Avoiding the Pathogen of Hate

We are about to exit the flu season for this year, for which anyone who has had the flu may well be exceedingly grateful.  And we may all be grateful that the worldwide flu pandemic which many dread every year, and some feel is only a matter of time, didn’t visit us.  Not this year.  But flu is not the only dangerous and indeed deadly pathogen that threatens us.  At the moment we appear to be in the middle of an onslaught of hate: deadly, destructive hate that does not seem to be limited to any season.

Indeed, we seem to be suffering from a worldwide pandemic of hatred: screaming, angry vindictive and often deadly hate.  It is perhaps most evident to us right now in the United States because we happen to live here.  And it’s not just national, it’s local.  A Redmond mosque was defaced, repaired and defaced again.  Just this week a Kent man, a Sikh, was shot outside his own home after being told to “go back to your own country.”  Yesterday a Jewish Temple in Seattle was defaced.

Given comfort and cover by the Hater in Chief, bigots appear to be climbing out of the woodwork.  Muslims are targets.  Hispanics are targets.  Sikhs are targets.  Jews are targets.  Women are targets.  People of differing orientations are targets.  And the list keeps getting larger.  And as horrific as this is, it is not illogical that the list continues to grow.  There is a reason.  Hate … is … contagious.  We saw it spread in the UK after the Brexit vote.  We see it in France.  And that’s just Europe.  The madness is worldwide.

So what do we do about it?  How do we react?  For me this is a crucial and paramount question, because I strongly believe that hate is indeed a pathogen.  I believe to my core that if we do not take steps to build up our own immune systems that hate will infect us.  Not “them” whomever we are calling “them” at the moment; but us.  Hate will infect us.  You and me.  So what I want to be speaking about this morning are some thoughts not only on how we might begin to stem this pandemic, but also how to build up our own resistance to that highly contagious pathogen: hate.

Oh come on, is that really a problem?  Is it?  We are such compassionate, loving people here, and I’m not joking!  This is a wonderful group.  Are we all really in danger of being infected?  I believe the answer is an emphatic yes.  And I believe it is when we think of hate and its co-pathogens fear and intolerance as weaknesses, something “those people” suffer from, that not only our country but we ourselves are the most at risk.

So let’s do some digging.  That’s what I’ve been doing this past week and a half.  And that’s what got me into a bit of trouble.

I tend to use the words hate and fear almost interchangeably because I believe them to be siblings: blood relatives.  Even so, it’s important to note that they are different.  Indeed, it is the way that they are different that became more and more apparent to me as I pondered it this past week.  As I see it, fear and hate are like cause and effect.  Yes, related; but different. So to have any hope of coming to grips with hate, we must also at the very same moment tackle fear.

I believe that for the most part, for the most part, fear drives hate.  It’s not the other way around.  Hate does not drive fear.  We do not become fearful because we hate.  We become infected with hate because we are filled with fear.  Both, then, are dangerous – but fear is the driving danger.

As an obscure and aging Interfaith minister once said, “Whether we are consumed by hate or consumed by fear, in the end we are someone else’s dinner.”  Or, to put it in different words, one of the surest ways to surrender our freedom is to be ruled by fear and driven by hate.

Demagogues have long known this.  To a control a people: fill them with fear, nurture their hate, and then point at “the enemy.”  “It’s their fault.”

It goes in that order.  I would suggest that one reason for this is that fear is socially unacceptable.  Fear is seen as a sign of weakness.  People may call hatred horrible or disgusting, but how many call it weak?  How many see hate as a sign of weakness?  Thus hate is fear given a culturally acceptable form.  Then, all we have to do is rationalize it.  “We hate because” … easy as pie.

No one is immune.  No one.  This is a pathogen that knows no political favorites.  Trump, Cruz and the rest of the Republicans got all the press.  But go back and read what so many of the Clinton people said about Sanders people, and what so many of the Sanders people said about Clinton people.

And still do.  It’s hateful stuff.  Hate is contagious.  Contempt and intolerance are contagious.  And remember, it begins with fear.  The breeding ground is fear.

So the first step, if you will, in vaccinating ourselves against becoming hate-filled and intolerant is to recognize and guard against our own fears.

I’m remembering some words my father said to me a long, long time ago.  Dad and I disagreed about a lot of things, but in this I thought him quite wise.  “Be fearless,” he told me.  “Don’t be stupid, but be fearless.”

I would suggest this: that a person filled with hate, however strong he or she may appear to be, is in fact desperately afraid.  And if we hope to turn down the hate we must deal with the fear behind it.  Thus, despite the title of this sermon, if we are even to begin to deal with any success with the pandemic of hate, and the intolerance and rage that stem from it, we must realize that hate is in point of fact the symptom … the symptom, not the disease.  If we would deal with the disease we must deal with fear – our own fear, and the fears of those around us.

Ok.  Suggestions????

Dr. King famously said that “Hate cannot drive out hate.  Only love can do that.”  I believe he was right and that a basic reason he was right is that the only way to successfully address another person’s fear is with love.  Not shouting.  Not anger.  Love.

As we read together earlier, the Dhammapada of Buddhism agrees, saying, “Never does hatred cease by hating in return; only through love can hatred come to an end.”

Now this is not to say that there aren’t people who preach hate and fear to further their personal power and their own agenda.  We know there are.  We hear them, almost daily, preaching fear.  But we make, I believe, a huge mistake when we treat the people they reach as hateful.  I do not believe they are hateful.  I believe they are fearful.  It is the fear, it is always the fear that we must address – including the fear within our own hearts and minds.  And that can only be done with love.

Love.  Some will see this as weakness.  Indeed, there was a time when I did.  But not now.

When I was a child, and indeed when I was a young man.  Ok.  Even when I was a middle-aged man I was baffled by something that Jesus is reported to have said.  “Love your enemies.”  What the heck?  “Pray for those who persecute you.”  Oh sure.  That’ll help.  Not!

These days I feel I understand it better.  For me it is “Love your enemies, lest you become them.  For fear and hate are contagious and deadly.”

Love your enemies, lest you become them.  Loving your enemy is being proactive, not passive.  Fear feeds on fear.  Hate feeds on hate.  It’s time to put both hate and fear on a diet! – a loving diet.

The power of love over fear and hate is something that Martin Luther King Jr. showed us.  It is something Mohandas Gandhi showed us.

And we can follow in that example.  Even today.  Indeed, as we face a decidedly difficult future, I feel we must follow that example – not only to overcome those who hate, but lest we become hate-filled and lose ourselves.

One small thing that happened recently gave me some optimism and I’d like to share it.  Many of you may know that I recently organized and led a gathering and march, right here in Lynnwood, in support of our Sioux brothers and sisters at Standing Rock.  I was deeply concerned because, just a few weeks before, a friend had led a march in Seattle in support of refugees and it had been overwhelmed with bad feelings and hateful speech.  We live in an angry, angry time.

Now to be fair, much of the time there is justification for that anger.  In my opinion the government and the police in North Dakota have acted outrageously.  Once again, to advance the profits of the white elite, our indigenous peoples are being kicked to the side of the road … at gunpoint.  Angry?  Yes.  Give in to the anger?  No.

The Seattle City Council, bless them, had taken a stand.  But I don’t live in Seattle.  I put together the march so that we might present to the Lynnwood City Council a proposed proclamation of support for Standing Rock.

But could we do that in this day?  Amidst so much anger, could we gather and march lawfully, peacefully and, if you will, lovingly?  Could we do it?

The answer is yes.  Thirty-five people got together and marched in peace and with love.  I share this with you because it fills my heart to brimming.  We can do this.  We can.

The Lynnwood City Council will consider our request.  I don’t know what their answer will be, though I will by the next time we meet.  But this much I can say.  We had a cause about which all of us were and are deeply passionate.  We marched for justice, with signs and with purpose … and with love.

How do we move forward in the difficult times ahead?  We move forward with love – with determination and passion … and love.

How do we fight fear?  Not with anger and not with hate: but with love.

Jesus mentioned that we should turn the other cheek.  But I would note that he does not talk about retreating.  Turning the other cheek does not involve standing down.  Turning the other cheek does not involve giving up or giving in.

Gandhi did not stand down either.  He marched.  He too turned the other cheek.  He never lifted his arms in anger, but neither did he stop marching for justice.  He marched with love and without violence, but he marched.

A few hundred years ago, Thomas Paine wrote that “These are the times that try men’s souls.”  I believe we have reached such times again.

Evil must be resisted.  Hate and the fear that spawns it must be resisted.  That said, we need to recognize that it won’t be easy and it won’t be swift.  It will take time.  It will take effort, persistence and dedication and yes, boundless love.  And yes, there will be setbacks.  Yet I believe they can be overcome.  But if we would be successful in resisting hatred and fear in others, we must guard against it in ourselves.  The vaccine is love.  The vaccine is love.

Amen.

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March Newsletter 2017


March 2017

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Listen! … please

“A wise old owl sat on an oak;

The more he saw the less he spoke;

The less he spoke the more he heard;

Why aren’t we like that wise old bird?”

 

It’s a nursery rhyme, from that internationally renowned poet … unknown.

Listening.  There are times when I wonder if it’s a lost art.  But then, calling it a lost art would imply that at some point the art actually existed.  I wonder, if you will, if that’s not an alternative fact.

One example.  Thomas Edison, he of the light bulb, is frequently credited with that wise saying, “We have but two ears and one mouth so that we may listen twice as much as we speak.”  Good stuff.  Modern humanity.  We need to start listening again!  The problem, of course, is that the electric Mr. Edison was not the first to notice two ears and but one mouth and give us that quote.  The Roman philosopher Epictetus, seems to have said it first, though not of course in English, around 100 CE.  And still, problems with listening predate that era as well.

In Judaism, my spiritual tradition, one of the most important lines in Scripture comes in Deuteronomy, 6:4. It is traditionally translated as “Hear, O Israel the Lord thy God, the Lord is one.” But I take issue with tradition here. I believe that a better translation would be “Listen, O Israel” rather than “Hear, O Israel.” The Hebrews were being called not simply to hear the words of the Lord but to (gasp) listen to them.  And, of course, not listening seems to be a problem that all of our spiritual paths are continually trying to overcome.

Today as well, much too often we hear someone but we haven’t really listened.  Or as Stephen Covey put it, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.”  And folks, that’s not listening.   That’s hearing without listening.

It’s not easy to listen. It is not easy to listen. That’s the truth of it. It never has been – not in the time of ancient Israel, not in the time of Epictetus, not in the time of Edison, and certainly not in our own.

Listening, I believe, does not come naturally to us.  It must be taught – and retaught, which is something our spiritual paths have known for centuries.  Yet listening seems absent from our cultural curriculum. Indeed, for anyone who might be interested I would urge you to check out compassionatelistening.org. There are some wonderful people there who spend their time and efforts teaching people … well, how to listen.  And they are very much needed because it’s something our culture for too long just hasn’t considered all that important.  Speaking is important.  Listening … not so much.  And some pretty famous people have reacted to this most unfortunate situation.

Ernest Hemingway, an author I greatly admire, wrote, “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal by listening carefully. Most people never listen.” Being a writer, Hemingway couldn’t leave well enough alone and he revised this a few years later to read: “When people talk, listen completely.  Most people never listen.”

