JACOB’S LADDER

Everyday I try to stop and recognize something beautiful. Sometimes it just hits me between the eyes, an incredible sunset, the vibrant yellows and flaming reds of autumnal trees, or even a quiet cup of coffee and the hum of my comfortable home. A smile from  a daughter, the laughter of a son, and my beaker of blessings can runneth over.

Other days, well let’s just say, I’m reaching.  My heart can be broken in a million different ways.  Perhaps one of my children is behaving in a way that doesn’t reflect their best self  and I wonder if the higher values I tried to instill didn’t “take.” I start to project that maybe I’m not such a great mother as I believe myself to be, and before I know it I’ve got that child and myself in some pretty dark places in my mind. (All of this within a matter of seconds).  I start to believe that God can’t find me here.  I am alone and even if God is really here, I am not comforted by any sense of presence.

That happened to me yesterday.  When the morning light hit my face this morning, I was tempted to just put the pillow over my head.  But my ingrained spiritual practices serve me well. Even though I felt disheartened and my spirit ached, I got out of bed and prayed to keep my words few today and to remember to be the bearer of joy, believing that sooner or later that which I give will be the gateway of joy for me as well.

And then I came across the Hebrew Bible story of Jacob. How he ended up running away from home because he had tricked his twin brother out of his rightful inheritance, and then his brother had become enraged, and now his very life was in danger. Sleeping on a rock as his only pillow in the middle of the desert, Jacob dreams of a ladder set up on the earth, with the top reaching all the way to heaven.  Angels ascend and descend luminously.  God was there too, promising to be with him and to bring him to safety. Jacob awoke changed.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, An Altar in the World, re-interpreted this story for me so they it fed and re-inspired me today. Her words reminded me that the divine can be made manifest in any minute and amongst the most dysfuntional of families:

“Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.  Jacob’s nowhere, about which he know nothing, turned out to be the House of God.  Even though his family had imploded, even though he had made his brother angry enough to kill him, even though he was a scoundrel from the word go–God decided to visit Jacob right where he was, though Jacob had not been right about anything so far and never would be.  God gave Jacob vision, so Jacob could see the angels going up and down from earth to heaven, going about their business in the one and only world there is.  The vision showed Jacob something he did not know.  He slept in the House of God.  He woke at the gate of heaven.  None of this was his doing.  The only thing he did right was to see where he was and say so.  Then he turned his pillow into an altar before he set off, praising the God who had come to him where he was.”   

Thank you and Amen.

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EMPATHY IN A WORLD OF SYMPATHY

Recently, I was asked to say a few words on the topic of “empathy in action” as much of what I do involved listening to people in an open and caring way.  Here is some of what I said, and some of what I didn’t have the time to say, in the time alloted to me:

“When I was asked to speak today, to give “a testimony on empathy”, it was framed at first as perhaps talking about my dual roles here as the communications and membership staffer who also serves as a lay pastoral care minister, and how being a good listener plays into those roles.  I immediately laughed, because you see, I do not consider myself a very good listener.  In my great enthusiasm to connect with you or what you’ve said, I can sometimes miss the nuances.  I hear the content…but in my common state of exuberance and haste, I can miss hearing you, you know the real you, the YOU that really matters behind the words.  As a matter of fact, that I’m standing up here talking on the subject, to me, reveals God’s great sense of humor and irony.

But what I can say, is that I have been trying the last several years, to the best of my ability, to earnestly develop this talent, this talent of active listening, engaging my body and all my sense, to in essence, absorb what you’re experiencing.  This is what empathy means to me and it is really unnatural to my constitution.  Yet is has become a conscious and deliberate spiritual practice because there is really no greater gift to give someone, than your full presence.  Not ever.  Isn’t it hard to not speak or not attempt to smooth things over when something horrible is happening in someone’s life?  It is hard work to simply be with someone else’s pain, not asking them to feel better or saying it’s going to be alright.  Sometimes it’s enough, to just look a person in the eye, and say, “This really sucks.” And then nothing.

But not nothing.  That I am willing to stand with you, sit with you, be uncomfortable, and not judge anything that comes out of your mouth because your feelings are just having their way, that is empathy.

Ever sine I’ve made this commitment, weird things have been happening to me.  I was at the drugstore a while back, looking at birthday cards.  A women, ostensibly also looking for a birthday card for her daughter, started to tell me of how she is trying to decide whether to divorce her husband. She has been with him since she was 15 in Brazil, and he is like a father to her, as well as a husband, as her own father had died when she was seven.  She has been married for 25 years and he has always made her feel special, but he has violated her trust in an unspeakable way with a child family member.  I didn’t know what to with this.  So I just walked over to her and hugged her and she cried.  I said I didn’t have any answers but that I trusted that she would have the courage to find her answer.

