Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Tale of Two Mothers - Sarah and Hagar

           Mothers day will always hold a very special place in my heart.  For it was on Mothers Day that I first led a service in this Congregation during my Candidating Week two years ago that led to my being called to serve this congregation.  And as I said then, I say again, Mothers day is not simple. Although everyone was born from a woman, Not everyone has a great relationship with their mother or their child. Perhaps someone is still feeling the pain of a mother’ illness or recent death.  Or a mother whose children never call (I heard that one a lot – you never call, I thought maybe you died).  Or a family who finds out that they cannot conceive a child biologically, Mothers Day can bring up deep emotions. I think of my of my own family, both of our  children whom are adopted from  Korea….when they became aware of what it meant to be adopted, Mothers day was always a reminder to them that there was a birth mother that will never know, and I wonder about their birth mother, and birth mother’s of all adopted children, and imagine what their feelings are on Mothers Day. And as I think about the parental challenges of families today, I realize many of the challenges that are with us today have been with us for millennium.
Thinking about adoption, and motherhood in general I am immediately drawn to the stories of Sarah, Hagar and Abraham in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Such a troubling, complex story.  Scriptures written by a patriarchal society for a patriarchal society and yet in some ways, the women in certain stories throughout the Scriptures challenge the patriarchal order and take charge of their lives and their families.   Abraham is told by God that he would be (and quoting from Genesis) “an ancestor of a multitude of nations and you will be exceedingly fruitful, I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you”. Well  late into his life, Abraham and Sarah had not yet had any children.  Abraham didn’t seem to mind or even notice, focusing on building up his land and herds.  How often is it that we bury our lives into our work or some other addiction to avoid dealing with the challenges in our personal lives.  But in this story Sarah was very practical. She knew that Abraham  could not be an ancestor of a multitude of nations if there were no descendants. So Sarah decides they should have their child through surrogacy. She offers her Egyptian slave Hagar to Abraham as a way to start their family.  
To put this in context at the time this story was written, slavery was a part of the culture.  And although today most parenting through surrogacy is voluntary on the part of the birth mother, the reality is that often birth mothers who are surrogates or whose children are adopted,  are poor, and with limited options in life.  Additionally we know even today as we have heard from our Immigration Social Justice Task Force, there is a large sex trafficking problem, where poor women often from foreign countries are tricked, trapped, and sold into slavery. Hagar represents to me the story of all women who have been oppressed, objectified, and abandoned by society.  Hagar gives birth to Abraham’s first child Ishmael. And Abraham loved him. But this is where the story takes an uglier and complex turn. Throughout this whole process, Sarah despite suggesting all of this treats Hagar badly. Part of this is the story of privilege and power, but also it is about her fear and loss of her relationship with Abraham.  And Many years later, after Sarah, gives birth to Isaac, she demands that Hagar and Ishmael be cast out. Actually she doesn’t even use their names. In fact Sarah and God never use their names. It is always slave woman and the boy. I have often said that it is in the naming of something, or in this case someone, that it becomes real.  Not even mentioning them by name speaks to the invisibleness of these people within their society.  So I ask you to think about who is invisible to us.  Who do we not know. Who or what do we not name?  For if they are not real to us, we don’t have to feel their pain and agony. Let us know our neighbor, let us understand both their sorrows and their joys, and let them know ours.  Let us not cast out others into the wilderness, but let us welcome the other, the immigrant, the oppressed, the widow and orphan.  
Whats more troubling to me though in this story is Abraham’s response or in reality his lack of a response. God basically says its Sarah’s call and Abraham acquiesces.  So on the one hand, a woman gets to make the decision for the future of their family.  It is the first of many woman characters in the Hebrew Scriptures who take matters into their own hands to determine the future for themselves and their families. There are many strong female characters from Sarah to the prophet Miriam, to Deborah who leads the Hebrew armies into war, to Esther who saves her community from destruction, to many others. Yet on the other hand, it places this hard and seemingly harsh decision as the responsibility of a woman while the male seems unattached to the outcome or their consequences.   
