun but I was tired last night and opted to really grapple with this instead.
The primary difference is that our topic here is about groups rather than individuals, and the fact that there are individuals in the group is a fundamental source of where things can go amiss. Indeed, the bulk of the information I uncovered about creating and sustaining a health community was largely about navigating the needs of the individual within the needs of the group.
When I uncovered this pattern I was at first a little distressed. I’ve preached about navigating the needs of the individual and the needs of the community plenty of times already. I’m not sure what I can say that is new and fresh. But then I remembered! A few years back a BU student gave me an abstract about community health from an evolutionary perspective. I was fascinated! I was used to thinking about evolution on the epochal level and in particular about biological evolution. Yet here was a paper about how communities develop … evolutionary sociology perhaps. The paper talked about collective-choice arrangements, well-defined boundaries, graduated sanctions, and nested enterprises. It had sentences like: “The first condition is that both appropriation and provision rules conform in some way to local conditions, … such as its spatial and temporal heterogeneity.”
But before your eyes glaze over, let me tell you a story.
I was at a minister’s conference a few years back, the topic was on leadership and authority. There were a few dozen of us in the multi-day course, and when we came in to the room after our lunch break on the second day, the presenters had set up a game for us.
There was tape on the floor dividing the room into thirds. We were each assigned a section with most of us in one section, a smaller number in the middle section, and about five people in the last section. We were given only one rule – don’t cross the lines.
At first, knowing the course was about leadership and authority, we played along. After about ten minutes, we started crossing the lines just to see what would happen. When nothing obvious happened, most of us roamed the room. Some people pulled up the tape and used it to make art or create new boundaries. I started at the big end, but over the course of the activity I occupied every section of that room you can be assured. Eventually I say down and started a rousing hymn sing.
Some of what we learned while processing the experience is that when left with no direction or aim, no leadership, people tend to accomplish a significant amount of nothing in particular. We also learned that Unitarian Universalists tend to be ‘boundary crossers’ which can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing depending on the boundary and why it is being crossed.
Crossing boundaries is good and just when we are partnering with the oppressed, when we are meeting the ‘other’ across our differences, when we challenging a status qua that is unjust. Crossing boundaries is bad when we are abusing our power or other people, when we are taking advantage of the trust that has been given to us, when we see every boundary as just a challenge rather than as a guide to navigate the needs of the individual with the needs of the group.
Boundaries are a tool, how we use them is the question. Consider the boundaries that have been town down in our national discourse around civil rights and marriage equality. Consider the boundaries for things like becoming a judge or a police officer, or the boundary established by a labor union. Not every boundary is a bad boundary. One mark of a healthy community is well-defined boundaries. They serve as guides to navigate the needs of the individual along the needs of the group. Part of the trouble is when a boundary no longer serves or has been manipulated to perpetuate harm.
But boundaries was just one principle among several mentioned in that abstract about the evolutionary perspective on healthy communities. There were principles around monitoring and conflict-resolution and the recognition of rights.
Another article I was reading told the situation of the lobster fisheries in Maine. The population of lobster is a limited, though regularly replenished, resource. The fishers in each area organize themselves and coordinate where they will each lay their traps. There are laws in place at the state and local level, but most of the establishment and enforcement of the group’s norms are done at the informal in-group level. The Lobster fishers coordinate, monitor and sanction themselves as a collective.
There is no room for an independent lobster trapper to work, they have to be part of the ‘harbor gang.’ A person cannot just decide one day to go out into the harbor one morning and catch a few dozen lobster and start a side business. They have to join the ‘harbor gang.’ This is perhaps a troubling boundary if we are talking about freedom and inclusion, encouraging entrepreneurs, and welcoming the stranger. But the boundary serves not only to protect the current lobster fisher, it also maintains the fishing at a sustainable level and protects the ecosystem. The boundary navigates the needs of the individual with the needs of the group. Part of the function of this habit is to protect the viability and sustainability of the lobsters as a resource – to guard against the tragedy of the commons.
On the global scale, however, these issues play out in the conversation around developing countries seeking to exploit and overuse resources as a means toward the end of achieving what they see other countries have achieved. The concept of stewardship keeps coming up for me; not simply conservation of the resources, but careful and wise use of the resources.
In the example from the Garrett Hardin reading this morning, he says ‘freedom in the commons brings ruin to all.” Hardin then offers the vignette of leaders in the community asking a member to stop overusing the commons while secretly thinking that person a fool if they abide by the request because those leaders continue to exploit the resources.
But what if we imagined a model in which the leaders did not use coercion or deceit as their technique to seek compliance. What if instead the leaders used persuasion and example? I’m not suggesting that the grand solution to the tragedy of the commons is personal integrity of the leadership. But it is, to my mind, one of the key components.
The models out there in game theory and economic theory and now this evolutionary perspective as well, emphasize the observable and empirical evidence: this is what we see human beings do when they are in groups. Individuals in groups are often self-focused, looking to achieve a sustainable and comfortable position.
