Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"The Drop" an 8 out of 10 on the JWO Movie Rating Scale

For my choice of movies for my birthday  (no vetoes allowed on birthday weekend movie choices,) , I chose “The Drop” over other blockbuster movies to see.  If for no other reason, I wanted to see the late great James Gandolfini’s  last movie.   It’s a small, slow moving slice of life movie about a group of people in Brooklyn.  Gandolfini plays Marv, the former owner of a bar who still manages the bar for Chechnya Criminals. He is a former loan shark, way past his best days living with his sister with a mother in a nursing home that he cannot afford.  Tom Hardy plays Marv’s cousin Bob who tends bar and  used to be involved in Marv’s crew years before.  Hardy plays Bob completely low key, I think maybe too low key, but I guess that is the point.  At times you are not sure if he has aspersers, or if he is just a simple quiet guy, or a genius with deep but silent thoughts.  He might just be all three.  There are a number of intertwining storylines that work their way through the movie, including Tom’s relationship with a woman, rescuing a dog, and a robbery of the bar.  The one thing I didn’t like about the movie is that I figured out the ending fairly early on.  But those storylines are all contrivances for the movie’s deeper meanings.  The movie raises a number of deep questions for us to ponder. And God knows I live for deep questions to ponder.  Is it better to be alone or to be connected with others?  Is there redemption for the sins of our past?  How do we (can we ever) overcome the suffering in our life?  How do we deal with fear? Examining the danger of trying to live in the past or worse, recreating an illusionary version of our past?  Can we be both righteous and good and evil at the same time.  Why do we crave respect from others?  How people come into our lives for better and for worse when we are not ready and how to be open and deal with it. How do the circumstances of our life shape us and can we transcend that. What are we willing to sacrifice for what we want?  Good ideas to be raised and explore.  It is both a simple and complex movie wrapped into one. Just the kind of movie I like. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Who Do You Say That I Am

Throughout the Christian Scriptures Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am”   Jesus…You know just saying the name evokes certain feelings in each of us.  For some it evokes a such a strong feeling that I am sure there are people who didn’t show up today because I am going to speak about Jesus. Even for myself, who grew up in a Jewish Household, I can tell you that Jesus name was invoked many times. Usually it was if something bad happened.  For the longest time as a child, I wondered what his middle initial stood for.    But Jesus seems so complicated for Unitarian Universalists. 
We often mix up Christianity with Jesus of Nazereth.   Unitarian Universalism evolved out of from the Protestant Reformation of Christianity.  I think part of what makes it complicated is that this is one area prior to the merger of Unitarians and Universalists, there was a difference between the two religions. Historically you can tell  just by its name, Unitarianism, it was born out rejecting the belief in the Trinity of God, and instead affirming the Oneness of God. So historically most Unitarians saw Jesus as Human.  Many Universalists at least until the 20th Century believed in the Trinity and at least until the merger still spoke of Jesus as a exemplar of humanity.  Debates about Jesus go back until the time shortly after death. With the earliest emergence of Christianity we saw numerous different Christian sects rise up.
Ebionites and Nazerenes – were sects that accepted Jesus as the Messiah, but saw him as just a special human and not divine and continued to follow the laws of the Jewish Torah

Modalism, or Sabelliunism which taught about the unity of God and that God would come to earth and take different forms and in one instance took the form of Jesus. 

Arianism, who believed that Jesus was created by God and thus although divine, was a separate lesser God, than God.

Docetism – which believed that Jesus was a spiritual entity that inhabited the physical body of Jesus, and denied the humanity of Jesus.

Marcionism – which believed the God in Christianity, was not even the same God as in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Montanism – who believed they could receive the word of God through direct ecstatic visitations from the Holy Spirit, bypassing Jesus teachings completely.

And last for today the Gnostics -  who believed in the extreme dualism of existence, body and soul, good and evil,  and that there was secret or divine knowledge or gnosis that was only available to the few that Jesus had possessed.