To emphasize with someone involves getting involved.  It means that I am you, and you are me.  I say thing because a lot of people confuse sympathy and empathy.  You will never get a sympathy card from me.  You will get a hand written note on blank stationary or one with a poignant quote that resonates somehow, but never one that reads with sympathy.  Sympathy, implies that I can kind of (similarly) understand what you are going though and I feel bad for you.  Empathy means I am attempting to the best of my ability to be in the trenches with you.

Please know that I am not saying that in all situations to simply say wow, this is really awful, I feel your pain, is the appropriate response.  We hear of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, no even a year ago (200,000) dead and we are shocked.  Then they have a tropical storm and there’s more hardship.  Now there is an outbreak of cholera sweeping the country, an epidemic from which they have no immunity.  Having pity does nothing.  Praying for them is a step up, but still does not serve them.  Empathy sometimes needs feet and arms and alms.  It needs to mobilize doctors, nurses, food stuff, and medicine.  It is active listening AND action.

This commitment to radical acceptance listening (which I still stumble at, at any given moment), has given me the blessing to get know some of you and know your stories.  It is a rare gift to share the deepest and sometimes darkest nights of another’s soul.  With empathy, we come to know how strong the spirit is, how incredibly resilient we humans are, even after our losses, how being heard allows us to move through and forward in our lives, touching the lives around us.

YES VIRGINIA, THE UNITARIANS HAVE MYSTICS-TWO TRANSCENDENTALISTS (PART I)

OK, OK, Unitarians do not have (to my knowledge anyway) ardent pious folk who took the path of asceticism to the degree of wearing a hair shirt or living in a desert cave for decades. For edification’s sake, asceticism is the part of the mystic or saint’s path that includes renouncing worldly pleasures in order to become closer to God.  Those who have taken these extreme measures did seem to have some remarkable “other worldly” spiritual experiences (see Teresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Rabi’a of Persia, and lots of others in almost every other faith, including Buddhists and Hindus (Gandhi chose a life of asceticism as well).  So, I am not knocking it.  It just that most people do not feel such a calling. 

In fact, most people are adverse to giving up anything they find pleasurable, even when they know it is bad for them (hence the challenges during Lent…) However, no matter how we may kick and scream, there must be some giving up of comfort, security, and ego, in order to attain any real semblance of Communion (with a capital C).      

The first and most famous of the Unitarian “mystics”, who chose a counter cultural lifestyle of purposeful simplicity that reflected and embodied both an ancient and more modern approach for those seeking unity with God, with Nature, and others, was Henry David Thoreau.  Coming from a family of wealth and privilege, with a Harvard education, Thoreau (much maligned in his day for it…he was considered eccentric by the kindest and a nut by the rest) chose to live in a hut in the woods of Concord, MA for two years to isolate himself from society so that he could better understand himself and others.  His classic book, Walden, or, Life in the Woods, now required reading for most High School students, is a compilation of this experiment.  Unlike the Desert Fathers, he was not intending to live as a hermit, and did take visitors, he was instead seeking to understand life more deeply by consciously removing many of its distractions.          

What Thoreau was emphasizing (among other themes) was the necessity of solitude, contemplation, and nature to “transcend” our over hurried existence.  His words and works still call to us today, timeless in their appeal: “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will become simpler, solitude will not be solitude…nor weakness weakness.” While many of his oft quoted words ring of the uniquely American self-reliant spirit, they too challenge us to think and be, rather than to be always about the business of doing.  For as Thoreau puts it, “Being is the great explainer.”  

Many of his criticisms of society were harsh and at many times his views are expressed in an overly zealous manner.  Is that not true of the prophets, the social reformers, and those considered holy men and women of every place and time? I am not suggesting by this question that Thoreau was unique or special as a long revered saint, he was a man with his foibles and misinformation.  Yet there is a reason we keep reading him.

Thoreau is not asking us to build ourselves a cabin and live in the forest, he is asking that we shake off our complacency, that we do not live an unquestioned and unreflected life.  If we are happy with our lives, that’s good and yet we should challenge our assumptions and think more broadly.  If we are unhappy, he is pointing to another way.

“If a man (or woman :)) does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

MODERN FAITH…NOT AN OXYMORON

Faith that distinguishes itself as liberal or progressive need not be regarded in the vast religious ocean as “less filling” or “more tepid”. In actuality, it can elicit a great deal of spiritual fulfillment.  Making a conscious, committed, and personal choice to live and address the issues confronting ourselves, our communities, and our world takes great fortitude.  There are no easy answer to the complexities and challenges that bombard us daily and we must remain diligent and awake in a host of ways to effectively engage.

Gary Dorrien, an Episcopal Priest and American theologian, characterizes liberal theology in this way: “From the beginning, liberal theology was a third way.  It was not radical, agnostic, or atheist, though it was routinely called all of these; liberal theology was both a morally humanistic alternative to Protestant orthodoxy and a religious alternative to rationalistic atheism”. 

