Rod Serling Day (2)
May 15, 2016
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Every famous person is born somewhere. Susan B. Anthony, Millard Fillmore, Béla Bartók , and Paul Newman each have hometowns and special locations that claim them. In Binghamton we get to claim Rod Serling. He was born in Syracuse but the family moved to Binghamton when he was 2 and Rod graduated from Binghamton High School in 1943. Students who took classes from Helen Foley at the Binghamton high school remember Rod Serling’s occasional visits in which he would talk to students about film and television, story writing and production. He was a generous man who loved to connect back to his roots.
Binghamton loves to talk about this native son of ours. Forty years after his death, new exhibits and programs related to the Twilight Zone and Rod Serling are still opening. The Historical Society hosted an event at WSKG just a few weeks back, and the Bundy Museum has a recently expanded exhibit running. “Everyone has to have a hometown,” Rod Serling said, “Binghamton’s mine.”
The reason I am preaching about Rod Serling has less to do with his geography and more to do with his theology. Rod and his siblings were raised in a Reformed Jewish home here in town. He was never a member of our Unitarian Universalist congregation here in Binghamton. But when he was a student at Antioch College in Ohio, he met and married Carol Kramer. Carol’s Unitarian grandmother encouraged the couple attend a Unitarian church. And in the late 1940’s, Rod and Carol Serling joined the Unitarian church in Columbus, OH.
When the family moved to California in 1957, they became active members of the Santa Monica Unitarian church. The minister Ernie Pipes served that congregation for over 30 years and remembered Rod Serling as generous man. For example, as a fundraiser for the congregation, Serling would offer screenings his films for the congregation with discussions after that he would lead. He liked to visit the RE classes on occasion to discuss his work with the kids.
We are going to do just that here in our congregation this afternoon. We won’t have Rod Serling himself joining us, but we will be able to watch the genius of his work with a few episodes and talk about them together. I want to show you a clip now from one of the episodes, “The Monster Are Due on Maple Street.” It is one of the two episodes the planning team selected for this afternoon.
It opens with a view of Maple Street, a normal ordinary street on a normal and ordinary day. There is a strange sound and a flash of light that seems to travel through the sky from one side of the street to the other. We see people look up and watch it go by. They comment to each other about it and decide that it must have been a meteor. They each shrug, admitting it was certainly odd. And the narrator tells us it was “the last calm and reflective moment before the monsters came to Maple Street.”
The clip we are going to watch picks up early in the episode, just after folks start to notice the power has suddenly and inexplicably gone out and the phones are not working. People begin to gather as they notice it isn’t just their own house with this problem.
From 3 minute mark to 9 minute mark on the DVD
“Let’s not be a mob!” he says.
This episode is about how easy it is to get caught up in mob mentality. It is about fear and panic as tools of prejudice and chaos. Given the context in which it was written, it is easy to extrapolate that this episode is not just about fear in general. It is also about McCarthyism and the Red Scare that was going on in the 50’s and 60’s. And I argue that it is equally about Terrorism and Islamophobia that is happening in our country today. A significant number of the messages in his episodes are about addressing the problem of prejudice, about seeing the consequences of treating people with differences as ‘the other.’
To update this episode, my first thought was of how dramatic it would be if this morning, all the power in our electronics just stopped like that. How quickly would you notice if that happened in your house? I have a household a five right now, and in today’s middleclass culture that means I have five computers, five cell phones, a few tablets, to add to the 1960’s list of lights, stoves, and radios mentioned in the clip.
In some ways, just watching the first 3 minutes of the episode with today’s sensibilities, I would assume the message was going to about being too attached to our electronics and how we don’t know our neighbors anymore. And that may well be a worthwhile episode, but I suspect it might be a little too prosaic a message for what Rod Serling was doing with the Twilight Zone. But then again, remembering the closing lines of the episode – part of the message is that humanity’s worst enemy is itself. In what ways are we destroying ourselves piece by piece today? We can talk more about the actual episode and its messages this afternoon.
Let me drift back into the conversation about what Rod Serling was doing with the show. He considered his job as a writer was to “menace the public conscience.” He wanted to lift up the ethical questions of the day and challenge his viewers. He was a story teller, living by the axiom that the one who tells the stories helps shape how we see the world.
In his day, Serling learned to disguise his messages after having his stories dramatically altered or outright refused due to concerns from the government censors and advertising executives. Serling started writing in the genre of Science Fiction not because he loved SciFi or because he was particularly skilled in that niche but because his social critique would get past the censors. He claimed, “A Martian can say things that a Republican or Democrat can’t.”
What would Rod Serling be doing today, what would an updated Twilight Zone be like? I think we get lost in the delight of the spooky and strange element of the show at the detriment of the deeper message. Serling would not necessarily be doing anything SciFi today because he wouldn’t need to be disguising his messages from censors today.
There are a great many documentaries available today offering political and social critique. Comedians doing late night shows are able to offer stinging and truthful commentary mixed in with the jokes. Censorship is not the issue today. Society has different ways of closing down unpopular truth-speakers. So my question is what are the hurdles Rod Serling would be overcoming to get his messages of social critique to the public today?
I think one over-arching problem for truth-tellers today is that there is not a single ‘acceptable’ claim on truth as was the case back in Serling’s day, no single ‘party line’ that is hard to speak against. Instead today we have so many voices speaking, truth gets lost in the milieu. Advertising companies and political talking heads drive the population into market niches feeding us consumable bytes of information. I believe the great enemy of truth today that Serling would work to circumvent is the well-dressed lie and the difficulty of discerning real truth amidst the glitter and grime.
