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!”


“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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Redemption: The Great Gamble of Our Soul

I grew up in the First Presbyterian Church of Macon, Georgia. We held church camp each year at Rock Eagle, the 4-H campground. I spent one week of my summer vacation there each year being indoctrinated in good Calvinist theology. Of course, the memories I retain of those summers has a lot more to do with swimming, fishing, and flag football than the particulars of predestination or the doctrine of the elect. One powerful lesson I did learn during one of those summer camps was the nature of redemption. I do not think that redemption was a part of the explicit curriculum; nevertheless, because of an incident that occurred there, my buddies and I learned a painful lesson that has stayed with me to this day.

On our last night at camp my friends and I had a little free time in our cabin before lights out. So we decided to get a little poker game going. We had each brought some spending money, but this particular year we had not gotten to go into Eatonton, the nearby town, to spend any of it. And as you can imagine, that money was burning a hole in the pockets of a bunch of 11 year old boys. Since we could not spend it, gambling it away seemed like the natural thing to do to while away a Saturday night. Ricky, the default leader of our little gang, just happened to have a deck of cards in his backpack. Interestingly, besides the wear and tear that you might expect on playing cards that had been tucked away in a backpack, these cards also showed evidence of some more deliberate damage. We would later discover that the aces were a little more dog eared on the corners than the rest of the cards.

Well, we had been playing for a couple of hours before someone noticed the selective abuse that this particular deck of cards had suffered. It did seem to us that Ricky was enjoying a particularly good run of luck on this night, as he had amassed about $15, which was most all of the money the rest of us had squirreled away to buy cokes, candy bars, baseball cards, and comic books. Well, when this discovery was made by the boy who was dealing the cards at the time, who also just happened to be the one of us who had lost the most money to Ricky, he accused Ricky of cheating, and a heated argument broke out. Ricky started claiming innocence, but was turning redder and redder by the moment. We were all getting lathered up to jump on Ricky and teach him a lesson he would never forget, when we heard the voices of the counselors approaching our cabin. Everyone scrambled to hide the cards, the bottlecaps we were using for poker chips, and all the other evidence of our improvised casino. I thought we had pulled it off, because the counselor came in, told us to go to bed, and turned out the lights.

I do not know if Ricky got any sleep that night. Once we were all in our bunks, and the counselor had retired to his bed on the other side of the cabin, the other boys started making whispered threats to Ricky. And they began to giggle wickedly about all the plans they were making to get their money back and extract a pound of flesh from Ricky to boot. This went on until the wee hours of the morning.

The next morning after breakfast we were to gather in the main auditorium for a worship service that concluded the week at summer camp. Apparently, our counselor had been tipped off about the events of the preceding night, because he walked into the auditorium with his arm across Ricky’s shoulder. Ricky’s face looked like someone who was just emerging from a confessional after lying awake all night in a fit of guilt. Ricky and the counselor came and sat on the row just in front of the rest of us who had been complicit in the illicit festivities of the previous evening.  Ricky just sat there and kept his eyes front and center during the service.

Then came the time in the service when the collection plate was to be passed. When it got to the counselor who sat beside Ricky, we saw him hold the plate out in front of our contrite ringleader and encourage him to empty his pockets. Out came all our quarters and wadded up dollar bills from the poker game. Ricky became a modern day Zacchaeus, turning his ill gotten gains over to the Lord’s service, to the chagrin of all of his fellow campers. Though we dared not let out a sound, I could almost hear the groans all along that row. But what were the rest of us going to do? Any protest on our part would have been an admission of guilt, and the counselor would have reason to come down on us also, and possibly inform to our parents. And, now that Ricky no longer had the money, there was less of a reason for us to attack him to get our money back, since he no longer had any of it. That counselor had figured out a perfect solution to Ricky’s problem. Just like good counselors are supposed to do. He pointed the way to a more redemptive purpose for the fruits of Ricky’s work of the previous evening.

