The False Dichotomy of Easter

The False Dichotomy of Easter

John Updike won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction not once but twice, joining William Faulkner in being given that distinction.  His work is catalogued in the genre of literary realism.  Updike himself describes his style as an attempt “to give the mundane its beautiful due.”  Updike used the main protagonist of his Pulitzer winning novels, Rabbit Angstrom, to elaborate on the concerns, passions, and suffering of average Americans.  Rabbit has entered a notable pantheon of American fictional characters alongside Huckleberry Finn, Jay Gatsby, and Holden Caulfield.  The New Yorker magazine and Updike had a sort of symbiotic relationship in the latter half of the 20th century and its arguable which contributed more to the other’s success.  Updike thought of himself as the magazine’s “token Christian.”  They published his work throughout his career.    You may be more familiar with Updike from his popular novel “The Witches of Eastwick,” which was made into a major motion picture starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon.

Updike married a Unitarian, Mary Pennington, while in college, and the couple attended a Congregational church as a sort of mixed-marriage compromise. They were married for 21 years.  Then in the mid-1980s, after divorce and remarriage, Updike began to identify himself as “a card carrying Episcopalian.”

Updike was also an acclaimed poet.  It is his most famous poem that I want to turn my attention to this morning.  It’s called “Seven Stanzas at Easter.”

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

If any of you have Christian friends on facebook, then you might recently have seen this poem feed across their facebook page as click bait.  It seems to gain a new life of its own every Easter among more literal Christians.

I’ve only recently come across the poem (I live a rather sheltered life.)  My initial response to it was, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “The man doth protest too much, methinks.”

Say what you will about the poem, disagree with it if you like – as I do, by the way – there’s no getting around it.  It’s a powerful piece of writing.  Updike uses the language of quantum physics, biology, and medicine.  He clearly draws a line in the sand about what he thinks happened on that first Easter morning some 2000 years ago.

This morning I want to turn a critical eye toward John Updike’s take on Easter.  I do this with some degree of fear and trembling.  After all, wouldn’t I be considered rather audacious to even attempt criticism of such a talented and decorated writer?  I FREELY concede his talent.  Updike demonstrates a mastery of the King’s English seen on the literary landscape only once every century or so.  I admire it.  My jealousy rivals that of Saliere’s toward Mozart for those of you that have seen the movie Amadeus.

But at the same time, I feel compelled to question why the universe would bestow such a gift for words on someone so hell bent on a literal interpretation of scripture.  I’m always interrogating life in this way as I try to make sense of the way talent and genius get doled out.  As a serious student of history and anthropology, I have to give some credence to the idea that the evolutionary arc of the human evolution is bending toward improvement.  But if so, why does it seem that great talent and genius is so often put in the service of women and men with such limited capacity to transcend the hand me down, literal worldview of our forebears?  Simply put, why are such gifts bestowed on people that are apparently incapable thinking outside the box?  If any of you think you can help me with this question of personal angst, please do.

Even though, as I said, I disagree rather vehemently with Updike’s take on Easter, I do think there are some important things we can learn from a critical reflection on it.

To do so, I need to briefly review the biblical accounts of the resurrection and what evidence we can glean from them.  All four gospels describe the circumstances around that event and no two of them agree in the details they furnish.  They all say there was an empty tomb, and that Mary Magdalene and another Mary were there.   Beyond those generalities, there are noticeable differences.

  • that some of Jesus’s disciples found an empty tomb where they had expected to find his body;
  • that Peter, along with some unknown number of other disciples, later genuinely believed they had encountered their executed Teacher alive and well;
  • that in the years that followed, stories circulated in various early churches, to the effect that Jesus had supposedly appeared to as many as 500 of his followers; and
  • that Saul believed he himself had personally encountered the risen Jesus.

That’s pretty much it.  We know nothing of what happened in the tomb between Good Friday evening and Easter Sunday morning.  It’s a mystery, and likely always will be.

I can’t understand how Updike can be so certain.  We simply don’t know what happened on that Sunday so long ago.

That’s what’s missing from Updike’s poem.  He’s so certain.  “Make no mistake” he says.  When we’re certain about something, we quit taking in information about it.  It no longer arouses any curiosity in us.  There’s no longer any mystery.  And no need for faith.

You see, the opposite of faith is not doubt.  Its certainty.  Once we’re totally convinced of something and have intellectual certainty, there’s no need for faith, is there?

One of the most striking aspects of the Gospel narratives is that no two of them describe the resurrection and its aftermath in exactly the same way. This includes who we’re told was there at the empty tomb. In all four Gospels, Mary Magdalene discovers that Jesus had been raised from the dead, the first at the scene, and all four also mention another Mary who was with her. Otherwise, the list of women who found that Jesus was not in the tomb varies in small but still noticeable ways.

What happens after the two Marys and their fellow mourners arrive at the tomb is depicted very differently, depending on which narrative you are reading. In Matthew’s Gospel, an earthquake occurs and an “angel of the Lord” descends to roll away the stone that had closed the tomb, an angel who tells them not to fear, that Jesus was alive. In Mark’s Gospel, the stone seems to be removed when the Marys get there, and a “young man” in a long white garment is sitting in the tomb and he tells them the good news. Luke’s Gospel notes two men in “shining garments” who explain the empty tomb, at which point Mary Magdalene, a second Mary, and “other women” who were there to tend to Jesus’ body go back to tell the disciples what happened. One of the disciples, Peter, then goes to see for himself. The writer of the Gospel of John mentions only Mary Magdalene arriving at the tomb to find it already empty and the stone rolled back. She runs to inform the disciples, Peter and John race to the tomb to find out if it’s true, and when they get there they see the linens in which Jesus had been wrapped.