The Washington Post ran an article yesterday talking about a problem called “Pluralistic Ignorance.” Basically, research by social scientists show that I, for example, will ‘self-silence’ myself out of an incorrect assumption that other people don’t agree with me, this becomes amplified by a doubt in my own competence on the subject. The social scientists call this “Pluralistic ignorance,” the misplaced belief that others know better or wouldn’t agree with me so I won’t even bother speaking up. This then spirals because nobody knows what others think about the issue because nobody is talking about it. The examples in the article are about climate change, gender-related issues, and the civil rights movement from the 60’s and 70’s.
I imagine Rod Serling would have been able to spin a fabulous story about a compelling lie that no one challenges even though the majority of people privately suspect it is untrue. And lies are essentially stories that can shape how we see the world. Serling was a genius storyteller, revealing truth in disguise.
His messages in the Twilight Zone often centered on peace and equality, respect for differences, and the importance of civility.
These values can be seen in the clip we just saw from “The Monster Are Due on Maple Street.” These are the values that would show up in a story today about racism, gender issues, climate change, or political incivility. Serling would be telling stories today not necessarily with aliens and oddities, although that certainly would still work today and perhaps prove a necessary element I suppose. But more importantly, Serling would be writing stories, I believe, about discerning truth in the confusion and profusion of lies that pass for commentary and even news these days.
Rod Serling was a Unitarian Universalist steeped in the naturalistic Humanist values of truth, tolerance, and respect for our differences toward the end of building a civil society in which all people could thrive. We can still learn about today’s problems through the lessons he offered in the past. We can still discern truth and wisdom from the genius of his work, and indeed, we can even unleash our own capacity to tell the truths our world needs to hear; and to tell them with confidence and style as he and others have done throughout the ages.
Come, let us gather around the wisdom of such genius for a few moments, and then let us rise and add our voices to the story as we move boldly into the beckoning future together.
In a world without end,
may it be so.
Charity and Self-Sufficiency
Rev. Douglas Taylor
May 8, 2016
I’ve told the story before of saving babies in the river. In the story, two people notice a baby floating down the river so they jump in to rescue it. As they comfort the child on the bank they notice another baby floating down. Again they rescue the child. Soon another and then another floats down the river. The first person looks to the other and says, “You stay here saving the babies from the river. I’m going upstream to see who keeps throwing babies in the water.”
The lesson I draw from this story is that there are two levels to the work of healing the world – direct service and systemic change. And both are important and honorable work toward that end. Dr. King said “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” It is not enough to only offer charity, to only rescue one baby at a time, to only feed a man a fish. As the old cliché of wisdom reminds us, “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day but if you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.” The systemic change is the key.
Mother Teresa, who spent her life in service to the poor in India, was frequently challenged for not doing enough about the systemic injustices around her, for not teaching people how to fish. In one of the last interviews she ever gave she offered this counter-argument:
Like a man says to me that you are spoiling the people by giving them fish to eat. You have to give them a rod to catch the fish. And I said my people cannot even stand, still less hold a rod. But I will give them the fish to eat, and when they are strong enough, I will hand them over to you. And you give them the rod to catch the fish. That is a beautiful combination, no? http://www.servelec.net/mothertheresa.htm
But rather than thinking we need to side either with Dr. King or Mother Teresa, we can read what they wrote and said a little more carefully and notice that they are both correct. Charity and systemic change are not an either/or proposition. And neither is sufficient on its own.
Many of the world’s religions include the practice of charity as a significant virtue. Christianity has a long and proud history of charity functioning to effect social change as well as to ameliorate individual problems for poor and destitute people. Medieval Europe was rife with examples of hospitals built and sustained by wealthy Christians acting on the call for charity by their faith. A number of religious orders focused on intensive charitable work as the primary rule of the order. Christian charity has had a significant impact on the history of Europe and, by colonial extension, many other countries.
In Judaism, the concept of Tzedakah is a religious obligation to do what is right and just, and this often takes the form of charitable giving – but not only financial giving, it could be a gift of time or other resources to the needy.
For Muslims, Zakat is one of the five pillars. Charity is one of these five defining elements of that religion! Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism all have a similar practice called Dāna. The link is perhaps into the root culture of India as described in the Rig Veda, but in essence it the practice of generosity and giving, the virtue of charity.
And yet, there are numerous critics of charity these days. One analyst writes:
When, confronted with the starving child, we are told: “For the price of a couple of cappuccinos, you can save her life!”, the true message is: “For the price of a couple of cappuccinos, you can continue in your ignorant and pleasurable life, not only not feeling any guilt, but even feeling good for having participated in the struggle against suffering!”
— Slavoj Žižek (2010). Living in the End Times. Verso. p. 117.
Giving to charity is a common form of ‘doing something’ to help make the world a better place. Yet in many ways unfortunately, charity has become a way of maintaining the status quo rather than fermenting real change.
Charity used to mean something more than just giving money to beggars. As I said earlier, many of the world’s religions include the practice of charity as a significant virtue. Turning back to religious expressions of charity for a moment, I uncovered an interesting connection that reveals something of what is going on today.
In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, the passage so often used in weddings, the 13th chapter ends with this famous line: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
The King James Version from 1611 uses the word Charity rather than Love. Nearly all contemporary translations including the New King James Version use Love. And several notable translations from before the King James such as the Tyndale, the Geneva, and the Bishops’ Bible used the word Love rather than Charity. So it is not that the King James Version didn’t know what we’ve figured out since – No. The King James Version specifically decided to use the word ‘charity’ at that point rather than the word ‘love.’