Who doesn’t love a good story of redemption? Les Miserables. It’s a Wonderful Life. The Shawshank Redemption. Field of Dreams. Think of your favorite movie, and at the heart of the story it’s likely to be a story of redemption. The main character is misunderstood, wrongly blamed, burdened by guilt, or is simply living an unfulfilled life. Then, something happens. Circumstances change, a confrontation occurs, a decision is made, valiant effort is extended, and the character undergoes an ordeal so that he or she can emerge a better person or in a better place. It’s an old, old story, one that’s been repeated in thousands of ways for thousands of years. But yet it’s one that we never tire of, especially as Hollywood continually manages to find ways to put new twists and new spins on it.

In religion, redemption comprises its very essence. It’s the very life or the eternal soul or spirit of the practitioner that’s at stake. In Christian theology, redemption is forgiveness from sin so that the individual is made whole and acceptable to God, something known as atonement or at-one-ment. In Judaism the Jewish people are understood to be in exile. So the basic story that shapes Judaism, the stories of the Torah, God works to restore the people to the promised land. As Judaism is expounded and preached, parallels are made between this metastory, the Israelites redemption from exile, and the redemption of the character of the individual through following God and God’s laws. In Buddhism, redemption involves giving up our attachment to the things of this world and, ultimately, by finding peace in giving up our attachment to life itself.

Today is Easter. A time, according to the Christian tradition, of celebrating the redemption of humankind from sin through the vicarious suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. Various systems of understanding the great mystery of the human situation and human sin have been worked out by Christian theologians through the centuries to explain how this all works. I won’t get into the tedious specifics of these various theories of atonement but just say, for most Unitarian Universalists, these theories are not a big part of our faith because, according to them, human beings are rendered helpless and passive in relation to our existential situation and our existential guilt. The idea that everyone’s sinfulness is so terrible that there is nothing we can do to redeem ourselves, or that there is no price we can pay to restore our right relationship with God – these ideas are generally non-starters for us. Yes, we are grounded enough in reality to recognize that humanity often misses the mark and is capable of doing some pretty terrible things. No one need look any further than the headlines of the newspapers to realize this. Human beings are often sinful and are sometimes capable of evil. But at the same time, we are also a faith that prefers to look at the other side of the paradox. That human beings are also capable of goodness, and of creating great beauty, and of doing great things. Our forebears rejected the idea of the inherent depravity of humanity, and preferred to focus on the possibility of our inherent goodness. It’s sometimes called redemption or salvation by character, this idea that we can discover and foster the growth of our better nature. That’s why I became a Unitarian Universalist. I needed a faith that made me an active player on the stage of life. Our tradition  affirms  and  promotes  each  person’s  ability  to come  to  an  understanding  of  what  redemption  might  mean  to  them,  of  each person’s  worthiness  of  it  and  ability  to  strive  for  it,  as  well  as  each  person’s responsibility to better our world and contribute  to  the  redemption  of  others.

Redemption can come to us in many different ways. It that little escapade at camp that I began with today, it came to Ricky, as he “gave up” something that was separating him from the rest of us boys and prevented him from being in the good graces of our counselor. So it follows that the dynamics of redemption may involve giving up something that separates us from the fullness of life or separates us from our community. Sometimes redemption is an experience of finding greater value in something, as when you “redeem” a coupon you have clipped from a magazine to obtain a product at the grocery store – the product is worth so much more than that little piece of paper you exchanged for it. We find the spiritual counterpart to this form of redemption when we commit our lives to something greater than ourselves or when we take a leap of faith and discover a path with greater meaning and value.

Like most Unitarians, I don’t see redemption as coming from any particular doctrine, or from an outside savior, but by having the courage to recognize what captivates me in life, what draws me towards others in service, and what brings me more fully into the presence of the divine – then, fully to fully commit myself to THAT. Often it is, as I throw myself into such endeavors, that I find redemption. Just as Ricky found redemption in throwing those coins into the collection plate, redemption may come to us as we let go of something secure, so that we may be open to receive whatever new and unknown challenges life may have in store for us. Being in a spiritual community such as this affords many opportunities for us to throw ourselves into cause and endeavors that can become redemption for us. There is an ocean of need within this community and in the community at large. Challenges await – challenges from which each of us can emerge as a better person an in a better place. Redemption is available.