None of these irregularities in the details are new to anyone who has given more than glancing attention to the Gospel accounts.  Thoughtful theologians have grappled with them since they were put in writing. If one reads these texts as a detective would, as eye witness accounts, the discrepancies are impossible to overcome.  Were they meant to be read in that way?  Considering the gospels were written anywhere from thirty to seventy years after the events they report, it would be surprising if they did not differ from and even contradict one another.  Considering they likely come from second hand reports and, making allowances for the vagaries of memory, the varying perspectives of those who wrote them down, to me the variations in the texts actually make them seem more “real,” not less.  But that’s just me.  They’re just four tellings of the same powerful story, illustrating artistic individuality and artistic license.

The more arresting mystery of the resurrection narratives, way beyond these little details about who was at the empty tomb and what they saw, is the accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus himself. I can’t help but marvel at the way they are wrapped in strangeness and mystery. We’re supposed to buy into the idea that the men and women who followed Jesus—who traveled, lived, and listened to him for years—fail to recognize him after his resurrection. Mary Magdalene, in John’s Gospel, mistakes him for a gardener. Only after Jesus calls her by name does she realize who he is. In Luke’s Gospel, in the famous account of Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the resurrected Jesus walked and talked with them unrecognized. Only when they sat down for a meal, and Jesus blessed the bread they were about to eat did they come out of their brain fog and understand who was with them.  In John’s gospel, the resurrected Jesus appears to a group of disciples just as they’re about to go fishing, giving them instructions on how to cast their nets. Yet again, they didn’t know who he was.

Later in the Gospel of Luke its author recounts Jesus appearing to the disciples in Jerusalem, seemingly out of nowhere. He then asks for some meat to eat, as if answering the question, “Is this really happening or is it an apparition?” The Gospel of John reports that Jesus apparently could walk through walls, rather pointedly noting that he showed up amidst the disciples in a room where the doors were shut.

The resurrected Jesus, then, walked and talked among his intimates and, once again, they knew him not. He ate solid food but also could pass through solid walls. He appeared in unexpected times and places. His body rose from the dead, yet still bore the scars from his crucifixion—wounds that doubting Thomas could touch and feel. Whatever the resurrection means, the texts do not allow us to interpret it simply as a restoration of the status quo, with Jesus being exactly as he was before. Taking the resurrection literally would necessitate that we take the accounts we are given of it literally, but if we do, the reknitting of the molecules of his body, the rekindling of the amino acids, and the reversal of his cell’s dissolution seems to have happened in some rather inconsistent ways.  Jesus is the same, yet also different. He is himself, but somehow more than that.

It is this sense of wonder at the sheer perplexity of what Jesus was like after his resurrection that seems to be missing from Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” The problem is not that Updike challenges us to consider the strange idea that a man rose from the dead; it’s that what he holds before us isn’t strange enough. Whatever is going on in the Gospels, it seems to resist the efforts those who want to assimilate the Easter story either through a literalism uncomfortable with paradox or by turning it into a somewhat embarrassing myth meant to inspire hope.

For all his theological sophistication, and despite my admiration for his literary gifts, Updike’s poem leaves me unsatisfied.   Updike asks us to leave aside figurative language and interrogate the Gospel accounts of the resurrection for their literal truth, if it really happened or not.  To reduce mystery to a simple, binary question.  Did it happen or didn’t it?  Reduced to such a simple dichotomy, I’m afraid I’d have to come down on the opposite side of Updike.  But fortunately, I don’t think that’s the point of the story.

To me, the bigger question about the resurrection is, to put it bluntly: so what?
Whether you want to believe that it was physical, or metaphorical, or mythical: what does it mean? A story about someone someone who was dead and now they are alive again and the correct interpretation of the event is?

What do events like walking on water, changing water to wine, and coming back from the dead do to change people’s lives today? Isn’t this really the question these stories are meant to evoke in us?

Easter is, and should remain, a deep source of affirmation for people of all faiths.  Not just card carrying Christians.  That affirmation could and should ultimately lead to awe at the great mystery that is life.  And death.  And constructing meaning out of this existence. Celebrating Jesus’ resurrection should make us ask if we have tamed him into a creature of our own imaginations, or – if we remain open to surprise and uncertainty, to the mysteries of living and dying, of love and hope, that he embodied. If the latter, Easter can be for us, like the disciples walking to Emmaus, the occasion to really see Jesus again, as if for the first time.  I hope, whether you identify as Christian or not, Easter can in some way be that for you.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

 

 

[i] Did Updike Sell the Resurrection Short?  Matthew Sitman, Daily Beast, 04.15.15.

[i][i] On Easter and Updike.  David E. Anderson, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, April 7, 2009.

 

 

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Dr. King’s Economic Dream

Martin Luther King Jr. knew there would be little civil rights for African Americans until they were also granted a greater measure of economic rights.  The issue of civil rights is inextricably tied to economic rights.  He devoted more and more energy to this work in the last years of his life.  In the weeks leading up to his assassination, he was hard at work organizing a new march on Washington known as the “Poor People’s Campaign.” The goal was to erect a tent city on the National Mall, that, would dramatize the reality of joblessness and deprivation.   He wanted to, in great symbolic fashion, bring those excluded from the economy to the veritable doorstep of the leaders of our nation.  He was killed before he could see the effort through.

