Sunday, June 19, 2011

Midnight in Paris – an 8 out of 10 on the Jay Wolin Scale

I don’t know that it truly deserves such a high score, but timing and locale have a lot to do with it. Most of the movie fare I have seen recently has been super-hero movies or documentaries, so it was a pleasure to see an entertaining, intelligent and creative movie for a change. Plus of course I cannot resist the scenes of Paris. Ah Paris, the city of lights. I have fond memories of visiting this beautiful city. I loved just walking the streets and seeing the different neighborhoods, and walking along the Seine such as the protagonist in this movie does (as well as easily getting lost in the winding streets). The movie also imagined what it might be like to meet our artistic and literary heroes. It brought to bear the question of finding our own artistic integrity, and the juxtaposition of materialism/vanity versus artistic vision. But ultimately it is about having the courage to live fully in the present moment, and not living in the past. No super heroes necessary.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Black Hawk - Book Review

Black Hawk.
An “Autobiography” from Penguin books, that indicates it is the closest of the various versions of this autobiography. One of my new friends from Iowa sent me a copy of the book, as Blackhawk was from that area. I had originally heard of Blackhawk from wondering where the name Black Hawk came from after watching the movie Black Hawk Down. I was never taught about him in history class in school. The lack of information about Native Americans in our education is another issue to write about it at another time. I put autobiography in quotes as of course his words were translated by Whites. There is no question in my mind that there were certain edits in the translation. So it is hard to tell what words and which stories are really his versus the translators. He is often overly complimentary about the American Military leaders, to the point of being deferential. And I also have to wonder how much of this was spoken by him as a way to burnish his image after his defeat. Although there is much that the he is honest about in his errors of tactics and judgment.

Most of what I have researched about Black Hawk portrayed him as a fierce warrior of the Sauk people. And in fact the Black Hawk War was the only war named after an individual. He and his group of people fought against the Americans in the War of 1812 as well. He chronicles both his victories and defeat. Yet in the book he is portrayed as often bewildered by the clash of cultures, merely trying to preserve his people’s way of life. I found it interesting that in his decision to continue the war (as opposed to the remainder of the tribe which capitulated early) he still had women and children with him. Certainly a different cultural phenomenon than what we are used to. As well I imagine as stated, his hope was to reclaim the land they had planted and lived on, and their ancestors were buried upon. But clearly, he did not anticipate the pragmatic challenge of fighting a war with the Americans. It also shows the lack of unity among the Native Americans and how the White Europeans took advantage of that.

I found it interesting how the Easterners were fascinated by him, and overtly friendly to him. He pointed to the fact that the people who lived in the mountains (along the train ride throughout the east) seemed to follow the Christian Golden Rule and the Settlers who had conquered his land did not. There have been many other books written about how Americans have idealized Native Americans (or their vision of what Native Americans are).

It was interesting to read his surprise as certain customs and tactics of the Whites. A reminder for ourselves when we engage other cultures, how strange we may appear to them and in turn to be respectful of differences in other cultures.

Ultimately though it is about the story of a defeated, conquered people overwhelmed by a superior force in numbers and technology and one man’s desperate attempt to maintain some dignity in the face of this, and his ultimate defeat, yet survival to tell his story.

So I look back and see I have written “it was interesting” numerous times. Although the pace of the book was stilted, clearly if you like history it is a good read to at least gain a partial perspective of how our settlement of this country looked from the perspective of one Native American.

And then of course I wondered, what in my life today, do I not see the full picture of. Are there forces in our culture that I just do not understand that will overwhelm and defeat me. Should we adapt to and combat the inevitable force, or accept defeat and be assimilated by it. Do we go off and live in our quiet little place and just shut out the rest of the world or do we rage against the world that has defeated us. The question is how do we adapt the superior force to change and to integrate a minority position. Do we create polarities and wait until enough people have been negatively impacted by the majority so that the minority becomes the majority or do we try to find a middle ground where both polarities are integrated, where we can hopefully find a better middle way for all. How can we unite our various fractured constituencies to unify to move forward towards a different vision of what America can be.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011


My Candidating Week Sermon

My experiences in this religion led me ten years ago on a journey from being an accountant towards becoming a parish minister in the UUA. What started ten years ago was just a far off dream is now becoming a reality. If when I started, I knew everything that I would have had to do to make it to this point, I may not have started. But through the process I have found a well of resiliency that has helped me make reach this point. And resiliency is something we need to develop in our life. Between terrorism, 3 wars overseas, and an economic meltdown, it is easy to become pessimistic about our future. So where do we as Unitarian Universalist find hope for our future journeys, and is having hope even a helpful concept?