All these different groups of people formed based on reading the gospel stories about Jesus, or other writings about Jesus that were not included in the final Christian Scriptures. So why do I bring all this up.  Well first, I had to have some justification for that Christian history class I took in seminary.  But seriously just to show you all the different ways that early Christians imagined Jesus, just as we do in today’s world.   Yes, the Catholic Church under the power of the Roman Empire suppressed all of these other groups but as we know when something with meaning is suppressed, it finds other ways in other times to rise again.  And different views about Jesus and how to interpret his message rose again with fervor, and sadly with violence during the Protestant Reformation.  
We are 500 plus years past the Protestant Reformation, a reformation that was largely due to the advent of the printing press, and the ability for more people to have access to the stories about Jesus.  Now with the internet, and mass media, we have had approximately 2,000 years to study these stories.  What meaning can these stories have for us today? What perceptions do we make about Jesus about our knowledge in the world today?   Can we even determine what message Jesus was trying to tell his followers when they were written down?
Other than Christian writings, there are two independent writings about the existence of Jesus. One is from the Jewish Historian Josephus.  Josephus was a Jew who had sided with the Romans when the Jewish people tried to revolt in 66ACE  He makes two short mentions of Jesus in his book “The Antiquities of the Jews” which was written sometime around the year 90ACE. There is also a mention of Jesus in a Roman Historical writing of the 2nd Century. 
So what can we learn about the man Jesus from the Christian Gospels and writings. 
He was first and foremost a Jew. 
(PP) (talk about the picture – Jesus as Middle Eastern, not White)
(Talk about Facebook Posting Biblical Characters in Movies) – “The article posits “this is done intentionally to subconsciously indoctrinate the false belief of Whtie Divinity”

He was born to an unwed mother. He grew up poor in a rural environment. (PP) 

He was a carpenter.   

Some see him as an end of times preacher. (PP) 

Some see him as a prophet critiquing the ruling class for their exploitation of the people, their exclusion of the marginalized and the leaders hypocrisy with their focus on formality, while so many are suffering. 

Some see him as a Guru (PP), a mystic, a teacher of spirituality, a source of wisdom, possessed with the ability as we would say to have a direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder or as Jesus would say Direct experience with God.  Guru Jesus leads us to a vision of compassion and peace. He encourages us to strip away the veneer of experiences that blocks our ability to grow as human beings.  It is why he often refers to becoming innocent like children.

(PP)  Jesus in the Gospels is portrayed as a healer.  The Bible is full of miracle stories of healings, Thomas Jefferson in his Jefferson Bible took out all the miracles. But I wonder when we are willing to look at everything else metaphorically, why we choose to look at these stories literally and thus reject them.  The reality is the people he healed were those not in power in society, they were considered unclean by the Temple Priests.  Jesus practiced a radical inclusion making what the temple called unclean clean merely by his acceptance of them.  Their souls were healed by knowing that they had a religious community and religious leader that cared for them and that they themselves were worthy merely because of their existence.

(PP) Lastly there is no question that many viewed Jesus as a change agent.  Some would argue that he was the leader of a non violent protest movement. Others would make the argument that he was trying to be the leader of a violent uprising against the Romans.  What do we know of the time of Jesus.  Israel was under the brutal occupation and oppression by the Romans.  Certain Jewish elite had collaborated with the Romans and or assimilated in Greco-Roman culture.  About the time of Jesus Childhood,  there was a minor rebellion after the death of King Herod the Jewish King who did Rome’s bidding in order to maintain power.  Small rural farmers were being taxed excessively and forced into bankruptcy.  This allowed the wealthier and more powerful in society to obtain more property and thus more wealth.  This created more and more what today we would call income inequality. Without a means to support themselves many turned to banditry and in many ways became folk heroes in much the same way as we think of the Robin Hood Story. 
Now I want you to think of this in the context of the story of the Good Samaritan.  The story in Luke Ch. 10  “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robber, who stripped him beat him, and went away leaving him half dead”  Next in the story, a Jewish Priest and then a Levite pass the beaten man without helping him and a foreigner a Samaritan came and helped the man. Now the moral of this story is thought to be that we should be compassionate to those in need whomever they are.  But for the purposes of today I point out that this was the environment in Palestine at the time of Jesus. 
I was moved by a question that Martin Luther King asked about this story.  King gave many plausible reasons why they the priest and Levite didnt stop, but he focuses the story on the question as to why do we even allow a Jericho Road to exist? King states “for it is not enough to aid a wounded man on the Jericho Road; it is also important to change the condition which make robbery possible.”   We know Jesus was a social critic.  Many of his parables speak to the injustice done to the poor. He encouraged the Jewish people not to pay taxes to the Roman Government.  He fed the hungry, he healed the sick, he stood beside the oppressed in all cases.
But which of these visions of Jesus is correct?  I think Theodore Parker got it right some 170 years ago.  It was not the man that matters. We can never know the man. But what we can learn from the stories are the values that he propagated that can help lead us to wholeness. 