Another American writer, William Arthur Ward, suggested a revolutionary idea – one that to be honest has never truly caught on: His idea?  “Before you act, listen.”

Why?  Because, if we’ll return to Jewish Scripture, from the first Psalm: “Listening is the beginning of understanding.”

And Buddhism, of course, calls us to listen … to everything from own breath to the breath of those around us, and the world around us.  Pay attention, Buddhism urges us.  Good advice.

So, we’re all going to listen better, right?  Case closed. Problem solved. … Not.

There’s a Cuban proverb I love. “Listening looks easy, but it’s not simple. Every head is a world.”

I love that. It’s so true. Though in all humility I might revise it just slightly and say, “Every head is a galaxy.” Ok then, listening between the galaxies is going to take some effort.  Where do we begin?

Psychologist and writer M. Scott Peck put it, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” That’s worth repeating. “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”

Well, bummer! So much for multi-tasking! What our culture has taught us is what Stephen Covey talked about: that when someone else is speaking, that’s the time to thinking about what we’re going to say in response.  And now Peck is telling us that we can’t truly listen and be thinking about how we’re going to respond at the same time?

And it gets worse! Particularly today, particularly with smart phones. Have you ever … well, I have a feeling all of us have had the experience of talking with someone and realizing that they are either sending or receiving a text message while we’re talking.  Yes?  As Mr. Peck would put it, they are not truly listening.  So one of the things we’re going to need to do if we are to recapture or just flaming create the art of listening is to put the phone down.

And that, my friends, is just the tip of the iceberg.  So far, all we’ve been talking about is listening to each other.  Well, what else is there? Actually, there’s much more to listening than that.

A part of listening is listening to ourselves.  How often have we said, “I knew I shouldn’t have done that.”?   Yet we don’t usually complete that thought.  “I knew I shouldn’t have done that, but I just didn’t listen.”

And sometimes the question is not, “Do we listen?”  Sometimes the question is, “What do we listen to?”  Frequently, as example, we listen to our vanity instead of our conscience.  It’s been said, “It can be hard to hear the calling of our conscience over the braying of our vanity.”

Listening then, actually involves not only work but intent.  And … and it doesn’t stop there.

Our not listening extends to nature.  In my opinion, nature has been crying out to us, screaming at us if you will: “Look at what you are doing … to me, to your children, to their children.”  And far too many of us just aren’t listening.  We’ll get more into this in a month when we observe Earth Day … a month early.

For now, I’d ask us to connect two words, representing two ideas that aren’t usually spoken of together but for me are inextricably interconnect.  Listening and awareness.

Awareness is tricky.  We go through life, day after day, and how much are we really aware: of what we do, of what say, of how we feel, of how others feel?  How aware are we of what is happening around us?  Is our awareness antenna functioning?  Being informed is a good thing.  Indeed, I do recommend it.  But it’s not the same as being aware.  If we will not truly listen, we can be informed, I believe, and still unaware.

In terms of ourselves – I don’t believe we ever become truly self-aware if we will not take the time and make the effort to quiet down and listen to ourselves.

In terms of others – I don’t believe we ever truly become aware of the humanity of the people we encounter if we will not take the time and make the effort to listen to them.

In terms of nature – I don’t believe we ever truly become aware of all that is around us, the air, the plants, the animals, the land, if we will not take the time and make the effort to listen to them.

Yes, plants speak.  When they wither and die they are telling us something.  Yes, the land speaks.  When it blows away in a dust bowl it is telling us something.

So, how might we take the time and make the effort to be aware?

Time to become just a smidge controversial, because I’m going to suggest that one answer, one good answer to listening and becoming aware, lies in the sacred and something that all of our sacred paths have provided us throughout the centuries – not that we’ve paid much attention, but there it is.  It’s called: prayer.

When I think of prayer, I don’t think of asking God for favors – or as Janis Joplin put it, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.”  When I think of prayer, I think of taking the time, making the time, to shut up and listen.  Whether it’s five times a day, twice a day, or once a week; whatever ritual we may choose to make our time of prayer special, for me the essence of it is, be quiet, to open ourselves to what is outside us and then: listen.  For some of us, this may be listening to God.  For some of us, this may be listening to the call of the Cosmos, or of Nature.  But whatever form it takes, the essence of it is to stop what we are doing, quiet our thoughts and our ego, put our next task on the backburner, breathe deeply, and listen – listen to the calling of our own hearts and all the hearts around us … listen to everything around us … and remembering that each of us is a small part of that everything.

For me, one of the great gifts of prayer, if indeed we pray, is to break out of the prison of “me, me, me” and to listen to all that is beyond “me” in its magnificent diversity.  If we as a people  we will listen, we may finally get a leg up on hate … and fear.  If we will listen, we might just survive.  If we will listen.

In that spirit, let us pray now, together.  Let us listen.

….

….

Amen

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February 2017 Newsletter


February 2017

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Your Money or Your Life?

I’d like to talk this morning about something that in many ways is talked about much too much … and in many ways isn’t talked about nearly enough. Money. Now you already know that we are an Interfaith congregation. So we aren’t going to be talking about politics, political theory or monetary theory – however tempting that might be … particularly with, well, we aren’t going there. We’re going to be talking about spiritual theory. A spiritual approach to money.

What?!! “Money is the root of all evil!” Case closed.

I disagree. Love of money may well be the root of much evil. Our headlong pursuit of money may well be the root of much evil. How we use and misuse money may be the root of much evil. But money itself is a simple fact. It exists. We created it. The question is: what do we do with it? How much importance do we place on it? How much of our lives do we turn over to it? That is a deeply spiritual question. And that’s what I’d ask us to ponder this morning.

At some point, if we don’t destroy the planet first, I think that one of the many ways historians are going to divide history is into fifty, a hundred, five hundred, a thousand years BTE. … Before the television era. Jack Benny was a star BTE. He had a show that in its day was, how should we put this? “Must hear, radio.” Now Jack Benny went on to become a bit hit on television, but it was his radio show that created his most famous skit. It’s where I’d like us to start this morning. Jack is walking down the street when he’s held up by robber with a gun. “Your money or your life!” the robber says. Silence. You can hear the audience laughing, yes, radio had live audiences! The robber repeats himself. “Your money or your life! Well?” Finally Jack says, “I’m thinking about it!”

It’s a good moment. A funny moment. But it’s also rather profound, because most of us answer that question without ever knowing that we’ve answered it. Our country has answered it, without ever really thinking about it. In many ways we’ve created a culture that answers that question for us. Now I’m not here to answer that question for anyone. What I do hope today and as we move forward, is that we can become a little more aware, a little more intentional with how we look at our relationship with money. Your money or your life? My hope is that we may answer that question with thought and intent, rather than just moving ahead.

One question to ask is how do our spiritual paths approach the subject? I think we already know. … Or think we know.

In Christianity, First Timothy, the actual quotation is NOT “Money is the root of all evil.” Rather, it is “The love of money is the root of all evils.” Money itself, then, isn’t the problem. It’s our obsession with it, our relentless pursuit of it. … And we’ll come back to this.

From Judaism, Ecclesiastes, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money; nor he who loves wealth, with gain.”

From Islam, “Wealth is the fountainhead of inordinate craving.”

From Sikhism, “What is that love which is based on greed? When there is greed, the love is false.”

From Buddhism, “One road leads to wealth; another road leads to Nirvana.”

“The love of money is the root of all evils.” As I thought about it, I got the feeling that the reason we don’t like to actually quote what’s in Scripture is this: If money is the root of all evils, then it’s money’s fault, not ours. But if it’s the love of money that is the root of all evil, that puts the responsibility squarely in our own laps. No one to blame but us.

As I was writing this and reviewing how consistently all of our spiritual paths try to steer us away from greed, I was reminded of a favorite moment from a Bogart movie. The movie is “Key Largo.” Edward G. Robinson, of course, plays the gangster Rocco. Rocco is terrorizing a group that includes Bogart’s character. Why is he doing it? Bogart says, because “He knows what he wants, don’t you Rocco?” Rocco agrees, but when asked what it is that he wants Rocco is stumped. It’s Bogart who says, “He wants more. Don’t you Rocco?” Rocco agrees. “Yeah, that’s it. I want more.” He goes on to agree that no matter how much he gets, he’ll never have enough. If anything has come to symbolize what is going haywire in the U.S. and indeed around the world, and what our spiritual paths have been warning us about again and again over the centuries, it is this insatiable pursuit of more.

So how did we get here and what might we do about it?

First, there’s that old saying that a fish doesn’t know that it’s swimming in water because it doesn’t know anything else. I wonder if we might take a look at the water in which we swim. And the role of money imagery, so common to our everyday life that like a fish in water we don’t see it. We use it every day, and yet … we don’t see it. Oh really?? Example please!

Ok. Have you ever used the phrase when someone has done something you don’t like or approve of: “You’ll pay for that”? You’ll pay for that. There’s a cost to that. Or, if you agree with someone, “I’ll buy that.” If you disagree, “I can’t buy that.” We frame our discussion in terms of money.

Have you noticed that we spend time? Indeed, we spend our lives. Again, all money imagery.

Oh good grief, they’re just words, what does it matter? I think it matters a great deal. I really do. I deeply believe that words matter. We’ve been here before, but it bears repeating. The words we use shape not only our actions but our thoughts. Our words become our worldview. And if the words we use revolve around money, then that, even without our knowing it, shapes how we see and relate to the world … and how we see and relate ourselves.

All right, fine, maybe so. But how do we break ourselves of this? It’s part of our culture and has been for centuries. Indeed it has, which is why our spiritual paths keep bringing it up.

Still, it should come as no great shock to anyone here that I have a few modest suggestions about how we might change our vocabulary … if we choose.
War doesn’t cost lives. War kills people.

Perhaps we can cease to spend time with our friends. Perhaps we can be with our friends. Not, “I’m going to spend time with Philip today”, but “I’m going to be with Philip today.” Words do matter.

Perhaps we can be with our children, and not think of it as spending time.

Perhaps even more importantly, we can begin truly to live our lives, not spend them.

Let us not spend our days. Let us begin truly to live them, and to cherish the living.

Just words. Just ways of phrasing what we do. But I think that by choosing our words a little more carefully, we can answer the call and indeed the plea of all of our spiritual paths and begin to break free from our enslavement to money … our love of money … our passion for money.

So we come back to the theme: Jack Benny’s dilemma. “Your money or your life?” The spiritual question is where do we put our effort: our money or living a meaningful life?

But it’s much too easy and, to be just a smidge judgmental, rather stupid to say, “Money doesn’t mean anything. Money is unimportant.” Not true. Money is important. Without money we don’t eat. Without money there isn’t a roof over our heads. Without money we may not get the medical care we need.

What we are saying here is that money is a poor excuse for meaning.

We humans carry, if you will, the curse of sentience. We know we are alive and we know that we will die. As my great granddaddy used to say, “No one gets out of this alive.”

I’ve quoted from “Man of La Mancha” before, and I probably will again. At this moment in the play Cervantes says, “I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle … I have held them in my arms at the final moment … their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question: ‘Why?’ I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived.”