Thict Nhat Hanh, the famous Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, says and I am quoting “Western civilization places so much emphasis on the idea of hope that we sacrifice the present moment. I do not mean that you should not have hope, but that hope is not enough” The journey of life is a string of events, a string of moments joined together and we should be aware of and be present in all those moments so that we can create the life and world we dream about.

A similar theme is spoken of by the Taoist philosopher Lao Tsu when he wrote A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Each one of our steps makes up the journey and it is never too late to start. In truth, I think about my journey to ministry, when I started I did not even know where it was heading.

But my journey like every journey started long before my first step. Stephan Batchelor in his book Buddhism without Beliefs, states we are who we are because of the unprecedented and unrepeatable matrix of conditions that have formed us. Well certainly part of my matrix of conditions was my family’s journey to come to this country.

When I was a little boy, every Sunday morning our family would gather at my grandparents apartment in The Bronx in New York City for a breakfast of bagel, cream cheese, lox and whitefish and pickled herring. Its no wonder I have high cholesterol. Each week my grandfather would tell us stories about the journey of moving from Lithuania to America. The story starts in this way. My great grandfather Jacob, who I am named after, after one too many unprovoked attacks by the police due to my family’s Jewish religion, made the decision to move the family to the United States. They had enough money for one ticket on a boat from England.

The plan was for my GGF to go to America and earn enough money to send for the rest of the family. A fairly typical immigrant story in the early 1900s. So my Great Grandfather left Lithuania for England. Now somewhere along the way he got lost. There were of course many jokes about his not asking for directions, but that is another story. When he finally arrives in England, he has missed the boat to America. Undeterred, and this part gets hazy as there are a few versions of what happens next, but it ends up that he gets on another boat to America. As it turns out the boat he missed sank at sea and there were no survivors. Now back then of course they didn’t have phones and mail delivery was slow, so for two months the family thought he was drowned at sea. So when my GGF finally made it to America, and contacted his family, they thought he had risen from the dead. We wont even get into the theological issues surrounding that!!

My grandfather used to tell this story over and over again, and his message to me at the end was always a hopeful message and it was this, Jay he would say, Even if you are lost, even if you totally miss the boat, things can still turn out ok for you, in fact sometimes, even better than if found your way immediately. Just don’t give up.

Many Unitarians have journeyed far to get here today. We have journeyed from other locations, moving from other states, we have journeyed from other religions, or even from no religion. Even born UU’s have journeyed on the path of religious and spiritual growth, which speaks to our third principle, which includes the encouragement of spiritual growth in our congregations. But like any journey, we really don’t know where it is going to lead us. It is this ambiguity that sometimes makes us lose hope. The key to that is not to let the ambiguity of the result paralyze us from doing anything. Like coming to a fork in the road and not moving.

Two Roads diverged in a Yellow Wood and I am sorry I could not travel both. The road not taken. I chose this poem for the reading well because I was required to memorize this poem in Junior High School. Seriously, for some reason over the years it just keeps popping up in my brain.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

The last line really is an interesting one. It is not placing a value judgment on the difference, just recognizing it. We as the reader often place a value judgment on it.

It is the realization that the choices we make in life do make a difference. And as we reflect on our lives, we can see how some specific choices we made led us to where and who we are today. And we can use those reflections to help us make choices going forward to lead us to where and who we want be. And just this knowledge that we are capable of that can help create hope.

Approximately ten years ago, as I was reflecting back on my life, I realized that I wanted to live my life more fully. I knew that somehow I had to transcend the context of my life as I was currently living it. I don’t know that I formally thought those thoughts. It was just a feeling, a knot in my stomach, and uneasiness about the path and vocation on the journey I had chosen, and I listened to that inner voice that said there is more to this life then you have experienced so far…there is other paths you can take.