One argument I read in favor of that choice is it that ‘charity’ is a more theological term. I have a hard time grasping that argument. Here’s what I figured out. It involves making the distinction between the practice of charity and the virtue of charity. The practice of charity is the act of giving of one’s own resources to another, usually to one in need. The virtue of charity is the religious concept of kindness and unlimited love. Now, it seems to me the virtue of charity sounds a lot like unconditional love and this argument feels a like self-producing, circular logic.
The original Greek word Agape is best translated as Love. But the Latin word often used for Agape is Caritas, and remember that Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church for centuries leading into the Renaissance. Latin was considered the “language of international communication, scholarship, and science until well into the 18th century.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latin) So the concepts of Caritas (the Latin for charity) and Agape (the Greek for unconditional Love) have become intertwined.
And while we easily tease out the practice of charity as the act of giving and sharing, the theological concept of charity at least used to be something more akin to love that what we commonly think of today.
Today the practice of charity has been unhitched from the virtue of charity, or to cut through the confusion created by the Latin/Greek language mix, the practice of charity is no longer done as an expression of love. Thus we speak of ‘fling[ing] a coin to a beggar’ rather than loving the poor. We talk about wanting to give a hand up rather than a mere hand out – which would be a step in reconnecting the virtue with the practice.
I am suggesting we would do well to have relationships with the people we help. A few months back I found this quote from activist Lila Watson: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” We need to reconnect charitable giving with compassion.
Each month we take a Special Collection for a local group or organization. Part of the point in that is to have a relationship with the groups, to be with them in the struggle for justice, not merely to give them charity. So, on a purely pragmatic level the goal of charity is to relieve a person’s need, to feed someone who is hungry or pay somebody’s medical bill or car insurance bill. But after that, there many other things that can also be accomplished.
There can be a positive, charitable feeling in the giver, there can be peace of mind and relief felt by the receiver, there can be a tax deduction for the giver, there can be renewed hope and opportunity for the receiver, there can be a scrooge-like change of heart in the giver, there can be a deepened relationship with Spirit or with God for both the giver and the receiver, there can be the establishment of a new relationship between the give and the receiver, there can be a heightened awareness of the systemic issues at play for both parties. So many other goals may be involved after that initial goal of alleviating one person’s need.
Consider the example of our Syrian refugee meal packaging event last month hosted by the Children of Abraham group. The pragmatic goal was to feed the hungry refugees fleeing from Syria. Additionally we wanted to demonstrate that Binghamton and Broome County cares about the refugee issue. And, as always, we wanted to share an activity across our religious lines. It was a fairly complex event. First we had to raise money to pay for the ingredients. We quickly discovered that our initial goal of five thousand dollars was too small, so we increased our goal to $7,500 which would make 30,000 meals. Our UU congregation served as the bank for this endeavor. We did not do a special offering during a service or an organized collection of some type, but I know many of you contributed money for this event.
On the day of the event, April 3rd, we had hundreds of people from all over the community participating to package the meals. We formed five tables like a factory line to prepare the packages. Some people scooped in the rice or the soy, others added the spices. It was measured and balanced and then sent off to a second line where the food was vacuum sealed and placed in a box.
There were 50 to 60 people actively working in the assembly lines at any time young and old, white and middle-eastern, Muslim and Jew and Christian and UU all working side by side in the lines. And we had to convince people to move out of the line after a 30 minute shift to let others in. Hundreds of people were involved in the event. Several of you from this congregation were there. It was a great experience.
We raised far more than the $7,500 we had as our goal. We raised more than $12,000. The Children of Abraham planning team decided we would do three things with the excess money that would be in line with the intentions of the givers.
First, we decided to make a donation to the shipping company that took the boxes of food. The shipping was done by a company that works on donations. From what I know, the food has not actually left our country but is scheduled to do so some time in the next week or so. The food is going to a refugee center in Greece where many Syrians are waiting to learn where they will be settled.
Second we decided to keep a thousand as seed money to repeat this event in the fall. I’ll keep you posted about that.
And third we decided to send some money to Jordan. When we started this our goal was to split the shipment between Greece and Jordan – both countries have a large number of Syrian refugees are waiting to be resettled.
We learned, however, that the Jordan would prefer we just send the money so they can do the meal packaging there in Jordan which would stimulate the Jordanian economy as well as help the refugees. Not only would that help the refugees, it would help the Jordanians and we wouldn’t have to spend money on shipping the food. If our only goal was to feed the Syrian refugees, the Jordanian plan would be more efficient.
But feeding the refugees was not our only goal. In the first reading this morning from Paul Klein’s article, the opening sentence is a helpful reminder of what we are doing.
Almost a billion people go to bed hungry every night yet the World Food Program believes that the existing knowledge, tools, and policies, combined with political will, can solve this problem. (“Are Nonprofits Getting in the Way of Social Change?” –Paul Klein)
The political will is built by experiences like the April 3rd food packaging event where regular people have a hands-on encounter with the needs of the world. It is an opportunity to reconnect the giving with our compassion.
This is why both systemic change and charity are needed. Charity alone will only ever alleviate the presenting need while never touching the system that perpetually creates that need. But without direct experiences of the need, the political will of the people to address the systemic problems will not manifest. People are too easily lulled into apathy and a sense of scarcity.
Many of the world’s religions call their adherents into the practice of charity. May we Unitarian Universalists also hear that call to be generous, to care for the stranger and the poor. The goal is not to offer a coin for today’s problems, but to unshackle the needy so that they can rise into their own natural self-sufficiency. That has long been a deep current in classic Unitarian theology: to structure society so all people can nurture their natural inclination toward health and self-culture.