Yes, the Poor People’s Campaign still took place, some six weeks after King’s death.  But, without King at the helm the movement lost much of its steam. King’s team, now under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy, decided to reorient the Poor People’s Campaign away from civil disobedience and towards the creation and maintenance of a tent city that became known as “Resurrection City.”  50,000 people participated, a tiny fraction of the numbers that had gathered four years prior to hear the “I Have a Dream speech.  To this day, King’s economic dream remains unfulfilled.

King hadn’t shifted his focus to economic issues late in his career as a superficial reading of history might suggest. The financial plight of poor people and general and African Americans in particular were an intrinsic part of his work from day one.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the first demonstrations of the power of mass organization to influence public policy and a seminal event in the civil rights movement, owed its effectiveness to its economic impact.  When the Montgomery Improvement Association, under the leadership of its young and inexperienced minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., plotted its strategy to change the segregation policies of public transportation, they utilized the collective purchasing power of African Americans.  They knew they wouldn’t have to throw any punches or resort to violence.  They simply hit the Montgomery Bus Line where it counted – in the pocketbook.

Economic issues seemed to always be a part and parcel of King’s thinking, whatever the issue before him.  Whether you agree or disagree with his economic views, there’s no denying that he was a sophisticated economic thinker and well versed in the subject.

Even the moment generally regarded as the pinnacle of King’s career, known to posterity as the “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, can be seen as not so much ideological as it was financial.  Why do I say that?  Well, the campaign that brought King to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day was officially called “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”  In the text of “I Have a Dream” he used the metaphor of a bad check to demonstrate the economic injustice that so many faced. He took a complex problem and translated it into practical pocketbook terminology:

“We’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that bank of justice is bankrupt.” King frequently spoke in household financial terms, language that everyone understood, so that his message would resonate broadly.

Its almost impossible to listen to any sermon or speech King gave without hearing words and ideas that touched on economic issues.  Yes, he could relate issues in terms that common folk could relate to, but the scope of his thinking extended much more broadly to the macroeconomic landscape.  He knew that to bring about sustained change, one had to adopt sustainable, systemic measures.  In an oft quoted sermon he gave on the Parable of the Good Samaritan the day before he was killed, King suggested just that.  Its well and good to stop and assist a man that lies in a ditch along the Jericho Road, but King implies how much better it would have been if the Priest and the Levite had not just stopped and helped the man, but organized a Jericho Road Improvement Association.  In other words, worked to effect some sort of systemic change make sure folks weren’t beaten up in the first place.

So what, exactly, was King’s economic dream? In short, he wanted the government to eradicate poverty by providing every American a guaranteed, middle-class income.  He laid out his case for a guaranteed income in his final book, 1967’s Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?  In it he castigated Washington’s previous efforts to fight poverty, saying that government efforts to fight poverty were too small and too disorganized.  He called them “piecemeal and pygmy.”  He wrote, “the programs of the past all have another common failing—they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.” Better housing, better education, and better support for families.  All good things, but King wanted something much more comprehensive.  A guaranteed income. King also advocated for universal health care and education.

King saw that there needed to be some sort of redistribution of economic power.  He was a master of rhetoric and parlayed this mastery to drive his point home.  In preparation for this sermon I listened to many of the sermons and speeches he gave on economic issues.  For me, some of his most persuasive words came from a speech he gave at a small church in Mississippi in 1968 just weeks before his death.  This speech is sometimes referred to as King’s “Forty Acres and a Mule speech.

Have any of you ever heard the expression “Forty Acres and A Mule?” How many of you are aware of the significance of that phrase for African Americans?  After Emancipation, many freed African Americans believed and were told by various political figures that they had a right to own the land they had long worked as slaves.  In the end, forty acres and a mule mostly amounted to a broken promise.  Most of the land redistributed under the forty acres allocation ended up being restored to its pre-civil war owners.

The phrase “40 acres and a mule” has come to symbolize the broken promise that Reconstruction policies would offer economic justice for African Americans.  It was, perhaps, the closest our country ever came to making some some sort of fair and equitable reparations to African Americans.  To some effort at redistribution of wealth.

Here are the words from that speech that so impacted me: “At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress, our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its White peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. This is what we are faced with and this is a reality.”

King expressed a very similar sentiment on other occasions.  Once when speaking to a labor union he said, “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.”

 

It would be hard for any reasonably intelligent observer of the economic scene of that time, or even more so of today’s, to disagree with King’s sentiment.

It was time, he believed, for a more straightforward approach: the government needed to make sure every American had a reasonable income.

Many historians have described King as a “democratic socialist.” According to the Democratic Socialists of America, this describes someone who believes the economy should be shaped “to meet public needs” and “not to make profits for a few.”

There was a time in American politics when calling someone a socialist was a slur. Not anymore, apparently.  One of the more popular politicians in recent times is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist who nearly captured the Democratic nomination for president.  According to a 2016 Harvard University poll, 51% of young Americans — 18- to-29-year-olds — oppose capitalism. And a poll conducted the next year by YouGov found that most American millennials preferred to live in a socialist country than a capitalist one.

