Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Image of God


Genesis 1:26 Then God said, :Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”  so God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God created them. Male and female God created them”   I want you to know that I stay up late at night wondering, thinking, pondering about such lines from the Bible and what meaning it can have for us as Unitarian Universalists.  I would first like to point out that in the story God said Let “us” make humankind in “our” image.  Most people gloss over that fact of multiple Gods in the early verses of Genesis.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out as we discussed in our Bible class that this creation story in Genesis says nothing about a woman being created from a rib.   This of course was the story I was raised with. This was a God of creation.  It is strange that so much theology has been created about the concept of God that has been so harmful to so many and has led to violence.  And so we have to ask, the purpose for our image of God?... Its purpose is that there is something inside each of us that yearns to understand where we come from and what is the purpose of our existence. 

We yearn to understand why there is suffering, and how to deal with it,  we yearn for some guidance in how to we live with the knowledge that our life will end.  The Greeks and Romans in trying to answer these questions created mythical figures who interacted with humans.  Often these characters had the same emotional strengths and weaknesses as humans.  The three Western Religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam known as religions of the book, focus on obedience to rules as a way to answer these questions. 

I think it is interesting that the second of the 10 commandments in the book of Exodus ch 20 v4, states that we should specifically” not make a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the water under the earth”.  So on two levels, I think this is interesting.  First, the concept from the very beginning is that we should not create an image of God.  Now it is true that part of this was to allow the Hebrews to differentiate themselves from the neighboring groups which did create idols that were worshiped. 

But I would also speculate that making it one of the first commandments was also a recognition and foresight that our image of God will change over time,  and thus we should not create an image that fixates God in any particular way.  Secondly, the commandment encompasses the entirety of the universe, in the sky, in the ground, in the water, indicates that their image of God is a God that is a part of and included in all of existence.  Yet many who were brought up in these religions had an image of a condemning God, who would judge one for their actions, and thus required your obedience.  But our experience with reality put this image into question.

             Suffering touched the just as well as the unjust. In fact often suffering often affected the just more so than the unjust.  And as knowledge of the universe expanded, the  realization that the image of an old man with a beard in the clouds who judges was not an adequate image anymore for the word God for the yearnings we had. So we need a new image of God. In a short story The Wandering Jew by Elie Wiesel he writes, “Humans define themselves by what disturbs them and not by what reassures him. When will you understand that you are living and searching in error, because God means movement and not explanation?”  That caught my attention because the first of Unitarian Universalists stated sources includes “the transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;”   Again the language we use to speak of our yearnings, of our search,  we speak of movement and creation.  What is unique about all human beings compared with other parts of creation?  Humanity’s uniqueness is our ability to reason, to use cognitive thought and to express that cognitive thought artistically. 

Truthfully, we do not know this for certain, as there may be other creatures, dolphins for example that may possess this skill.  Yet even asking that question, shows our uniqueness.  We are always using the process of  examination and self examination to explore. And this is at the core of our religion as our  fourth principle states we affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  We are driven to explore as a species.  Why else would we send probes out into space to see pictures from millions of light years away and as well spend hours in therapy trying to figure out what moves our unconscious mind. 

We want to learn more about ourselves, and the universe around us.   We do often make images of the skies above, the earth below and the waters, we do so as a way to explore, to discern, and as a means to create ways to express those yearnings I spoke of earlier , the unanswerable questions, the questions that haunt us, the questions that disturb us. For once we stop asking the questions, we stop moving, we stop creating, we stop evolving.

Unitarians have a long history dedicated to the ongoing evolution of humanity which they called Self Culture. Transcendentalist  William Ellery Channing in 1838 defined it as “the care which every human owes to themself, to the unfolding and perfecting of their nature.”  So how do we improve ourselves, how do we attain this self culture.  Some of the main methods are self discernment and self questioning through solitude and meditations.  Other methods include prayer, walking, private and public worship, and small group discussions.  The key is to improving awareness.  Just being aware of how things are, how your relationships are, how society is. 

