Thursday, March 28, 2013

Easter Calls

Easter deserves a prominent place in our "liturgical year."  Of course, there is no official "liturgical year" in Unitarian Universalism, but, there are a number of high points in the year that we observe from our own perspective.  Some of those high points have rituals attached.  Every year, most Unitarian Universalist congregations observe a ritual Fire Communion with candles on Christmas Eve.  In September, our congregations observe Water Communion, with it's underlying themes of homecoming and return from summers spent ignoring one's home church in favor of travel and vacations. 

In Spring, there are a number of celebrations Unitarian Universalists observe as touch points.  A few days ago, as our Christian friends were planning the numerous observances associated with Easter, I received an email from the UU Ministry for the Earth emblazoned with the title:  Earth Day is only a month away.  Our abiding concern for the Earth and her future as a healthy planet coupled with the last of our seven principles* leads us to give that day due attention. But the timing of that particular missive seemed to signal a certain shyness about allowing Easter to take it's own place in our calendar. 

In some congregations celebrations for the Spring Equinox take ascendancy. The turning Wheel of the Year brings Wiccans and Pagans around to celebrate the season of rebirth, when the sun calls to Earth and green shoots respond. Some may still invoke Spring’s approach with words I offered in years past: Lady of light, Lady of Joy - Fair and fertile maid, The Lord unlocks the secret door where sacred seeds are laid.  Flora, Venus, Persephone, Diana: by name we set thee free! Goddess of the earth’s delight may we be one with thee!**

For a number of years Unitarian Universalist Seders observing the first night of Passover took prominence as evening celebrations, and as services adapted for Sunday morning as well. Passover promises opportunities to rehearse a history of oppression and liberation. As people who live in a world where oppressions still stifle the yearning of people who long for freedom and equality, we should recall our roles as both oppressor and oppressed in ritual at least once a year.

Yet, as Easter approaches this year, I am reminded of the lessons that co-mingle in long history of Easter traditions and pre-Easter traditions. The dying and rising gods and goddesses of ancient days brought hope of spring’s eternal return to people beyond number.  In the same way, the story of Jesus can be a guide for accepting the plain facts of life. It can be a call to renewed hope. The story of the resurrection might be the story of our own awakening from the death we experience when we cut ourselves off from the powers of life. The story might not be one that finds its conclusion in some far off time, but, in our own hearts. Hearts that have courage to encounter and overturn oppressions. Hearts that love the Earth fiercely, never withdrawing that caring in the face of great obstacles. 

*   We affirm and promote...respect for the interdependent web of which we are a part.
** Spring Equinox Rite 1996Bob Gratrix and Katlyn Breene:

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

If I Believed in Miracles

Miracles are found in most every religious tradition. In Christianity, Jesus is said to have healed the sick, turned water into wine, and raised Lazarus from the dead. The Jewish people had their own history with miracles.  The Red Sea parting to allow Israelites to escape captivity in Egypt provides one outstanding example.  Common sticks also turned into snakes with some regularity during the same time period.  The stories of Buddha’s life that are told and retold lend to the child, the young man, and the monk many miraculous feats.

Almost all founders of religious communities are said to have exhibited the sincerity of their divine mission through the miracles they performed.  This makes sense to a hardheaded skeptic like me.  Imagine the captivating personality of the most spiritually aware person you have ever met.  Consider how the personality of Jesus, Moses, or Buddha might have shone with the fire of their spiritual passions.  Consider how difficult it might be to translate this glowing energy of life to people to people who’d never met them.  Perhaps the only way to convey the compelling genius behind the religious movement would be to tell of healing, water-walking, and flying through the air.

