Nothing But Net: the Morning Offering, a Yuletide Dream

To help you get a sense of what I’m talking about, you may want to consult these readings, these hymns as well as Joni Mitchell’s “River” and Leo Kottke’s “Jack Gets Up” – available on YouTube.


Morning Offering: http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/prayers/morning-offering.cfm

The Sparrow in the Hall, from Bede’s story of the Conversion of King Edwin:  https://www.csun.edu/~sk36711/WWW/258/Bede.pdf (go to page 4, second full paragraph).

Hymns “In the Bleak Midwinter,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0aL9rKJPr4

“Be Ours a Religion” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMSfYU5-E2M

“Good King Wenceslas,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElO6auK1GYw



For a number of years in the 1960s, “every day in the morning, when I got up, and I crawled out of bed”, I would dimly catch sight of the “Morning Offering,” which adhered to my headboard, floating as if a thought balloon over my head.  Imagine the wooden backdrop behind me as that headboard, and the “Morning Offering” I’ve affixed (proportionally sized of course) as the 3” x 2” sticker on that headboard.

You see, Sr. Joseph Robert, my second grade teacher at St. Peter’s School in Dorchester, MA, had given every member of our class a sticker that had printed on it Fr. Gautrelet’s prayer that I read as the first reading today.  Sr. Joseph Robert spent some time talking about the prayer, though I don’t remember her words.  I do remember that she directed us to put the sticker on our headboard, so that, when we got up, we’d see the Morning Offering and say the prayer.  The logic was similar to putting your shoes under your bed so that, when you knelt down to get them, you’d remember to say your prayers.  I never mastered the shoe placement – rarely were my shoes under my bed, or even together — and my morning routine, more often than not, involved looking for one or both of my shoes, my only prayer being “Please, God, let me find my shoes.” 

Nor did I read the words of “The Morning Offering” more than half a dozen times – though that was the point of the headboard placement —  but I was very much aware of that sticker stuck on my headboard.  I’d received an assist from my mom, who noticed the sticker soon after I’d secured its place.  I was sure that she’d be proud of me and what I had done.  She was not happy.  She approved of prayer, of course, even calling me to task for my not being a prayin’ man.  When I was in college, I recall her saying, probably to my college roommate, that “Bernard doesn’t believe in the efficacy of prayer.”  Still, she was bothered that I’d marred the esthetic beauty of the headboard. When I made my go to argument, “But sister said…,” I think she just sighed, shook her head, and rolled her eyes. Sr. Joseph Robert’s high hopes for the prayer, and my mom’s dismay at the sticker seared that prayer’s place in my memory, even today, some 55 years later. 

Some five or six years ago, soon after I first became part of the Worship Team, Thom Belote, then our minister, asked me if I’d like to do a service.  I said, “Sure.”  He asked me if I had an idea for a topic – I answered “Maybe something on the Morning Offering.”  He was puzzled, as the Morning Offering was not covered at Harvard Divinity School.  Having said that, I figured I’d better review the text of the “Morning Offering.”  At the next meeting of the Worship Team, I informed Rev. Thom that I would still like to do a service, but it definitely would not be on the “Morning Offering.”  There was no way I could do a service on that. Working for “the intentions of the Holy Father this month” spoken from a Unitarian pulpit.  Yipes!

And yet, here we are. 

To put you at ease, I will not be calling for you or me to work for “the intentions of the Holy Father” this month, or any month.  Even as a Catholic kid, I did not have access to the papal to do list. Besides, while I felt sympatico with John XXIII, I didn’t feel that with later popes.  As I recall, Sr. Joseph Robert framed her discussion of “the Morning Offering” in terms of the central core of the prayer, the “offering” itself – “I offer thee all my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day.”  At the time, what struck me was that we got to offer up our failures and disappointments. When we had a bad day, or were feeling especially sad, we could offer that pain and suffering up to Jesus, who knew something of suffering, and, in so doing, we would feel supported and somehow better. Whenever I came home somewhat dispirited – it happened a lot – I was a lonely kid, sort of nerdy, and nearly totally useless in sports, oh, and I worried a lot, too, like Charlie Brown – I would go to the room I shared with my brother, Neill, and there on the headboard I would spot the “Morning Offering.” I’d take inventory, and mentally tie up my package of disappointments, think, “Well, sister said…” and drop that mess in Jesus’ lap, or toss it out into the void.  My disappointments spread out across the universe didn’t seem so big, and I could let go some of the sadness.  As I got older, I would even imagine people all over the Archdiocese doing the same thing, people I’d never met, and likely never would, but to whom I felt some kinship.

The “Morning Offering” did not just offer me solace, and a place to drop my crap; it also was a call to action.  For I was also called to offer my hopes and dreams and actions – oh yeah, and prayers – sorry, ma.  And before me, each morning (“every day in the morning when I got up and crawled out of bed”), there was the call, waiting for my response.  I never verbalized, never spoke aloud, and rarely even subvocalized call or response in my brain, but I know I saw the morning offering every morning when I got up, and when I saw it, at some level, I know I was thinking – another day, a day of possibilities, a day to be offered up to Jesus and the Holy Ghost.  When I get up these days, there is no “Morning Offering” sticker affixed to the headboard, but it still comes to mind.  I can see it “in my mind’s eye,” as Hamlet says. Here’s a day to be offered up, yet again. 