The value of Radical Kindness. Of Loving ones enemies and living by the golden rule in all our actions,

The value of Radical forgiveness, forgiveness of debts, forgiveness of family, forgiveness of self, The value of Radical Compassion,

The value in Trusting in the unfolding of the Universe and living in the present moment. In Mathew Ch 6 he states “Do not be anxious about your life, look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap not gather into barns, and yet they are fed, Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they neither toil nor spin, Yet I tll you, even Solomon in all his glory was never clothed like them. Strive for righteousness and all that you need will be given you. So do not worry about tomorrow.”  

The value of walking the walk, .  Not just talking about justice, not just talking about living a spiritual life, not judging others, for we do not always know the life of others, but rather living our life with integrity to the fullest serving the larger world.

The value of Material austerity,  Jesus spoke a lot about this and connecting it to the larger value of  equity. Many of his parables particularly speak to equity in the workplace, about sharing the gifts we have with others who are in need and treating workers fairly. 

And lastly the value of Categorical commitment to this way of life. Jesus  was willing to sacrifice everything. Fame,  Fortune, Freedom, and eventually his life for his core values. This is where we struggle with Jesus.  We want the commitment without the sacrifice. What are you committed to? 

In the time after Jesus died, some of his followers felt they needed some supernatural help.  They were under the strong yoke of oppression and they saw no hope and they imagined  the end of the world. Many societies  time after time after time including ours imagine the end of the world.  .  Partially I think that is because many still feel they have no control over events in the world.  But we do. We can choose to build a world based on the core values that Jesus proposed.
Christianity in the west has turned the story upside down so often using Jesus to condemn people, not to love them, to judge people, not forgive them, to claim Jesus mantle of justice but then starve and oppress the people. We know in Europe and in America, Christianity is in decline. We try to come up with many reasons for this, but there are really two simple reasons for this. One because people see through this charade and hypocrisy of claiming a Jesus who supports those not in the power structure of society, while they themselves condemn those who are different than them.   And secondly and it is the reason so many turn the Jesus Story upside down, because today, our country is the Roman Govt.  in the story. 
We are the Empire in power who oppress and exploits others. When you are in power you don’t need to believe in  Jesus. In fact if you are in power you fear a Jesus or the faith his message can inspire in the powerless.   So the question is, knowing what we know of the story, how will we use our power.  We don’t have to accept that the world is going to end .  We can use our power help lift up those who are fallen, We can use our power to instead of stealing land from the poor as we have just recently done in the recent banking scandals, we can build houses with the poor as we do with Habitat for Humanity.  We can stop exploiting foreign labor and pay a fair wage to workers.
We can be radically inclusive, instead of building walls on our border.  Try to imagine what it would be like to live a holy life, and to get as near as possible to a life perfectly divine. What would that require of you? Who do you say that you are?