Whatever your motive for giving, I urge you consider both the simple, direct results of charity and the long-term, systemic impacts you hope can occur. And if for no other reason, give charitably for your own spirit, that you may be expanded and feel a connection with the poor and those in need. Not because you are safe and they are not, but because you and I and all of us are in this together, and together we will make a better world.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Earth: Creation Exchange
Rev. Douglas Taylor
April 17, 2016
Yesterday I was up in Ithaca for a church cluster conference on leadership and partnership. Around mid-day my energy was flagging. After lunch I went out for a quick walk to help keep myself awake. Someone suggested a park that was only 2 or 3 blocks away from the church. I was surprised. I’ve been visiting that Ithaca UU church for a dozen years and had no idea that the bottom of the Cascadilla Gorge was right around the corner, a few blocks from the center of town. I was delightfully surprised and refreshed. Brian Swimme once said “Our Universe is a Universe of surprise.” I’m sure he meant it in a grander fashion than I am suggesting in this little anecdote, although I think part of the point is to learn to be open to surprises, to bring a mindset of wonder so our eyes will be ready.
The reading by Brian Swimme this morning is in response to a question from a youth: “How can I learn about my creativity?” Swimme then talks about galaxies and elementary particles. The universe itself is an enormous act of creativity. “Our Universe is a Universe of surprise.” There is always something new arising. Creation is an ongoing interchange available in every moment, in every aspect of the universe.
In describing how we participate in creation, Swimme writes:
The intelligence that ignited the first minds, the care that spaced the notes of the nightingale, the power that heaved all 100 billion galaxies across the sky … now awakens as you, too, and permeates your life no less thoroughly. –Brian Swimme
We are the earth. Michael Dowd likes to say we grew out of the earth as a peach grows out of a peach tree. We are the local embodiment of the universe. Whitman famously said “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” Meaning we are as well. So to learn about your own creativity, look to the creativity of the great, rolling and unfolding, amazing and multi-connected universe of which we are a part.
Early in my ministry I learned the importance of talking about evolution from a religious and even mythic perspective. Evolution is not only a scientific understanding, it is also a story of who we were, and are, and yet shall be. Throughout the ages, Religions have considered creation to be God’s work. Where did we come from, where did everything come from? Many religious people quickly answer: from God. And then evolutionary scientists respond: no, we evolved. But what if it isn’t an argument? What if both answers are true? Early in my ministry, that is the conclusion I struggled to articulate – both answers are true.
Here is how it works for me, my creative answer. I begin with my experiences of life rather than set theories and doctrines about reality. My experiences lead me to understand that my small corner of universe is a dynamic, evolving reality – and that matches what science says. My experiences also lead me to see there is a holiness pervading all life – and that is what liberal theology says. “Everything, everything, everything is holy now.” (Peter Mayer)
In seminary we talked about incarnation theology. It is a theology that speaks of spirit in the material. For Christianity this tends to be focalized in the person of Jesus – Jesus is The Incarnation, the embodiment of God in humanity. Of course, most liberal Christians acknowledge that while Jesus was the particular incarnation of God, all people have some God within; they say all humanity has a ‘spark of the divine.” We Unitarian Universalists like that part; we speak about everyone and everything as an embodiment of the holy.
This idea shows up early in scripture. In the first chapter of Genesis!
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
-Genesis 1: 26-27
Embedded in the Biblical story of Creation is this creative notion that we have a little divinity within each of us. For ages since, theologians have argued about what, exactly, is the ‘likeness’ and ‘image’ of God in us. Christian theologians agree that we have the Imago Dei. Despite the classic art and contemporary cartoons depicting God as an old man, a little like Zeus or a cuddly version of Odin, few theologians seriously suggests God looks like us physically. So if we set aside the literal interpretation, what are the other options?
Early Church theologians such as Ambrose said the soul was the image; Athanasius claimed it was our rationality. Augustine, suggested a mirror of the trinity of the Godhead with the image of God being our triune faculties of soul: memoria, intellectus, amor. Early mystics proposed the image of God was in the sexual union (or reunion, perhaps) of man and woman. Reformers such as John Calvin insisted the image of God was our original righteousness prior to the fall into sin. Jewish theologians commend self-consciousness and self-determination as the image; others suggest it is our innate nobility.
Early Universalists spoke of the Image of God as the reason God’s love includes everyone, and by extension, that image of God in us is our capacity to love others. On the Unitarian side, William Ellery Channing, the founder of American Unitarianism, proposed our capacity to be good is the image of God within as God is morally perfect.
Christian theologian Karl Barth offered an historical survey of the doctrine in which he acknowledged a crucial point that throughout the history of this, each interpreter has been steeped in the context of their own era and culture. (K. Barth, Church Dogmatics III/I, 1958)
Thus, all these interpretations of the Image of God say more about the interpreters and their cultural contexts than they do about the reality of existence and human nature. In essence, whatever we would name as the best quality of humanity, the finest attribute to which we can aspire – that is the Image of God.
So when I suggest that the image of God is really our creativity, our capacity to participate in creation, you can be assured I am telling you almost nothing about God and a whole lot of what I value about humanity. My own understanding of God is informed by Process Theology, I see the holy as a constant flow of unfolding energy; it is the spirit of becoming, leading into the next aspect of life. Thus, the image of God I see within is that which also is in process, that which is constantly in creation, ever spinning and becoming.
And with all that is going on with Earth Day coming up, and our celebrations, and the political commentary in the news about the climate crisis, I sometimes wonder if this ever spinning creation I am talking about here is spinning out of control.