It was because I see that sticker, or feel what it meant to me in my youth, that the “Morning Offering” popped to mind when Thom Belote asked, “What would you like to do in a service?”  And it’s because that sticker stays stuck that I have finally gotten to it today.

 That sticker and that prayer were, for me, ultimately not about the Roman Catholic Church, or the Sacred Heart of Jesus, or the Immaculate Conception of Mary.  They were about community, offering me a sense of belonging to the larger community and the world beyond my immediate locus of pain and hurt, which empowered me to let a lot of that hurt go in real time.  And they were about my part in that community, that it was imperative that I do my part, that I am not helpless, and may even be helpful.

In the early 90s, when I chose to join the Unitarians by signing the book at May Memorial Unitarian Society of Syracuse, there were two immediate causes: one was a memorable Easter Sunday service given by Nick Cardell, Jr., entitled “What if they found the body?”; the other was my learning of the seven principles, and especially of the seventh principle, which speaks of honoring the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.  At the time, I did not hear the echo of the “Morning Offering,” but it’s there.  The interdependent web is that divine lap, with or without a big G god, which can help see me past my loneliness, when I feel lonely, and can offer solace in community when I feel dispirited.  And the idea that I, that we, are a part of that web offers us a challenge as well.  If we are a part of that web, what positive effect can we have?  What can we do?  That’s the challenge, and if we think of the enormity of the task, we will likely find ourselves overwhelmed and find it all impossible. 

I’d recommend starting small.  In the fourth stanza of Rossetti’s beautiful “Christmas Carol,” the poet contrasts a metaphysical plane, where live angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, which she slyly dismisses – they “may have” been there – with the immediate reality of an act of love, Mary kissing her child.  What is the answer to the cruelty, greed and destruction we see in the world?  I don’t have “the” answer, but an answer is right there in that verse – a kiss, a hug, a kind word, an encouraging smile, even tears shared. 

That is our choice, too, and our chance – “What shall I give?  Give my heart.”   When I hear the final stanza, with my Unitarian cap on, I trip up a little bit on “If I were a wise man, I would do my part.”  Aside from the sexism in that statement, I think I’m pretty smart, I could maybe call myself a wise man.  Perhaps many of you feel similarly about yourselves.  I know I’m always impressed by the mental acuity of the people I meet in this place.  We are a place chock full of wise men and women.  And doing my part – that’s a tough call to resist.  Doing duty, though, is not enough.  The call is to go all in – Rossetti says, “What shall I give… Give my heart.”  And we sing those words, and in so doing, take the words in to work their magic.

That focus on “my heart,” though, runs the risk of putting the spotlight on “me,” which can easily lead to my putting me above others, which cuts us off from community.  And that is an awful prospect.  Whether we put ourselves above others on a pedestal, or lose sight of others by focusing hard on our mistakes, as Joni Mitchell does so beautifully and so painfully in “River,” it’s very much the same.  In so doing, we deny a belief in the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  Rather than undermine the fabric of community, let’s join King Edwin in the mead hall.  In the story, the focus is on disconnection.  Our lives seem cut off from what came before and what came after.  We are like the sparrow in the hall, and are like Edwin who imagines the poor bird.  For some, knowledge of a happy afterlife in a heaven beyond offers the solace they need.  It provides some surety for a life that seems parenthesized by the great unknown.  Let me suggest that we let the mysterious parentheses go for a moment, and turn attention to the hall itself, a room like this.  Outside it’s cold, sometimes grey, or dark, and forbidding, but here it’s warm and inviting.  A working HVAC system has something to do with that, and Jay Hetz’ care in stoking the fires.  But that’s not the warmth we come here for.  Rather it’s the warmth we feel in community, the sense that we are supported here, and the invitation we feel to be that warming presence for others.  And so, for me, though my mind can imagine that “sparrow flying through the hall,” I find myself distracted and mesmerized by the loving glance of another, kind words spoken, laughs and tears shared, and that is enough.

And what about Charlie Brown?  What are we to make of him, lying there on the ground, having failed, yet again, to get a chance to place kick a football?  Well, we don’t see it, but we know what Charlie Brown does.  He gets up.  I could see him going home, disappointed and disheartened, and maybe he had something at home like the “Morning Offering” where he could set his burden down.  Fall was always hard for Charlie Brown, but Spring was just around the corner, and with Spring, baseball, and the team of misfits he brought together, year after year. Let’s take our leave here, Charlie Brown with his team, King Edwin with his people, and we here, a part of our tight-knit beloved community.



If you act now…

If you’ve watched any late night or early morning TV, you’ve heard vendors pitching some product.  They often end their pitch with the words, “If you act now…” and offer some additional incentive to anyone who bought the product within the next hour or so.  Some of these TV pitches may be fine products, but many leave a lot to be desired, which is why they’re being pitched late at night or early in the morning when resistance is down.  The words “if you act now…” serve as the carrot, while strong attestations in a deep baritone warn, “not sold in any stores,” so that if you don’t act now, and forget the contact information, you’ll never get this chance again.  I assume that this technique works wonderfully in pushing product, especially product that you might not purchase with more time, more rest, more consideration.