Many of these opportunities require us to give up something. Some of our precious spare time or some of our limited energy. That giving up may be an experience of pain as well as grace. The painful part is easy to understand. My buddies and I experienced a moment of intense pain as we watched our money disappear into that collection bucket. Boys WILL be boys, you know. It was quite difficult seeing our stash of dollar bills lost to us forever. Eventually we did acquire the eyes to see Ricky’s vicarious act as grace and even a story we enjoyed telling and laughing about, but, I must confess, it took us some time to reach that state of grace. But by the next week, when we got home and got back in school and into our routine, it was not long before we were all playing together again as if nothing had happened. Grace did come to us in our relationship with each other, since in some ways kids are more open to it as they do not carry grudges nearly as long as adults seem to.

May we always be given the courage, strength, and wisdom to redeem our times of difficulty and may we be given the grace to give up and let go of that which we cherish so that we may be open to some new possibility. MAY-IT-BE SO. Amen.

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Death with Dignity

Death with dignity has been prominent in the news recently, primarily because of the high profile case of Brittany Maynard. Maynard, 29, was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor called a glioblastoma earlier this year. After much thought and research, and having educating herself extensively about her illness and its prospects, she decided to end her life on her own terms. Quietly and at home surrounded by family and friends, she did just that on November 1. Maynard spent much of the last weeks of her life advocating for death with dignity laws.   Much notice was taken of her advocacy both because of the immediacy and intimacy of the issue to her own life, as well as her engagement with a wide audience through her use of social media.

Maynard became a high profile case for the death with dignity in the first place largely though her own efforts through Facebook and other social media. She became the face for death with dignity legislation, which is already law in three states. Two other states have similar laws to protect physicians who participate in death with dignity acts, and death with dignity bills have currently been introduced in seven other states. It’s clearly an issue that is gaining traction.

As you might imagine, death with dignity laws also have many critics that base their objection on religious concerns. Predictably, right to life groups have been out in the media recently also, voicing opposition to death with dignity legislation. However, some of the opposition has come from less polarized groups that have a more rational basis to their arguments. Ira Byock, of the Institute for Human Caring of Providence Health and Services, spoke out against it, saying, “When doctor-induced death becomes an accepted response to the suffering of dying people, logical extensions grease the slippery slope.” His “slippery slope” apparently referring to the ethical slippery slope involved in such questions as, “What constitutes a terminal illness?” “And just who can we say is mentally competent to make such decisions?” You can read more about his opinion and about other oppositions to death with dignity legislation at

Public opinion is also divided, but the results of questionnaires and polls depend largely on how the question is framed. Seventy percent of Americans were in favor of allowing physicians to “end a patient’s life by some painless means,” but only 51 percent were in support of allowing doctors to help a patient “commit suicide.” These are two very different ways of understanding the issue.

It seems that much more education on the subject will be needed before the general public will be ready for a rational, civil, and compassionate conversation on this very important and timely issue – one that absolutely affects everyone at some point. I encourage our community to become more informed and knowledgeable about death with dignity so that we might make a meaningful contribution to the dialogue.

Grace and Peace,


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The Heart of the Easter Story