So the question becomes, what shall we make of our lives? Shall we “spend” our lives? That brings to mind the miser who painstakingly doles out his money, careful never to spend too much. Or, as Ben Franklin put it, “He that is of the opinion that money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money.” I do miss Ben.

Or will we choose to live our lives, rather than spend them? And if we choose to live, where does our meaning come from? If we spend our lives, it becomes so very simple. Meaning is defined for us. He or she who dies the most toys wins. But if we choose to live, then meaning isn’t defined for us. So where shall we find it?

Other than suggesting that we take note of the water we are swimming in, I can only refer each of us to our own chosen spiritual path. Somewhere in there, I think we’ll find, among other helpful suggestions for finding meaning, a version of the Golden Rule. Love your neighbor. Treat others as you would be treated.

But I would like to offer what I believe can be a helpful tool for taking note of the water we are swimming in. A budget. If we have a budget already, let us be with that budget for a while. If we don’t have a budget, it might be enlightening to make one, to go over how we use money.

This may shock you; it certainly shocked me when I came to the realization not all that long ago. But a budget is a real time spiritual document, a spiritual reality check. What??!! Yes.

There’s theory. There’s proclaimed belief. And there’s what we actually do. Where does our money go? And it what order does it go? What are our priorities? Our budget will answer that. It can be a bit of a shock, but our budget will indeed answer that.

And our budget is not just about money. Where do we spend our time? Or, as I would prefer to put it, where do we choose to be?

Your money or your life? In many ways, I’m preaching to the choir here, and I know it. But there remains much we can do in how we speak, the words we use to communicate. We talk about the importance of candles and of light. Let us be bringers of light to our fellow fish in this ocean of a dollar-driven culture. Let us be aware of what is around us. And, if we dare, let us be bringers of change.

Your money or your life. May we choose life.

Amen

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January 2017 Newsletter

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Honoring Chanukah

Hineh mah tov (see song at the end of the sermon).  “How good and pleasant it is for people to dwell together in unity.”  Good … and pleasant … and these days darn near impossible!  Unity has never seemed so elusive – particularly the unity of our hearts.  If we ever needed Chanukah, we need it now.  Chanukah?  Yes.  I deeply believe that honoring Chanukah, the light of Chanukah, can be a dawn breaking on the dark days that surround us – a darkness of the soul, of the heart, and of the spirit.  We need light – enough light to recognize our common humanity.  Indeed, if Chanukah did not exist, I believe we would very much need to invent it.  Now.  But I want to be honest.  This morning’s sermon is a deeply personal sharing.  Some of my Jewish friends might consider me a bit of a heretic.  Still, I want to share and celebrate a universal Chanukah.  And yes, the Chanukah of which I speak is not the Chanukah of my childhood.

When I was a young child, Chanukah was my most favorite holiday – candles, miracles and most especially, presents!  What’s not to like?

When I became a youth, Chanukah became my least favorite holiday for the exact same reasons – candles, miracles and most especially: presents.  “And what did YOU get for Chanukah?”  A commercial nightmare.  That’s what I got.  That’s what I saw – compounded by the commercialism that overwhelmed Christmas as well.  Neither Christmas nor Chanukah seemed to hold much spiritual relevance.

In addition to commercialization, there was also the “miracle.”  A light that was supposed to last one day lasted for eight.  Assuming for the moment that the miracle actually happened: this is cause for massive celebration two thousand years later … because?

I didn’t take it seriously again for about 30 years.  And when I did, it was a very different Chanukah that I chose and still choose to celebrate.  And that’s really a part of what I’d ask us to ponder this morning.  We change.  We grow … hopefully.  We look at things differently when we’re fifty than we do when we’re twenty.  Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it’s not so good.  But regardless, we change … and it would be foolish not to acknowledge that we change.

Indeed something that gnaws at me a bit about all of our spiritual paths and traditions is, sometimes at least, our insistence that they are timeless.  They aren’t.  They can’t be, because we aren’t.  Our eyes are different from the eyes of our brothers and sisters a hundred years ago, let alone a thousand, or two thousand, or three thousand years ago.

The basics of Chanukah most of us already know.  Quickly, tradition records that the Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes outlawed the practice of Judaism in Judea in the 160’s BCE.  The Temple (located in Jerusalem) was desecrated.  But perhaps for the first time, at least in recorded history, comes the tradition of a people who revolted over their right to pray as they were called.  The revolt, led by the Maccabees, was successful, Antiochus left Judea, and the desecrated Temple was cleaned up.  But there was only enough sacred oil to burn for one day, while it took a full week to properly consecrate new oil to be burned.  Then the miracle.  That little bit of oil lasted for eight days – long enough for new sacred oil to be consecrated.

What should we take from this, we ask?  What about Chanukah might call to us over the centuries?  Specifically, do we celebrate the military victory and the miracle, or do we celebrate the sacred right of all people to pray as they are called?  That, for me, is what changed over time.

You may not know that modern historians, as historians are wont to do, have made sushi of the Chanukah story.  What was the revolt really about?  That’s a controversial issue these days, with many historians believing it had far more to do with politics than religious freedom.  Who was really involved?  That is also a matter of controversy.  Who actually won what is still being argued in scholarly journals.  But the truth of it is … the truth of it is the truth of it doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter to traditionalists, who imbue Chanukah with miracles, glorious military victories, candles, dreidels and gifts regardless of what any historian says.  Nor does it matter to me.

What?!  History doesn’t matter?  Truth doesn’t matter?  Not in this case.  When I celebrate Chanukah as I do every year, I don’t light candles to celebrate an historical event in Judaism – whether it happened or not.  When we light candles this morning, I deeply believe we light candles to celebrate not an historical fact but an important spiritual truth.

If Chanukah happened as tradition outlines it some 2000 years ago, then fine.  But if not, that’s ok too.  Because whether or not Chanukah celebrates history, it does celebrate, though it too frequently gets lost in the whoopla and presents, the birth of an idea – a crucial truth that is so very important and that I believe we so very much need.  It is the truth that all people have the right to pray as they are called, and that no king, no emperor, and indeed no president has the right to stigmatize and outlaw a people’s beliefs.

For this reason, when we light our Chanukah candles a bit later, I urge us to be holding in our hearts the call for a universal Chanukah.  At Passover, admittedly my all-time favorite Jewish holy day, we say, “If one be slave, then none of us is truly free.”  I would like to start a new tradition here at this Chanukah.  I would like us to say, “If one of us cannot pray in safety, then none of us is truly safe.”  That is the call of the universal Chanukah, that all of us have the right to pray in safety and to be respected in our prayers.

That sounds so simple, so why is it so hard?  There’s never a single all-encompassing answer to any complex problem.  But I will share with you what I believe to be one of the key issues that stands between us and the universal Chanukah.  Tribalism.  Cursèd tribalism.  Admittedly the bane of my existence.  We divide into tribes and then subdivide our tribes and then frequently divide yet again, constantly building righteous and self-righteous walls between us.

But I ask you, of what value is my religious freedom if you have none?  Of what value is our religious freedom if our neighbor has none?  It remains a supreme bafflement to me that we can speak of the majesty of God and then truly believe that God chooses one tribe over the others.  Chanukah can be a beautiful and indeed transformative holiday, but I believe only if we truly and earnestly seek a universal Chanukah, where all may worship God or no God in safety and none shall be afraid.

When I was growing up, Jews weren’t safe in so many corners of white Christian America.  Today, it’s Muslims.  And I would share with you, there is no difference.  Indeed, the very WORDS of exclusion, derision and hatred used when I was a child are almost identical to what is thrown at us now.  Only the name has changed.  Today, it is the Muslim conspiracy to take over the world.  Muslims are secretly plotting to take over the United States of America.

When I was a child, it was the Jewish conspiracy.  When I was a child, there were summer camps I could not go to because I was Jewish – though here and elsewhere, white Christian America threw in people of color along with the Jews in one big unhappy category: “not us.”  There were clubs we could not join and indeed neighborhoods where we were not welcome, and could not live.

Back in those days, Muslims weren’t even on the radar.  Today, now, they are in the crosshairs.  And we will be damned by our own inactions if we simply watch.  And worse, from my own perspective as a Jew, there are now some Jews gleefully participating in Islamophobia – as if the past never happened, as if Chanukah and religious freedom was for the Jews and no one else.  I cannot believe that.  I will never embrace that.

We are one tribe, one tribe: humanity.  For me, a universal Chanukah can lead us towards that great truth.  It can, with its candles, light the way.

But there is another truth at play here.  We can light a path, but light on a path remains nothing more than a well-lit path unless we are willing to walk it.  That, for me, is the great call of Chanukah – not only to light the path of religious freedom but to walk it.

And here is where Living Interfaith can help.  If we will not only help to light the path but then openly walk it, we can be an example.  And indeed, we have been that example.  We have been praying together, listening to each other twice a month for seven years.  But as we honor Chanukah today I have to share with you that that isn’t enough.  Not anymore.  Not with the darkness that threatens us all.  The time has come for us to spread the word.  We need to talk about what happens here.  We need to talk about the joy and spiritual reward of learning about each other, of sharing who we are safely and with mutual respect.

We live at a truly perilous moment.  Each of our spiritual traditions, even as we feel threatened, must break free of tribalism.  Our spiritual traditions, regardless of how privileged or how small, need to have each other’s backs.

My own spiritual freedom is not enough.  “If one of us cannot pray in safety, then none of us is truly safe.”  In this spirit, never has a universal Chanukah been more important.

In a few moments I will share a prayer and we will sing my favorite Chanukah anthem: “Light One Candle”.  It is as if Peter Yarrow wrote it not only with the universal Chanukah in mind, but somehow also all that is happening today.  “Light one candle for those who are suffering the pain we learned so long ago.”  “Light one candle for all we believe in, that anger not tear us apart.”  “We have come this far always believing that justice would somehow prevail.  This is the burden and this is the promise, and this is why we will not fail.  Don’t let the light go out.”

I thought of this when I was at Standing Rock and we gathered before the sacred fire that must always be attended.  I thought of this again just this week as the innocents of Aleppo were being slaughtered in what the UN has called “a meltdown of humanity.”  I thought of this last night, as I learned more of what is happening in Sudan.

As Interfaithers, we are guardians of the light for all…for all.  Never has there been a higher calling … or a more difficult one.  Don’t let the light go out.

Amen.

(Songs referenced):

“Hineh Mah Tov” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCzUWap9rm0

“Light One Candle” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iXadyBSiHQ

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Why Standing Rock Matters

(guest sermon for Evergreen UU)

Good morning.  I had some trouble deciding how to start what I wanted to share this morning.  Lots of electrons bit the dust on my computer.  But then I remembered something I was told in seminary.  Start with the personal.

Particularly these days, people like to put social media down.  But in August of this year, I would have known next to nothing about Standing Rock if it were not for social media.

Lawrence O’Donnell, who has a program called “The Last Word” had done a powerful segment both on Standing Rock and reviewing the sordid history the United States’ mistreatment of our First Peoples.  I saw it as it made the rounds on Facebook and strongly recommend the segment.  If you go to You Tube and search for “O’Donnell Standing Rock”, you’ll find it.  Still timely.  Sadly it is still so very timely.