I have to admit that’s the feeling I often get when the Republican Congress wants to push product on their colleagues or on the American people.  I’m getting that vibe quite strongly in the Brett Kavanaugh matter.  Rather than giving this confirmation sufficient time to be considered, and for the voluminous amount of material Judge Kavanaugh has written, quite a bit of it as a partisan hack for Republican politicians, or in a political cause (the politically motivated pursuit of Bill Clinton, for instance, or the Florida recount in 2000), to be read and mulled and processed, so that senators can fulfill their constitutional obligation, which is to advise and consent on the nomination, as befits any appointment, but certainly any appointment that is a lifetime appointment and can have effects for a generation.

When the Founding Fathers, and especially the framers of the Constitution, set up the Judiciary as an equal and separate branch of the government, they did so, in the hopes that the Judiciary could serve as a check on the excesses of the executive and legislative branches.  The justices of the Supreme Court were given lifetime appointments, in the hopes that, freed from reliance on either the executive or legislative branch for continued employment, they could be truly free and independent.  For those who claim to be originalists, that was their goal, and it’s a good goal.

But from what I can see of the current “originalists” on the court, they do not embody a truly independent mind or spirit.  They do not truly examine laws and procedures to see if rights are being observed and the constitution is being adhered to.  Rather they are pushing an agenda that is more in accord with the 1890s than the 1790s or the 1990s.  They are pursuing an agenda which defers to billionaire class, a class largely following the example of the late 19th c. industrialists, who made their money often by shady business practices, often inhuman treatment of workers, and total disregard of any effect their practices would have on the environment.  For those billionaires there was no concern for clean water, or clean air, or a healthy workforce.  For them, all that mattered was their own profit and their own privileges, both to be guarded jealously.  It combined the worst elements of capitalism with the worst elements of feudalism.

And if we look at the opinions of the current “conservative” members of the court, they show a tremendous deference to the wealthy as opposed to the poor, to the powerful as opposed to the disenfranchised, to their people as opposed to the people.  I’ve heard several candidates compare themselves to baseball umpires, simply calling balls and strikes.  If so, they are largely calling balls on behalf of the rich and powerful, and strikes on those who are not, and calling out those who might want to unionize and strike.

Will Judge Kavanaugh be any different from the current conservative group?  Based on what writings of his have been available to the public, he likely will be worse.  He will certainly be a lot more conservative than Justice Kennedy, and probably more conservative than Chief Justice Roberts.  This will cheer those among the wealthy who value their money and power more than the rights of others, for he will certainly side with them.  For those who aren’t wealthy, don’t have privilege or influence, the result will not be good.

No matter what he’s said to the Judiciary Committee about settled precedent, he really doesn’t care about that.  He’s on the record as saying that Roe was decided badly, that US v. Nixon was decided wrong, and that bad precedence (in this case, precedence he disagrees with) can be overturned.  As state legislatures in some states pass laws allowing thousands in their states to be disenfranchised, they will have a friend in Kavanaugh.  As some states fight against the Affordable Care Act, they will have a friend in Kavanaugh.  As some states pass laws making it impossible or nearly so for women to get access to birth control, they will have a friend in Kavanaugh.  With Kavanaugh on the court, life will likely get harder for the majority of Americans, but not the wealthy, not the powerful.

And what about the President who nominated him?  Clearly Mr. Trump wants there to be Justice Kavanaugh to undercut any attempts to put a check on him, and he will get what he wants.  For all those who claim they are originalists, I call their bluff.  If there is one thing the Founding Fathers (all the Founding Fathers) hated and feared, it was unchecked power in the hands of any man (they were not forward thinking to support equal rights for all, irrespective of gender or race).  In the 18th c. those visionaries were unable to imagine a time when wealth could be concentrated so much in the hands of the very few, and so could not imagine the undue influence that the super-wealthy have on our politics.  I feel that they would be horrified by some of the pronouncements on behalf of corporate America.  As to the court giving nearly unlimited power to the president, I know they’d be horrified.  But that’s what they could expect with Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh’s deference to presidential authority and power, a deference he did not display when Bill Clinton was president and he was a more than eager soldier in Republic efforts to bring President Clinton down, is the one area where I think we can safely assume the horror, disgust and anger of the Founding Fathers, and that is something EVERY senator who is thinking about confirming this man at this time should consider before consenting to the nomination.

As to aspects of Mr. Kavanaugh’s personal life, I’d rather not get into that mess now.  But as to his fitness for this office, he must be judged unfit, not because he doesn’t have the legal credentials — he has those in spades, but because a judge is more than the law school he went to, or the grades he got.  There are grave doubts that all would receive a fair hearing from him; the disadvantaged would not be heard, the advantaged would have one more advantage, and the President would simply get a pass.

One final note: it is clear that Judge Kavanaugh has lied to the Judiciary Committee before.  He may have lied to the current committee as well.  For most people, falsehoods uttered in pursuit of a job result in failure to obtain employment, or the termination of that employment.  For a judge, and for one who wants to sit on the highest court in the law, clearly any falsehoods uttered should be considered as disqualifying.