Awareness of our surroundings. How nature is impacted by our actions, how our relationships are impacted by our actions, how we are impacted by our actions and thoughts.  We must continue to search for the wisdom that leads us to this unfolding of our nature.   The challenge of self examination, of self culture, is the risk that it creates a self-centered individualism.  Particularly in our multicultural world that we live in today, in our covenantal community,  individualism creates divisions.  I do think that before we can see others for who they are, we do need to see ourselves for who we are.

But I believe when we become self aware, when we go into the depth of our consciousness, when we learn the true essence of who we are, and what we are here for, we will  realize that we are connected and interdependent with all of existence, and we will find that commonality of life amidst the multiculturalism that makes us all unique. This is a fine balance.  How do we maintain that which is unique to being who we are, while learning the universal truths about existence.  As with most things, as we search, as we live, as we connect, we must find that balance, between living in the here and now, and understanding the greater long term impact we can have,

The balance between the raising our children and sometimes caring for parents, and paying our bills, versus realizing that there are many children in need and many people without even the basic necessities right here in our own community, necessities which we take for granted. And I believe that by helping others, by being part of a community, we help ourselves realize the best nature of our humanity.  If what makes humans unique is our creative expressions of cognitive reasoning, then maybe God is the word we use to describe the energy within us and within everything, that sparks life, that sparks creative cognitive thinking, that sparks that intuitivity that moves us towards the good. 

When we use intuition that leads to right action we are tapping into a universal understanding of the way things are or should be.  Maybe when all of society becomes aware of the positive creative interconnections and comes to together to implement them, we will experience what some would call the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.  It is not always a smooth or even journey, and we will make mistakes, but when we do, we should admit to it and adjust our direction.  This was brought home to me when I was reading the comments of a woman who was receiving supplies in New York after Hurricane Sandy. She was thankful, but she said, and I quote “The only time rich white people recognize us is when there’s some disaster. And then she poignantly added “Why wait for tragedy?” “People suffer every day”  Why wait for tragedy.  That was powerful.  We don’t need to wait. We have the capability, we just need the will.  Sometimes things don’t work out, Sometimes we are confronted with our own limitations and our own lack of awareness and when we are we need to act.  And in thinking how we can become aware last night, in such a way, I received an epiphany.  I was making garlic bread, and I forgot to set the timer. All of a sudden as I was reviewing the sermon for today, my eyes starting tearing up…..and I started wondering why I am getting so emotional about this.  Then I realized that the apartment was filling up with smoke as the garlic bread burned.   And I quickly threw open the door and windows and let in the fresh air.  And I remembered to set the timer when I put new pieces in the oven.  So when we are challenged by something we were unaware of  throw open the doors and windows of our minds, let a fresh air into the house of your soul, clear the smoke from your eyes, clear the old images from your mind and start anew and create something new.

As the Bible says we should not have an image of God.  If we do not have an image of God, and if we are created in the image of God, that means that we should not have an image of ourselves.  And that is a scary thought. We do often get wrapped up in our own image. What our beliefs are, How we view ourselves, how others view us. We create labels, Democrat, Republican, Socialist, Progressive, Conservative. And then we praise or demonize based on these labels.  These are nothing more than images.  The danger is that we will begin to believe in our images, and worse we will get stuck in our images.  This is my image of myself, so this is how I must be.  And once we do that, then we stop growing as well. And once we stop growing, something inside us dies. We need to transcend our own images of ourselves. So I say Let go, let go of the images of yourself and the world and look with fresh, clear eyes at everything you see. Awake!!  Awake to the wonder of the universe.  Awake to new and different ways of beings. Awake to the creation we are blessed with and let us create something with it. The picture on the front of the order of service is of a picture I took of the trees looking outside this sanctuary.  People over the years planted and tended to those trees,  to create something we can today marvel at. But also the environment allowed for it. What else does the environment allow for. What is it that disturbs you in the world?  What or who is missing from our Congregation, our Community? What other seeds can we plant, whether for trees in the ground or in the young minds of our children and the children and young adults we work with at Williams Middle School the West Davenport Center.  Let us create a new world.  It will not happen by itself.  We must work with what we have been given. 