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Mark 16:1-8 NRSV

He is not here. He is going ahead of you to Galilee.
Human life is sometimes taken in senseless and unspeakable ways. When this happens, those left behind can say and do some extraordinary and surprising things. Take the story we just read for you from the end of the Gospel of Mark. This brief account, a mere 8 verses, of three grieving women coming to anoint the dead body of Jesus but instead finding an empty tomb is what started the tradition of Easter as it is known in the Christian church today. I say started because biblical scholars are in general agreement that Mark was the first gospel ever written, and that the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John were derivatives of Mark. There is good evidence that Matthew and Luke probably had a copy of Mark’s manuscript in front of them when they wrote their own versions of the story.
Even though Mark’s version is the first, we are talking about a text that was written at least 30 years after the actual events that inspired the writer of Mark to commit it to writing. In all probability the author of Mark was simply producing a written version of the oral tradition that had grown and developed among the disciples and followers of Jesus after his crucifixion. Therefore we’re not talking about history here. Probably not even talking about an attempt to get the story right in the details. This is a story written for dramatic effect, to evoke emotion, to induce and inspire faith. To find a way forward. He is not here. He is going ahead of you to Galilee. The details may or may not be historically accurate, but the details were important to the writer of the story and what the writer was attempting to evoke in his or her audience.
So, let’s take the story on its own terms this morning and see what the story might have to say to us. Three grieving women coming to anoint the dead body of Jesus. One being Mary, the mother of James. Was this the James that was the brother of Jesus? If so, then this was also the Mary that was Jesus’ mother. But we don’t know that for sure. If it was Jesus’ mother one would think that the writer would have said that. Two, Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was a disciple and friend of Jesus. She is recorded as staying with Jesus throughout his final moments on the cross, staying with him even after the male disciples had fled. She was at his burial. She arrived at Jesus’ tomb first in the stories of all four gospels. Clearly she is someone who loved Jesus very much. Three, Salome. Little is known for certain about her. She was probably the mother of James and John, two of the disciples of Jesus. Some texts indicate that she may have also been the sister of Mary, Jesus’ mother. That would have made Salome Jesus’ aunt. At any rate, these were obviously three women who cared deeply about Jesus. Most likely, they were his closest family and support system.
They were there to anoint the body. In Biblical times, Jews did not embalm the bodies of the dead; rather, they allowed them to return to the earth. The dead were to be buried on the day they died. This makes sense. Given the climate of the Holy Land, bodily decay would begin quite rapidly and the stench of a rotting corpse is difficult to deal with. But by using the aromatic materials, the stench associated with a rotting corpse could be covered for a short time. The family would return to care for the body periodically after death. Often they would add more herbs and spices to the body when they visited to mask the increasingly apparent odor. Once the body had fully decomposed and there was only bones left, these would be collected and re-interred in an ossuary.
In our gospel story, we have three unescorted women, deep in the throes of grief, anticipating both the emotional and the olfactory challenge of anointing a rotting corpse that two days ago was their son, their nephew, their beloved friend, and who are totally uncertain of what they would find what they got to the tomb.
They were also the ones who would have the most difficulty finding a way to deal with his death and to find a way to get on with their lives. To find a way forward.
I would now like to transport you from the first century to the 20th and from the Middle East to Europe and talk about another woman who responded to horrific death in an extraordinary and surprising way.
Dorothee Soelle was born in Germany in 1929. She grew up during the years when Hitler came to power. She was witness to the street sounds going from the playful laughter of her and her friends to the totalitarian crunch of goose stepping Nazi jackboots. Her parents were part of a well educated liberal bourgeois culture in pre WW II Germany who opposed Hitler and the Nazis on idealistic grounds but did little to stop the fascists from gaining control of the country. Dorothee was approaching adolescence during World War II, her memories of those years clouded and disturbed by the hours spent in air raid shelters. She remembers with loathing her parents preoccupation with securing enough food for the family. She only wanted it all to end. Then came her adolescence and, finally, the end of the horrific war. She internalized the shame of her people, in the shadow of Auschwitz and the Holocaust, and felt it deep within her being. Reflecting on her formative years she would write, “I need this shame about my people; I do not want to forget anything, because forgetting nurtures the illusion that it is possible to be a truly human being without the lessons of the dead.”
Dorothee’s parents were indifferent to religion, therefore it came as somewhat of a surprise that during her high school years she would take an active interest in the church and in the study of theology. She realized that enlightened liberals, such as her parents, had been helpless in the face of the atrocities, not even willing to take any kind of meaningful stand against what was unfolding in Germany during these years. At the same time, she found something irresistible in the powerless love of Jesus, and knew that Jesus’ vision, rightly interpreted, could form the matrix for her to live and believe and find a way forward in the aftermath of the holocaust.