I hope that a handful of Republican senators have the decency to do the right thing here.  Just once, I hope they can resist their corporate overlords and do the right thing.  I remain hopeful.


Humor and Humanity — spirituality with a punch line

Humor has always been a key element in my own sense of the divine, of my view of spirituality.  Humor has often alerted me to a sense of community.  Humor has often been a crack in the door to mystery and wonder.

When I joined Shawnee Mission Unitarian Church, April 1, 2012, now six years ago, I chose the date carefully.  I take joining groups pretty seriously.  If I’m agreeing to be a part of some group, I am agreeing to take part in that group, and I’m making a commitment.  Commitments are never something to be taken lightly.  That was even more keenly felt when I joined SMUUCh.  I had been part of All Souls Church in KCMO, but had left that church.  This blog began as my response to that leaving — in a sense, I was still part of that community, but felt very much on my own.  That relationship had frayed, at the very least, and I’m not one to jump into a new relation easily.  But when I realized that April 1 was a Sunday, and I could join SMUUCh on that day, well, I jumped at the chance.  In making that move, I wanted to make it on a day that held some significance.  I joined my first Unitarian church on December 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a day that spoke to me of my Catholic upbringing, and also of a beautiful miracle, the miracle of the roses.  When I joined All Souls Church, I did so around All Souls Day, another Catholic feast day I had honored from youth, and a name that resonated with the church I was joining.

So, when I joined SMUUCh, I didn’t want it to be just any day.  It had to be a special day.  And April Fools’ Day is such a day for me.  It was not always so.  As a kid, and someone who had been bullied a bit, I dreaded a day when I knew people would be making fun at my expense.  I didn’t like that.  But as an adult, I’ve come to embrace my inner fool, and been more able to laugh at myself.  I’m a big fan of comedies, and especially stand-up.  Fooling around is serious business, and doing comedy well is a service to the world.  And so, April Fools’ Day seemed just the right day to sign the book at SMUUCh.

I had a special t-shirt made for the day — on the front, a large orange ?, on the back, a large purple !.  It was a way to announce myself as a questioner, but an enthusiastic one, and one with a foolish streak.

When I delivered my first service at SMUUch, on February 28, 2013, I entitled the service “From eeuhnnh to (h)aha, with (h)alleluia(h)s.”  In that service, I wanted to introduce myself to someone who “lived for revelation.”  And I wanted to demonstrate my path to revelation — something that cannot be got to through normal channels.  The hymns that day were all “alleluias” of one sort or another — they contained no other words — I was looking for feeling and experience, not meaning.  Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah” was the offertory song.  A passage from The Color Purple — the one that gives the novel the title — was one of the readings — a passage all about the wonder of the natural world.  And there was some humor too.

As I look over my life, there are some constants:

  • I do look for revelation every day.  I don’t do so, planning to do so, but rather by staying open as much as I can, so that, when the world surprises me with wonder, I can have that aha moment.
  • I think that humor is, for me, a key path to revelation.  There is a rational, scientific truth in the world, but it’s far too easy for thinkers to get caught up in their thoughts, so the thoughts serve as a barrier to some greater understanding.  Humor is all about short-circuiting that.  Freud spoke of this in his Jokes and their Relationship to the Unconscious.
  • For that humor to work miracles, and to reveal the wonder of the world, it cannot be negative.  Sarcasm often cuts deeper than any physical blow, and one must be very careful with it.  Even if sarcasm can point to some truth beyond, its method alienates others, and takes its toll on community.  I have little use for revelation in isolation.  I want my wonder shared. Irony can be kinder, gentler, and more revelatory.

And so, on this April Fools’ Day (also Easter, as it turns out — it was at an Easter service I decided I would join a Unitarian Church [though I didn’t join until December 12]), I wish for each of you some silliness (silly is related to the German word “selig” which means “blessed”), some wonder, and some revelation.


Pets Remembered and Present Pets

So, as someone who occasionally has to make posts about any given day being “National Such and Such Day,” I noticed that yesterday was National Pet Memorial Day.  Like a lot of “National Fill in the Blank Days,” this day was created not long ago by a group that had a vested interest in selling memorials to one’s pets — crematory urns and the like.  And the self-serving nature of the appointment of September 10 as National Pet Memorial Day put me off penning anything yesterday in honor of pets I’ve known and pets I know.  But I would still like to honor those pets I’ve known and who have passed on, and honor those pets I still have the honor of knowing on a daily basis. So I’ll take a few moments today to reflect on these pets.

Cats I have known who have since passed on: Tiger, Muu (the Unitarian Universalist Cat), Tanya, Toby, Sam.

Dogs I have known who have since passed on: Isis, Daisy, Marcel, Gramps, Otis, Pippin, Alice, Irma.