Why do many millennials prefer socialism?  Lingering scars from the Great Recession; staggering student debt; the greatest economic inequality since before the Great Depression — all these and the other glaring examples of the dearth of economic opportunity have been cited as reasons.

King had similar misgivings in his day.  In a stirring speech he gave to the sanitation workers in Memphis as the Poor People’s Campaign started, he said, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger? What does it profit a man to be able to eat at the swankest integrated restaurant when he doesn’t even earn enough money to take his wife out to dine? What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school when he doesn’t earn enough money to buy his children school clothes?”

How radical was King’s vision? He spelled out it on many occasions:

In 1964, after traveling to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, King said:

“In both Norway and Sweden, whose economies are literally dwarfed by the size of our affluence and the extent of our technology, they have no unemployment and no slums. There, men, women and children have long enjoyed free medical care and quality education. This contrast to the limited, halting steps taken by our rich nation deeply troubled me.”

In a 1966 speech to his staff, he said:

“There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

In 1967 in his book, “Where Do We Go from Here,” he wrote: “The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”

 

In 1968, he told a church audience: “It didn’t cost the nation a penny to open lunch counters. It didn’t cost the nation a penny to give us the right to vote. But it will cost the nation billions to feed and house all of its citizens. The country needs a radical redistribution of wealth.”

King saw in 1968 — and what we should recognize today — is that it makes no sense to try to address race without also taking on the larger issue of inequality. He wanted to assemble a coalition of the dispossessed of all colors and creeds to demand not just an end to discrimination but a change in the way we shares the spoils generated by the powerful economic engine of our economy.

Our society is so much more affluent today than it was in King’s — and even more unequal. Since King’s death, the share of total U.S. income earned by the top 1 percent has more than doubled. In Kings Day CEOs of large corporations made 20 times the amount of its average worker.  Today they often make in excess of 200 times.  Studies indicate there is less economic mobility in the United States than in most other developed countries. The American dream is, in many ways, now only a distant memory.

What can we do?  First, when we remember MLK for those brief and shining moments in August of 1963 as he stood in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, let us not forget the real substance of his dream was equality of economic opportunity.  A vision that, in many ways, we are further from realizing than ever.  He saw inequality as a fundamental and tragic flaw in this society. Our country will require a whole new set of dream weavers for us to even start the process of correcting these glaring inequalities and set our vision on a future that even begins to address these inequalities and starts to balance the economic opportunities.  I don’t think we all have to come to agreement on economic theory or on basic human nature and human motivation to recognize that the benefits of our present system are glaringly unbalanced and unfair.  I don’t think we all have to become Democratic socialists – I didn’t – to realize how inept our current system is at motivating people and rewarding people for what they do and the contribution they make to the well-being and greater good of our society. May we, in whatever small ways we can, be a part of turning things around and making Dr. King’s economic dream a reality. So may it be.

References:

Martin Luther King’s Economic Dream: A Guaranteed Income for All Americans.  Jordan Weissman, The Atlantic, August 28, 2013.

The Economics Behind Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech. Kabir Sehgal, Fortune, January, 2016.

MLK’s Call for Economic Justice. Eugene Robinson.  Real Clear Politics, Jan 16, 2015.

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Artice of Interest in Valdosta Daily Times

by Dean Poling

on January 14, 2018, he wrote:

Fred Howard performs a neat and worthwhile trick with his novel, “Children of Covenant.”

He writes a socially conscious whodunit. The book is intriguing as both a mystery and as a philosophical consideration into culture and religions. All with an overarching theme of compassion for one another.

The plot: A businessman is found dead in a small South Georgia town. A Muslim resident is accused of killing the businessman. Ike Benheart, a church minister, becomes involved in the case because he suspects the businessman wasn’t murdered. Instead, he believes the businessman committed suicide because family and neighbors could not accept his homosexuality. Benheart makes other discoveries about the case and himself along the way.

The book’s town, August Valley, Ga., is loosely based on Valdosta. Even more fun for South Georgia readers, several of the characters’ names are based on Valdosta street names; the businessman, for example, is named Lee Street.

Howard serves as pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Valdosta. He is also the author of “Transforming Faith; Stories of Change from A Lifelong Spiritual Seeker,” where Howard shares sermons, drawing upon life experiences, popular culture and observation to tell his parables.

“Children of Covenant” is a beautifully realized novel. The characters are full and believable. The story is compelling – a page turner that is thought provoking. The sentences are eloquent.

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Gratitude

“Gratitude turns what we have into enough.”