Liberal theology is based on the premise that religiousness should be understood and interpreted from the perspective of modern knowledge and modern life experience.  In other words, members of a liberal faith are committed to making religion intellectually credible and socially relevant. Theirs is a belief that a working religion is not one that is separate from the modern world in all its brokenness, but one that firmly links their religious life to the present.

It is certainly true, and uncomfortable for some, that definitions of divinity can vary widely in an atmosphere of modern inquiry and perennially changing and growing perspectives.  Yet Sharon Welch, a popular Unitarian Universalist ethicist emphasizes divinity, not as a shorthand for a particular quality of the universe, but as a “quality of relationships, lives, events, and natural processes…that provide orientation, focus, and guidance for our lives.” This definition can hold a spectrum of frameworks for who or what God is and an unending supply of what gives meaning.

Spirituality in this sense is deeply tied to a personal and direct communion with the Other, the Divine.  Living the sometimes messy work of relationships as a vital part of one’s faith leads to another primary tenet of modern faith, a focus on moral ethics.  Ethics and social justice are natural outcrops of those who are concerned with this world. Salvation is about healing in the here and now and not focused solely on an eternal paradise in a yet unseen afterlife.  `

Modern faiths do place a high value on the autonomous authority of individual experience and reason, but that doesn’t mean (like some more conservative folks conclude) that not having a dogma means you think that you are your own god. It’s rather what David Tracy, a Catholic theologian, relates: “Liberals are those members of a church or religious sect who hold opinions ‘broader’ or more ‘advanced’ than those in accordance with its commonly accepted standards of orthodoxy.”  Of course, I would like to believe that progressive views are “more advanced” but I know that it is not always necessarily true.  What I do believe to be true is that liberals may hold strong opinions, but they rarely think they, or anyone else, have the whole or final truth.

Galileo, paid the highest price for his discovery of a scientific truth and Rene Descartes, known as “The Father of Modern Philosophy” (1596-1650) questioned every aspect of what is true.  Both men opened the flood gates of reason, giving “license” to the testing of scientists and those skeptical of external authority. Instead of a prescriptive belief system causing them to feel adrift in the religious sea, the liberal mindset is one of seeking and searching and working towards a more hospitable planet.    

Religion at its best helps us to find meaning and orientation in life.  Sallie McFague, a theologian with a passion for environmental issues, revels it thus: “Thinking theologically is not an end in itself; it is for the purpose of right action, for discipleship…theology is therefore essential, even though it is not the central enterprise of the “religious” life.  The goal of theology, as I see it, is to be functional, that is, to actually work in someone’s life.  It is meant to be an aid to right living.  There are two criteria it has to make sense and it has to make a difference.

THE TORCH OF REASON AND THE FIRST AMENDMENT

On the eve of the elections and the “increasing heat and decreasing light” of free expression, I think it apropos to remember that in the end it is the torch of reason that should determine how far our first amendment (the right to free speech) is allowed to go.

In the Oct. 4th issue of the Christian Science Monitor, the article “Free Speech, How Free Should it Be?” covered this very topic.  Using many recent examples, among them the US Supreme Court case now underway examining whether members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, went too far when they staged a protest at a fallen marine’s funeral in Maryland.  The demonstrators hoisted signs proclaiming: “You are going to hell” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”.  Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro church, has made a career out of using blunt and offensive statements to try to shock Americans into joining his crusade against gay rights.  His followers show up at military funerals and announce that God is killing American soldiers for the sins of the country.  Funeral goers are urged to repent…or else.

In Maryland, it was too much for the grieving father, Albert Snyder, to endure.  He sued. The case pits Mr. Snyder’s First Amendment right to peacefully assemble in a church to mourn his son’s passing against the Westboro protesters’ right to chant  harsh slogans and display shocking signs in their campaign for so-called moral salvation for the nation.

The Monitor adds: “The essence of free speech in America is not that you can say whatever you want.  There is no constitutional right to libel someone, or to use ‘fighting words’ that are sure to provoke fisitcuffs…there is no constitutional right to falsely yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.  Government regulation of that speech is appropriate because of the predictable outcome of panic.”

Yet we are also a country that can paint a Hitler mustache on the president’s likeness without fear of the government’s wrath (something I personally find utterly deplorable nonetheless), while a poem critical of the King in Jordan can land its writer in jail.

So what is the yardstick?  Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis provided a sage response in a 1927 case: “To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion.  If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

In other words, “It is the principle that the best way to counter a stupid idea, a hateful idea, a dangerous idea, is through the expression of better ideas.” 

Sound advice.  We have been hearing from the rabble rousers, the stirrers of the pot, and the haters for months now.  We must use our first amendment to speak up and out against those who will not let a family bury their dead in peace.  We must vote for those who represent us in the forum of public civil discourse, that will be, well, civil. It is not in yelling back, but in providing thoughtful responses that seek consensus and equanimity that the wonder of our first amendment stands.  If we do not use our first amendment right to counter the “stupid, hateful or dangerous ideas, we have no one to blame but ourselves, and oh yeah, as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert would say, “the media”!