Some of these pets I have many fond memories of, while others, like Gramps, whom I knew for a very short time (he was an old pug we fostered while his new parents got a place ready for him — he stayed with us for only about a week), I have fewer.  Once a pet’s body gives out, something of the pet lives on in our memories.  So I remember Alice, the first dog I could really call “my” dog, as a pug puppy, when the first snow fell that year.  She charged out from our side porch into the yard, into shoulder high (for her) snow.  She was amazed at the snow and had a ball jumping into it.  And I remember Pippin, who had a strange fascination for birds.  She would go out and watch birds for long stretches of time as they flew about the yard.  And I remember Gramps, who spent a solid half-hour sitting on the couch, while I sat on the floor, my bald head within easy reach, licking my head until I could not take it any longer.  Those memories are still pretty vivid, but lots of the memories I have of pets are less so — just a flashing image and little more, and, as time continues its onward march, those images will likely fade a bit.  There will never, though, be a complete effacing of these guys from my memory.  Those memories, though they do provide some comfort and solace on the loss of pets, just as memories of our loved bipedal friends and family help console us on their loss, are one-sided.  Having memories is great, but being in the moment with our pets (and our friends) while they live is much more important.  For those are moments to be shared.  Not only do we take joy in the moment, but we witness their joy in those moments.  They are moments shared, while memories will always be somewhat private and individual things.

I become especially aware of this when I have pets who won’t be around much longer.  It does no good to dwell on pet (or human) mortality.  Death will come when it will, but that focus tends to darken the present moment.  Ideally, I’d like to be like that guy in the Zen story who falls off a cliff and is precariously hanging on to a branch sticking out.  Soon he’ll lose his grip and fall to his death, but he uses the moment he has to admire some beautiful flower on that branch.  Death is imminent, but he doesn’t let that imminence cloud the beauty before him.  That is my ideal, and I often fall short of that ideal, worrying about the future more than is helpful, and missing something in the here and now because of that fear.

Our current crop of furry friends include the pugs, Phoebe, Winchester, and Duke, and the cats, General Zod and June Carter Cat.  In a busy day, I don’t have much time for the pets, but what little time I do have, I try to make sure I notice the pets, and pet them, and share that time with them.  When I am at my best, I am fully there for my furry friends, and I find myself filled with joy and gratitude.  I’m not always as attentive as I might be, and those are missed moments.

The dogs, especially, take such great joy in the moments they have playing and eating, and they constantly remind me to take greater joy in each moment I have, to be present, and not miss something great.  It seems that each meal for the dogs is “the greatest meal” ever and they meet each meal time with an enthusiasm I rarely have for my own repasts (though I enjoy dinners shared).  And when they play, they are so caught up in that play that I am reminded to take delight in more moments in this fleeting life.

Currently, one of our pets, Phoebe, has cancer, and so the clock is ticking ever faster for her.  Of the three pugs, she is the one who retains the most of her puppy qualities even now.  I try to pay special attention to Phoebe and her moments of joy, as we cannot be sure how much longer she’ll be with us, though we are sure there will be less time than we’d want.  When Phoebe passes, we’ll still have great memories of this great dog, but as Phoebe reminds us daily — live in the now, celebrate the greatness of now, and don’t lose it in worry.  All the guys do this, but Phoebe is a master of glorying in the moment, and I honor and celebrate her as a great teacher, teaching by example.


Economics 101

I spent the day today at a workshop for librarians and library staff on financial literacy, and ways we can help our patrons better understand their finances.  The day was full of information, and I’ll spend a lot of time processing it.

I do agreed that having a better understanding of money and getting better control of it is helpful.  Anything that helps one navigate the world better is good.

But as I sat there, I couldn’t help thinking that the premises of American policy, especially now, is based on false values and false assumptions.  I’m not sure I can quite put it together in my mind at this point, but I’m going to make an attempt.

When we began the workshop, we were asked, in our various groups to free associate on the word “money.”  I was the first out of the gate in my group with the suggestion, “is the root of all evil.”  In the Latin proverb, it is actually radix malorum est cupiditas (“Greed is the root of evils”).  Money itself may be neutral, but the desire for goods, something consumerism is based on — a consumer economy is based on the populace consuming goods, and always moving on to new goods as the old fail or lose their lustre.  This desire for goods, for things, to somehow take away the malaise we feel, or the sadness, or the hurt or pain, is ultimately false.  It is not that needed goods (a good bed to sleep in, or a good chair in which to sit, or a good book to instruct us or delight us) don’t provide joy, and don’t bring something of value to life.  But the sense that, if only I had the latest iPhone, or iPod, or big-screen HD TV, my life would be better.  That is false.  Goods as such cannot make us better, or even feel better long term.  That must come from within ourselves, and from the community of friends about us.  And the extent that desire for the best new thing causes us to feel envy or jealousy and disrupts our peace of mind and stirs up trouble between friends — well, you can see how that could be seen as the “root of evil.”  And when that desire becomes something insatiable, as we often see in the wealthiest among us — well, then it gets to be something of a disease, one fatal to a strong community.  Because then, the wealthiest feel that they are entitled to all their stuff, even if the cost of their having a surplus is that their neighbor does not have enough.  And those who are not the wealthiest, but who have drunk that toxic kool-aid, spend their lives trying only to accumulate wealth, no matter the cost to themselves and those around them.