Soelle’s theology, in a nutshell, was this: God is not so much an idea, or a being separate from and controlling the world; rather, God is a way of experiencing and participating in the world. God is a way of experiencing and interpreting the world. She knew that German soldiers wore belt buckles that proclaimed “God with us” and yet were so comfortable with putting people to death in gas chambers that they could then go home and settle back and comfortably listen to Bach. For Soelle, the Holocaust completely invalidated the whole concept of an all powerful God over and above the world who could idly stand by while such horrors occurred. Such an idea made God out to be no better than those German soldiers and, for her, such thinking could no longer be taken seriously. In place of this vertical understanding of the universe, with God controlling everything from above, Soelle offered a compelling vision of Jesus as God’s representative, as the Christ who suffers and dies with us. As Christ represents God, so are we to represent God to each other. Listen to these words of Dorothee Soelle as she expressed it:
I don’t as they put it “believe in god”
but to him (Jesus) I cannot say no hard as I try
take a look at him in the garden
when his friends ran out on him
his face wet with fear
and with the spit of his enemies.
him I have to believe
I find one can’t let him pay alone
for his hypothesis
so I believe him about god
the way one believes another’s laughter
his tears
or marriage
or no for an answer
that’s how you’ll learn
to believe him about life
promised to all
(Quotation marks and parenthetical words mine.)
This understanding of God as the divine presence in each one of us representative in Jesus as “the Christ” – this became the basis for Soelle’s theology of engagement in the social and political realms. She called for a “democratization of the mystical experience,” that a profound experience of God was available to all as we move out of our churches and cathedrals and encounter God by siding with those who have experienced the suffering of tragedy or injustice. God is not separate from creation, God is (quote) “bound into the web of life.” Jesus as the representative of God is the God who suffers with us, and thus God can only be understood, comprehended, and experienced as we participate in life, in the world of those who live in the shadows of tragedy, tyranny, and poverty.
Dorothee Soelle, the teen who wanted nothing more than to see an end to the deprivation, fear, and suffering of war, who bore the Holocaust shame of the German people, became a champion of liberation theology. She found a way forward. Liberation theology does not dwell on questions like “Does God exist?” or “Was Jesus God?” like most well educated, well fed Westerners, but the question for them is a much older one. Their question is – the question that informs their theology and their way of being in the world – is, “How do we justify a God of love and justice with all the suffering, cruelty, and injustice we experience and see all around us?” And their question is answered in the person of Jesus as they come to understand him from reading the gospels and what their faith in him involves as they come to understand his directives to his followers. They find in Jesus, “not a rationalization of why things are as they are, but rather act with a conviction that things need not be this way and that they can and will change.”
Perhaps too much time has passed since the Holocaust. History does that. It transmutes an awfulness that we feel internally and personally into mere words in a textbook. Six million Jews killed in Nazi extermination camps. The “tomb” that Dorothee Soelle visited in her imagination was called Auschwitz. Was called Dachau. What is the tomb called for us today? (pause)
On December 14, 2012 Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and fatally shot 20 children and 6 adults. The headlines were there for two, maybe three weeks. It’s happening so often in our country that the media coverage is now predictable. First, the details of the tragedy. Then pictures of the survivors tearfully embracing each other. Next the little memorials with teddy bears and flowers. Then the funerals. Then money for the victim’s families. Then the finger pointing. Then, our national attention drifts to something else. The next sensational headline.
What do we hear 3, 4 months later from Newtown Connecticut, if we hear anything at all? If you’re really paying attention, you’ll hear how the families of victims are dealing with this horror and senseless loss of our most precious blood. Some families had to move away. The empty bedroom, the path they drove to school every day were just too much. Many family members are still under intensive psychiatric care. Some are seeking legal recompense in the form of dollars.
But the few stories that grab my interest are the ones of families who found a way forward. One family was grateful for the care given at the school to their autistic child, his special education teacher cradling him in her arms as he died. This family has started a foundation to provide more services to autistic children. Another family of one of the victims has started a foundation to build a community center. Another has started a scholarship to honor an act of heroism by one of the school staff who tried to protect the children. Many families have become spokespersons for gun control legislation. Outside help in the form of money and well wishes – and there was ample supplies of these – must have been nice for all the families, but it would seem that these are the families who are beginning the process of healing. This healing is not coming from any outside source. Its coming from inside themselves. They are moving away from the emotional place where they put their loved one. Back into the world. The death of their child was meaningless, senseless. But they are recreating meaning out of the death, by the way they are moving forward.
He is not here. He is going ahead of you into Galilee.
I would close with some more of the poetic words of Dorothee Soelle, speaking of Jesus. As she found her way forward.
He Needs You
He needs you
that’s all there is to it
without you he’s left hanging
goes up in dachau’s smoke
is sugar and spice in the baker’s hands
gets revalued in the next stock market crash
he’s consumed and blown away
used up
without you