And although it plays into a certain stereotype, I think these stories/visions of strong women is something that is still steeped into our culture and particularly within the Jewish Culture that I grew up in.  This week NPR did a story on a report from the Newspaper “The Forward” where people were asked to describe their mother in six words.  It was both humorous and poignant.  Three that stood out to me were
"Mother, our lady of perpetual dissatisfaction.",
"Strong, independent re-thinker of tuna casserole.",
“Unconditional love, but hates my outfit”  
You can go to the twitter hash tag nprmoms to see other reader submissions. My six word description for my mother is “you cant take it with you”  for she believed in living fully and in the moment.  I ask you later today to reflect on what would be the six words that you would use to describe your mother?  I wonder how Ishmael would describe his mother.  Maybe “we can do it together mom” or “thank you for always being there”.
So back to the story, God seeing Abraham’s anguish over Ishmael’s departure, promises that Ishmael as well will be the ancestor for many great nations. Islam traces their heritage back to Abraham as descendants of  Ishmael. Ishmael, who multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural is the ancestor of Islam. In the Islamic tradition, Abraham comes to Mecca and he and Ishmael build the Kaaba, one of the holiest sites in Islam.  One of the five pillars of faith in Islam is to make pilgrimage to the Kaaba, and to face it when they are doing their daily prayers no matter where they are in the world.  If we combine the stories of both faiths, this sacred site is built due to the reconciliation of Abraham with Ishmael. The message I read into this is that we are all chosen.  Not just one group of people but all people.  All of us are blessed. From the land baron to the sheep herder to the poorest people suffering oppression. All of us have the opportunity for reconciliation and wholeness, despite our mistakes, and/or despite our position in life.   Hagar in all her anguish, with all her trouble is allowed to see God face to face.  In other parts of the Hebrew scripture it says no one can see the face of God and live. Yet Hagar not only sees the face of God but she also names God. She names God El-Rowi, meaning “the one who sees.” For her by naming it makes her experience real.  And when Sarah and Abraham had exiled Hagar and Ishmael in the desert, when they were out of food and water, when they were at the end of their rope, Hagar says “do not let me look upon the death of my child” 
and it says God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water and gave the boy a drink.  So God is named the one who sees and Hagar had her eyes opened so she could see.  When we open our eyes to see we see that we are one with God.  What Hagar needed was there all along, when she was able to see, when she became self aware, when she could see what she needed for her life and the life of her child, not what others told her she needed to do, not what society tells her that her role should be, not that she should accept her fate and die, but when the core of her being is exposed, her love for another, the lover for her son, she sees her own worth, and then she is able to experience the life forming water of life that sustains her and her child.  And her child grows up to fulfill his destiny to lead great nations. What this story tells me is that what we do, what we choose to look away from, what we choose to see, how we act affects not only us, but others and multiple future generations to come. So let us be sustained by the river of life, let our eyes be opened to the gifts that are all around us, let our eyes be opened to the love that we have to offer, and the love we can receive, let our eyes be opened to the wonder of the universe and the possibilities that offer us  a way out of no way.  
Family is what we make of it. It comes in many types, and in many forms.  Sometimes it is the family we are born into. Of this we have no choice, we can do what we choose to with it. Our family of birth, and/or our adopted family is a part of our history.  They are for better or worse, with support, or in response to a lack of it,  a part of what made us who we are today.  As I assume is the same with many of you, there are family members who are gone who I miss dearly, there are some who are not gone, who I try to miss, and there are mostly those who I intentionally love and accept with all their gifts and with all their faults, because we are tied by a united history.  Over time people change, history is never forgotten, but over time we become our own selves, not just someone’s child, not just someone’s sister or brother, but our own selves, and we become self aware, and our choices are guided by that self awareness, and not solely by our history and that makes it easier to forgive and come together again, and maybe even to grow together.  Even after Abraham’s death, Ishmael and Issac come together to bury their father.  Despite their brokenness as a family, they were able to still come together to honor their history together. 