Thursday, September 04, 2014


We as a society always seem to root for the underdog.  We like the image of the oppressed or one who is not as skilled rising up to face a greater foe, and overcoming them.   But how does this happen.   I think this question about the underdog is very aptly told in the story of David and Goliath.   I think we sometimes forget the lessons this story has to teach us.  First though let us remember the purpose of these stories, stories in general, whether it is the Iliad or the Odyssey or the Bible, these are not recorded historical facts, but they were created to teach lessons that the writers wanted their followers to learn from.  
Just like other stories in the Hebrew Scriptures of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, all of whom were the youngest sons, David was the youngest son of Jesse, and all received the blessing of God upon them.  My older brother always got tired of me pointing this out to him.  There is a reason why the stories are written this way.  Stories written by a people who are not powerful will write stories about those not in power winning to give their people hope.  If you remember the story said that Goliath was 6 cubits or close to nine feet tall.   When the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed in the late 1940s it was with some bemusement that its version of the story Goliath was only 4 cubits tall. And then in other versions found he is five cubits tall.  Sort of like the fist story.  Its that big. 
I think this shows us that we like to heighten our victories and make them seem all that much more unbelievable and us a little more heroic.  A little self congratulatory fervor is ok from a public relations standpoint, as long as we don’t start believing the hype ourselves. So how did David beat Goliath. David’s victory required that Goliath made many assumptions about David. 
He saw David’s physical stature and made an assumption about his ability to fight. He also assumed David would follow the status quo about how to fight.  Now David, for his part was courageous. But what made him courageous. He was motivated. He was motivated not by profit or by honor, but by devotion to a higher cause. For him that was God, but I ask you to think about what is it that you are devoted to? What is it that motivates you to act, that motivates you to take risks, that motivates you to step beyond your comfort zone.   
I guarantee you, you will put more energy, creativity, and thought into something you are motivated about than anything else. 
Secondly David was self aware.  He knew he did not have the strength to fight Goliath in face to face combat.  He had to find another way to win.  So often we get locked into the structures of society that tell us there is only one way to do things.  In this case it was fight in armored combat to determine the winner. For centuries in this country, women were only encouraged to go into the profession of nursing or teaching. So often society tries to narrow our options.  (whether Gender, Creed, Race, or Sexual Orientation)
Unitarian Universalism believes in expanding what options are welcome in our community and in society.  In what ways do you feel that society is trying to narrow your options. David was self aware, he knew himself, his abilities, his strengths and he used them to his advantage.  He tried on the armor, and realized he could not win that way. What seemed like a disadvantage to everyone else actually was an advantage to David.  Goliath was expecting someone in armor. David did not follow the conventional approach to the situation he was in. If he had he would have lost.    Now some conventions in life are good. Like not going through a red light in traffic.  Not having adherence to any rules can lead to chaos and moral failings. But playing by someone else’s rules, rules that are set by the powerful with the sole intent to preserve their position of power need to be challenged with creativity.  And David had creativity.  He saw the situation on the field of battle as no one else had.  He took in everything in his surroundings and formed a plan, implemented it quickly before Goliath could adjust and achieved his goal.  
The last thing we must remember for an underdog to win is that they must be skilled. David had to be skilled with a slingshot.  Just because he had a great creative idea and was courageous enough to try it, if he did not have the skill all of the motivation in the world would not have helped.  Now in the case of David, looking at it from the big picture with all the knowledge of the events,  he really wasn’t the underdog.   What makes someone an underdog? Throughout history we have plenty of examples.  Lets look at a few of them.
I think to be an artist is to inevitably be an underdog. I think this raises the question for us to define what ones goal is.  If our goal is to create great art, that happens often.  If our goal is to be recognized a great artist, there are a different set of rules. We hear story after story of struggling artists who are only recognized after their death.  The most famous is Vincent Van Gogh.  Others artists are recognized in their lifetime, but they have had to struggle over a long period of time and over many obstacles.  Some such as Oprah Winfrey were born into abject poverty. She lived in rural Mississippi, literally clothed in potato sacks. Likewise JK Rowling – Before the publication of the first Harry Potter Book, In 1995 rejected by 13 publishing houses she was an unemployed single mother.  There is no question the odds were against them. They persisted and eventually was successful. 
Now not everyone who has struggled with passion persistence and skill will achieve their goals, however without passion, persistence and skills, you certainly will not achieve your goals. Now there is another kind of underdog.  The kind of person or organization, that really are not as skilled in any way as their opponents but still find a way to overcome and achieve at a level higher than their normal abilities. I think the 1980s US Hockey Team falls under this category.  There is no reason that they should have won Olympic Gold Medal. But they did, and that gives hope to others who follow. Sometimes we rise to the occasion when the opportunities present themselves. But enough about sporting events and celebrities.   