-Melody Beattie

He was a shy little boy, not very popular with the other children in Grade One. As Valentine’s Day approached, his mother was delighted when he asked her one evening to sit down and write the names of all the children in his class so that he could make a Valentine for each. Slowly he remembered each name aloud, and his mother recorded them on a piece of paper. He worried endlessly for fear he would forget someone. Armed with a book of Valentines to cut out, with scissors and crayons and paste, he plodded his conscientious way down the list. When each one was finished, his mother printed the name on a piece of paper and watched him laboriously copy it. As the pile of finished Valentines grew, so did his satisfaction. About this time, his mother began to worry whether the other children would make Valentines for him. He hurried home so fast each afternoon to get on with his task, that it seemed likely the other children playing, along the street would forget his existence altogether. How absolutely horrible if he went off to the party armed with 37 tokens of love—and no one had remembered him! She wondered if there were some way she could sneak a few Valentines among those he was making so that he would he sure of receiving at least a few. But he watched his hoard so jealously, and counted them over so lovingly, that there was no chance to slip in an extra. She assumed a mother’s most normal role, that of patient waiting. The day of the Valentine box finally arrived, and she watched him trudge off down the snowy street, a box of heart-shaped cookies in one hand, a shopping-bag clutched in the other with 37 neat tokens of his labor. She watched him with a burning heart. “Please, God,” she prayed, “let him get at least a few!” All afternoon her hands were busy here and there, but her heart was at the school. At half past three she took her knitting and sat with studied coincidence in a chair that gave a full view of the street. Finally, he appeared, alone. Her heart sank. Up the street he came, turning every once in a while, to back up a few steps into the wind. She strained her eyes to see his face. At that distance it was just a rosy blur. It was not until he turned in at the walk that she saw it— the one lone Valentine clutched in his little red mitt. Only one. After all his work. And from the teacher probably. The knitting blurred before her eyes. If only you could stand between your child and life! She laid down her work and walked to meet him at the door. “What rosy cheeks!” she said. “Here, let me untie your scarf. Were the cookies good?” He turned toward her a face shining with happiness and complete fulfillment. “Do you know what?” he said. “I didn’t forget a one. Not a single one!”

I came across this story called “The Valentine” by Ruth McDonald, and was so impressed by how well it illustrates what it looks like to live with gratitude, to live with a sense of surprise and amazement, to live mindfully egoless, totally focused on giving rather than receiving.

Those of us with children try to teach them to be grateful, don’t we?  When Kathy and I were raising our three, we often reminded them to say thank you when they were given a compliment or a gift.  But even when Mandy, Misty and Dustin learned to say thank you” to the point that it was an ingrained habit, we still had no idea whether or not they really felt grateful and recognized it in their heart.  What we were really teaching them was how to be polite.  To have good manners.  If they didn’t particularly like the gift they were given, one might even say we were teaching them to be dishonest about their feelings.  I suspect our ability to recognize and name feelings of genuine gratitude develops as we age and mature. I suspect we’re not able to feel deep and abiding gratitude—and name it—until we stop taking our living for granted, which most children do unless they’ve experienced some kind of loss or struggle

Still, I was still heartened by the Valentine story and even touched by it.  Yes, it’s a bit sappy, it reminds me of a more innocent, a less jaded time that probably never really existed.  But, on some level, I hope it speaks of something beneath the lavish and overindulgent standards Western society insistently foists on us today.  I hope the story speaks of a genuine, selfless sense of gratefulness that lies beneath all that in the core of human nature – in the depths of every human heart.

As humans, and especially as Americans, we take pride in being self-sufficient and self-reliant.  Our nation was founded with a deep-seated belief in the freedom of the individual.  That sense of freedom informs every aspect of our lives, including the political realm (as democracy), the economic realm (as free market capitalism), the social realm (as human rights), and the religious realm (as separation of church and state and freedom of religion.)  We take our autonomy in these areas for granted.

However much we pride ourselves on the freedom and liberality of our way of life in this country, the universe has no respect for it.  The existential truth of our fragile human existence is that we are utterly dependent on the universe to provide for virtually every need.  We depended on our parents to conceive and nurture us, we depend on plants and animals to give up life to feed us, we depend on the trees to take in the carbon dioxide we give off and replenish the oxygen we need to sustain us, we depend on the sun to warm us.  While the myth of human freedom and self-reliance was beneficial to us in creating a more egalitarian society, the truth or the matter is we are virtually helpless without the support of intricate biological and social systems of relationship.  Our lives are exquisitely fragile.  Seen from this perspective, the whole notion of self-reliance is a lie.   My apologies to Mr. Emerson and his essay.

Our human tendency IS to regard our lives as our own construct.  And I don’t mean to disparage that pride we tend to take in our accomplishments necessarily.  But when we understand our life as the sum total of what we have achieved, then naturally we will approach Thanksgiving by comparison.  Seen from the perspective of what we have made of ourselves, we tend to compare what we have done and what we have accumulated against the situation of others.  This may lead to gratitude and may lead to envy.  I call this food chain gratitude.  Being thankful that we’re a little higher on the chain than the other members of our family or associates.

But if we understand the first principle of human existence as our utter dependence on the universe, this can lead to a different kind of gratitude.  Our life is not a problem to be solved, it is a gift to be opened.   The color of the sky,, the song of a bird, a word of kindness, a strain of music, the sun on our face, the companionship of friends. The taste of sea air, the shape of clouds in summer, the reds of maple leaves in fall.  There are so many gifts in a single life.  If we are preoccupied with what is missing and what is wrong, we miss so many of these tiny gifts, piled one upon the other, that accumulate without our acknowledging them.  If we listen more carefully for the infinite blessings of a single day, this will not obliterate our sorrows.  But it will help us remember how wonderful and rich our lives are, even in the midst of our suffering.  A single thought of gratefulness can transform a moment of sorrow into a moment of peace.

In her poem, entitled “Otherwise,” the poet Jane Kenyon reflects on this sentiment: “I got out of bed on two strong legs. It might have been otherwise. I ate cereal, sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach. It might have been otherwise. I took the dog uphill to the birch wood. All morning I did the work I love. At noon I lay down with my mate. It might have been otherwise. We ate dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks. It might have been otherwise. I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls, and planned another day just like this day. But one day, I know, it will be otherwise.”  Kenyon wrote this poem in 1993, upon hearing her husband, Donald Hall’s cancer diagnosis. Ironically, it was Kenyon, not Hall, who died a year later from a fierce and swift onslaught of leukemia.