We would hope to be accepted for who we are, and when we are not, we sometimes have to make the painful choice to create a new family.  Whether that be friends, partners, children, Congregation. Let this be a reminder to us to accept each other for who we are, to love each other for who we are, to forgive each other our minor flaws, and to hold each other up to the light so we can learn to see ourselves for ourselves and to be our best selves. Let us remember all the myriad forms of families, of all who come to us looking to be a part of this family. Let us welcome them, Let us support them. That is part of why we are here.  To come together, to be with each other in times of sorrow and in times of joy, to mourn and to celebrate.  To celebrate the wholeness of who each of us are.  Let us all be mothers in this act of creation.  The creation of building  a beloved community, where both a Sarah and a Hagar are welcomed. Sarah with her heartbreak and her fears. Let us be a place for her to ease those fears, fears of  a struggling marriage, fears of infertility, fears of the other. And let us be a family where Hagar is welcomed as well, the other, the immigrant, the oppressed, the single parent, those struggling in the wilderness.  Let us be that spring of water for them to drink from the fountain of life. And lastly, let us all be mothers in the creation of a beloved community that supports all children, no matter what their family circumstance, no matter what type of family structure.  Let us be mentors and guides. We are all chosen people, and we have chosen to journey together. May it be so.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013


I guess I have always been a naturally curious person. So for instance I’m curious as to why the word curiosity doesn’t have a u in it but the word curious does.  I think about that every time I write the word curiosity and that red squiggly line comes up in my spell checker.  I don’t waste too much time on that, but I do wonder who made up those rules and why? When I was young and didn’t listen to my parents, and would get into trouble, my parents would often blame themselves. They said we raised you to be independent, its shouldn’t be a surprise you wont listen to us. (They were big on the whole reverse psychology thing. It took me a long time to figure that out)
My parents did encourage my intellectual curiosity. When I would make a declarative statement, they would simple ask why I believed something and they expected a coherent answer. I soon found they would only respect my thoughts if I had a coherent answer versus just spouting off something off the top of my head. This led me to be curious to seek understanding about what I thought.  I think it is in that seeking to understand that eventually led me to find meaning in Unitarian Universalism.
Those who come to this religion from other religions or no religions, may have come for many reasons, but one of them I believe is because they were curious if there was a better way to form a religious community,  something birthright Unitarian Universalists know is possible.  A community where we could explore in depth our understanding of our experiences in the universe. A community where we will not be judged negatively if we hold a different belief of or concept of God compared with the hierarchy of leadership, A community where love and compassion are the highest sacraments which we hold sacred. 
A religious Community whose purpose is to help us deal with the greatest uncertainty that leads to our greatest curiosity.  We are talking about things that we know are unknowable. That make us insatiably curious.  Yet many religions try to tell us with certainty that there is only one way  of things for all time.  The foundation upon which Unitarain Univervalsim is built is our principle of the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams in his essay “On Being Human Religiously” states that “
“religious liberalism depends first and foremost on the principle that Revelation is continuous, meaning has not been finally captured.  Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism.” 
I think this is an interesting and I believe precarious juxtaposition of curiosity and skepticism.  For my parents also raised me to be skeptical. They would always say to me, believe only half of what you see, and nothing of what you hear.  I think there is a difference between skepticism and curiosity. In some ways skepticism is a shadow side to curiosity.  Skepticism requires curiosity, it requires us to question what we see, what we perceive, and wonder if what we experience on face value is not true. But if all we do is discard everything and become skeptical about everything, than that is a slippery slope that can lead to cynicism.  We must use our curiosity to not just discard the old. We must use our curiosity to move forward to find a new way of understanding.  It is not enough to critique what we don’t agree with in religious traditions, but we must reimagine religion in a new way that brings comfort and healing to the afflicted, that leads to more compassion and justice for the oppressed.  For without a new way of being we become an empty shell.  Adams goes on to say “Whatever the destiny of the individual life, a sustaining meaning is discernible and commanding in the here and now. Anyone who denies this denies that there is anything worth taking seriously or even worth talking about.  Every blade of grass, every work of art, every scientific endeavor every striving for righteousness bears witness to this meaning.”  Let us use our curiosity not to criticize but to explore and deepen our religious lives.  