Help him
that’s what faith is
he can’t bring it about
his kingdom
couldn’t then couldn’t later can’t now
not at any rate without you
and that is his irresistible appeal
Dorothee Soelle

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The Beauty of Impermanence

When I was growing up, I used to love reading the National Geographic. The descriptions and the pictures of far off, exotic places fascinated me. Long before Indiana Jones captured my imagination, reading the National Geographic led me to dream of becoming this great adventurer who would one day explore the dark corners of the world illustrated on its pages and then return home with great stories to regale my friends and family.
One of the places that especially intrigued me was Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Located deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia was this vast, crumbling temple complex dedicated to Hindu gods and goddesses that was virtually unknown to the Western world. The article gave the reader some sense of urgency to go and experience the great splendors of Angkor Wat ASAP, because the place was quickly deteriorating due to nature’s forces – a rising water table and the encroaching jungle.
National Geographic planted this idea in my head of some day visiting Angkor Wat, but then came the Vietnam War. Cambodia became heavily involved in that conflict. Because of its geographic proximity to South Vietnam, the Communist North Vietnamese hid out in Cambodia and launched raids on our American troops in South Vietnam. During the 60’s and 70’s, the last place a young American male would dream of going was Southeast Asia.
Then in the 70’s and 80’s the brutal dictator Pol Pot and the genocidal Khmer Rouge came to power. Cambodia became synonymous with “The Killing Fields” and any thoughts of ever getting to see Angkor Wat, if it even existed anymore, were pretty mush extinguished – given the destruction we heard that the Khmer Rouge was inflicting on the country.
Fortunately and surprisingly, in these last few years Cambodia has managed to establish a relatively stable form of government, a constitutional monarchy, and today it is considered relatively safe to travel there. So I began to dream once again of going to Angkor Wat – not as the swashbuckling Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones, but more like the balding Jack Nicholson in “The Bucket List.” When a dear friend of mine decided to move to Cambodia’s neighboring Thailand for a 2 year stint teaching English, I saw the chance to finally make my dream a reality. Better late than never, you might say. So much for the background on all that conspired to bring about this trip.
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. Its outer wall encloses an area of 203 acres. And it is only one of many temple complexes in the area. Today I want to focus on another of Angkor’s temple complexes – the one called Ta Prohm.
Ta Prohm was built by a Khmer King in the 12th Century as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. In its day it was home to as many as 12,500 people, with an additional 80,000 people in the surrounding villages working to provide services and supplies to Ta Prohm.
After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, the temple was abandoned and was neglected for nearly 500 years.
When restoration efforts began in the early 20th century, it was decided that Ta Prohm would be left largely as it had been found, as an example of how most of Angkor looked upon its discovery by Europeans in the 19th century. The strangler figs and silk cotton trees that are gradually overtaking the ruins have prompted more writers wax poetic than any other feature at Angkor.
The temple is crumbling and being absorbed back into the jungle in a manner that is both beautiful and frightening. The giant banyan trees are spilling, at glacial speed, over the tops of temple walls, wrapping around pillars, and pouring into the nooks and crannies between the stones. In the words of the author H.W. Ponder,
“Everywhere around you, you can see nature in its dual role of destroyer and consoler. Strangling on the one hand, and healing with the other; no sooner splitting the carved stones asunder than she dresses their wounds with cool velvety mosses, and binds them with her most delicate tendrils; a conflict of moods so contradictory and feminine as the prove once more how well nature merits her feminine title. ”
Here at Ta Prohm, perhaps more than anywhere in the world, one can visualize and experience the Buddhist idea of impermanence (“anicca” in Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist scriptures.) The principle of impermanence is the supreme and most fundamental of Buddha’s teachings. In essence, this principle instructs us that the things of this world are always changing, never stopping for a moment. You might be saying to yourself, yeah, “things change,” well, DUH! How obvious is that? It may be obvious to our rational mind, but it’s human nature to resist this idea – emotionally – with ever fibre of our being. We cling to our possessions, our youth, our health, and even our very lives with all our will. Think of virtually any advertisement on TV, billboards or the internet. Most all of them capitalize on our fear of change, of impermanence, and seduce us to spend billions on everything from beauty products to insurance to vitamin supplements to medical devices. We see that our bodies or the things we cherish are impermanent, we perceive that they are threatened or are deteriorating, and we immediately want to preserve them and resist the impermanence, to postpone any change.
When I first read about Angkor Wat, remember I said that I felt this sense of urgency to go see it before it crumbled and got absorbed into the jungle. This is another way our clinging shows up. My sense of urgency was just another way that us humans manifest our fear of and resistance to impermanence. I could acknowledge rationally that this grand religious monument created by enormous human effort is, of course, impermanent, as are all compounded things in the universe. But what I thought to myself was this: If Angkor Wat can’t be restored or preserved, at least I want to see and experience it before it is gone.
Then I get to Ta Prohm and see firsthand what nature is doing to the place. And again, my first instinct was to say to myself, “Someone needs to do something about these trees destroying this magnificent temple.” Well, someone has.