I’m returned to the perspective the universe tries to instill in me about gratitude by Kenyon’s poem.  In other words, gratitude, absolutely.  Not gratitude by comparison.  Gratitude beyond expectation, beyond entitlement, beyond any bitter questions like, “Why me,” that often come out of our bitterness and disappointment.  The poet is inviting to embrace gratitude as ideology and life practice, rather than as a response to individual life events…good, bad, or otherwise.

 

I suspect we’re not able to feel truly grateful and name it until we’ve gained some sense of what’s at stake in our lives and in the world; until we’ve had the experience of making difficult, life-altering decisions; until we’ve experienced suffering and loss; until we’ve come to understand our limits, our fragility, our dependence. We feel genuine gratitude when we finally recognize our lives and the lives of others as precious, as sacred, as holy, and as unlikely, mysterious, miraculous gifts.

And when we finally arrive there, when we finally arrive at that feeling of being blessed in some way, perhaps by someone else’s kindness or the by recognizing the opportunities we’ve had—whatever it is—that deeply felt “thank you,” more often than not, also instills in us a desire to give back in some way. Heart-felt gratitude leads to some kind of engagement, participation, commitment, action.

 

Friends, may this be the kind of giving that happens here, a giving without expectation, a giving born of a deep gratitude for the gift of Life, a giving that comes from seeing goodness and grace in every small thing. May we be able to give thanks not just when things are good, when there is abundance, but always, “in all circumstances,” even in scarcity.

After observing human nature for much of my 60 years, I’m convinced that the way we see life is, by and large, up to us.  What happens may play a small role, at least in the short run, but its 90 plus percent a choice.  We can focus on what we don’t have, or what we had and lost, or we can embrace it all, every moment, as a divinely bestowed gift.

 

Giving thanks has nothing has nothing to do with who or what produced this gift.  It is, rather, a way of perceiving our life.  Even in the midst of hurt, or sadness, or disappointment, when we see ourselves in a universe that gives us life and touches us with love, we praise.  Prayers of thanksgiving do not necessarily have to be directed at a benevolent deity.  It can also be a way of orienting our persona to a universe we see as benevolent and bestowing.  Yes, there are hurts and wounds and disappointments and frustrations.  But it’s also a source of care and love and inspiration.  In cultivating this kind of orientation, this kind of awareness, we are saying a cosmic “thank you.”

To say thank you is NOT to somehow approve of all that comes our way.  It is, rather, being proactive and empowered in a way that is available to every human being who still has breath.  To take charge of the one thing we always have control over – our attitude – and transform ourselves and those who come into our sphere of influence.  To look at the world through eyes like that first grader with his bag of valentines and think of all the people in our lives with mindfulness.  “Do you know what?  I didn’t forget a one. Not a single one!”  To have such a thought as the meditation of our life.   What a graceful way to get through this terminal condition of being human.

May it be so for all of us today, in the coming holiday season, and in our life.  Happy Thanksgiving!  Amen.

 

 

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The New Atheists: Logical or Insane?

 

I have a bone to pick with Christopher Hitchens. Not just Hitchens, but with all the militant atheists currently in vogue. Like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. I single out Hitchens because of his statement “atheism is a necessary condition for the emancipation of the mind.” What??

All of these writers work from a false dichotomy. They insist that belief in God makes a person, at best, irrational, and at worst, intolerant and even murderous. They draw a line and insist we make a choice – either “rational atheism” or “irrational belief.” There is no third choice, no complexity to the question, no paradoxical exchange between the two poles. Just a black and white duality.

I would love the opportunity to question one of these guys (notice they are all white males. As one of those myself, that gives me the right to criticize them as such, as I understand the rules of political correctness.) Given that opportunity, I would ask him, “If God doesn’t exist, then what are you getting so worked up about?” As the philosopher Sam Keen says, “It makes no logical or linguistic sense to affirm or deny the existence of an infinite, supernatural God.” At least the theists in this country, which as I understand comprise ninety plus percent or so of the population, project their values onto something they believe in. Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens would have us buy into their psychological projection against something that they say doesn’t exist. Since all three of them take such pride in their coherent, logical arguments, I would ask them, how logical is that? Railing against something that you say doesn’t exist? Give me a break. What are these guys so afraid of?

Our faith, Unitarian Universalism, is positioned beautifully to transcend the false dichotomy these guys present. At our best, we offer a community where people are welcome whether they are atheists, theists, agnostics, or apatheists (people that don’t think the issue matters or just don’t care. That’s me, if you’re at all interested.)   The problem is, as a faith tradition, we don’t always do a very good job of transcending the “God” issue. I guess I’m guilty of this also, because I’m talking about it now. Sorry about that.

I’ll finish this with a quote by Joseph Campbell that contains wisdom, I think, for our faith tradition and for our world. “God is a thought, God is an idea, but its reference is to something that transcends all thinking. I mean, he’s beyond being, beyond the category of being or nonbeing. Is he or is he not? Neither is nor is not. Every god, every mythology, every religion, is true in this sense: it is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery.”