It remained tough to get updates.  Neither the NY Times nor the WA Post were all that interested.  But Democracy Now was interested, and Amy Goodman was arrested and threatened with jail for having the audacity to document what was happening.  What was happening?  Dogs had been set on the Sioux and their allies who were peacefully gathered to protect their rights and their only natural source of clean drinking water.  Goodman’s case was thrown out.  But other daring journalists have been threatened as well, including documentarian Deia Schlosberg, who was facing up to 45 years in jail for recording what was happening and only this week was at last informed that her prosecution would be “suspended.”

But as August turned into September and then October, I was becoming increasingly alarmed.  The authorities had been shamed out of using dogs to attack the peaceful assembly.  Now they used pepper spray, mace, sound cannons – with worse to come.  Over and over again, the police would create a confrontation, and then resort to violence to “resolve” the confrontation they themselves had created.  For the seniors among us, when I see Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier I am reminded with a shiver down my spine of another Sheriff: Jim Clark of Dallas County in Alabama who likewise used violence in his day, the 1960’s, against peaceful civil rights marchers.

I was a shade too young to march with Dr. King in the 60’s, still in High School when Sheriff Clark called on the KKK to help him keep peaceful protestors in line.  Now, seeing it all over again, it tore at me.  What could I do?  I felt I needed to be at Standing Rock, but I didn’t know how to be effective there.  Then, thanks to social media, I saw a post of a friend who lives in Georgia.  It spoke of a clergy call to come to Standing Rock.

This call was just a week before the date we were asked to be there.  But it was important, hugely important to me.  So I made arrangements.  My ears don’t allow me to fly, and I frankly wasn’t well enough to drive 18 hours, so I travelled by train.

As it turned out, I was one of more than 500 clergy from a multitude of faith traditions across the United States who answered this call from Rev. John Floberg of the Standing Rock Episcopal Church to, “Come and stand witness with the Standing Rock Nation in its protest.”

There was violence the very day I arrived, the day before we would officially gather as clergy to witness with and support our brothers and sisters of the Standing Rock Nation. We met for several hours that evening of the day of violence, so we had real safety concerns as we listened to presentations and become at least marginally organized for the events of the day to follow.  Rev. Floberg had expected about 100 participants just the week before.  He was blown away that well over 500 clergy (plus many allies who were not clergy) would within a week, just like me, simply put their lives on hold and descend upon Standing Rock in support. How he managed even a semblance of organization is truly miraculous.

In a moment, we’ll speak of the Doctrine of Discovery.  I was aware of it before Standing Rock, and I’m told much of the congregation here is as well.  But quickly for those who may not be: in the mid-fifteenth century, the European powers were setting sail to explore the world beyond that known to Europe.  The Christian Church had begun to establish it before then but laid out a clear Doctrine of Discovery once Columbus returned from the Americas.  The doctrine encouraged Christian European nations to claim possession of and conquer the lands they “discovered.” Indigenous peoples had no acknowledged rights.  None.  A bit of background.

The next morning, over 500 of us gathered and listened as one Christian denomination after another renounced and denounced the Doctrine of Discovery–which, by the way, played a role as the United States expanded west.  A copy of that doctrine was then burned in the sacred fire that the gathered Water Protectors kept alive day and night.  It was a powerful moment and I was so very glad to be there.  We then marched close to but not onto the bridge that just the day before had seen so much violence.

We were fortunate that no police violence was initiated while we gathered and spoke … though police did continually buzz us with a helicopter (to make sure we clergy didn’t do anything untoward).  We heard from members of the Standing Rock Sioux as well as clergy representing a multitude of spiritual paths.  I was hugely honored and humbled to be asked to lead an interfaith prayer at this gathering of so many committed people.  That too was for me a very powerful and sacred moment.

It felt important to me to be at Standing Rock, supporting our Sioux brothers and sisters who, like all of our indigenous brothers and sisters, have seen too many treaties ignored, too many rights violated, and too many centuries of disrespect.

One of the distressing secrets of today … right now … is how in so many ways so little has changed.  As we are all I hope and trust much too aware, racism remains not only a stain but a cancer within our culture.  And while racism against people of color is at least much more frequently called out for what it is, are we even aware, I wonder, of how much racism exists concerning our indigenous brothers and sisters?

A few quick examples.  In the World Series this year, one of the teams was the Cleveland Indians.  I wonder how many of us were bothered or even thought about that?  How would we have reacted as a country if a team called the Minnesota Negroes were competing in the World Series?  If you watched the World Series, you probably saw grinning “Chief Wahoo” on baseball caps, jerseys and posters.  How many of us did that bother?  Or did we even think about it?  And there’s the Washington Redskins in the NFL.  There’s been some heat.  But do you think the “N” word would be allowed as the name of a football team?  What about the Washington Pollocks?  Or the Kikes?  How is it then that we still have the Redskins?

A few moments ago we sang, “Singer of Life.”  I’ve always liked it.  But buried in that song’s history is something I didn’t know until I went to Standing Rock. We sang a song there, meant for church, that had been written in Lakota.  But for years no member of the tribe was allowed to sing it in Lakota.  It could only be sung in English.  At Standing Rock, as best we could, we sang it in the original Lakota – over 500 non-Lakota speaking clergy.  What blew me away was that that Lakota melody is the one, used with different lyrics, in “Singer of Life.”  I was reminded of my friend Debra, a minister at the Interfaith Community Sanctuary in Ballard, who shared with me similar stories; deeply personal stories, of attempts to suppress, indeed obliterate Native culture.

As a nation we took whatever we wanted from the Native Americans, then unilaterally “renegotiated” when we found something new we desired.  We shoved them onto reservations and forbade them their language.  We did everything possible to make them invisible.  And it worked.

Something else I learned while at Standing Rock has more recently become more widely known.  It too shows us how facilely our culture has trained itself to ignore Native Americans and Native American culture.

As unearthed by the Bismarck Tribune – Early in the planning process, May of 2014, the Dakota Access application had as the route for the pipeline a path that crossed the Missouri River about 10 miles north of Bismarck.  The residents of Bismarck were opposed.  The Army Corp of Engineers evaluated the route and one reason given for this not being a viable route was that this was a “high consequence” area – meaning that a spill here could have significant adverse consequences.

Ok then, the application was changed and the route for the pipeline moved.  In September 2014, just four months later, the revised application was for a pipeline to cross the Missouri River miles further south, near the Standing Rock reservation.  Bismarck need not worry any more.

A spill here could only affect the Sioux.  Hardly a “high consequence” area.  The Sioux, once again, made invisible.

Then there’s the matter of a pipeline through sacred ground.  As Rev. Floberg put it: “Can you imagine the uproar if an oil pipeline were proposed to be run through the cemetery at Gettysburg?”  But here: no uproar.

I believe that one reason that the Standing Rock Sioux and their indigenous brothers and sisters from around the country are determined to stand their ground, in the face of attack dogs, mace, pepper spray, rubber bullets, water cannons and sub-freezing temperatures is a determination not to be invisible any more.

As the minister of a church based upon mutual respect and affirmation of our diverse spiritual paths, I deeply believe we are all one family, made more beautiful by our differences to be sure, but all one family.  None of our family should be considered invisible.

And yet…and yet, with all of this: the question remains, what do we do now?  What do we think?  Important, sure.  How do we feel?  Also important.  But what is crucial to me is what will we do?

Today is another day that clergy have been called to Standing Rock.  Not physically able to go back there, I was glad to be asked to be here.  To witness.

What shall we do?  We can help our indigenous brothers and sisters not to be invisible!  A few weeks ago, I participated in a small show of support of Standing Rock in Lynnwood, unable to go to the much, much larger gathering in Seattle.  I would encourage an organized show of support here.  I’ll gladly lend you a few signs.

Have you called the President?  If not, I would urge you to call the comment line and urge that the President do the honorable thing and support the Sioux of Standing Rock.  This is not politics.  This is not left or right.  This is honoring treaties with the Sioux nation.  This is honoring justice.  This is holding up a people that we have too long held down, often by design but frequently by indifference.

And stay alert.  We may all have to act quickly.  In 1948 we overcame the Russian Blockade of Berlin with airlifts and food drops.  We may have to duplicate that effort on our own soil.  As of this moment, both the Governor of North Dakota and the Sheriff of Morton County are trying to shut off all supplies from reaching the Water Protectors at Standing Rock.  They seek to make them invisible.  Again.

In closing, we are only helpless if we allow ourselves to be helpless.  We are only voiceless if we choose not to speak.  Why is Standing Rock important?  Because justice is important.

Amen.

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December Newsletter 2016


December 2016

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November Newsletter 2016


November 2016

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The Case for Humility

Our topic today is “The Case for Humility.”  It might seem perhaps a bit strange that a person would feel it necessary to make a case for humility.  But if we look around us, particularly these days, if there is one thing sadly lacking everywhere we look it is humility.  Humility would appear to be anathema: something to be avoided at all cost.

I’m reminded of the musical Camelot.  Mordred, fully enmeshed in the celebration of himself, recites “The Seven Deadly Virtues.”  He tells us, “I find humility, means to be hurt.  It’s not the earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt!”

Sometimes that’s true.  Sometimes being meek can get you run over.  But I have to share with you: I reject the notion that meekness and humility are one and the same.  Indeed, I believe they are not in any way the same.  And we’ll get there in a moment.

But the sentiment that there’s no upside to humility very much reflects our culture today.  Take a look at our politics – if you dare.  I doubt you’ll be surprised that you’re rather unlikely to find much humility … anywhere: not in the candidates nor their followers.  Humility is seen as a sign of weakness.  The meek must inherit the earth, or so I’ve been told; because they sure as heck will never earn it on their own.  Humility is for losers.

And it’s not just politics.  It’s everywhere.  Television, radio, newspapers.  You need to be the best.  You need to look the best.  You need to buy the best, and at the cheapest price possible. And we are told that not to think of ourselves is selfish.  Our economy depends on consumer spending.  So be a good American.  Don’t just keep up with the Jones’: look better, dress better, eat better, be better than “they” are.

Humility is for wimps.  The other night two dear friends shared with me a rather interesting article that suggested that while overblown, what the article calls “grandiose” narcissism was not helpful – I can’t imagine WHO they were talking about! – still, the article goes on, many of us could use a little more narcissism in our lives.  It will help us in our careers.  A little more narcissism will help us live better.  Be better.

So this morning: the case for humility.

Is there something, anything positive to be said about humility?  I think so.  To be honest, I think we gave that quest a good start with our responsive reading this morning.  And I personally believe that, contrary to our current culture, the greatest gift, the greatest gift we can give ourselves, let alone the rest of the world, is not narcissism but humility.  And yes, this ties into belief.  Humility will guide how we see the world, how we interact with the world, how we treat our own beliefs and how we treat the beliefs of others.  Humility is the essence of Interfaith.  But more than that, particularly for our purposes this morning, humility is a sign of strength.

Come again?