We must create movement, movement from apathy to caring, movement from exploitation to justice, movement from violence to peace. Movement from yearning to action.  In order to create those movements we must have movement in our hearts. Movement in our hearts to love for all of creation. That is my image of God. May it be so

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Courage

As today is Veterans Day I often think of the courage it takes for anyone who is in the armed services and puts themselves in harms way with the hope to create a better world, the world we would dream about. Especially in our current times which have an all-volunteer armed services, it is the highest form of courage. I don’t know that kind of courage.  I have long searched for how a person develops courage. My earliest memory of the concept of courage was the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz.  Looking back on it I find it to be both a strange and complex story. We first come across the Lion when he bullies the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Toto, and then backs down as soon as Dorothy slaps him on the nose and he admits his cowardice.   I think that speaks a lot about Bullies.  And although it may be true that they themselves are cowards, or have been bullied in their own lives, my experience is that unless they are faced with compelling and equivalent threat of power they don’t often back down. The Cowardly Lion gives a long somewhat incomprehensible speech defining courage,
What makes a King out of a slave? Courage.
What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage.
What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist or the dusky dusk?
What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage.
What makes the Sphinx the 7th Wonder? Courage.
What makes the dawn come up like THUNDER?! Courage –
What makes the Hottentot so hot?
What puts the "ape" in ape-ricot? Courage.

What kind of messages are children getting from this????