What underdogs have taken on injustice and won. We can easily think of Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. Audacious for a person to think they can change the world. But they did.  One relatively now famous consumer advocate is Erin Brockovich, made famous in a movie by Julia Roberts both shown here. Brockovich without any formal legal training took on Pacicfic Gas and Electric and won a 333 million dollar settlement for residents of the nearby community who were contaminated with the company’s pollutants. 
This being labor day weekend I think its important to note one other underdog who achieved certain goals. Cesar Chavez.  Born into a family that lost their farm, they became migrant workers. Later Chavez worked for other labor unions before forming what would become the (UFW) United Farmworkers Union.  Where prior efforts by unions were unsuccessful Chavez was successful in organizing the farmers. Some of it was timing, and timing and recognizing opportunities are an important ingredient of success.  Part of what made Chavez successful also was his direct connection with the people he was trying to help.  He was willing to include people of color and migrant workers in his leadership team. This was not just an intellectual justice action. 
He was part of the community that he wanted to help. This also gave him knowledge of the community and their needs, and their skills, and gave him a better context of the big picture, just like David. He wasn’t the Israelite or Philistine General looking down from on high.   He looked at this vocation not as creating an organization but creating a movement, similar to the civil rights movement that would bring awareness to the plight of the farm workers and harmful pesticides and he through his leadership the union organized strikes, marches, and other non-violent protests including fasting.
These actions did help the farmworkers obtain better compensation and working conditions.  . It is an inspirational story.  But it is also an incomplete story. For although Chavez has attained icon status in our culture, like all David’s who have won, it is hard to remain David. David the shepard boy became King, and although he reigned successfully, he lost his moral compass. Sometimes the same courage and confidence that allows someone to succeed in the first place can lead to hubris and moral failure. King David in the Scriptures, desiring his neighbor Bathseba, sends her husband away to the front lines of the war to be killed so he can marry her.
Chavez as well after a number of victories, started his personal descent and the descent of the United Farm Workers Union. Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz who worked for many years with Chavez, wrote
social movement organizations like the United Farm Workers are inherently unstable. Led by zealots who are poor administrators, they pursue ideological goals, interpret dissent as disloyalty, and splinter or collapse.  They may influence thousands of individuals and create a cultural legacy, but rarely do they institutionalize firmly enough to survive the death of their charismatic founder.” 
And such is what happened with the United Farm Workers.   Chavez after multiple successes, started focusing more on consolidating power and raising funds, than on helping the farm workers.  Whereas early on he encouraged multiple voices being heard, over time he started consistently purging leaders who disagreed with  him.  Chavez also inexplicably became involved in a cult that impacted his management of the union which led to its severe decline. As always we tend to remember the successes.  
So what can we learn from this story. Organizations and infrastructure matter. Without them it is too easy to disempower people.  What I think is more important though, is that collaboration and creative interaction matters.  The United Farm Workers, often worked in competition against other unions, the AFL-CIO, and Teamsters, often at odds with each other. Sometimes it seemed that they worked as hard against the other unions as they did against the Agriculture industry.   I see that today in our current society in the form of competing oppressions. We need to support each other in the struggle to achieve justice in the world.  It is why I am asking all of us to participate in the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet that our MIRED group is sponsoring.  Let us show our African American neighbors that we support them on their journey to justice, just as they have spoken out publicly in support of BGLQT Rights over the past year. If we do not stand together, we will certainly fall apart.  
I think it is an interesting question to consider who are the Goliaths and who are the Davids of today.  Do we consider our selves underdogs?  From a religious perspective we are most definitely the underdog.  At the founding of this country in the 18th century, the Unitarians and Universalists were highly influential and comprised a large % of the population, particularly in the North. However, as the country grew we were and are no longer influential on a national scale, and represent a minuscule % of the entire population.  I think that sometimes leads us to not believe in ourselves.  Yet in local communities, such as in the Quad Cities, we know we have in the past and can continue to have an impact on the community. 
Our lack of creed should allow us to adapt more quickly to changes in society.  As we see the religious needs in the larger community change we are not chained down by dogma and we can provide that safe open environment for religious and spiritual exploration.  
But we have to be committed.  The foundation of any organization is the commitment of its members. I believe the opportunity to transform lives and transform the world is before us.   With collaboration and strategy, and creativity we have to believe in ourselves and we have to believe that Unitarian Universalism has an important,  powerful life changing message for the world. Just like the Panda in the movie Kung Fu Panda after all his training finally earns the dragon scroll and is perplexed when he finds it blank (Play video)   
There is no secret ingredient my friends.  You, all of you are the ingredients that make up this Congregation.  Like David, I encourage us to know ourselves,  I encourage us, when injustice fetters the land, let us be underdogs for justice, when war is waged wantonly, let us be underdogs for peace, when heartlessness is unleashed towards anyone, let us be underdogs for love.  I encourage you my friends despite the anxiety that is inevitable with taking courageous actions, that by working together, with the compassion I witness day in and day out here, we can create the Beloved Community. What stories will they write about us some day.  Let us make it a good one.  May it be so.