In all humility, I will share with you that humility is not weakness.  Humility is not being a doormat.  Humility, as one example, is not just standing there and taking it when someone says or does something you disagree with.  Humility is speaking up, but saying … and meaning, “I hear where you’re coming from and appreciate your point of view; but I disagree and I’d like to share why” as opposed to saying, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.  I don’t know if I should even waste my time telling you how wrong you are.”

Humility does not mean that I’m unsure of who I am.  What it does mean that being who I am does not require my putting down who you are.  This, I believe, is important.

Thus, for me at least, humility is not meekness, it is not lacking belief or commitment.  Humility is acknowledging that despite my beliefs, which are strong – you may have noticed; despite my commitment, which is strong – you may have noticed.  Despite my lack of willingness to be a doormat – which you also may have noticed:  I acknowledge that I’m human.  And you’re human.  And whatever my strongly held beliefs, I should respect our common humanity and listen, truly listen, to yours – even when we don’t agree … especially when we don’t agree.  I believe humility, at its very core, is such a recognition of our common humanity.  Humility, if you will, is humanity without hierarchy.  OMG! I have a sneaking suspicion that that truth is what makes humility seem so dangerous to so many of us.  Humanity without hierarchy.

Moreover, it is a basic and terrible truth that it is when we cast our humility aside that it becomes so very easy to trample upon one another.  Whether it is racial narcissism, gender narcissism, cultural narcissism, political narcissism, spiritual narcissism.  In the musical, Mordred says that “Humility means to be hurt.”  I strongly believe that it is lack of humility that makes it so very easy for us to hurt one another.

One of my favorite plays comes to mind.  It never seems to lose its relevance.  The play is “Inherit the Wind.”  If you don’t know of it, it’s a fictionalized dramatization of the Scopes trial.  School teacher John Thomas Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution in the public schools: which at the time, 1925, was illegal in the state of Tennessee – as well as elsewhere.  The trial brought two true giants of the day into conflict with each other.  Williams Jennings Bryan, three times a candidate for president as well as twice elected a member of the House of Representatives and serving as well as Secretary of State in the Woodrow Wilson administration, argued the case for the prosecution.  Clarence Darrow, whom I trust needs no introduction, argued for the defense.

My favorite quote in the play, the importance of which has never left my head or my heart since I first heard it in my early teens, comes when a young woman is traumatized after being misled by the William Jennings Bryan character and she confronts his wife.  His wife defends him with a simple but so incredibly profound statement.  “He’s a human being,” she says.  “And he makes mistakes.”

He’s a human being.  And he makes mistakes.

We’re all human beings, and we all make mistakes.  Not to acknowledge this is incredibly foolish and, I believe, destructive.  One of our Supreme Court Justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was asked about and made an off-hand, derogatory comment concerning an NFL player who kneeled rather than stood for the national anthem.  A few days later, after looking into it, she contritely and publicly apologized saying, “Barely aware of the incident or its purpose, my comments were inappropriately dismissive and harsh.”

What struck me was not that she was human and made a mistake, but rather that she was willing to admit it and apologize for it without equivocation and without excuses.  “Barely aware of the incident or its purpose, my comments were inappropriately dismissive and harsh.”  This is the essence of humility – the ability to say “I was wrong” without offering excuses.

So what is humility?  I believe it is the difference between “feeling sorry” for someone and having compassion for that person.

What is humility?  It is fully and truly acknowledging our common humanity, even when anger threatens to cloud our vision and hijack our reflexes.

Out of humility comes respect for others.  It is humility that allows us to move from tolerance to respect; or even more basically, from intolerance to tolerance.

We’ve already examined equating meekness and humility and found them not the same.  Now I’d like to look at modesty.

I have long felt that modesty was, by definition, false; but that humility is common sense.  For me, modesty is when you’ve done something well and someone tells you you’ve done that something well, and your response is: “Not really.  It wasn’t that good.”  But all the while, in your heart you know that it was darn good!  For me that’s modesty – for appearances, pretending something that you’ve done well is not as good as you know it is, and thus for me modesty, by definition, is false.

Humility is remembering our place in the universe.  Humility is the ability to do something well without it affecting our ego.  Humility is not having our self-esteem tied up in how well we’ve done something.  It’s enough to do our best, our humble best.

Humility does not relieve me from the obligation of attempting my best.  But humility also tells me that my best is enough, just as your best is enough.

Humility opens my eyes and mind to realize that I don’t have to be “better” than you to do well; that you do not have to fail for me to succeed.  This is so counter-cultural today that I want to repeat it.  You do not need to fail for me to succeed.  Indeed the greatest joy is when we both succeed.

Humility, then, is empowering.  Humility strengthens us.  Humility allows us to move ahead despite, as Shakespeare put it, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

What is the case for humility?  A better world.  A better world for us, for our children and their children.  It is a world where we share, rather than hoard.  It is a world where we heal, rather than destroy.  It is a world worth reaching for.

That is the case for humility.

Amen

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October Newsletter 2016


October 2016

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Welcome Back to Living Interfaith

An interesting thing happened on my way to writing this sermon.  First, I got distracted by my pear tree adventure.  For those who are not aware:  buckle up.  I was picking some delicious pears from my backyard pear tree when the ladder I was on collapsed under me.  Gravity being what it is, first the ladder hit the ground and a few moments later I hit the ladder.  Happily I broke no bones.  But I did get banged up pretty good.  My cuts are all healing nicely, but it seems I also tore some ligaments and sprained some tendons … or maybe it was tore some tendons and sprained some ligaments.  Whichever, as you may have noticed I’m on crutches and will continue to be seated during the sermon.

For me, there have been two learnings from this pear tree adventure.  One is obvious.  Climbing high on a ladder can be hazardous to your health.  But it is the second learning, not at all as obvious, that has really captured my mind and that I would like to share with you this morning.

The result of my pear adventure has been a significant amount of pain and a sudden loss of free-wheeling mobility.  As many of you know, I’ve had a succession of health adventures over the past few years.   Pain is no stranger.  That does NOT make it any more fun, but it’s not a stranger.   And that has made it much easier for me to deal with, as “painful” as it is.

But I have gone a lifetime without suffering the loss of mobility that I have had over the past two weeks.    And never having suffered it, I truly had no idea what would be involved.  Yes, I have been ill and laid up in bed for several days and even a couple of times for a few weeks.   But this was different.

Using crutches is a skill, and I’m still working on it.  But more than that, it had never occurred to me that moving things around, simple things like carrying a plate of food or that essential morning cup of coffee, would be difficult at best if not flaming impossible on crutches.  In the kitchen, I’m constantly in motion: cleaning this, checking that, dashing back to the oven to prevent something from burning.  Now things not only take longer to do, but I’m actually trying to plan my movements so that I don’t have to cross back and forth as much.

And then there are the stairs.

I tend to go up and down my stairs at home probably thirty times a day when I’m working at home.  Now I try to do it only once a day … as stairs can be a dangerous place when on crutches.

So where am I going with all this?  For me, the lesson is a reinforcement of something that I knew but had never applied to mobility. … And that’s what’s crucial.   I knew it, but still had never applied it to mobility.  What did I know? – that we can’t really understand something until we have experienced it.  No matter how empathetic and compassionate we may be, we truly can’t understand something until and unless we’ve experienced it.  If before this adventure someone had told me that I suffered from “mobility-privilege,” I would not have understood.  But I do now.  Mobility is an incredible privilege.

Again, I believe it’s important to understand that it’s not a lack of feeling or compassion.  It’s not that I wouldn’t have been sympathetic to a person, say, confined in a wheelchair or permanently on crutches, but my actual awareness would not have been anything close to what my awareness is now.

As Joni Mitchell sang it, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

I had no idea how completely for granted I took my mobility until I lost it.  Now, barring some unforeseen mishap, I’ll have my mobility back in a few weeks.  But this I can tell you, I’ll never take it for granted again.

It brings home for me what a person of color means when he or she says something like, “I appreciate that you care, and I appreciate you are an ally.  But you don’t understand.  You can’t understand.  You haven’t lived as a person of color in this country.”

It brings home for me what my women friends mean when they tell me something like, “I appreciate that you truly reject patriarchy, and I accept that you are a feminist.  But you don’t understand what a women is subjected to in this country.  You can’t.  You’re not a woman.

It brings home for me what my gay friends tell me as well.

Most if not all of us are familiar with the Native American saying that to truly know someone you must walk a mile in their moccasins.  We know it. We’ve heard it how many time?  But have we truly appreciated, I wonder, just how true and profound that statement is?

And please, I’m not talking about bigots.  Yes, the bigots are out there, but right now, these are not the people I’m talking about.  Yes, the racists are out there.  But right now I’m not talking about them either.

I’m talking about those of us who are truly caring, full of good will and love.  I’m talking about those of us who are compassionate and walk with our eyes wide open.  As deeply as we feel, as much as we want to help, unless we have walked a mile in someone else’s moccasins, we can be warm and compassionate and caring, but we can’t truly know.

So, you may be asking yourself, what on earth has this to do with Living Interfaith?  Hello?!  In an important sense, it has everything to do with it.  You may have noticed that recently the haters, for whatever reason, have come out of the closet.  Right now, what is the most obvious from a sacred perspective is how quickly so many have become so afraid of Islam and Muslims – believing any and every weird thing that people may tell them.   As a Jew, I am reminded of how quickly, and not that long ago, people were so afraid of Jews.

Many have asked how was it possible that people not only lived next door to each other, but were friendly towards their neighbors and then suddenly turned on them?  Gays, Jews, Gypsies.  Not that long ago people were frightened that a President John Kennedy would turn the country over to the Pope.  Seriously!  How was it possible?  Actually, it was easy.  That’s what we need to understand.  It was easy then and it remains easy today.

It remains easy because even though there is interfaith discussion and interfaith action, there is so very rarely what we practice here – twice a month, ten months a year: shared spiritual paths.  One of our core beliefs at Living Interfaith is that not only is it important to walk a mile in the moccasins of people whose spiritual paths are not our own, but heck … it’s also fun!  We not only learn from each other, we grow from the experience.

For me this was and will always be the great call of Interfaith as a faith.  Come, let us learn about each other.  Come, let us explore the multitude of profound paths that can lead us to the sacred in all of us: all of us.  No one excluded.

One of the great discoveries of Interfaith as a faith is that I don’t have to give up my spiritual path to explore and appreciate yours.  But if I am to know you, I must walk at least a mile in your moccasins along your spiritual path.  When we do this, fear vanishes.  When we do this bigotry vanishes.  When we do this hatred vanishes.

I deeply believe that our Interfaith model can truly help our troubled world.  I believe that in too many ways our country, like one big herd of angry lemmings, is rushing to the horrid and jagged cliff of name-calling, bigotry and unbridled hatred.  I also believe that this cliff can and indeed must be avoided if we are to leave to our children and their children the world of love we say we all want.

Interfaith is a path away from that terrible and deadly cliff.  Interfaith is by its very nature a path that not only strongly encourages walking a mile in each other’s moccasins, but has made walking in each other’s moccasins a critical component of who we are.

So if you have never been to a Living Interfaith service before: welcome!  And if you are returning after a glorious summer off: welcome!  And if you’re still on vacation … see you when you get back!

We can make a difference.  And with your continued help, we will.  For there is much to do.

Amen.