One wing of the temple, destroyed by the jungle and other forces of nature, has been completely restored to its original state as seen in this before and after picture. It was so interesting to do some self observation as I walked through this restored wing of the temple. For the first few moments my attention fixated on the way the restoration team had recreated the architectural techniques of the original stonemasons in reassembling this part of the building. But I was barely halfway down the first corridor before I realized how quickly I got bored with this restored, “perfect” building. I was soon ready to go back and see the rest of the neglected temple where nature has been allowed full rein to put the idea of impermanence on display.
Leaving Ta Prohm pretty much in its natural state was an inspired decision. Tourists to Angkor Wat seem to agree, as it is one of the most visited sites in the Angkor temple complex. Wandering around Ta Prohm, you realize that no empire will last, no structure will persist. Not only will kingdoms perish, but even the stones they are built from are destined to crumble. Once you accept this and let go of the desire to struggle against it, it becomes a peaceful realization, not at all accompanied by the angst we so often experience when confronted with change, decline, deterioration, and death. Then, and only then can the true beauty of Ta Prohm come through to you.
The Buddha realized that it was not the impermanence of things, of our bodies, that caused suffering. It’s our stubborn pursuit and our clinging to things as they are or the way we want them to be that causes us to suffer. In Buddhist practice, the path to freedom from suffering lies in the acceptance, even coming to see the beauty of impermanence. Accepting that, understanding that, coming to know that deep down in our very bones – this is the source of all freedom and the end of all suffering.
To follow the path of the Buddha is to begin regarding impermanence not as a curse, but as a gift of existence. This creates a fundamental mind-shift within us. Suddenly, we struggle against impermanence a little bit less. We come to accept it a little bit more. Slowly, inch by desperate inch, we begin to let go of our cravings and desires, to let go of our suffering. We cherish life as it is, fleeting and ever changing, as good – just as it is. In doing so, we come to terms with it and experience a peace that can transcend our clinging and our reactive emotions. We cultivate equanimity, a stability of character that can transcend our fickle emotions and our reactive clinging to things as we want them to be. The goal is not to make the world changeless, which obviously we can’t do, but work at what we can do – which is to change our acceptance of life as it is. Finally then, it is not the world that becomes changeless, but rather our acceptance of it. If nothing else, becoming more mindful of impermanence makes us more aware of the importance of the here and now, and the value of today. Perhaps, if we keep working at it, we can even come to see the beauty of this impermanence. When this happens perhaps, just perhaps, we have will have achieved the nirvana of the Buddha.
It was so special for me to be granted this chance to visit Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm and to share a little of my experience of it with you. Never before have I seen such a display of the disintegration of all our grand human endeavors and the poignant beauty of simply accepting it and simply being present in the moment. If ever there was a geographical manifestation of impermanence, Ta Prohm was it for me. Walking through Ta Prohm was like a stroll through a garden of enlightenment, a chance to see the impermanence of the world and be captivated by the beauty of it.

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