So does anyone even know what a Hottentot is? I had to look it up, it is an aboriginal tribe in Africa and is considered an inappropriate or insulting way to address them.  I say it is a complex story because on one level, one could and in certain parts should look at this as just a cute play on words.  But also it speaks to courage as being part of our inner nature, being part of nature itself.  We just have to be who we are and do what we are called to do and we will realize our courage. The Lion journeys with Dorothy to Oz in hope that the Wizard will give him courage.  Of course he does courageous things saving Dorothy along the way. When they finally unmask the Wizard,  the Wizard tells the Lion.  “You are under the unfortunate conclusion that because you run away from danger you do not have courage. You are confusing courage with wisdom. Back where I come from we have men called heroes, and once a year they take their fortitude out of mothballs and parade it out in the city, and they have no more courage then you do, and he gives the lion a medal with the word courage on it.” 
           Again a complex storyline.  Now in regard to the medals, in and of themselves they do not create courage. They are important, as a touchstone, a reminder of the good deed or heroic act, to remind us of who we are once were, what we once did, and what we are still capable of.  But a medal is just a medal, It does not create courage.  We cannot keep our courage in mothballs.  We need to be courageous every day of our lives.
                As I spoke last week of Aristotle’s virtues, here too, Aristotle would say that the virtue of courage is the mean between the continuum of fear, and rashness.  It is not necessarily courageous to go headlong into something to which you are not prepared for. It takes courage to be self aware and not to be swayed by others.  As an example, after a tree fell on my house in Florida during a Hurricane, and my neighbor asked me if I wanted to borrow his chainsaw. I responded with a quiet no thank you, but internally my brain said, “do I look suicidal to you?”  My neighbor I think looked at my refusal as a form of unmanliness on my part, but I looked at it as making a courageous and self aware choice.  Although I have no great desire to,   I am sure I could learn how to use a chain saw, with proper training,  however I didn’t think that day, with everyone’s nerves a little shaken by the storm and damage,  should be the first day I ever tried to use a chainsaw.  So I looked at my act as courageous not being swayed by those around me to take actions that I knew I was not capable of achieving.
           Now on one end of the continuum is being constantly fearful, If we stay on that end of the continuum will lead to not living up to our full potential.  Often we underestimate what we are capable of.  We also at times have to willing to sacrifice something, we have to be willing to stand for something, to maintain our integrity .  I found this to be true especially when I worked in the business world.  People would ask me to do things that were unethical, or I would witness something unethical being done. 
            And you can imagine the pressure that can be brought to bear with the threat of losing your job.  I was very fortunate, I often worked for business people who knew I had their best long term interests at heart, even when I refused to do things they asked me to do. I was their firewall. Some didn’t like that, and I would move on, as I said, sometimes you have to sacrifice for your integrity. It’s a matter of having the courage to maintain one’s integrity, and building a reputation for it. And it then becomes a model for how others in the organization will act as well.  And I do believe we learn courage by how leaders of organizations model such behavior.
            We learn courage from mimicking what we see, whether through our experiences in the world or through the media, In Bruce Springsteen’s song Backstreets he states “Remember all the movies we’d go see…trying to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be.”  I try to go back and think about who were my heroes growing up. Martin Luther King Jr., all those people fighting for civil rights in the south,  But this was the theoretical.  It is one thing to watch somebody on tv doing something courageous, it is another thing to experience it in person, live, when personal risk is at stake. Just as people going door to door on election day no matter which party takes courage.
          And so, I would  like to share with you a story in my life when I experienced someone acting courageously.  It is a story I have never told before, and until now, only the participants to the event know of its existence. It was a hot week night during the school year when I was in High School, and as usual, I was hanging out at the street corner in the Bronx outside the Carvel Ice Cream Store. (do people still hang out at street corners?)   Anyway, I was flirting with this girl, and it turned out she was the girlfriend of some gang member.  I didn’t know it was his girlfriend, in fact sources later told me she wasn’t his girlfriend, but I think he thought he would impress her by beating me up.  So he and twenty of his best friends encircled me and he started trying to beat me up. The Carvel store owner broke it up.  And then the tense waiting game began.  The store owner would not allow a fight outside his store, I was hoping to wait it out, hoping they might get bored,  but at some point, I knew the store would close.  You have to remember this was before cell phones, so I couldn’t call for reinforcements.  So at some point, the fear of going home late, was worse than my fear of getting beaten up.  I started to walk home and I had one friend who stayed with me, even though he knew by staying with me it could lead to danger for him.  It is why to this day, for this man, I would do anything, anything for him, for he stood with me when no one else would. That was courageous. So as we are walking home, I had about twenty people following me down the street, and my antagonist called me out to fight him.  And I just said, I have no reason to fight you.  And I tell you it was times like these that gave me a belief in some kind of God.  For just as I said that, two people whose house I was walking past just happened to walk on their porch, heard me say that.  And they asked me “do you not want to fight”  I said, no, I have no reason to fight him, and they, mistaking my fear of dieing for some conceptual moralistic stand against violence, invited me and my friend into their house. And these twenty people who were following us threatened them, and these two seemingly meek looking people, stood their ground, and the gang of twenty walked away.  I thought my, that is courage.   I often think back upon that evening, and think about how my life would have been very different if these people didn’t just happen to be there, and didn’t stand up to these people. If I had started walking just 30 seconds earlier or later. If my friend hadn’t joined me, which may have delayed the attack.  Everything had to work out exactly the way it did in order for it to happen the way it happened.  It was on that night that I learned something about faith, for on that night, I had a prayer answered. My prayer would not have been answered if those people did not show the courage that they did. I remember that every time I see someone in trouble. Even though I may have fear in my heart, I feel the obligation to stand up and answer that person’s prayer, just as someone answered mine. And so I ask you, to answer the prayers of the people you come in contact with here in our community, in our schools, in our neighborhoods, where children and families need your help.
             We can have the courage to do what needs to be done, we can make a difference in other people's lives.  Even when it is hard, even when it is inconvenient, even when it is sometimes fearful, but courage is built by intentionality. An intentionality in having faith in ones self and in the universe, that type of faith was instilled in me that dark night, it gave me the faith and the courage to take action in my life, a faith that gave me the courage to trust in the unfolding of the universe,  A faith to trust the unknown, whatever it may bring, for better or for worse. So when I made the decision to move to Florida without a job, without a place to live, intuitively I trusted it was the right thing to do.
When I made a decision to become a minister and then move to Iowa, I trusted it was the right thing to do. And not every decision I have made in my life is always right but I realize with courage, we can try and make it possible, without the courage to even try, nothing would be possible. And with each decision we make and with each courageous act we take, it fortifies our courage…and when you make a mistake, and you realize the world doesn’t end, you can start again. And once we realize that, it makes it easier to have the courage to do the thing that your heart yearns for you do to. To have the courage to do the thing needs to be done,  
        To the have the courage to follow your path, without knowing its outcome. I ask you to have the courage to look deep inside yourselves and see what is your path what are you called to do right now in your life. Having  fear is a natural thing but with courage we can act in spite of that fear, that despite the fear despite the uncertainty we move forward with doing the right thing, doing good, doing the just. And as well if we believe in ourselves, we should have the courage to admit when we are wrong about something.
        Courage, can be little, it can be big, but it is needed to create a better life and a better world. I ask you to stand with me and counter all the forces of cynicism that say it cant be done and let us continue to build the beloved community. So I would like to leave you with a story, actually from the TV show Cold Case. A young Japanese man, who with his family had been put in an internment camp for Americans of Japanese descent during WWII. The son who had reluctantly joined the army at his father’s insistence writes home.