Thanks for allowing me to rant. Differing opinions welcome.

 

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Entertaining Angels

Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement during the Great Depression, has been called the American Mother Teresa because of her tireless work among the poor for the last 47 years of her life. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II granted permission for the archdiocese of New York to pursue the case for her to be named an official saint of the Catholic Church. Quite a step for the Roman Church, to consider Day for this distinction, considering the bohemian lifestyle she led in her earlier years.

She never married but had long term live in relationships with two different men, having a pregnancy and an abortion with one of them and a pregnancy and a child with the other. She wrote a book about her affair that brought her a bit of fame and even a Hollywood movie contract. She spent time in prison and it wasn’t always because of altruistic political activism, and she once tried to commit suicide. Not exactly the background of your typical saint.

“Saint” is not a word that often issues from the lips of Unitarians, as it seems to conjure up a kind of piety and reverence with which most of us I daresay would be rather uncomfortable. To venerate, or worship, a human being as Catholics do is certainly beyond the pale. But I do think we can learn from the amazing lives others have led and we can be inspired by them.   Today I want to explore certain facets of Dorothy Day’s life for that very reason – because I think there are lessons here for us.

Day wasn’t born Catholic. Her parents were nominal Anglicans and rarely attended church. She was a convert. A reluctant one. The process really began with the birth of her daughter, Tamar. About that occasion, Day wrote, “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure, I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.” Day felt such gratitude, and a need for someone or something to thank. She said, “No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.”

Whom could she thank? For Day, her gratitude came to be directed at the traditional form of God. According to David Brooks, in his book The Road to Character, “A sense of God’s reality and immanence came upon her.” “Day was not answering the question of whether God exists. She was simply made aware of a presence beyond herself. She was surrendering to the belief that independent of one’s own will, there is something significant that gives shape to life.” As Day herself would say, she came to see that “worship, adoration, thanksgiving, supplication – these were the noblest acts of which men were capable of in this life.” Thus began her transformation from the life of a free spirit to one of order and obedience.

Her friends and her lover were totally dismayed by her sudden religiosity. Though she was not comfortable with traditional religious doctrines and knew the Catholic Church only as a backward and politically reactionary force, Day nevertheless had found in her conception of God something that gave a center to her life and infused it with meaning. Forster Batterham, her lover and the father of her child, was no less passionate than Day in his own convictions – convictions that didn’t include the notion of God. He wanted to know if she had lost her mind. He wanted to know WHO was pushing her to an archaic and backward institution like the Church. When Day responded, “It is Jesus. I guess it is Jesus who is the one pushing me to the Catholics,” Forster went into a rage and told Day that she was mentally disturbed.

Day was a passionate, sexual woman and wrote long passages in her diaries about her longing for Forester, even after she had renounced him for the Church. Days tortured decision to give her allegiance and her life to the church had nothing to do with theology. It was the people. Through her work as a journalist, she had become converted to the cause of the poor, most of which, in New York city, were Catholic immigrants. She has seen their communal spirit and their generosity to those who were down and out, and she knew she must associate herself as closely as possible with those who were suffering and join their walk. And this meant joining their church.

After her conversion to Catholicism and her commitment to a life of service, she looked back on the activism of her earlier life quite self critically. “I do not know how sincere I was in my love of the poor and my desire to serve them,” she said. “I wanted to go on picket lines, to go to jail, to write, to influence others and so make my mark on the world. How much ambition and how much self-seeking there was in all of this.”

Once Day found this spiritual center she began attending mass daily, which meant rising at dawn. She adopted the monastic rhythms to her day and began to pray regularly according to them. She fasted and went to confession. Day and her colleagues in the Catholic Worker Movement slept in cold rooms and wore donated clothes. They did not receive salaries. She worked relentlessly. Serving in the soup lines, raising money for various causes, listening to tales of woe, writing articles for the newspaper. But she now had a spiritual grounding for her work. She now had an organizing transcendent framework to sustain her and make the work a genuine reflection of her inner life.

Justice work that is not grounded in spirituality can become arrogant and self serving. Spirituality that is not connected to the work of justice can become narcissistic and disconnected from the world. Jim Wallis of Sojourners Magazine, says, “The connection the world is waiting for is to connect the hunger for spirituality with passion for social change. Because spirituality, when it isn’t disciplined by social justice, in an affluent society, becomes narcissistic.   We buy the books. We buy the tapes. We hear the guru speaker. Barnes and Noble has a whole wall of how to be spiritual, balanced, healed, whole. Spirituality becomes a commodity to be bought and sold. So spirituality has to be disciplined by social justice.”

In her book Parables: The Arrows of God, Megan McKenna tells a story that relates this truth so well.

There was a woman who wanted peace in the world and peace in her heart and all sorts of good things, but she was very frustrated. The world seemed to be falling apart. She would read the papers and get depressed. One day she decided to go shopping, and she went into a mall and picked a store at random. She walked in and was surprised to see Jesus behind the counter. She knew it was Jesus, because he looked just like the images she’d seen on holy cards and devotional pictures. She looked again and again at him, and finally she got up her nerve and asked, “Excuse me, are you Jesus?”

“l am.”

“Do you work here?”

“No,” Jesus said, “I own the store.”

“Oh, what do you sell in here?”

“Oh, just about anything!”

“Anything?”

“Yeah, anything you want. What do you want?”

She said, “I don’t know.”