And I had a choice. We always have a choice, I could play out the rest of my life hiding in the shadows quietly, and wondering what could have been, or I could engage life with hope and wonder and see where it would lead me. In our lives, these divergent paths come upon us. In fact they are always there, no matter how old we are, we just have to become aware of them.

And as I did become more aware, I placed a different higher value on taking the less traveled road, and I found that one thing I had been searching for all my life. I likened this to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden when he writes “If a person does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because they hear a different drummer. Let them step to the music which they hear, however measured or far away.” But hearing music and stepping to the music are two different things. Both require intention. Listening in and of itself is a good thing and speaks to taking time To discern one’s path. It is also important to realize that although all of us may be heading in the same direction we may be on different parts of the path and we should respect and honor that.

But Thoreau specifically points out that to listen to ones own music, to listen to your call from the universe, to realize your heart’s desire, requires action, requires actually taking the steps to make it a reality, and often requires us to choose the road less travelled and walk it. That can be a scary thing, to journey on the less travelled road. But just because it is less travelled, it doesn’t mean you have to walk it alone. We come together here as a religious community to walk that path together, to share together, to learn together, to comfort and guide each other, to inspire each other, to just be with one another on our religious journey.

Now this journey can be both and inward and outward journey. In fact I believe it should be both and inward and outward journey. I think the inward journey leads to the outward journey and the journey outward leads us back in. The inward journey can happen in multiple ways. I know this congregation offers many opportunities for spiritual practices and reflections. Such spiritual practices can be done alone or with others. The goal of such practices is to help us be intentional in our lives, to gain clarity, and to see ourselves as part of something larger than just ourselves. To slow the world down which is rushing past us. Or to slow ourselves down as we rush past the world.

This is why it is so important to create a trusting, non judgmental open environment where we can explore those questions that gnaw at us, when the events of the world create cognitive dissonance with what we have been taught all our life. In recognizing this, we need a place to explore what our truth is. And then when we realize our truth we are faced with yet another choice. How do we make our truth a part of how we live our life, how do we engage with others authentically. I call this the relational theology. I would like to give you a personal example of how this worked for me.

One of the most powerful forms of education I have encountered was when as part of my seminary experience I went to visit the Immokalee Farm Workers, who are tomato pickers in South Florida and I sat with the farm workers and heard their stories, saw where they lived, saw the conditions they had to work under. Then I investigated and verified that there had indeed been 9 convictions of enslaving immigrant farm workers over the past ten years in Florida. I never really thought about how those tomatoes got to my salad bowl or into my taco. But once confronted with the truth, I could not turn away. And I asked them how I could help them. How could I support them.

After sitting with these farm workers and their families, it made me realize exactly what survival and justice really means. These people took real risks. They risked their jobs, and their very existence to stand up for what they believed. At what point do we stand up for a greater cause, versus rationalizing one more compromise of our principles. These are not easy questions and they have no absolute answers and what answers we have are often ambiguous.
Engagement with others humanizes and connects people. I think in these connections, in building such relationships that spiritual growth and change can happen. It changed me and it continues to change how I live in the world. It changed my shopping habits and my eating habits. It changed my relationship with my grocery store manager. We now know each other on a first name basis after my ongoing dialogues with him about the most effective way to have his corporate managers increase the amount they are paying for tomatoes. Ten years ago, such a thought let alone having such a conversation would have been a leap for me. And unless we have some personal connection with injustice that makes that leap compelling, we are more likely to maintain the status quo.

That is why we need to make to our congregations a safe, supporting beloved community for a diversity of people and experiences, where everyone’s wisdom, presence, awareness, responsibility and consciousness are truly valued, accepted, and shared, as we walk together on this journey called life.

So despite the ambiguities of life, maintain hope for a better future for yourself and for the world, the world of today and the world of our descendants. Maintain hope and find meaning in each and every day and each and every action.
And when things get hard as they inevitably do, when it may seem that the path you have chosen is not working out as planned, remember the words of my grandfather, Even if you are lost, even if you have totally missed the boat, things can still turn out ok for you, in fact sometimes, even better than if found your way immediately. Just don’t give up. It is never too late to change. It is never to0 late to learn, it is never too late to grow. Act consciously, and by doing so, you will live into your hope.