Dear Dad,

It’s the night before we go into battle and I cant sleep.  Even in my dreams I hear the artillery and I am so afraid.  When I need to be brave, I think of you dad and your faith in the world that is no longer simple.  Some times I dream of home again drawing pictures of you, and the family, with none of us behind bars, because in my dreams we are free. I know now that’s why Im here.  Its not who I am fighting against, but who I am fighting for, for you Dad, for what your dreams of America could be, should be.  I see all of us on the battlefield, white, black, brown, yellow.  That’s the America I know. Maybe one day I will see you there.  May it be so.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Conscience and Compromise

           Compromise and Conscience.  In some ways together they seem like an oxymoron. Like Jumbo Shrimp, or political science, or somewhat relating to the topic today, the phrase Civil War.  Can you have a war that is civil.  Can these two concepts Compromise and Conscience live together.  Our fifth principle (only had to use one hand) is The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. We find honor in the right of conscience, the willingness to stand up for what you think is right, despite the consequences, despite not being in the majority. This is part of our western culture. We are descended from a history of dissenters.   This has stood the test of time for us. 

The thing is, the person who believes the opposite of you, feels just as strongly. Although our principles speak about conscience, nowhere in our principles does it say anything about compromising.  And yet our principles were formed out of a tremendous compromise between Unitarians and Universalists when they merged in 1961,  And although they agreed on many things, differed on some very important things.  The Universalist Declaration of Faith prior to the merger with the Unitarians which was affirmed as late as 1953 included among others  an avowal of faith in

“God as eternal and all-conquering love”; and the

“The spiritual leadership of Jesus”

The Unitarians would not accept the word Jesus in the principles and those two statements were conflated into one of the original principles  To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man’  I understand they spent hours on end into the night arguing over whether it should be “our” Judeo-Christian Heritage vs. “the Judeo-Christian Heritage”  In fact the wording of the original principles almost ended the merger of the two religions.   
I think this story exemplifies so many points about how we deal with each other.  There were clearly some items each group wouldn’t compromise on.  In truth each group compromised on many different issues.  I use this as just one example. And although the specificities of the words in this example may seem pedantic to us, it was important to them. And the more important point is they continued to work together until they could come up with a resolution to the challenge.  Because there was a higher more important cause for both groups so they worked and worked and worked hearing each other’s concerns and trying to reconcile it with theirs, even late into the night. 
They didn’t walk away from the table, they didn’t use a scorched earth policy.   That is what this lesson teaches me, that there is a higher concept above the duality of compromise and conscience.  That higher concept is the virtue of civility.