The trouble I have with miracles is not that they are signs trying to speak about an ineffable religious genius, but, that so many of the miracles I’ve heard about seem to come from the same place that inspired the poet Robert Lax to write:

“praise god thought he’s no place in any
astronomic seating plan,
sing still his might for still he can 
wreak havoc on the race of man
he still can shrug the earth a bit
to make your standing towers sit
and quite destroy your joules and volts
with mediocre thunderbolts
he still can tear your towns apart 
while his surrealistic art
grows grass where hitler’s moustache grows
and ferns from hirohito’s toes
fills frank sinatra’s mouth with ashes
and springs a toad from garbo’s lashes
and with some slight celestial mayhem
destroys the shrines of martha graham
and porter cole and coward noel
and splits the earth from pole to pole
or with some ray you haven’t found
sink dante’s hellshaft underground
sing still his might for still he can 
wreak havoc on the race of man”

If I believed in miracles, I would not be attracted to displays of wrath or misplaced might.

If I believed in miracles, I’d know which manifestations of divine power deserved my faithful attention.  Oryen Kusum Lungpa, a Tibetan monk, knows the right miracles to pursue. He asserts that “Flying in the sky, going under the ocean, going through rocks and things like that are minor powers...Many great teachers have flown, caused storms in rainbows, or died leaving no body...But if you have the Ultimate Quality then just by snapping your fingers you can become one hundred images of yourself.  That kind of miracle is very high.” 

If I believed in miracles, I‘d make it my business to know what are the sources of and impediments to miracles.  I would consider that miracles belong to certain ages of human experience. Eliezer Shore, a Jew, teaches:  “The Jewish nation in its youth witnessed the miracles of the Exodus and the desert journey...But as time passed the miracles were hidden and the nation had to progress on its own, to learn the difficult job of serving God in the land.”  If one age produces more miracles than another, I’d want to understand the difference to comprehend my era.

If I believed in miracles, I wouldn’t care that don’t address the needs of thousands and million who suffer on in their presence. I would note, but, wouldn’t mind that Jesus raised one man, Lazarus, and not the thousands of others who died in the years of his public ministry.  I wouldn’t care that other miracle working sages like Kusum Lingpa only intervene in one or two or three deaths in the whole span of their careers. Neither would I worry that miracles often seem poorly timed.  I wouldn’t ask why the god of the Israelites failed to produce a miracle that prevented the Israelites being taken into slavery instead of waiting all those long years to part the Red Sea. And, I wouldn’t ask why wasn’t there a miracle that prevented millions of Africans from being taken into slavery?  Or, a miracle preventing the evolution of Hitler’s horrible final solution for the Jews, homosexuals, and dissenting Christians? If I believed in miracles, miracles that are ‘too little, too late’ wouldn’t bother me.

If I believed in miracles, I wouldn’t scrutinize them for effectiveness.  I wouldn’t ask, “What happens to people raised from the dead? Don’t they die later anyway?”  I wouldn’t worry that some miraculous apparitions like bleeding statues seem to create a only a momentary stir. I wouldn’t wish for a count of the lives wholly changed after witnessing such a miracle. 

If I believed in miracles, I wouldn’t want them watered-down either.  Water down a miracle and you end up with something called a ‘miracle mile’, which we all know is just a stretch of road where hundreds of cars are sold each weekend.  If you shrink a miracle too much you get a phrase like, “It’s a miracle I got here,” breathlessly offered by a late arrival, who merely had to surmount a traffic jam. 

The root meaning of the word ‘miracle’ is ‘wonder.’ Miracles that capture my curiosity are the accessible miracles that inspire wonder.  Miracles that are personal because they touch us profoundly and cause heartfelt reactions.  Miracles that inspire not just wonder, but, joy and awe. Miracles that draw us further into a deepened awareness of life.  

The root behind ‘wonder’ is the word ‘smile.’ Smiles are a part of our earliest activities. Then, as we grow we come to know the miracle of being in a social existence, and our awareness grows with us, until we come to know the miracle of being completely inside one body and yet deeply touched by the life of another human being.

If I believed in miracles, my miracles would grow out of the surprising, smile-inducing events of life.  Most, if not all, of them would arise in wonder, not fear.  They would describe a world filled with awe, not an awful world.  Those miracles might well be smaller than your average miracle.  No one would be raised from the dead.  Seas might never part at human command.  Thunderbolts might only signal an advancing cold front.

If I believed in miracles I would marvel at the miracles Walt Whitman described: “...honey bees busy around the hive...animals feeding in the fields...or the wonderfulness of the sun-down - or of the stars, shining and bright...or the admirable sight of the perfect old man, or the perfect old woman, or the sick in hospitals...These, with the rest, one and all are to me miracles.”  