Have you ever ridden the teacups at a carnival? I remember one time when our oldest Brin was maybe 3 years old there was a rinky-dink carnival set up in the parking lot of a run-down mall. They had very little business at that hour and we climbed into the teacup ride.
She was so excited. The operator smiled at us and started the ride. If you know the ride, you know the whole thing starts slow and builds up in speed, and as the whole ride circles around, each teacup can also spin. So we’re spinning away and I look at my daughter’s grinning face and ask, “Do you want to go faster?” she nods excitedly.
I no longer remember exactly how it worked, if I leaned forward or leaned back to get it spinning faster, but all the sudden we started whipping around. And the blood drained out of my daughter’s face. The operator of the ride noticed and quickly shut down the ride. Nice guy. I bought her some ice cream to help her perk back up. I double checked online last night to see if my memory of this ride was correct and found the line: “Under modern H&S guidelines children’s rides should not spin faster than eight times per minute.”
My point in telling you this story is that like the mechanical tea cup ride, we can manipulate the situation to spin faster if we want to. In the past century or so, the human species has made great strides in eradicating some major diseases, dramatically extended the average lifespan, and created an abundance of luxury available at our fingertips – or at least at the fingertips of some.
Our distribution of the abundance we have extracted from the earth is still problematic but the amount is indisputable. We have pushed the carrying capacity well beyond the limit because we have manipulated the situation to spin faster. We are spinning our tea cup beyond the guidelines for such rides, spinning faster than is recommended. We are out of alignment. How long will it hold?
A few weeks back at our Question Box sermon, I answered a question about climate change with Johanna Macy’s ‘three responses.’ Some stay in denial, refusing to acknowledge to looming disruption. Some succumb to despair, seeing no hope in the looking disruption. I refuse to either ignore the situation or despair of our chances. And Macy proposes the third way, the way of the Great Turning, the choice to hold hope.
I remain hopeful that we will harness the creative resilience that has marked our species throughout time. Creativity is the key. New solutions are always unfolding. In many ways, the biggest trick is to adjust our perspective enough to re-center our values on creativity.
The root language connection between creation and creativity is obvious. Artists are creators. Our creativity is rooted in nature, in our nature as humans and in the earth. It is important to honor the creativity we offer the world. Do you sing or paint? Sculpt or garden? Do you work with new ideas and concepts? Do you write poems or stories? It is holy work because it is creative work. If creation is the purview of the gods, artists and mothers are the most holy people on earth.
How can learn about my creativity, the youth asked Brian Swimme. Look to the earth, look to the whole universe and the grand adventure of creation ongoing. Go walk in the park by the base of the gorge and wake up. Seek the creative exchange of the Universe in you. Starhawk, in her book The Earth Path, writes, “We are not separate from nature but in fact are nature.”
At our 24 hour spirituality retreat this coming weekend for example, we meet up the Sky Lake Retreat center in Windsor. It is a beautiful location and every year we leave a few hours in the afternoon for people to just be in nature. We encourage folks to walk around the lake or take a nap on the grass, to walk in beauty either alone or in company. It is not something extra; it is a key piece of the schedule.
Our world needs our creativity. The image of God is our capacity to create. It is also the image of the earth and universe stamped as an identity on our souls. We are one with the creative creation in which we live. How can I learn about my creativity? In exchange with all creation, the earth and you give and receive together. You are creative because you are the earth, because you have the image of God within. And this spinning, unfolding, majestic multi-connected universe is in you and Our Universe is a Universe of surprise.
In a world without end
May it be so
Jewels from the Dragon’s Jaw
Rev. Douglas Taylor
April 10, 2016
Each of us has dragons we must face in life. In the old stories, dragons – both in the east and the west – are guardians of great treasures. In the west the stories are about slaying the dragon while in the east the stories are more about outmaneuvering it. Either way, the dragon represents the obstacle, the challenge. We all have dragons we must face in life.
The dragon represents difficulties we must face. In Carl Jung’s early concepts of the Dragon archetype, the dragon served as the arch-nemesis of the Hero. Whatever it is you seek, the Dragon is the ultimate challenge to accomplishing that goal. Over the years, the concept of the dragon archetype has adjusted in response to different cultures and contemporary experience.
Author and contemporary Jungian analyst Robert Johnson writes: “Medieval defenders had to slay their dragons; modern ones have to take their dragons back home to integrate into their own personality.” Perhaps our dragons are not to be conquered at all, instead we are to face them and learn from them.
What are the dragons in your life? Where are you broken? What are then trials you have experienced in the story of your life? Addiction? Mental illness? Physical disability? Chronic pain? Loneliness? My focus today is on chronic illness, but the lessons carry across the lines. What are your dragons?
Rev. Erika Hewitt, from our reading this morning (The Inherent Wholeness of Every Being), says we each have an inherent wholeness. Despite the ways in which we are each broken, there is a wholeness. I was at a conference last month in which the leader kept emphasizing our wholeness. She would say ‘none of us are broken, we are all whole.’ But I looked around the room of people I’ve known – some for over a decade – and I saw a lot of broken people in the room. I knew the conference leaders point and she wasn’t wrong about the wholeness, but we will never get anywhere spiritually if we refuse to acknowledge our brokenness.
It reminds me of a quote from Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, “All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.” Our dragons can be guides through our brokenness toward our inherent wholeness. In her book The Rhythms of Compassion, Gail Straub writes
The most difficult parts of our story are frequently the greatest teachers. These difficult pieces are often where we feel most alive and most in touch with the beautifulness of the human condition.