“Well,” Jesus said, “feel free, walk up and down the aisles, make a list, see what it is you want, and then come back and we’ll see what we can do for you.”

She did just that, walked up and down the aisles. There was peace on earth, no more war, no hunger or poverty, peace in families, no more drugs, harmony, clean air, careful use of resources. She wrote furiously. By the time she got back to the counter, she had a long list. Jesus took the list, skimmed through it, looked up at her, and smiled. “No problem.” And then he bent down behind the counter and picked out all sorts of things, stood up, and laid out some packets.

She asked, “What are these?”

Jesus replied, “Seed packets. This is a catalog store.”

She said, “You mean I don’t get the finished product?”

“No, this is a place of dreams. You come and see what it

looks like, and I give you the seeds. You plant the seeds. You go home and nurture them and help them to grow, and someone else reaps the benefits.”

“Oh,” she said. And she left the store without buying anything.

B Megan McKenna, Parables: The Arrows of God

Socially engaged spiritual activism was a central part of Jesus’ ministry as He proclaimed it when He began his work.  He walked the talk by loving and helping those in need in speech and in deed.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk often associated with engaged spirituality or engaged Buddhism, says, “Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism. When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time. Meditation is about the awareness of what is going on-not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you.” Spirituality without a component of dedication to practical action for social change is in essence lame. Social justice efforts that don’t arise from informed spirituality are blind.  Efforts to do good in the world that are not grounded in a solid spiritual life are really nothing more than a “field trip” into and out of the suffering and oppression of others. It might make us feel good about ourselves for an hour or so but, when the going gets tough, will usually tire out and ultimately give way to cynicism and despair. Be mindful of participating in social justice causes out of some righteous sense of how much one is giving to the world.  There must be a spiritual integrity to our acts that is unfazed by immediate results. A little self inventory is in order. Can we sustain the work whether we receive accolades or indifference, praise or scorn.

Walking the talk of socially engaged spiritual activism is no more and no less than a daily spiritual practice whereby everyday life is sacralized.  It includes both organized forms of worship and ongoing spiritual discipline.  It also involves “communal mysticism”, which is the active spiritual connection and interaction with the members of the community that are being served.

We can make a difference in the world as we create and maintain a religious community that helps us find and nurture our spiritual center. It’s only such a community that can then, in turn, inspire and support us individually and collectively as we go forward and do the work of justice in the world.

Before spirituality can become an engaged spirituality, the spirit itself must be developed and sustained. Then, and only then will we be the kind of people who will pick up one of those packets of seeds that woman left behind on the counter and start planting. May it be so for all of these in our midst. Amen.

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Book Review: Faith Beyond Belief by Margaret Placentra Johnston

In Mary Engelbreit’s famous quote, “If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it,” there is the tantalizing suggestion that if we change our way of thinking then things will change. Margaret Placentra Johnston’s book, Faith Beyond Belief, gives readers a clear, concise framework for the process of spiritual growth and development that can change the way we think about it. Johnston, a spiritual guide as well as a practicing optometrist, brings the lens of spiritual development theory to bear on her own journey as well as those of ten individuals that took the courageous steps necessary to embrace a more meaningful and fulfilling existence. Her easy, conversational writing style gives us a soul’s eye view of lives of these ten touching and sometimes tragic stories. Being a lay person herself, Johnson brings a focus to the stories in ways that allow most any thoughtful and reflective person to find something of themselves in them. Her theory describes four stages: Lawless, Faithful, Rational, and Post Critical or Mystic.

Other contemporary authors have dared to venture into this topic, most notably Scott Peck in The Different Drum. However, Johnston more effectively communicates the theory by incarnating it in these lives she describes and discusses. Each story is a conversion experience – but not in the sense of a “conversion” as the reader might have been taught to conceptualize it. In the first set of stories four of her subjects chose to leave the comfortable conformity of the religious institution in which they were raised and move from the Faithful Stage to the Rational stage. In each case they were “good people who left their church behind.” No longer defined by the tenets and dogma of the religion of their upbringing, they are no longer among those that are Faithful – neither to the church nor in their stage of spiritual development. All chose allegiance to the truth as it was emerging in their rational mind. This decision was invariably difficult and painful but, Johnston says, each person “rated living truthfully of higher importance than the convenience and safety of remaining in the religious community.” In the second set of stories we learn about six people that continued the process of spiritual development beyond the intellectual integrity of the Rational stage to the more inclusive, universal worldview of the Mystic stage. These are stories of everyday mystics, unremarkable people that see life in remarkable ways – as a mystery, as something to be cherished, as something to be lived in grateful service to others. Each of these individuals exemplifies at least one of the traits of this stage. Each has somehow transcended their mean and indifferent circumstances to lead lives of grace, meaning, and purpose.

Johnston tackles this vital yet difficult subject with commendable tact and respect. Women and men of any faith tradition or no faith tradition at all should be able to find wisdom in these pages. The book resonates as both well reasoned and intuitively on target as a way for us to make more sense of our spiritual journey. What the author is really talking about is growing up – growing out of the narrow belief systems and creeds that religious communities often use to define themselves and growing into more mature ways of being with others and into ways of better serving our diverse world.

Every once in awhile, a book comes along that can change everything we think we can’t change. Change the way we think about the development of our spirit. Change our life. Perhaps in some small way even change the world. For our times, this is that book. Faith Beyond Belief is a gift!

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