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September Newsletter 2016


September 2016

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Fingers in Our Ears Syndrome

(I was a guest at Good Shepherd Baptist Church on Sunday, 14 August and was privileged to give the sermon)

Good morning. It was good to meet many of you before the service. In case you’d like to skip the bio in our Order of Service … in short, when I self-identify I tell people my faith is Interfaith. My spiritual path is Judaism. My tribe is humanity. I feel blessed that Pastor Chris Boyer is not only a colleague but a good friend … and walking buddy.

Thank you for welcoming me to your spiritual house. It is truly a joy to be here and share some thoughts together. If there is one thing that we can all agree on – I certainly hope and trust there are many more than one – but at the very least, certainly nobody likes to hear bad news. Some of us do seem to enjoy giving bad news to others, but none of us enjoys hearing it. And if there’s one thing that Biblical scholars can agree on it’s that nobody was more obnoxious in delivering bad news than the prophet Jeremiah. Indeed, Jeremiah is the one prophet with an English word derived from his name. Jeremiad. The Oxford English dictionary defines jeremiad as a complaining tirade. Webster’s just says a prolonged complaint. In the passage we just heard, King Zedekiah reacted to Jeremiah’s tirade by turning him over to the princes who wanted him dead. Only at the last moment is Zedekiah convinced that perhaps this really isn’t such a good idea after all, and Jeremiah is rescued.

But it’s Zedekiah’s first instinct that I’d like us to begin with this morning. I call it, the fingers in our ears syndrome. You may know of it: (fingers in ears) – “La, la, la, la, la. Can’t hear you!!”

We’ve all done it – some more than others, and you know who you are! But by chance, by some chance is there a more positive and even, constructive alternative that we might have available to us other than throwing whoever has given us the bad news into a pit?

Now few of us have the power of a king, which is probably a good thing; and I certainly hope none of us is prepared to kill whoever brings us bad news. But the impulse, I think, is something we can all relate to.

And ok, I realize that this may be a little off-the-wall, but one of the things I really like about reading Scripture is that it reminds me just how little in life is actually new. As our old friend Ecclesiastes was fond of saying, “What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun.” King Zedekiah indeed suffered from fingers in our ears syndrome. But boy-howdy, you may have noticed, there appears to be an epidemic of it today.

It’s everywhere. And it’s virulent.

Too many CEO’s suffer from it. They’re not kings or queens, though some may think they are. Profit is the bottom line, and any news that might impact profit negatively seems to receive either (fingers in ears) “Can’t hear you!” treatment, or the emphatic reply, “I didn’t hear that, I don’t want to hear that and don’t ever tell me that again.” It’s to be found in our auto industry where the people in charge didn’t want to hear about defects and so people have died and eventually, eventually there were massive recalls. The syndrome is to be found as well in our food industry, our hospitals, our police departments – even, “even”? – in ministry. It’s so much easier to put fingers in our ears than to hear and therefore have to deal with bad news.

Our politicians suffer from it too. Though, if you’ll forgive me, I’ll skip over politics this morning except to note that if there is any issue that is truly bi-partisan it is the fingers in our ears syndrome.

What’s worse, I believe, is that if we’re not careful we pass the syndrome on, we teach it to our children. That, for me, is one important reason to go back and read and reread Scripture, again and again. Zedekiah, at the last moment, allowed Jeremiah to be rescued. May we learn from that, and may we not wait until the last moment to act.

Of course one way that we can help each other is by learning from Jeremiah’s mistake. Perhaps the best way to talk to each other is not through an exchange of jeremiads. Angrily tossing invective at each other is rarely productive. It seems to me that one of the things we have forgotten in this day and this age is how to talk to each other civilly. Civil discussion should not be an oxymoron. And, if I may, I’d like to go off on that tangent just a little.

For the truth of it is, “Fingers in our ears syndrome” isn’t confined only to bad news. The virus has spread. It has infected almost every way we engage with one another. Have you noticed? As one example, for far too many of us the word “dialogue” seems to have lost its original give and take meaning. Today, “dialogue” seems to mean “I talk. You listen. And when you talk, you tell me how right I am. Otherwise, “I can’t hear you.”

And I’m not just talking about dialogue in the public square.

I truly believe that fingers in our ears syndrome is one of the most destructive viruses that afflict our relationships. Not listening can destroy a marriage. It can end a friendship. I think we’ve all been there. There is something bothering us, something important on our mind and heart, and we try to explain it: to our spouse, to a friend, a family member, a co-worker; and they just can’t hear. And let’s be honest, sometimes someone close to us, or just someone talking to us tries to explain something important on their mind and we don’t hear it. Our mind is somewhere else. Or we’re just not listening. It is a virus. It is contagious. And there is no quick and easy remedy. So what can we do? What can we … do?

There is hope. Truly. I would like to propose this morning a modestly revolutionary thought. I believe that an effective antidote to fingers in our ears syndrome just might be to recapture an ancient ideal that pops up in Scripture from time to time. It’s called … listening.

In Judaism, my spiritual tradition, one of the most important lines in Scripture comes in Deuteronomy, 6:4. It is traditionally translated as “Hear, O Israel the Lord thy God, the Lord is one.” But I take issue with tradition here. I believe that a better translation would be “Listen, O Israel” rather than “Hear, O Israel.” The Hebrews were being called not simply to hear the words of the Lord but to listen to them. Now even today those words can mean the same thing. When we’ve listened carefully to someone we will sometimes say, “I hear you.” What we mean is “I’ve listened carefully and heard what you said.” But these days, much too often, we hear someone but we haven’t really listened.

And it’s not easy to listen. It is not easy to listen. That’s the truth of it. It never has been – not in Zedekiah’s time, and not in ours. That’s what’s important to understand. Listening, I believe must be taught – yet it is absent from our cultural curriculum. Indeed, for anyone who might be interested I would urge you to check out www.compassionatelistening.org. There are some wonderful people there who spend their time and efforts teaching people … well, how to listen. And they are very much needed because it’s something our culture for too long just hasn’t considered all that important.

If I may, let me share a few famous thoughts on listening. The first is from an American author I greatly admire. His novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is to this day one of my favorites. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal by listening carefully. Most people never listen.” Being a writer, Hemingway couldn’t leave well enough alone and he revised this a few years later from a gripe to words of advice. He wrote, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”

Another American writer, William Arthur Ward, suggested a revolutionary idea: “Before you act, listen.”

British writer and artist David Hockney put it a little differently. He wrote, “Listening is a positive act: you have to put yourself out to do it.”

Or, if we’d like to return to the Psalms of Scripture, from the first Psalm: “Listening is the beginning of understanding.”

So, we’re all going to listen better, right? What could be easier? Case closed. Problem solved.

There’s a Cuban proverb I love. “Listening looks easy, but it’s not simple. Every head is a world.”

I love that. It’s so true. “Every head is a world.” Ok then, listening is going to take some effort. So where do we begin?

As psychologist and writer M. Scott Peck put it, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” That’s worth repeating. “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”

Well, bummer! So much for multi-tasking! What our culture has taught us is that when someone else is speaking, that’s the time to thinking about what we’re going to say in response. Right? And now Peck is telling us that we can’t truly listen and be thinking about how we’re going to respond at the same time?

And it gets worse! Particularly today, particularly with smart phones. Have you ever … well, I have a feeling all of us have had the experience of talking with someone and realizing that they are either sending or receiving a text message while we’re talking. As Mr. Peck would put it, they are not truly listening. So one of the things we’re going to need to do if we are to recapture the art of listening is to put the phone down.

The Turks have a proverb. “If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.” With the Olympics going on … maybe it’s time to try for some gold.

Or, if you will, an old adage – and if it isn’t an old adage it should be! If you truly wish to show someone respect, listen to them – truly hear them, and be sure to let them know that you have listened.

Listening, truly listening to one another is a positive alternative to sticking our fingers in our ears. It can be an important path forward, helping us to answer the call to be loving and in community with one another. Maybe it is time not only to let Jeremiah out of the pit, but ourselves, and our families, and our friends.

If we can learn to listen, we can answer the call of our final hymn, not simply to lift my voice, nor simply to lift your voice, but to lift every voice. Every voice … and sing!

Amen

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Love Thy Neighbor Rally

Thursday evening, July 21st, in response to the tragedies of the past weeks and more Lynnwood held a Love Thy Neighbor Rally. The Mayor and Chief of Police both spoke eloquently and with great compassion – as did the President of the county NAACP, and as did several clergy. I was privileged to give the benediction.

Benediction

I serve a small church – Living Interfaith. Our members are Buddhist, Christian, Baha’i, Muslim, Pagan, Jewish, Humanist and a few “not really sure yets.” We come together not to convert or convince but to share our holy days and our sacred selves with one another. In part, it is our way of lighting a candle in the darkness and holding high “Love thy neighbor” as our common commitment – not simply our belief, but our commitment. A part of that commitment embraces that “neighbor” holds no color or profession. … Outside, anger and fear seem ascendant. Here we ask, “What can we do?”

Fifty years ago, I was not only much younger, but the Civil Rights Movement was in full bloom. The Civil Rights Act was a mere two years old. And one of the great heroes of my life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was giving voice to non-violent change. Much has happened in fifty years … and much has not happened. We have yet to have a true national dialogue about race and racism. I truly believe that for the first time since Dr. King was so maliciously taken from us we have that opportunity now – born out of tragedy, but not still-born. It is for us to nurture that opportunity. It’s begun on Facebook – a national dialogue! It seems to me that our job is not to leave it there. I hope that our coming together this evening has truly been a part of that beginning, a part not of papering over but of truly coming together in love and respect … to heal. As we leave, may we hold that resolve in our hearts. Let us pray.

Bring us together.
We walk this one world
In different worlds.
Bring us together.

Help us see each other.
We tend to see what we expect,
Even when what we expect has fled.
Help us see each other.

May we embrace our common humanity,
And acknowledge that we are all connected.
May we embrace the compassion and love
That supports and nurtures our human community.

May we forgive, and be forgiven.
May we be accepting, and accepted.
May we be free from hunger and want,
As we strive to free our brothers and sisters from hunger and want.

May we always remember that
We are blessed by our blessing.
May we walk the sacred path of love,
By whatever branch best guides us,
All the days of our lives.

May peace find a welcoming home in our hearts.
May love of neighbor envelop us and flow through us in all that we embrace and all that we do.
May we be beacons of compassion and understanding.
And may we always remember that only a diversity of beacons can bring sufficient light to our paths to show us the way.

Go in peace. Go in love. Go in light.

Amen.

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Black Lives Matter

I’ve been trying to process what has happened recently – not only the events themselves but also our reactions to them. Two men of color shot by the police. And what leaps out at us is that these aren’t isolated incidents. Five police officers were shot by a deranged sniper. And what leaps out at us is just how dangerous going to work can be for our police. At first people seemed to be taking “sides.” But our better angels appear to be bringing us together in remembering that all these deaths are tragic.

But what does still appear to be tearing us apart is the juxtaposition of “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” as if one can exist in the absence of the other. I deeply believe they are linked. Indeed, when I have been physically able to march in support of Black Lives Matter, I have alternated the two chants. But at this moment I’d particularly like to speak to those who are offended by “Black Lives Matter” and insist that “All Lives Matter” should be enough.