Or as Rilke once said, “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” So let us consider our dragons. My title for this sermon comes from the last two lines of a poem by Zen master Setcho Juken: “Here in the Dragon’s jaws: Many exquisite jewels.”
But consider: being caught in the jaws of our dragons is exactly what we fear most, whatever the names of our dragons. Depression is a dragon that held me for long stretches of time. I have had loved ones caught in the teeth of chronic illness and pain, addiction, anxiety, and other hidden disabilities. It’s awful.
I bring no praise for suffering or encouragement to just get over it. No. What I bring is a call to face it. When I was actively living with my depression I was spending a significant amount of energy on not being depressed, fighting against the dragon, striving to overcome it and win. It occurred to me later that part of my fighting was against the simple fact that I was depressed. Author Byron Katie once said “When I argue with reality, I lose—but only 100% of the time.”
So one step toward ending the suffering is to face and embrace the dragon you are struggling with. This doesn’t end the illness or the depression, the addiction, pain, anxiety, or any of that. But it is a way out of the suffering. Buddhism’s first Nobel Truth begins here. All life is Dukkha.
The pure teaching of that First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that reality is filled with the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows. But the first Noble Truth focuses on the sorrows, the suffering. And the Noble Truths that follow say there is a way to be free from the suffering. If you have fibromyalgia, for example, ‘facing the dragon’ will not stop the muscle pain or fatigue. But the accompanying suffering can be managed.
Yesterday, after I had written that prior sentence I almost gave up on the sermon: “managed.” The suffering can be “managed.” Over the years I have grown familiar with the concept of my loved one’s suffering being “managed.”
There is the struggle to figure out what is wrong, the atypical symptoms, being handed off from specialist to specialist, and finally receiving a diagnosis with the recommendations of how the suffering of my loved one can be “managed.” It always felt like a letdown. There is no cure, no end, no cessation of the difficulty; only techniques, some more medication, another change in diet … all to help “manage” the illnesses.
Here in the dragon’s jaws, I am caught and tempted toward despair, powerless to change reality; except … except perhaps the reality of my own mind and outlook. And that is no small thing! And I am reminded that ‘though I am caught in the dragon’s jaw, there are many exquisite jewels.
The difficulties she endured (This, again is from Gail Straub in her book The Rhythms of Compassion) The difficulties she endured… gave her the qualities that make her a gifted healer: an uncanny resilience, a rare spiritual wisdom, and a profound empathy for the human condition.
One possible set of jewels that can be found: resilience, spiritual wisdom, and empathy.
I would like to claim I have uncovered empathy as a jewel from my time with the dragon of depression. I have had many of you reflect back to me a concept I often offer in my prayers and sermons: be gentle with every soul you meet – everyone carries their own secret struggle. Empathy is a matter of learning to see the struggles of others. You may not know what another person’s dragon is like, but you know dragons enough to know it is difficult.
In a similar fashion, this same perspective allows us to take joy in another person’s joy. Empathy works on both joy and sorrow. Sometimes it is hard to be sick, to be limited in what you can do because of your body or your illness. If you used to love doing gymnastics or yoga, if you used to be able to go to concerts or shows, if you used to be able to attend college – but now your body will not allow it or your mind will not grasp it – it is hard to let go and learn to live within the limits of what’s left. And it is hard to watch others enjoying the things you used to enjoy. The Buddhist practice of Mudita is the practice of sympathetic joy – of taking joy in the joy of others. Mudita is one of the four “Brahma Viharas,” or sublime states.
Buddhism often falls into lists and this is one of them. There are the four noble truths, the eightfold path, and here are the four sublime states: Loving-kindness, compassion, equanimity, and sympathetic joy. Many people who know a little about Buddhism will recognize a few of these. Loving-kindness and compassion are regular topics discussed by Buddhists. Equanimity is a readily recognized benefit of Buddhist practice. But that fourth one: Mudita – sympathetic joy! It is not on the average person’s list of Buddhist qualities or what they know about Buddhism. Toni Bernhard calls Mudita a great antidote to envy.
Toni Bernhard is a wonderful Buddhist author. Her book How to Be Sick has been immensely helpful to me. She writes about faking Mudita, or pretending to be happy for someone else’s good news. But she says this “fake it ‘til you make it” model works very well in this case. It is perhaps better to say we are cultivating sympathetic joy rather than faking sympathetic joy. We are working on it, it is our practice, we are cultivating it.
Oh, I love the ocean; I hope you have a great time there. How delightful you can attend the opera performance, I can only watch a DVD of last year’s opera because my dragon has me housebound this week.
Envy is like a poison. But we can cultivate sympathetic joy for release. It is part of learning to live within the limits of what’s left. Empathy and sympathetic joy are jewels that can be found in the dragon’s jaw. And this is true not just for you who live with a chronic illness or two. It is not just true for people who have a Buddhist outlook on life. It is true for all of us. Every soul has experienced brokenness. We call can cultivate those experiences into empathy.
Consider how a common non-committal greeting is: “How are you?” People usually offer a standard answer of “fine, great, okay, pretty good.” For someone with a chronic illness, mental illness, or addiction, there is a desire to answer honestly, because the pain and difficulty and struggle is isolating. Someone asks ‘how are you?’ and occasionally the honest answer just pops out, “rotten, in pain, worse, putting up a good show.”
As a minister it is fairly common for people to respond honestly to the ‘how are you?’ question when I ask it. I try to ask ‘how are you today?’ when I know it is someone who suffers chronic illness. This is one of the things the basic 12-step addiction recovery has gotten right: “One day at a time.” Today I am sober. Today is harder than yesterday. Today is better than yesterday. Today I am in pain, but no more than usual. How are you today? It is a small change, but it helps keep the conversation both honest and not overwhelming.