But one of the pieces of my role is not just to observe, it is to cast a vision of how to be better at this. So the habits of a healthy community I would support include the boundaries and the graduated sanctions and collective-choice arrangements. But more than that, I want my communities to also have the habits of encouraging personal integrity and fostering stewardship. A recognition of fallibility and room for grace would be helpful as well, but I’m not sure how to institute that … except by example.
In the end, the best habits will be those that help align the needs of the individual with the needs of the communities. They are the habits of individuals in the community, but they are also the community norms and ethics.
What are the habits you see as productive and healthy in a community? What patterns of behavior do you find helpful in others and in yourself that further this human venture in community? Where do you find helpful boundaries and personal integrity encouraged? Consider your groups, your communities, your local and national and global communities … What are the habits you would lift up and promote?
May we all find places where our integrity and example can make a difference. May we discover ways to foster the norms in our communities that build rather than destroy, that bless rather than curse, that hold rather than tear apart. May we learn the habits that make us whole.
In a world without end,
May it be so
The Power and Importance of Laughter
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 5, 2014
Norman Cousins is famous for being a journalist, an author, and a peace activist. Did you know he is also a trailblazer in the field of laughter? He was editor-in-chief of the Saturday Review for 30 years; he authored books and essays about politics, history, and literature; he was an unofficial ambassador between Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Pope John; and during his lifetime he was awarded the Albert Schweitzer Prize, the Eleanor Roosevelt Peace Award, and the United Nations Peace Medal.
He is remembered for saying things like: “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” “Life is an adventure in forgiveness.” “Laughter is a powerful way to tap positive emotions.”
Later in life, he had an experience of illness that led him to develop what he called the laugh-cure. He was diagnosed with a form of debilitating arthritis. He chronicled his struggles in has book Anatomy of an Illness, published in 1979. He was told by doctors that he had little chance of surviving.
So he went about developing his own recovery program involving mega-doses of Vitamin C, along with a positive attitude, faith, hope, and laughter induced by Marx Brothers films. He says:
I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep. When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.
He went on to live ten more years, during which he had a near fatal heart-attack, wrote several more books about health and healing, and continued to advocate for his ‘laugh-cure.’
When Cousins did this in the late 70’s, few researchers really took him seriously. But over the past decade or so, we have been coming back around to a holistic sense of health, and laughter can be part of the conversation. Health researchers have begun to take laughter seriously. [http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/emotions/laughter-cure-illness.htm]
For example, research shows that laughter decreases the body’s cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress-induced chemical related to heart disease and high blood pressure. Laughter also strengthens your immune system and increases the production of antibodies. Researchers state that a good laugh has many of the same benefits as a brisk walk. As Norman Cousins had said many times, “Laughter is inner jogging.”
Laughter increases your air intake. Increasing your oxygen-rich air intake stimulates all of your organs and relaxes your muscles. The Mayo Clinic advocates for laughter as a means to boost your immune system, sooth tension, relieve pain, and improve your mood. [http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456]
The piece that I’m noticing in all this is that the researchers are not talking about humor or about finding something funny. They are advocating laughter – the behavior of laughing. Charlie Chaplin has said “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.” There is Laughter Yoga and Laughter meditation out there, laughing groups even that meet and simply laugh together.
Laughter is a vital part of life. I don’t mean life should be a laugh a minute. Simply that life is full of tragic suffering and hardship that can overwhelm a person; but laughter makes life sweet. And life should be sweet. With all life’s bitterness and difficulty, laughter is a balm, a balancing mechanism to keep you steady. “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.”
There is that classic scene in the movie Mary Poppins with actor Ed Winn as “Uncle Albert” who has gotten himself stuck on the ceiling with his laughter. He sings “I love to Laugh,” and it turns our Ed Winn adlibbed much of his lines for that tea party on the ceiling. “I Know a man with a wooden leg named Smith” Bert says. “Oh really,” Uncle Albert replies, “What’s the name of his other leg?” Later Bert tries to cheer Uncle Albert up with another joke that isn’t as funny, and he says with a sigh, “My dad always said there’s nothing like a good joke.” And Uncle Albert says “And that was nothing like a good joke.”
Humor often has a bit of an edge to it. The early Greek philosophers saw laughter as a mixture of anxiety and pleasure – part of that old slippery-slope into immorality. They saw it as a great moral danger and potential weapon. As if to laugh is to succumb to some great inner flaw or at least as a temptation toward vice.
Plato held the perspective that laughter arises from our desire to feel superior over other people. He also warned that laughter could lead to an undermining of authority and ultimately to the overthrow of the state.
Well, certainly I have seen how humor and laughter can poke fun at arrogance and pomposity. I have seen how laughter can disarm people. Plato may well have the truth of it. Laughter is an equalizer, we all laugh. Plato’s warning was about the upset of our hierarchies, and yes, laughter can certainly do that.
Jewish thought has always held a valued place for joy. Oh, sure there are lines in Hebrew scripture such as Ecclesiastes 7:3 “Sorrow is better than laughter” but there are also a fair number of stories and verses about dancing and joy and celebration. One commentator noted that while professional comedians make up 5% of the population in the United States, something like 80% have been Jewish.