Aristotle would say that the virtuous life is the pursuit of the highest good and Aristotle defined virtue as the mean between excess and deficit. In the case of civility I would call it the mean between the excess of complete deference and deficit of obstructionism. The Buddha speaks in a similar way when he speaks of the Middle Way.  He wrote The middle way is the moderate path between the extremes of austerities and indulgence. It is not seen as a compromise but of a higher new way.  The best way that I had it described to me was an isosceles  triangle (and I guess an equilateral triangle would work as well).   Where people start on different sides, but they don’t just meet in the middle, they meet higher up, where each one is raised to a new level of understanding and consciousness. But this doesn’t happen overnight.  Aristotle would say it needs to be a habit.  We can start with the children.  Growing up, there was never a question about this in my household, growing up the act of voting was considered sacred, an expected rite of passage as sacred as any religious obligation as sacred as becoming educated.  It was not so much an obligation as much as it was an honor to participate. 

And that to me is the key to having a civil conversations.  It is about creating a safe space to have a conversation and then in participating. It is about coming together with the intention of actively listening to another.  There is too much at stake not too.  Whether this be in a personal relationship, this congregation or in the political hallways of Congress, there is too much at stake..  So the question is what can we learn from someone who thinks differently then us. We often say, to question is the answer.  Now I would like to believe that sometimes there is an answer, but critical thinking through questioning is a value that I believe leads us to better answers, middle way answers.

         Gaining knowledge from multiple sources is critical in pursuit of the truth and in reaching our goals together as a community. We must leave our selves open to new ways of thinking and being if we are to change and grow. But we say, we do that, the other person is not open to being changed.  The key is to remain in right relationship with others, to remain in dialogue with others to be patient, but to maintain our integrity, and continue to work at it.  We must all keep our eye on the highest goals. Not just proving we are right on any particular issue, but coming together to achieve our vision and missions, whether they be personal, congregational, or as a Country. We can not do it alone.  We need each other.

As environmental Activist Phil Knutson  says “We’re living in an imperfect world, we have to make choices and judgments that aren’t always easy. But you start with basic ethics, like truthfulness, fairness, equity, reciprocity, and sharing, that are at the core of our species nature, what makes us human”   And I would add we have to look at what is best for us as a species in the long term.  Not what do we want or need now.  We live hectic lives, and because of that, we often live lives of convenience. By that I mean when we don’t have much time, we need things quickly and immediately. There is usually not enough time to shop for let alone grow healthy foods, and to cook dinner, and likewise, there is not enough time to read all the information available to make informed decisions.  And so we reach for the nearest sound bite.   And that attitude slips into all the different parts of our lives.

I heard a young women being interviewed on NPR this past week and upon asked who she was voting for said, although she agreed with one of the candidates on most social issues, she was voting for the other candidate because the economic issues affected her right now, and she thought that the other candidate could help her job prospects right now.  I am not saying she is right or wrong, I am not judging,  but we must consider what is not only in our best interest but what is in the best interest of others, of our country, and for the world for generations to come, not just what we need today. Sociologist Robert Bellah speaking at UUA General Assembly said that this singular focus on  personal conscience at the expense of greater good of the community  is “nothing but self-interest maximizers, and devil take the hindmost. It is that version that we see all around us.  I don’t think we can challenge that version until we come to see that the sacredness of the individual depends ultimately on the solidarity with all beings, not on the vicissitudes of our private selves.”  

Our ultimate hope is that we believe we can change for the better. People, ideas, groups, countries, we evolve over time. Unitarian Universalism has evolved since the merger over 30 ago.  Our Universalist Theology of Love over the years since then has been integrated into our combined religions. We can choose, And those choices have consequences.  And as we used to say on the schoolyard, what goes around comes around.  We can choose.  We can choose a better way. It may be a harder way.  We can choose a higher way. It may be a longer way. We can choose the Middle Way.  May it be so.