In keeping our focus on today, it allows for the transient and impermanent nature of life to be acknowledged and honored. Impermanence is another major Buddhist notion that Toni Bernhard talks about in her How to Be Sick book. She has an amazing job with the Buddhist concepts of “no-self” and the “Wheel of suffering” as they relate to chronic illness. But of all the pieces that I found helpful, it is the way she offered impermanence as a tool toward equanimity that I found most fruitful.
When she first got sick, Toni Bernhard thought it was temporary. She made excuses for her body, kept trying to push through and will herself to get better. She kept attending Buddhist retreats and learning about impermanence, but fought against accepting the impermanence of her own health.
She eventually settled into her new reality and found equanimity in the uncertainty of life. In her book she talks about the broken-glass practice, which I learn of years back. I also find it a great lesson of compassion and engagement despite uncertainty and brokenness. A meditation master named Ajahn Chah offered this wisdom:
You say, “Don’t break my glass!” Can you prevent something that’s breakable from breaking? It will break sooner or later. If you don’t break it, someone else will. If someone else doesn’t break it, one of the chickens will! … Penetrating the truth of these things, [we see] that this glass is already broken. (from How to Be Sick, by Toni Bernhard, p35)
The glass is already broken. When your hand slips one day and the glass falls and breaks, you can let it go “because you saw its brokenness before it broke!” (ibid) Everything is transient and impermanent. This makes the glass more precious, not less so. It helps us to cherish the activities our health allows until such time as our limits no longer allow them.
What lessons have you learned in the jaws of the dragon? Perseverance perhaps? Equanimity instead? Or have you learned to somehow do both? What jewels do you find in the dragon’s jaw? Did you find empathy and compassion as I did? Even compassion for yourself? What treasures have you uncovered? Patience? Wisdom? Resilience? Through your brokenness have you discovered your inherent wholeness?
Poet and mystic Jalal-Udin Rumi says “Our greatest fears are like dragons guarding our greatest treasures.” May you find the ways today to greet your dragons with equanimity. And though you find yourself caught in the very teeth of the beast, I call to you to look deeply for the jewels, the exquisite jewels that await your discovery there in the dragon’s jaw.
In a world without end,
may it be so.
Until All Shall Be Free
Rev. Douglas Taylor
March 20, 2016
Rosa Parks did not stay in her seat because her feet were tired. She refused to move to the back of the bus for the express purpose of launching the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There is a version of the story that claims she was just tired after a long day at work. A few decades back that was the official story taught in schools. She was tired. Even though Rosa Parks had insisted early on that she was not physically tired so much as tired of giving in, the story I learned in school is that she was tired.
Here is why this is important: it’s the question of why she did it. Why did she refuse to surrender her seat on December 1st 1955 to a white passenger? Was it because her back was hurting after a long day’s work? Or was it because Rosa Parks was part of a movement to make a change in our country and our culture? If an entire generation is taught that she was just tired, they can believe that a single courageous person acting independently can make a difference. And they never learn about the deep need to be connected to strategic communities holding a vision of the Beloved Community.
Rosa Parks had been to the Highlander Folk School for activism training the summer of ’55. Emmett Till’s murder had incensed the people that same summer. She had attended a civil rights mass meeting the weekend before refusing to surrender her seat on the bus. Parks had been secretary of the NAACP for 12 years when the famous incident took place.
It was not for her tired back that she acted. It was for the movement, it was for all her people in Montgomery. And in the end, it was for the whole nation. It was not for herself.
Liberation is not a personal journey – it is for the whole community. This is not to say that personal liberation doesn’t exist or has no value. Instead what I am lifting up is how we can sometimes get lost thinking about personal liberation when the greater goal is liberation for the whole community. My personal liberation is where it begins in me, and that is how it spreads – from individual to individual. But the full story is about the whole community.
It would be as if we told the Exodus story as a tale of one man’s heroic attempts to find personal liberation by fleeing across the Red Sea from Pharaoh’s army. But the Liberation story in Exodus is not about Moses’ personal journey toward freedom; it is about the whole Jewish people making that journey. Moses certainly found personal liberation through his actions. At the beginning of the journey he has a lot of problems to work through, and one part of the Exodus story is the liberation of Moses, the great leader, so that the people could then find liberation. But we don’t ever cast it as only a story of Moses finding his way to freedom.
[A person] was standing at a street corner one day, laughing like a man out of his mind.
“What are you laughing about?” a passerby asked.
“Do you see that stone in the middle of the street? Since I got here this morning, ten people have stumbled on it and cursed it. But not one of them took the trouble to remove it so others wouldn’t stumble.”
(from Taking Flight, p161)
Personal liberation is about me never tripping on that stone in the middle of my path again. One step toward full liberation is to remove the stone that I and others are in danger of tripping over. A greater step is to look at why the stone was there in the first place, who put it there, why, and how we can build a world where nobody wants to put stones in the path of other people.
And sure as you’re born there are stones that are in our paths because that is the nature of stones and of paths, and there are stones in our paths because other people put them there to maintain a status quo to their benefit. And here I am not using the metaphor of these stones simply as hurdles and difficulties we all have to deal with because that’s life; I mean it as oppression and systemic, targeted injustices that occur.
My colleague Susan Frederick-Gray, echoing the sentiments of Gandhi and King and Mother Teresa, says, “True freedom is knowing that we cannot be free when others are oppressed.” (Quest, CLFuua.org, April 2016, “The Power and Poverty of Freedom”) We shall keep at it until all shall be free, not just some people and not just my people, but all people. That is the point that marks us as Unitarian Universalists, as people of conscience, as civilized in our contemporary context.