I agree! All Lives Matter ought to be enough. But it hasn’t been, and I believe we need to recognize and own that difficult truth. Slavery was officially abolished in the United States by the 13th Amendment in 1865. But it was soon replaced by what Douglas Blackmon rightly called “Slavery by Another Name”, and the Jim Crow laws. Then, despite the legendary work of one of the great heroes of my life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960’s, we’ve had what Michelle Alexander has rightly called “The New Jim Crow”.

Yes! All Lives Matter. But too often that’s only been a catchphrase, and perhaps wishful thinking. The truth is that Black lives haven’t mattered as much as other lives in this country. And they haven’t for far too long.

I am reminded of the words of C. K. Chesterton. “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” There are exceptions to this broad statement. I have been fortunate enough to have known some wonderful human beings who despite the Christian ideal being difficult have indeed dedicated their lives to embodying it. But nonetheless, the statement is often spot on target.

Similarly, the ideal that All Lives Matter has not been tried and found wanting. It has, for the most part, been found inconvenient and left untried. I believe we need to be reminded that Black Lives Matter, because it has been far too easy for our culture to forget that if indeed All Lives Matter then Black lives have to matter! My brothers and sisters in the Native Lives Matter movement also need to be heard. For their lives too are much too often simply overlooked. Our country enslaved African Americans and came close to annihilating Native Americans and then, for the most part, simply relegated them to “other.”

I long for the day when indeed we will not only mean but in fact practice the saying that All Lives Matter. I hope to live to see that day. But now, at this moment, in this country, the sad truth is that all lives do NOT matter. And until they do, we need to be reminded that the promise of this country, made in 1776, is still unfulfilled. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Too many have been denied these “unalienable Rights.” Too many are still not included when we say “all”.

Yes, all lives matter. And because of that I will continue to support Black Lives Matter. When all lives matter, when all lives truly matter, I will gladly stop marching.

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Six Years Together

I want today to be a celebration of something truly special and remarkable.  Today concludes six wonderful years together as the Living Interfaith Church.  In September we will come together to begin our seventh year.  But while today will still very much be a celebration, the truth of it is – we don’t live in a bubble.  Much has happened over the last few weeks and months.  We cannot, should not and must not ignore it.  So before we begin to celebrate, I’d like to share with you some thoughts.

It’s often said, and the saying attributed to any number of people from Confucius to Eleanor Roosevelt, better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.  Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.  But too often, I feel this is misinterpreted to mean don’t curse the darkness: ignore it.  Pretend it’s not there.  Lighting a candle, actually lighting a candle involves more than intent.  It involves action.  It requires follow through.  I believe that to refrain from cursing the darkness is not enough.  We are called to action.  We are called to light a candle.  That, for me, is a big part of what we’re about.  Candle lighting: both literally and metaphorically.

There is so much wrong in the world … yet here we are.  There is so much darkness that the path ahead is truly daunting … yet here we are.  So yes, today … even as we recognize so much hurt, we will celebrate.  We celebrate that we have chosen to come together.  We celebrate that we refuse simply to curse the darkness.  We are Interfaithers.  We light candles.

While there is much we could talk about, you should see earlier drafts of this sermon, as an Interfaither what I’d most like us to consider this morning before we settle down to celebrate is how the murderer in Orlando has been described.  I am no longer surprised, but still am deeply saddened and disturbed by the way so many in politics and the media and even from the pulpit have sought and still seek to characterize the slaughter of forty-nine human beings.  “Radical Islam.”  I thank the president for not using those words.  But too many others have.

What I’d like us to ponder this morning is how effortlessly our country’s fear of “other” has taken hold of so many.  Intriguingly, our irrational fear of the LGBTQ community took a back seat.  They became “us”, and our fear of that community subordinate, however briefly, to our irrational fear of Islam.  “Radical” Islam.

Let’s light a candle to see just how irrational this is.  Let us examine, if we would wish to use today’s language, the very successful attempt to establish not that long ago Christian “caliphates,” if you will, within the United States – particularly but not exclusively in the South.  Governors, state legislatures, mayors, city councils and chiefs of police in so many places were members of the KKK – a racist, white supremacist group that claimed to draw its legitimacy as a Christian organization.  They, with their burning crosses and horrific lynchings, were the upholders, or so they believed, of “true” Christian ideals.  Yet even as the country roused itself to fight the KKK, no one, to my knowledge, ever claimed that they were “radicalized Christians” – that any Christian, anywhere, might be radicalized and become a cross-burning, African-American lynching racist.  No one suggested that we needed to watch the entirety of the Christian community for signs of radicalization.

And to be clear, there was no reason to.  I don’t think members of the KKK were or are radicalized Christians any more than the bigoted, desperately alienated followers of those who call themselves “Islamic State” are radicalized Muslims – despite their waving a Bible or the Qur’an when spouting their hatred.

Today, the KKK is far less powerful.  But it hasn’t disappeared – nor has Christian Identity, an organizations of white Christian racists.  Yet to my knowledge, no one has, as another example, referred to the mass murderer in Charleston last year as a radicalized Christian – but rather, and rightly so, a mentally unbalanced racist.  Nor was he the first.  I was reminded of this especially this last Tuesday, which marked the anniversary of three civil rights workers murdered by a city if not state run by the KKK in the name of Christian purity.  I still remember the horrible day I learned that the bodies of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were at last discovered, confirming the nightmare I so many others had feared.

So what’s my point?  What I hope we can take from this morning are a few candles we can use to light the way for others see that the term “radical Islam” to explain terrorist acts is as intolerant and intolerable as using “radical Christianity” to explain terrorist acts.

But enough about darkness.  Let us together celebrate some light.  Indeed, let us celebrate six glorious years of light.

Literally just the other day I had the joy of explaining what we’re about.  Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Baha’i, Pagan, Secular Humanist, New Age, Interested but Doubting … all coming together not to convert or convince, but to share.  Here we create safe sacred space, without fearing we will need to defend our beliefs, and without attacking someone else’s beliefs.  We share, to learn from each other about the multitude of paths that can, can lead us to lives of love and compassion.  We when say all of good will are welcome we do not mean “tolerated.”  We mean welcome and respected.

There’s that old saying, I’m sure you’ve heard it at least 4628 times, “Can’t see the forest for the trees.  There’s a reason we hear it so often.  It’s because it’s so true.  But as I’ve been pondering it lately, I think the opposite is also true: “Can’t see the trees for the forest.”

Humanity nourishes a great forest of spiritual trees.  Some shoot straight up into the sky.  Some are hugely broad.  Some trees provide fruit.  Some trees provide nuts.  But you can’t stop there, because pear trees will not produce oranges.  Pecan trees will not produce walnuts.   Maples do not produce fruit or nuts, but where would our waffles be without them?!  So when we can’t see the individual trees for the forest, think of how much we miss.

And even more so from an Interfaith perspective, think of what we miss when can’t see the branches of the tree.

Today, it is most particularly obvious when it comes to Islam.  And it’s hardly an intellectual exercise.  Think of how much damage U.S. policy has wrought in the Middle East because our leaders had no clue about two of the largest branches of the tree of Islam: the Sunni and Shia branches – nor are they the only branches.  And, of course, it’s not just Islam.

When I was a kid, I was well aware of the many branches that comprised the tree of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox.  But still, it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I learned of another branch of my own spiritual tree – the branch of the Reconstructionist.

And yet, uh … hate to admit this … despite knowing of so many differing branches of Judaism, and shaking my head when people talked of “the Jews” as if we were all the same, I was a sheltered kid and even when I was in college and meeting for the first time lots and lots of Christians, I simply thought of them as Christians.  I couldn’t see the branches for the tree.  I didn’t begin to see them until I had graduated.

One of the things we do here, and I hope will do it more and more in our seventh year, is share not only the differing trees of our wonderfully diverse spiritual forest, but also look at some of the branches.  They’re different!  They grow differently!  And as we do this, I hope and trust we will always be able to keep in mind that there is no one “right” branch to a tree!!  Just as there is no one “right” tree in the forest.

Perhaps, in the future, we will think of our varying services as “nature walks”.  What Interfaith invites of us is to take frequent strolls through our diverse spiritual forest, without pausing to exclaim, “Oh!  That’s the right tree cut all the others down.”  And without exclaiming as we look at a particular tree that attracts us, “Oh!  That’s the right branch, hack all the others off!”

Now that doesn’t mean we won’t find a favorite tree.  That’s fine.  That’s reasonable.  That’s … human.  But may we always remember that however much we like a particular tree, a healthy forest has a diversity of trees.  And the branches grow as they will.

So today, as we celebrate six glorious years, and at this moment as we sing our final hymn “We Would Be One,” may we always remember that we seek to be one not in the sense of all alike.  We would be one in recognizing, respecting and celebrating our diversity.  We are one, even as we are men and women.  We are one, even as we are gay and straight.  We are one, even as our colors differ, even as our spiritual trees come from different parts of the forest, even as our branches are from differing parts of the self-same tree.  Still, we would be one. … Indeed, we are one.  That, my dear friends, is worth celebrating.  And there are goodies for that purpose just outside the door.

Amen

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What Is Prayer?

On May 5th we had a double whammy of a day.  It was, for one thing, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  But it was also the National Day of Prayer.  I shared some thoughts about Holocaust or Shoah Remembrance in our monthly newsletter which, you may have perhaps read.  Today I wanted to turn our thoughts to prayer.

As many of you know, I’ve had an interesting past several weeks.  As it turns out, I’m recovering from pneumonia just in time to have my surgery to remove a cancer in my left kidney next week.  Something that a lot of caring friends have said is that they are praying for me.  Many used a phrase that I have often used, “You are in my thoughts and prayers.”  I think we all recognize that these words are said with compassion and caring.  But what do they actually mean?

It will come as no great shock to anyone here that I don’t propose to tell you what you should mean when you say this.  Nor am I going to try to define prayer for the ages.  Other people will see prayer differently and define prayer differently.  If you know me, you know that I respect that.  But I do think it’s worth some time and some pondering.  And the whole idea of what prayer is has been on my mind of late.  With the caution that I don’t speak in stone tablets, I’d like to share a bit.

Prayer, I think, can take many forms.  I tend to look at two very different ways of approaching prayer: magical and mystical.

I must confess that magical prayer bothers me.  Recently there has been some horrific storms and tornados around the country, and I happened to hear a woman being interviewed who said something to the effect that she and her husband were safe, as was their house.  God had answered her prayers, she said.  This while so many of their neighbor’s houses were destroyed and people injured, some seriously and some killed.

It reminded me of a service I attended some forty years ago, long enough ago that I really don’t remember where the service was or why I was even there.  Some teenagers had been in a terrible accident the Friday before.  At this Sunday service, as they passed the microphone for sharing, a woman shared that her daughter was in the hospital but had survived the crash.  It was an answer to her prayers, she said.  She declared clearly and proudly that God still had plans for her daughter.  Across the room there was this huge sob.  I learned later it was from the mother of one of the teenagers who didn’t survive.