Now on the other end of the spectrum, we have to be careful to not make an idol of curiosity. 
Although we may look at the lack of curiosity with negativity, sometimes living in a complex world, simplicity can seem desirable.  Am I really curious about all the advertising that comes in my mail.  Am I really curious about the email from the banker in Nigeria who wants to send me money and leaves me wondering how many people are tricked by that (I actually met a very smart person who was).  Am I really curious about a cell phone call from a blocked number that I assume is a pollster or someone trying to sell me medical insurance, but it could just as easily be my father who still hasn’t figured out has to use his cell phone.
Sometimes it can be overwhelming to be curious. To want to know about everything… and to some degree with the advent of computers, sometimes it is possible to know about many things. Technology certainly levels the playing field. Who hasn’t experienced a time over a meal when someone asks a question and another person says wait let me google that.  I think we are sometimes like that child which is drawn to the hot stove or the electrical outlet, similarly as adults to the creation of weapons of mass destruction. We are blinded by the curiosity of what is possible, that we don’t pay attention to the ethics of what should not be possible.
So  I think we have to be judicious  with our curiosity.   Sometimes I like to live in the mystery a little bit. The feeling of connection to the universe I get when I stand in an open field at night and stare up at the night sky full of stars or a full moon. The peace I feel when walking on the beach and having the waves break over my feet, or even hearing the sweet music of singing birds in the morning coming through my window and waking me up.  I don’t want to think about the evolutionary process that allowed for all that to happen, or how the relative motion of the earth, moon and sun causes the ocean tides, Sometimes we just need to live in that moment and enjoy the wonder that is our world, that is our life. There will be and must be a time for curious reflection of how to save our planet and create justice, but we must also take time to remember why we want to do those things, we must take the time to appreciate our world, and each other.  We must let our wonder lead our curiosity, not the other way around. As we become a more interconnected, interdependent world, let our wonder for our differences lead us to be curious about others,  not to scorn. let our wonder for the richness and beauty of our planet lead us to be curious how to maintain it versus how to destroy it for resources. Let our wonder for the life that we live lead us to be curious to deepen our understanding of our existence and our relationships to each other and to this Congregation. May it be so.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Good and Evil

The word evil is a loaded word.  Because of our western biblical dualistic tradition, we look at good and evil as more than just right or wrong action. We as a society have been trained to look at evil as some inherently and deeply flawed part of the human psyche within a fallen human race.    What is evil? After the Bombings in Boston now two weeks ago, someone asked me, do I think the two young men who did this were evil. Certainly their act was violent and shed  the blood of innocent people.  What is evil? For if creating violence that causes the death of innocents is evil, than there is a lot of evil in the world.
Does intent determine whether a person is evil? If someone’s intent is noble. But it causes harm to others is that evil?  Intent is a tricky thing.  Just as our country fights wars with the best of intentions, so too does our enemies. They believe in their heart their intentions are good. So if everyone thinks they are good and righteous, can intention truly determine good and evil. So what is evil?  Evil is just a word that allows us to express our despair and pain.  Whether evil or not, what happened two weeks ago was an act of violence. A break in the  fabric of life, a crack in the wholeness of the universe.
The question is not so much what to call it as opposed to how do we react to it, and how do we change our society so that we don’t create people who feel the need to act this way.  Celeste Zappella cofounder of Gold Star Mothers, one of the few organized groups who protested the war in Iraq says  “resistance to evil through acts of love and protest is more possible when people ground their lives in more than outrage and grief; but rather in a deep affirmation of life’s goodness in celebration of lifes beauty and in receptivity to grace”
I say Grace, not in some magical sense, but in our openness to be changed, to being transformed, in our openness to being the agents of transformation for others, and in our openness to maintaining hope in the face of evil.