Lila Watson, a Gangulu-Australian artist and activist, frames the point with graceful clarity. She says: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” It is not enough to secure your own freedom and liberation. It is not even enough to only secure the liberation of people like yourself, people who share in your identity and feel the same oppression you feel. Systemic oppression and thus systemic liberation, is the whole deal. And more importantly, the deep work of being an ally is not in helping others, it is in partnering with others for mutual progress.
This brings us to the difficult aspect of what to do with ‘them’ in the ‘us-vs-them’ mentality created by oppression. The answer is to erase the distinction, of course; to be the ally from either direction of the oppression equation.
Nelson Mandela, in his book Long Walk to Freedom wrote:
It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people…the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.
To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chain’s, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. That is the true test of our devotion to freedom.
— from Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom
For Rosa Parks, the question of the Bus Driver’s liberation was surly not at the top of her attention. But that is part of the point of liberation in the longer arc of history. Moses was not concerned with how the Egyptians were going to be liberated from their oppressive ways, yet in the long run that is a key piece to the full accomplishment of liberation and freedom.
The top story yesterday in the Cornell Daily Sun was about white supremacists on campus. Serving Cornell University and Ithaca, NY, the newspaper was founded in 1880 and is “the oldest continuously independent college daily in the United States.” The feature article from yesterday is about an anonymous group of white students who plan to issue demands and host a march for white equality. They consider themselves a civil rights group. In an open letter to the public, the anonymous group states they are “a community of white students who wish to preserve and advance their race.”
Their demands are essentially to counter the demands of the Black Students United group. They want to not change the name of the Cornell Plantation, they want to not have more diversity course requirements, they want to not have more people of color hired as therapists for the student body, and they would like the Black Students United group to be disbanded. So, in essence, these white students just want these black students to stop.
The last line in the article is a quote from one of these anonymous white students: “White people are fed up with being treated like a minority.” Let that quote sink in for a minute. White people are fed up with being treated … like … a minority.
Now, it is possible that the white student group is a facebook hoax intended to rile up liberal schools. There have been similar hoaxes perpetrated at other major colleges over the past year. “Trolls” is the term used on the internet for people who go phishing for trouble like this. But even if this is not ‘actual students’ raising what they think are legitimate concerns – there is enough of a ring of truth and plausibility to make people fall for the hoax.
These anonymous white students (or, more likely, these racist internet trolls) are much like the vocal white people at recent political rallies; they cast themselves as the new victims. They present a story in which white people are the new oppressed people. And all of this looks to me like the rubber band snapping back.
Part of change dynamics theory is the principle of the rubber band. Lynn Garman used to talk with me about this. She would say with any progress against the status quo there was always the rubber band effect. The rubber band can stretch but the tendency is for everything to snap back into the way it used to be. I contend that every stretch does actually loosen the rubber band. But her point is to watch for the snap-back reaction in a system.
There are two major recurring news stories over this past year or so that are related to race. Other than the big picture of eight years with an African American president of the United States, we have these two major trends. One: the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the killing of unarmed black men by police which has highlighted the continued existence of racism that necessitates anti-racist activism. And two: the current political antics of some presidential candidates which demonstrate that racist, bigoted, and xenophobic words and deeds are acceptable to share in open and public situations. This is not to say these bigoted ideas are suddenly appearing, only that the people at the political rallies are suddenly feeling authorized to speak and behave in bigoted and violent ways publicly. This is the snap-back of any progress our country has made on the issue of racism and prejudice over recent years.
So it is important to not be too discouraged by the news. And it is a reminder to me that liberation is not simply being free from oppression or injustice. Liberation is also being free for something. It is about being free for the bigger vision. It is important to continue to see the bigger vision.
Victor Frankl, in his phenomenal book Man’s Search for Meaning, writes,
Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibility. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibilities.
Freedom and responsibility belong to each other. We frame our keystone principle with that concept, calling for the ‘free and responsible search for truth and meaning.’ Freedom of speech is tempered by the responsibility not to speak violence. For freedom without responsibility ‘is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness.’ My freedom can never be contingent on taking freedom from another.
A prophetic glance at the cultural landscape reveals an alarming re-entrenchment of old racist and oppressive behaviors. And it is not just racism; misogyny, homophobia, ableism, and xenophobia are also growing. We shall not sit by idle as these stones are heaped into our paths.
In our reading this morning (History’s Road by C. Grubbs & M Bowens-Wheatley) the question is posed: “Who are the prophets who inspire you?” The reading mentions Isaiah, Tubman, Gandhi, and Seattle as inspirational prophets who cast a vision of “the way of justice lived according to the way of peace, the Beloved Community.” Who are the prophets who inspire you?
Rosa Parks inspires me to act for justice, but also to act while connected to strategic communities holding a vision of the Beloved Community. Nelson Mandela inspires me to refuse the division between oppressors and oppressed; know the difference, but don’t let it dictate your whole vision.
The Beloved Community is a vision for all people. It will not be realized until all shall be free. We will need to find a way to even liberate the mean people, bigots, and fools itching to commit violence. The Beloved Community is a long vision, I do not believe we will see it in our lifetimes, but it is still our work to bring the human venture one step closer, to stretch the rubber band again, to remove the stones from our paths, to proclaim boldly that bigotry and violence will not be ignored, to bend the moral arc of the universe that little bit more toward justice until all shall be free.
In a world without end
May it be so.