The early Christian church was a fair mix of both Jewish thought and Greek thought. Clearly the Greek thought won out on the question of humor in Christianity for a long time. The Early Christian Church denounced laughter on the grounds that Jesus is reported to have wept but never to have laughed….so weeping alone led to unity with God.
Elizabethan England had some staunch defenders of seriousness. Laughter was considered a form of ‘losing control’ of oneself. It was seen as uncouth, even dangerous. One critic, George Catlin, warned that regular laughter irreparably damages your teeth.” (“Shut Your Mouth”)
“Consider the bizarre events of the 1962 outbreak of contagious laughter in Tanzania . . . . “ It began as an isolated fit of laughter (and sometimes crying) in a group of schoolgirls. This isolated event, however, spread to epidemic proportions. “Contagious laughter” propagated from one individual to the next, eventually infecting adjacent communities. The epidemic of uncontrollable laughter was so severe that it required the closing of schools. It lasted for six months. (from Laughter by Robert Provine) Uncouth, even dangerous – the Elizabethans counsel. It could lead to societal breakdown – Plato cautions. It might irreparably damage you teeth, we are warn.
Or it could be natural. Babies all develop laughter without being taught to laugh. And babies and children laugh at least ten to twenty times more often than adults. It is not laughter that is taught, but seriousness. How much better things are now that laughter and humor are seen as healthy. Researchers and doctors support the perspective that such levity promotes health.
But laughter is not simply something for your personal health. Norman Cousins calls laughter inner jogging and researchers compare a good belly laugh to the benefits of a brick walk. Yet taking a brisk walk all by yourself is quite normal and healthy. Laughing all by yourself, alone with no external stimulus such a book or video, is uncommon and perhaps cause for concern.
Robert Provine, in his book Laughter, offers the insight that on a social level, laughter fortifies our sense of belonging and trust in others, “Laughter is more often a consequence of relationships than of jokes.”
I can certainly attest to this in my experience. Gathering my three children in the room with my wife and myself will often result is joyful laughter. Laughter brings people together. Victor Borge said “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”
Theologically, laughter is a sign of joy. Medically, it is seen as a means of stress relief. Psychologically, it is a means of mood enhancement. Philosophically, it may mean chaos or equality for humanity. Sociologically, it is a social phenomenon of group bonding, the establishment of group mores, and a means of conflict reduction. There are many meanings tucked inside this physiological near-autonomic response life.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went camping in the forest. After a good dinner and a bottle of wine, they went to sleep in the tent. Several hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend, Watson.
“Look at the sky and tell me what you see.”
Watson answered: “I see millions and millions of stars.”
“And what does that tell you?”
Watson thought a minute and answered: “Astronomically, that tells me that there are potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I see that Saturn is in Leo. Chronologically, I deduce that it is approximately three ten AM. Theologically, I see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically I suspect that we shall have a beautiful day tomorrow.”
Holmes was quiet for a minute and then said: “Watson, you idiot, it means someone stole our tent.”
Laughter may mean many things, but let me spend a few minutes offering a case for the spirituality of laughter: laughter as a spiritual practice. First we need to recognize it as a particular kind of spiritual practice. Specifically, laughter is a form of public spirituality – social spirituality. “Laughter,” theologian Karl Barth has said, “is the closest thing to the grace of God.”
Laughter affects us on a holistic level; our bodies, our emotions, our minds, our spirits, even our relationships. Laughter can be healing, connecting, and healthful. We don’t choose to laugh – we don’t recognize the humor of something and then choose to laugh. It just happens. But we can cultivate a practice of being open to and aware of life in a way that promotes laughter. We can develop our sense of humor. That may be one of the aspects by Barth compares Laughter with grace. Grace is not something we can control, but we can cultivate our lives to recognize and welcome grace when it comes. So it is with laughter.
Cultivating a sense of humor in response to life is something we can choose to do. I commend behaviors of forgiveness and surrender as openings to the absurdity of life which can lead us to laughter. If you want to develop more laughter, work on surrender and forgiveness. Notice how absurd your life can be. When I am frustrated or anxious, impatient or irritated, it is hard to let go of such feelings. They are like negative feedback for a situation. My frustration and impatience are responses that don’t really ease the problem I am experiencing. When I can relax, when I can let go, forgive, and have empathy for others, then I am lightened. I can laugh. When I am laughing I feel stronger, I feel more connected with others, I feel capable of weathering the storms of life.
Laughter does not end the trouble and turmoil of life. Laughter does not stop depression or grief. Laughter is not an end to sadness and sorrow – only to seriousness. When we look for laughter in our lives, when we choose to meet the world with giggles and guffaws, what withers away is not the pain or the grief. It is instead the gravity of it all that fades, the solemnity and seriousness that dwindles. Let us take all of life – the laughter and the pain, the joy and the sorrow. Laughter is important and powerful in how it can help us frame our outlook on the affair.
Your well is deep and your life is rich. Laughter rises and bubbles forth in abundance if you open your heart to the full range.
In a world without end,
May it be so.