If I believed in miracles I would include the kind of miracle Jim Cary described in his essay, Believing.  For him a dream, with religious and spiritual import, was a miracle that became a true fact of his waking life.  A dream that left him “more open and less opinionated than my habitual self-construction.”  All of us who’ve tried to change ourselves know that only miracles make such reconstructions of self possible.  These are the miracles I believe in easily, one after another as I am witness to them.

Perhaps the truth is I do believe in miracles.  I believe in the miracles that attentiveness brings us in nature and in social relations.  I believe in the miracles of inclusion that reveal our place in the grand scheme of life and remind us we are not alone.  I believe miracles that change one’s attitude toward life, without question, or only for one day, or even one hour of one day.  Those other miracles, the ones that topple natural laws, those I still have some trouble understanding.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Faith Leaders and Capital Punishment

    The first Faith Leaders Advocacy Day, organized by Jabari Paul, brought clergy and other leaders together to meet with legislators on a number of issues.  I attended along with others representing Tallahassee Interfaith Clergy and the Tallahassee Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. 
    Unitarian Universalists have supported an end to the death penalty since 1961, following resolutions adopted by the General Assembly in that year. I prepared the talking points below for presentation to the lawmakers faith leaders visited today, it was distributed under the title Capital Punishment Reform.  

If we seek to promote a higher moral path, we should be willing to take that moral path ourselves. State sanctioned capital punishment has the effect of lowering the value of human life, which lowers the moral fabric of society for all, whatever their beliefs. A Quaker group suggests that It "violates our belief in the human capacity for change....[It] powerfully reinforces the idea that killing can be a proper way of responding to those who have wronged us. We do not believe that reinforcement of that idea can lead to healthier and safer communities." 

If we affirm value of every human life, the death penalty denies the sacredness of human life. Life is so precious that nobody should ever be killed or murdered, even by the state. 

The disparity in representation on death row calls into question our ability to live up to the moral principle of affirming every human life.  The following statements are from the Rev. Emory Hingst:
  1. “Persons of color are a considerably higher percentage of the Florida Caucasian population and has been since statistics have been kept. This discrepancy has continued for decades despite the Civil Rights Reforms of the 1960’s and 70’s. 
  2. Persons of lower economic income means in our culture constitute virtually the entire population of Florida’s Death Row as the accused, without adequate financial resources do not receive adequate investigative and legal assistance for trial. The American Bar Association has proposed changes to ameliorate this lack of fairness in several approaches for many years with minimal change to date.
Our attitudes toward capital punishment have evolved in the crucible of American freedoms. Since the Bible was written, society has changed its attitudes toward what deserves the death penalty. “We eliminated the death penalty for pre-marital sex, adultery, practicing a different religion, engaging in prostitution, homosexual behavior, blasphemy, rebellion by teenagers, etc. We should eliminate it for murder as well.”

Can any of us escape the need for mercy?  In John 8 Jesus turns aside a verdict of death by stoning. The river that runs through us all carries love and hate, and inspiration for wonderful acts of mercy as well as the capacity for murder.  When we accept our own faults, we have room to offer compassion to those who have committed crimes, as well as their victims.
“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ ...When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” 

As human beings, we have limitations and our judgements delivered through the court system are liable to grievous error.  Innocent men and women have been executed by the state.  In Florida, thirteen people formerly on death row, have been exonerated with DNA evidence. Those thirteen served 259 years in prison for crimes they did not commit, and they stood to lose their lives for crimes they did not commit. Just as murder victims cannot be brought back to life, so too, an innocent person, once executed, cannot be brought back to life.

There are effective, moral alternatives to capital punishment.  When Cain murdered his brother Abel, God set several punishments around him, and made him a wanderer; and he also put a mark on him that would protect him from the murderous intent of others.  In our day, one alternative to capital punishment is life imprisonment which creates a painful isolation from society.  In addition, life imprisonment is less costly to the state than nearly endless cycles of appeal.  