So God didn’t have plans for the dead child?  Or perhaps one mother knew how to pray and the other didn’t so God just ignored her?  It made me wonder.  Do people truly believe in a God who will only answer your prayer if you pray just right?  That turned me off prayer for a long time.

I didn’t get back to prayer until I stopped looking at it as magical: “God, please negate the laws of physics for me.  Amen.”  Instead I began to see prayer from a mystical point of view.  Prayer as a form of communion with the sacred.  And that’s where I am today.

For me, prayer is a sacred act of humility.  I think our spiritual paths have continually been on our case to pray, and you know they have, because, well, we humans tend not to be the most humble of beings.  Or, in the current vernacular, humans tend to be humility-challenged.  I believe a commitment to prayer, can help us to change that.  And for me, when I pray, that’s what I’m after.

Prayer is a reminder to me that there is much not simply beyond our control or power but that is just flaming bigger than we are.

I believe when our spiritual paths remind us to pray, whether to God or simply to pray, we are being reminded to break out of our shells of self-declared superiority.  For me this is a good reason to be on our knees when we pray.  It helps us acknowledge that there is something greater than we are.  And whether we pray once a day, twice a day, seven times a day, I believe we are reminding ourselves to be humble – to approach life with humility.

When I say to someone, as I do when I care and that person is hurting, “I will hold you in my thoughts and prayers” I mean that I will hold them.  I won’t think about them for a moment and then drop them as I move on to something “more important.”  And I will hold them in prayer, which means that knowing how little I can do doesn’t stop me from caring deeply about the outcome.  Knowing in all humility that in so many ways I am powerless, doesn’t stop me from committing my hopes and my love for the best possible outcome.  Prayer reminds me, always, of how big the universe truly is and how very, very small I am, and yet … and this is truly the wonder of prayer … small as I am I can be committed to love, to compassion, to caring beyond my small self.  And to my mind, one of the great gifts we can give another person is for that person to know that we truly and deeply care.

A friend asked recently if a walk in nature can be a prayer.  My own response would be it depends on how you walk in nature.  Do you walk with arrogance?  Do you walk without regard to the sanctity of the trees, the streams, the animals?  “We humans rule.  Let’s cut that tree down.  Let’s dump our garbage in the stream.”  In that case, my opinion would be no.  That’s not prayer.  But if you walk in nature with humility.  If you walk with care and reverence for all that is natural, then yes.  I believe your walk in nature is indeed a prayer – a beautiful and important prayer.

Duality plays such a large role in our lives.  And for the moment I’d like to move to the duality of passive and active.  And I’ll tell you up front, I’m a big fan of active.

Love – both passive and active.  I can passively love the human race.  But to actively love humanity I have to get off my rear and do something: to address racism, sexism, homelessness, hunger.  It’s one thing to love.  It’s another to act on that love.

Anti-racism – both passive and active.  I can passively declare that racism is evil.  But to actively be anti-racism I have to get up, acknowledge and address the racism that remains embedded in our culture.

Interfaith – both passive and active.  If you want to define what we are about at Living Interfaith call it active Interfaith.  We’re not into passive.  That’s why we share our spiritual paths openly and respectfully, without attempting to convert or convince

Prayer – both passive and active.  Passive prayer: I pray about something, ok that’s done let’s move on.  Active prayer: means I’m involved, whether in terms of time and work or because I will keep in my mind and on my heart the reason for that prayer.

We have a full service today, so I’m going to end a little early.  Also, in all honesty, as I continue to recover from my pneumonia I don’t quite have my breath back.

I would remind you that I won’t be here for the next two services.  As I recover from my surgery, Cathy Merchant will lead us.  I know she’ll appreciate your support and your help…and perhaps your prayers.

Amen.

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BREAKING FREE FROM OUR “ME”-CENTRIC PRISON

Buckle up. We’re going to talk about some difficult stuff this morning. But I’m going to give away the ending. There is hope, there is a better world waiting if we will come together and commit to it. Our choice.

I’d like to start with an image.

Possibly the strongest prison there is comes without bars or walls, let alone windows. It’s a “me-centric” prison. My world. And everything in it revolves around … me. Happily, there isn’t a prison anywhere that’s escape-proof. But this is a tough one, made all the tougher to escape from because far too often we don’t even recognize that it’s there.

I’m reminded of a movie. It’s called “The Truman Show.” And escape was never possible for Truman until finally, to his shock, he realized he’d been in a prison, an artificial world centered around him his entire life without ever knowing it.

We’ve talked here before about the high cost of cheap. But I’ve come to realize that one reason it is so very difficult to discuss and deal with the subject is that the perceived need to get things cheaply is but one symptom of a much larger issue. And that issue is how we build ourselves, and how indeed our world encourages us to build ourselves me-centric prisons, place ourselves inside and throw away the key.

It is divide and conquer at its simplest and perhaps most profound. If I concentrate on me, I lose all track of you, and of us. I believe that if we can’t as a culture at least begin to address how we have imprisoned ourselves, we will never be able to address how completely the pursuit of “me” and the pursuit of cheap has eaten away at who we are – devoured us spiritually and literally. So this morning I hope at least to begin to put language to that, and urge us all to broaden the discussion … to friends, family, anyone we dare!

A “me-centrism” is something that our culture not only encourages us to embrace but indeed nurtures within us. “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Me. All that matters is “Did I win?” And what am I winning? More … and at the lowest possible price.

Consumerism, in all its naked glory, is a powerful and unrelenting force. It is how we end up celebrating Martin Luther King Day by shopping sales! This call to “me” has, I think, far too often overwhelmed the Christian call to love, the Jewish call to justice, the Muslim call to generosity, the Buddhist call to release ourselves from attachment, among so many other calls from so many spiritual leaders to think outside our self-made prisons of “me.”

A world-view of “me” is indeed a prison!

As I struggled to find the words for this morning, I realized that I have been fighting this battle almost my entire life, without ever truly understanding it. In my early teens I stopped celebrating my own birthday. I have not celebrated it since.

Let’s be honest here. That was a rather foolish and unnecessary line in the sand. I have happily and joyfully celebrated the birthdays of friends. They have been wonderful and happy occasions. I see nothing wrong with them. Yet for me, to celebrate my own birthday was somehow to tacitly give in to the “me-centrism” that it felt like the world was trying to push down my throat. To say no to celebrating my birthday was my way of rejecting the “me-centric” world.

In my “maturity,” I believe there are far more constructive and meaningful ways to engage and overcome “me-centrism.” The first, I think, is, as we were advised in the book “All the President’s Men”: to follow the money. Who is making a buck by telling me “You deserve a break today.”? It’s not me, it’s McDonalds. Who is making a buck by telling me, “You deserve a new car, new clothes, a better house, the latest gadget.”? Or most recently, a casino whose ad proclaims, “It’s all about you.” Oh really? I don’t think so. I think that if we are to live the spiritual lives we say we are all called to, it can’t be all about me. So what do we do?

There’s a saying I’ve shared here before that every dollar we spend is a vote for the kind of world we want. And the truth of it is, from the time we’re children we are told to vote for ourselves.

One of the most respected consumer magazines, Consumer Reports, is in point of fact a prime example. When we are thinking of buying something, Consumer Reports tells us how well made it is. It will tell us which one’s cheaper. Indeed, Consumer Reports prides itself on labelling which items are the “best buy.” Isn’t that what we need to know? Isn’t that what we want to know? What’s the best buy?

But best buy for whom? Best buy for me! What else is important?

Not asking for hands! This is a metaphorical question, but how many of us consider the history of what we are buying when we vote for ourselves with our dollars? – when we buy a new lamp, or a book, or a new shirt?

History? Yes, history. As I look at a new shirt and like it, do I ask the question, “Was the person who made this shirt I’m about to buy paid a living wage?” Not unless I shop with intent. And if the only way I can get a cheap shirt is from sweatshop labor, or stores that pay their employees so poorly that they have to get food stamps, maybe … just maybe the price of that cheap shirt is too high. If an employer truly can’t afford to pay a decent minimum wage to produce his or her product, maybe the cost of cheap is too high. Maybe I need to shop elsewhere.

As another example, over the past year, the cost of gas has gone way down. And with the plunge in gas prices has come an increase in the sale of cars that don’t get great gas mileage – but they’re so much more powerful! And gas is now so much cheaper! But with climate change, maybe the cost of cheap is too high.

A personal example of wanting to consider history. I’ve only recently discovered the high cost of cheap eggs. We’re now talking about just the past few months! I’d grown up on cheap eggs. I’ve eaten cheap eggs all my life. Eggs are cheap source of high quality protein, right? And several years ago I felt better about it because by paying just a little more I could get what are called “free range” eggs. Trader Joe’s has them. Free Range organic eggs, and just three bucks a dozen. But the truth of it is that chickens have become widgets. I have discovered that “free range” is in fact today a meaningless term. I still like eggs. But today my eggs cost me three to four times what they used to. Between nine and eleven dollars a dozen. For eggs! It’s for what are now called “certified humane” eggs from pastured, not pasteurized, but pastured hens. Hens that freely walk around in the open and actually have a life. Yes, even eggs have a history.

But good grief! Nine to eleven dollars a dozen. For eggs? But you have to ask … well, actually no you don’t have to ask and that’s the thing … but I’m asking: why are eggs from hens that have a life so much more expensive? And it’s not because the farmers are planning to retire soon in the Bahamas. Rather it’s that treating chickens like widgets is so very much cheaper. This is just one example of how animals have become a part of our assembly line food manufacturing. Henry Ford would be proud. I’m not. For me, the cost of cheap is just too high.

So, what in the world are we voting for with our dollar? And one thing to remember is that we are not only voting with every dollar we spend on today’s world, we are also voting for what sort of world our children and their children will live in. And if you’re childless, as I am, you are still voting for what kind of world your friends’ and neighbors’ children will live in.

How will we treat our fellow human beings? How will we treat life that isn’t human? How will we deal with climate change and our environment? These are the sorts of questions that arise as we break free of me-centrism.

As an Interfaither, it seems to me that our spiritual leaders, including not simply those mentioned before but Bahaullah, Black Elk, the Dao and so many others, have consistently attempted to open the door and set us free. And the truth of it is that we have just as consistently refused.

And it’s worth the time to ponder why it is that we’ve refused with such steadfast energy to leave our self-made me-centric prisons.

I’m sure there are many reasons. But I think the biggest one is that it’s so flaming flattering to believe that we are the center of the universe. How dare Jesus, or Hillel, or the Buddha, or Mohammad, or Bahaullah, or anyone else tell us we aren’t!

Obviously, there’s more here than can possibly be crammed into one sermon.
What I would ask of us today is to remember just how interconnected we are. Let us remember that if my success is predicated upon your failure, then my success is an illusion. I firmly believe that he or she who dies with the most toys loses!

Let us commit to building a land where we bind up the broken, rather than ignore them or keep them in tent cities. Let us commit to building a land where there are no captives and no slaves – where my cheap shirt does not depend on your living in squalor. Let us commit to building a land where justice shall indeed roll down like waters.

Let us free ourselves from a “me-centric” worldview and truly embrace each other. We can do that. We can do that. Please join me in hymn # 121 “We’ll Build a Land” and let us commit to it.

Amen.

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