I can’t help thinking that rampant capitalism as we experience it in the 21st c. and as we saw it in the final decades of the 20th c., can only lead to such a destructive pursuit of wealth at the expense of one’s fellows.  Growing up in Massachusetts, I was very aware of the fact that the official seal of the state does not refer to it as a state, but as a Commonwealth.  That word, even if not quite true, had its origins in the birth of the state.  The pilgrim and Puritan settlers in New England had lots of flaws (religious intolerance being one of them), but there was a sense in those 17th c. settlers of shared risk and shared profit.  They were all in it together.  I don’t see that sense in many of those elected to represent us in Jefferson City, or in Washington, DC.  Especially amongst the Ayn Randian crowd, there is no sense of sharing.  The Randian superman should be unfettered in his search for wealth and power, and those who lack his super drive and ego, they should be satisfied if they can benefit somehow incidentally.  For the Randian superman, what happens to others is of no concern, for his belief is a selfish one, and he figures he owes nothing to his fellow man, but only to his own empire.

That view seems alien to my Catholic sensibilities.  I grew up Catholic during the 1960s, in a union household.  And there was a strong sense among the Irish, and Italian and Polish Catholics (most of the Catholics in Boston were one of the three) that Catholicism was all about a shared sacrifice and effort for others, and that, in the workplace, unions offered the same solidarity for workers.  Because the union and the parish was not made up of interchangeable cogs in some corporate machine (the capitalist view of people as “human” resources); it was made up of friends like Frank, or Dave, or Joe, or Mary, or Betty.  These people did not lose their humanity and become statistic to serve as part of the bottom line on some corporate spreadsheet.  They mattered as people, and as such deserved to be well treated and deserving of respect and care.

Even outside the Catholic Church, you can see that spirit in films like Capra’s Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  That was a common view in the 1930s as formerly middle class and working class families were working together to get out of poverty.   Those who did not share that view, but took an Ayn Randian view (like Mr. D.B. Norton, the newspaper mogul in Meet John Doe, or Sen. Joseph Paine in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) were cast as the villains they truly are.  And yet, the party in control of all three branches of government at the present time seems all to ready to be just like the crooked Sen. Paine, interested only in making money for himself and his friends, and not caring about the “little guy.”  It’s like they saw the same movie I did, but wanted the bad guys to win, and currently those bad guys think (and appear to be) they are winning.  They may use populist words, but they don’t care about the “little guy,” not one bit.

And I can’t help thinking that some of the problem is with capitalism itself — when humans are seen as things, to be used by the powerful to help the powerful acquire more things, something is wrong.  Until we can see our fellow as friend and deserving, and not stand by those who would use them and us for some personal gain, until we can reject the false doctrines that lead us to devalue people and overvalue things, until we can see the brother in the other, none of which capitalism espouses or promotes, I’m not sure we can turn things around.


Being Hear: a Beat, a Bishop and a Buddhist…

Today I delivered a sermon at Shawnee Mission UU Church in Lenexa, KS.  The text of my sermon is below, but as sermons often make reference to readings, I have included the readings too:

The first reading came from episode 3.5 of Route 66, a TV show from the early 60s:

First some context for this reading – Route 66 was a TV show in the early 60s, in which an Ivy League grad, Todd Stiles, traveled around the US in his blue Corvette Stingray with a streetwise guy with a beat sensibility, Buz Murdock.  When Buz takes time to help a rather non-descript guy lacking confidence, Todd doesn’t get Buz’ persistence, and he asks him why.  This is Buz’ answer:

“I don’t know.  I don’t really dig it myself.

Every one of us is born into solitary confinement.  We spend the rest of our lives sending out an SOS we hope to heaven someone else will hear.

This little guy – well, he’s coming in, clear as a bell.”

from “Voice at the End of the Line” Route 66: Episode 3.5

The second reading came from a book by Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

“A Cup of Tea”

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The third (reading) was a song, “For Real,” by Bob Franke.  Though I cannot replicate the wonderful performance of Jim Crist and Larry Beekman at the church, here is a link to Franke himself singing the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xqTWDSGe9U

And now the sermon itself:

“Being Hear: a Beat, a Bishop, and a Buddhist”

We are, every one of us is, born into solitary confinement.  There’s a hole in the middle of the prettiest life.  Both of those statements ring true to me; they resonate deeply, and have resonated for over half a century.  I was about 8 when the dreadful apprehension of existential loneliness hit me, as I waited on friends to come out and play. It came in a flash – the realization that I could never fully know another’s experience, nor they know mine. It is something many of us may be feeling here today – a sense of disconnection, of isolation. When it hit, the realization came as a big shock and dazed me for a moment.  I felt profoundly alone, trapped in my own body, no welcome feeling to someone with a touch of claustrophobia.  I didn’t share that moment or revelation with my folks, my brother, my teachers, not even the parish priest.  At 8, I lacked the language to communicate such a feeling.  And I didn’t share it with my friends, that day or any other – what would other 8 year olds think of it?  I was pretty sure they wouldn’t get it.  So I kept quiet.  Lest you think I spent the rest of that year, month or even day, in some sort of zombie-like trance – I didn’t.  My mind turned to play that day, soon after my friends joined me, and that summer, well, maybe, just maybe, the Red Sox were going to have a winning season.

Yet, as a Unitarian Universalist, I also have a sense of connexion, of the Interdependent Web of all Existence, or which I am, and we are, a part. This serves as a powerful counterbalance to the sense of loneliness that never fully goes away.  It is my brain and my eyes which see me as apart from the world, but my Universalist heart tells me I am a part of the world, if only I can hear its call to communion. And that call I often hear, here in this place, in this community, and I hear it now.