There is no evidence that the state can protect people from crime with capital punishment. The sentence of life imprisonment appears to be at least as effective as capital punishment in deterring crime. Florida is second only to California in the number of people awaiting the death penalty.  There are 411 men and women on death row in Florida.
  Lest, we think that Florida is more murderous than almost every other state in the union, note that Florida ranks seventeenth in murders.

Coupled with all the concerns above - especially the disparity in sentencing - it is hard to escape a conclusion that the state’s continued use of capital punishment continues a long and devastating history of racial bias in our country.  As people of faith we seek to extend love and compassion to all, without bias. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What Do Unitarian Universalists Do?

In a religious culture dominated by right belief as the door to salvation, Unitarian Universalists are often asked, "If you don't share a common belief in God or Jesus, what do you believe?"  There are many answers that can be given to that question, some of them summarized by UU's who've developed their own "elevator speech."  Because we tend to emphasize a faith that promotes right action, it seems the better question to ask is "What do Unitarian Universalists do?"

In his Berry Street Essay of 2012, Fred Muir, a UU minister, enumerated four areas of especial concern where Unitarian Universalists have been active living out their beliefs.  Multiculturalism. Environmental justice. Sexual and family values. Right Relationship. 

What have we been doing about multiculturalism?  For decades Unitarian Universalists have supported the rights of people of all races and ethnicities to enjoy the same freedoms, privileges, and access to opportunity.  During the civil rights era, we stood on the side of equality.  In Tallahassee, the small UU church building was the only place where whites and blacks could safely gather together.  The number of UU ministers involved in freedom marches outstripped the size of our relatively small denomination. Today, congregations and clergy continue to work for immigration laws that protect family integrity as well as the individual right to freedom and the "pursuit of happiness." 

What may be our "growing edge" in multiculturalism is a dawning awareness that as Unitarian Universalists we have allowed some societal attitudes about people with disabilities to color attitudes and actions within our congregations.  We are becoming more aware of how barriers to inclusivity create patterns of injustice, and we are working to be ever more inclusive.

Unitarian Universalists have been defended the environment in numerous ways.  We are committed to caring for the "interdependent web of life."  The earth and her creatures, of every species, have received careful attention from individuals and congregations. Congregations evaluate and support their commitment to sustainability and conservation by pursuing and maintaining a status as a Green Sanctuary.  UUCT is a Green Sanctuary.

The struggle for environmental justice can't end when we "reduce, reuse, and recycle."  Justice demands that we look for and support actions that protect every environment, not just the land we happen to occupy.  It asks that we look for ways to change the economy to create "green collar" jobs for people who might otherwise be unemployed.  It requires us to acknowledge that living simply in the U.S. promotes a rate of consumption many times that available to other people in many areas of the world.  

Unitarian Universalists have supported sexual values in two generations of outstanding sex education materials.  Before Our Whole Lives (OWL) was written, we dominated the field of sex education for adolescents with a program called About Your Sexuality.  Building on the successes of that program, OWL was developed as a curriculum spanning all ages and offering opportunities to think about self-care in age appropriate lessons.  

We have insisted that families arise in the presence of love, and that gender identities don't dictate love.  Our support for gay families and gay marriage rights continues in the present. Here in Tallahassee, we pursued and received a designation as a Welcoming Congregation, affirming that we not only accept lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people into the congregation, but, that we will actively promote rights and freedoms for all 'lgbt' people.

We have been active in supporting all families as they define themselves in loving, respectful relationships.  Right relationships are founded in respect.  We support equality for both partners in a couple, affirming that women who find themselves in abusive relationships should have access to life affirming support for change. Pursuing right relationships is always important. Many UU congregations, including UUCT, have adopted covenants for right relationship that value direct, caring communication within the congregation, even in times of conflict. The principles of right relationship call us to speak to differences in love while promoting peaceful resolution of conflict. Practicing in our community, and learning throughout our lives, we hope to live up to those principles, not only in our congregations, but in all our relationships. 

Those are some of the ways we "do Unitarian Universalism." By what we do, we hope to bring justice and lovingkindness to bear in ever increasing circles of inclusion and caring.