Someone asked me if I have compassion for the two of the perpetrators. There has been a lively discussion about this on the UU Blogs.  Perhaps I am not as enlightened as I should be, but I am finding it hard to be compassionate when I think about them. They harmed innocent children.
But I do wonder what they were thinking, what in their life could have led them to hate so deeply. What kind of upbringing, what kind of family influences, what kind of life experiences could have led them to discard human decency.  I don’t know.  Often it is our not knowing that leads us to demonize others.  We like to believe that if we were in their circumstances we would act differently. But we can never know that. Then I remember, what it was that first drew me to Unitarian Univeralism.  Unitarian Universalism doesn’t promise us comforting answers neatly packaged in a book with certainty of what is good and what is evil.
Our religion asks us to dig deeper, to challenge our normal perceptions of the world to embrace the uncertainty and walk together as we struggle with it. And we do struggle with it. On the one hand, this violent act needs to be condemned unequivocally and the people responsible need(ed) to be stopped. We can not be silent in the face of such violent acts. As well, we should not be silent with the individuals, who have suffered, the people who have lost loved ones, those living in fear, they need to be comforted.  All of us need to move forward, with the acknowledgement that we are not completely safe, we can never be completely safe. Not anywhere. And yet we still need to move forward with love.  
Theologian Frederick Buechner wrote "Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid” So on the other hand, whether we have compassion for these two young men or not, we must not lose our ability to have compassion for and empathy for others. Do not let our hearts harden, Do not let our awareness of danger force us to live in fear of Others who may be different from us, others whose life circumstances include things we could not imagine. Others . Let us engage openly with others and not isolate ourselves or them.  
I think an interesting analogy is the work done by Frans de Waal with chimpanzees surrounding empathy.  He would have two chimpanzees side by side in cages (and lets not discuss for the moment the ethics of testing and animals)  and one of the chimps would get to choose one of two color pegs.  When they chose the red peg, only the one chimp who chose would get food, but if the chimp chose the green peg, both would get fed. Significantly more often the chimpanzee chose the green peg, so his fellow chimp would get fed. This would go up significantly if the other chimp tried to interact with the chimp who was choosing.  Interestingly though, if the non choosing chimp tried to intimidate the first chimp the first chimp was much more likely to choose the red peg and not give food to the other chimp.
And as well if the chimp thought it was alone, it was even more likely to choose the red peg only feeding only themself.   I think this mirrors humanity in similar ways.  Everything being equal, we tend to be fairly empathetic. When we are connected to each other, engaging with each other, we will tend to be more empathetic. If someone is hostile to us, we automatically recoil, maybe naturally and tend to be less empathetic. And if we isolate ourselves from others we tend to be even less empathetic. If we don’t see others pain, don’t know of their pain, how can we feel their pain, and more importantly how can we comfort them. As a species that is self aware, let us recognize this about ourselves.
Let us not be chimpanzees locked in a cage. Let us break out of the mental cages that bind us and let us choose to be compassionate.  Let us soften the hardness in our heart.  Let us not look at ourselves as fallen, but rather let us look at ourselves as evolving through spiritual and religious growth, not looking back imagining ourselves in some non existent eden, but looking forward to an undiscovered world, a world where we are integrated not isolated, a world we are peaceful , not violent, a world filled with love not hatred. A world whole, not broken,  A world where we  resist evil with goodness.  And we can create good by doing good. And even if it seems at times we do not create good, we can still choose to be good. So let us go out and do good.
Maybe that child we tutor will start believing in themselves and take a different path. Maybe the immigrant we help with their documentation will realize they are a part of our community, maybe just a smile will brighten and change someone’s day.   We never know how the actions we take will affect the world, but we must step forward with the faith that we can transform evil to good through the power of love, compassion and grace.
May it be so.