The urgent cry from another, the SOS Buz Murdock spoke of — that I think I can hear as well as anyone.  Then, I go into meerkat mode; my spider-sense starts tingling.  I’m not alone in being able to hear a compelling call of distress and in responding.  I imagine the same is true of everyone here.  That’s great, but somehow that’s not enough. I feel a need to cultivate a better sense of hearing, to get better at listening to others.

One of my listening heroes was a children’s librarian in the Onondaga County Public Library system in Syracuse, NY, Cynthia Bishop.  She was and is a great storyteller.  We came to be great friends through story.  She once told me a story about something that happened to her at work; I wasn’t listening well.  Oh, I heard the words, I got the story’s plot, but I missed signals she was sending, and I found something humorous as I visually processed the story, and I laughed.  That was a misstep, a misstep that almost cost me an important friendship.  She was graceful, however, and agreed to work with me on rebuilding our friendship.  In the discussions that followed she said something which hit me like the words Buz Murdock spoke, and answered my own truth flash at 8.  She said that, as she saw it, we “listen one another into existence.”

Physically, of course, this is not so.  But we are not just our biology; we are also the we we create in the stories we tell.  Our narrative we –our dreams, our fears, our beliefs – is something more than just our genetic inheritance.  It is something we create or share in creating.  And when our narrative selves and our stories are not heard, we see that part of us die a little.  The link to community is frayed, maybe broken for a while, and we feel that existential solitary confinement Buz spoke of.  Our prison walls close in, and we feel trapped even to the point of despair.

As Unitarians, even more so as Universalists, we know that respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence of which we are a part is a principle we avow, and to which we pledge ourselves.  This sense of connection suggests an alternate way – a way out of our prisons, a way to join others beyond our walls.  One way of tearing down the walls that separate us, of reaching past our prison cells and helping others to do the same, of becoming aware of the interdependent web, and even of enhancing it, is to listen, to listen each other into existence and into freedom.

But listening can be hard.  A lot of our education, and we, as a denomination, pride ourselves on being an educated people, is geared to categorizing, labeling, and filing information.  Our learning is designed to hone our senses and our brains so we naturally filter out all sorts of things.  As we get older these habits get stronger, so we see no truth, hear no voice beyond the system our training has created.  We become like the professor in the Zen story.  As a renowned scholar proud of his knowledge, he had come to Japan to learn about Zen, but as Nan-in demonstrates – with a mind full of junk and preconceptions and Western truths, there’s no room to learn Zen – first he had to empty his cup, to let go of his preconceptions, and to listen with open mind and loving heart.

I was formed as an educated person by 10 years of Jesuit education.  There were lots of things I learned from the Jesuits, but their training made me a debater, a rhetorician.  Debaters don’t always listen to opposing views – they listen for weaknesses in argument; they aim to win.  In the contest of an actual debate, this is good strategy, but winning an argument on points is no way to build relationships; it’s no way to proclaim love, to build a loving world; it’s no way to listen one another into existence.

Pride, too, and certainty can get in the way.  As I grew up, the nuns and the priests repeatedly reminded me that the Roman Catholic Church was the “true religion.”  Well, it certainly strokes one’s ego, to hear that one is part of “the true religion,” “the true faith.”  But such pride and such certainty lead to closing our ears to the truths of other faiths, other religions.  In extreme cases, it can lead us to view those of different traditions, of a different ethnicity, of different backgrounds as “the other;” and we only reinforce the walls of our fortress (or prison), cut ourselves off from others, and relegate everyone to solitary confinement. In 2016 I think we’ve seen just where such thinking leads, to an us v. them mindset. There is a reason that pride stands atop the list of seven deadly sins.  It cuts us off from connection; it cuts us off from love. Such pride and such certainty is not the sole property of the Catholic Church.

Fear, too, plays its part.  When I was a kid, if I didn’t want to hear something, I sometimes would stick my fingers in my ears and start babbling loudly. If I only made enough noise, I wouldn’t have to hear an uncomfortable truth.  As a rhetorically trained adult, I’ve done and sometimes still do the same thing, but now I use words as barriers or weapons, keeping other views out, to avoid something I fear may change me, or my world.  The walls get thicker, and higher, and I feel no safer, just a lot more cut off.

We are now in the midst of the holidays.   This is a time when we can feel all the lonelier, even in a crowd of friends and family.  It’s a time when we offer up thanks, and opinions, and, sometimes, things are said that wound, or we remember all those wounds we’ve suffered from others.  Fearing we haven’t been understood, that others don’t get our narrative selves, we may shout all the louder.  They are likely to do the same.  In such a situation, even if we feel we’ve won, with superior logic, and well-marshalled points, we’ll feel wrong.  Winning the argument is no good if it cuts us off from community, or results in shutting our neighbors down, or boxing them in.  To build our beloved community, a community we see that we need, here and abroad in the world, we must listen to the “voice at the end of the line,” and weave our web together.

It will be a challenge, but we face challenges.  Though something of loneliness remains –there is “a hole in the middle of the prettiest life” – let us not obsess about that “hole,” or the distance that separates us, but rather let us focus on the greater whole of which each one of us is a part, and work together at weaving a stronger web of connection.






Not what I expected…

At times when I’m feeling down, and alone (sort of), and near despair, I go home, in my mind, to Boston to rest up, get centered, and get moving.

Of course, my feeling downhearted this time had a lot to do with the election results.  With the exception of my Missouri rep (ran unopposed), Missouri Senate (token opposition in KC), and US Rep, none of the candidates I felt were the better choice won.  In addition, constitutional amendments that will shrink the state’s revenue and make it tougher for people to vote passed.  Yes, Tuesday night was a bad night.  Wednesday was a difficult day.

And I’ve listened to people share their pain, and I’ve tried to get my mind around my own pain and fear.  And then, two of my Boston (well, Brookline, actually) heroes came to mind, and I took comfort in what they said, some 56 and 52 years ago.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy gave a speech in which he accepted the Liberal Party’s nomination for President.  In  New York State, there are four regular parties, the Democratic Party, the Liberal Party, the Republican Party and the Conservative Party.  Often the Liberal Party nominates the same candidate as the Democratic Pary, and often the Conservative Party nominates the same candidate as the Republican Party.  But not always.  In accepting the Liberal Party’s nod, Kennedy chose to define what being liberal meant to him.  It did not mean fiscal irresponsibility (the common charge leveled at liberals).  It did mean compassion for his fellow human beings.  Here is a brief excerpt from that speech:

“I believe in human dignity as the source of national purpose, in human liberty as the source of national action, in the human heart as the source of national compassion, and in the human mind as the source of our invention and our ideas. It is, I believe, the faith in our fellow citizens as individuals and as people that lies at the heart of the liberal faith. For liberalism is not so much a party creed or set of fixed platform promises as it is an attitude of mind and heart, a faith in man’s ability through the experiences of his reason and judgment to increase for himself and his fellow men the amount of justice and freedom and brotherhood which all human life deserves.”  To read the whole speech, go to http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/jfk-nyliberal/

It is, in essence, a statement of hope and love.  It is rational and reasonable.  It is a statement that speaks to my heart and makes me want to shout “Amen” or “So mote it be.”

In 1964, speaking at the St. Patrick’s Day celebration of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick of Lackawanna County in Scranton, PA, Robert Kennedy argued for the Irish present, and the Irish throughout America to use their own painful history as excluded people (“No Irish Need Apply”) to guide them into accepting, helping and loving others.  This was a brilliant idea, wonderfully presented.  Growing up Irish Catholic in Boston, MA, I saw plenty of prejudice among the Irish I knew.  Though they may have felt prejudice from the WASPs that ruled Boston at the turn of the 20th c., they were now a large part of the ruling class in Boston and Massachusetts as well.  And, having made it, many saw no reason to extend a hand and offer hope to others, but rather saw them as interlopers.  I remember Barney Frank once saying of Boston that it was no accident that the Statue of Liberty was not in Boston Harbor.  Frank was clearly dismayed at that.  Kennedy, though, called to memory that distant past (not too distant) of exclusion, not as a way to justify prejudice (I have a feeling the Irish of Scranton were much like the Irish I knew in Boston) but as a way to excite compassion and justice.  He notes

“I would hope that none here would ignore the current:-struggle- of some of. our fellow citizens right here in the United States for their measure of freedom. In considering this it may be helpful for us to recall some of the conditions that existed in Ireland from 1691 until well into the nineteenth century against which our forefathers fought.” And he adds:

“It is toward concern for these issues — and vigorous participation on the side of freedom — that our Irish heritage must impel us. If we are true to this heritage, we cannot stand aside.”  To read the whole speech go to  https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/ag/legacy/2011/01/20/03-17-1964.pdf

And those quotations, coupled with a vision of my sacred Charles River, have helped me through the past few days.  In the days and years ahead, I think all of us will be called to be witnesses and champions of justice, not some perverted form that favors the few at the expense of the many, but for all.  We will need to find our voice and a way of speaking like that of Robert Kennedy at that dinner, encouraging one another, and especially those who did not vote as we did, do not think as we do, see other instead of brother, to come together for justice and freedom and equality, and let America be America again (as Langston Hughes put it). If you don’t know Hughes’ poem, here’s a link: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/let-america-be-america-again

My initial feeling, in my post election shock, was one of judgment — “how could people be so stupid to fall for this con man?”  “Well, one day they’ll see just how wrong they were, and I’ll be able to say ‘I told you so.'”  Those are hollow sentiments, though.  I do think the country is heading into dangerous waters, but knowing that is not enough.  Doing what I can — speaking the truth as I know it, being a witness to those who have been abandoned or brutalized by an unjust system, and keeping my judgmental tongue quiet for a moment to find a way to get a message of compassion and hope through in a way it can be heard — even that may not be enough.  Judgment and fear have got us into this pickle, and will work no better for us at building freedom and justice.

When there is danger in a village, the village bell is rung, and all the villagers come together to meet the danger and save the village.  I hear that bell a-ringing now.  We cannot afford to let our village, our country, our world down.  Or, as JFK, in his inaugural address reminded America — “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what  you can do for your country.”