07
Aug
16

“Dance Fever in Waltz Time”

Here is a sermon I delivered at Shawnee Mission UU Church in Lenexa, Kan. on 7 August 2016.

“Dance Fever in Waltz Time”

In a favorite film of mine, L.A. Story, the hero, in a voice-over, muses that, for him, there are only three sacred places – the first two are the postcard sort of mystic places, but the third, a bistro on Sunset Boulevard, gets the designation for personal reasons.  As a person who “lives for revelation,” I have dozens of sacred places.  One such is the Common in Greenwich, Conn. for that is where I received an outward (31 May 1993 at approximately 6:10p ET and an inward (same date about 15 min. earlier) acknowledgement as dancer.  I had been with the Bassett Street Hounds, a men’s Morris team in Syracuse, NY, for just under a year when we went to the Mixed Morris Ale held that year in New York City and environs on Memorial Day Weekend.  At every stop, each Morris team would perform a short set of dances, and then, to top off the event, all who would were invited to join in a common dance.  The call went out:  for all who will, Bleddington “Young Collins.” This was the last dance of the weekend; I couldn’t miss it.  I grabbed my stick, a dogwood branch, with the “bark still on it,” and charged to join a group missing a # 5.  One of my fellow Hounds, a man called Rich, called after me – “Wait.  They’re doing Bleddington,” letting me know that this dance was in a tradition the Hounds didn’t do – the Hounds did Oddington.  But I couldn’t wait.  I rushed right in to join the dance.  I danced it, all right, with lots of mistakes.  When the dance was over, a pair of women asked me to explain what they had just seen, and I explained Morris dancing with some excitement.  When I got back to Rich, he said to me in wonder – “You really are a Morris dancer.”  At that moment, I felt almost as if I had been knighted, as if Rich, one of the founders of the group and the most expert of the dancers, had had me kneel, and had dubbed me with my own dogwood stick.  More important was that, in rushing in to dance Bleddington “Young Collins” I had already defined myself as “dancer.”

The previous summer, when I first came to Friday night practice, things were quite different.  I’m not sure what propelled me to that practice.  I was no dancer, but a klutz.  And yet, there was something that got me past all my excuses and into that practice.  I have no words to describe just how awful I was that night, but the name “Elaine Benes,” for all who know Seinfeld, comes to mind to hint at my godawfulness.

I’m not sure what brought me back the next week, and every week thereafter for that first year.  My rational mind was saying – you really suck at this – give it up.  The only thing I can think of that might have kept me going was the example of toddlers learning to walk.  I love watching toddlers learning to walk.  They are fearless.  They charge right in, and their brain is racing as they’re trying to coordinate all those motions that make for successful bipedal locomotion. You can see it in their faces – the concentration, the exhilaration when they make those first few steps, their hesitation when they’ve hit that moment of “what next?” and no immediate response is forthcoming, and they totter and fall.  And then they get up and do it again.

Toddlers know the importance of — we sometimes forget we know — that maxim from Swing Time – “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.”  Somehow, that became my joyous mantra that year, and I was rewarded for my resilience.

But personal determination and resilience alone would not have got me to that memorable Memorial Day in Greenwich.  The patience of my teammates (the patience of saints) continued to pick me up, help me along, with a lot of carrying.  They could have taken me aside, and “let me down easy,” and shown me the door.  They did do not that, and to that brave band of men, I remain grateful.

In this church without dogma, learning to be UU can take some doing. It requires effort on the part of newcomers, and the patient and loving attendance on the part of old-timers towards them. And so I would say to those visitors today – be bold, explore your spirituality, here with us and with others, too, “till by turning, turning, you come round right.”  Oldtimers, let us not forget we were once newcomers, and be generous, and loving, and patient with newcomers and with each other in our dance.

From that Morris moment to a contra move.  There is a The New Yorker cartoon (from about 1982) by Jack Ziegler that I love. At a cocktail party, a man, wearing a “them” button, speaks to a man wearing an “us” button.  He says, “I’m surprised, Marty, I thought you were one of us.”  I love this cartoon because it confounds me – the guy with the “us” button is the “them” to his friend; the speaker with the “them” button represents the “us” here.  As a person who loves to play with language, I love that this cartoon plays with labels, while gently reminding us of how we carve up our world community into groups.

And language does that – language is an arbitrary system based on binary pairs like “us” and “them” – the story of Adam and Eve in the garden is all about the two of them learning about “difference” – the fall from Eden is a fall into language, a system rooted in difference and analysis.

Dance, on the other hand, though it can be broken down and analyzed – it’s what choreographers do – speaks to something beyond language, something rooted in the body, something prevocalic. In the dance, we are in the present moment.  If we allow ourselves to be swept up in the dance, we enter the zone, we touch eternity, we lose track of time, or have another perspective of time, caught up in the beat.  In dance, we lose that sense of separateness.  We become one with our partners, one with the music, one with all on the floor.  We are part of a dance; we are also the dance incarnate, the dance made flesh.

There is a particular move in Contra Dance called “Gypsy into Swing.”  In this move, you and your partner face each other, lock eyes, move towards and around each other coming slowly closer to one another until you meet and then spin around in a swing as a couple.  When I do this well, I can feel the other person, though we stand separate, as if she held some gravitational hold on me, and I on her. My aim is to enjoy that interlocked separateness for as long as I can. If I do it right, I can feel the tension constant, yet tightening, as we move into the swing.  And then, when we get to the swing –eyes still locked, my partner and I in close embrace go spinning, often quite fast. It’s important in a swing to maintain eye contact with your partner – it anchors you as you spin.  In the swing, I’m aware of moving, but also of a stillness at the same time; around me, I can see vaguely the other dancers in the line moving likewise, but they lose distinctness, and appear as colorful blurs and swatches of color. I’m also aware of the music, but at no conscious level, and can often sense just the right moment to break back into a line.

For the swing to work, each of the partners has to do his or her part.  To get momentum each partner has to give weight, leaning back against the partner’s arms, keeping a certain amount of tension.

And here I see a lesson for a non-credal church, one which speaks to oneness (in diversity) and to the universal.  We are each separate and all together as a community.  With that in mind, when we do fellowship here, we can discover a creative tension between our different traditions and our common heritage.  It is love that keeps us in community.  “We do not need to think alike, to love alike” as we like to say, and which we attribute to Francis David (probably wrongly).

And now to the movement and magic of the Spiral Dance.  I first danced the Spiral Dance in the dining hall at Rowe Conference Center in Western Mass at the CUUPS convocation on Columbus Day weekend in 1993 – the date: October 8, the time, uncertain, as I neglected to bring my watch with me.

The Spiral Dance is a dance aimed at suggesting the interconnectedness of nature, humans included, and at mimicking swirling galaxies. It is danced to celebrate and to recognize community and to build energy and power.

In the dance, which is best done outdoors, or in a great hall, a circle of people form a large circle and join hands.  The circle begins to circle in a clockwise direction. After some chanting and the beginning of music, the leader drops the hand of the person to his/her right and starts to move in a clockwise direction around the inside of the circle.  As the leader moves, the circle itself begins to move, and to coil up like a watch spring until the leader reaches the center.  At that point, she turns back on her path, and is now moving in a counterclockwise direction facing each of the other dancers as she moves back out, while the rest of the circle is heading to the center before each of them turns back as well.  Once out, another opening into the center becomes apparent and the leader goes once again into the center.  It is a dance I hope we do some day here – maybe in the fields out back.

It is a dance that has to be experienced – descriptions don’t do it justice.  And I can only speak to my own situation and perception.  The dance starts very slow, but as the leader gets closer to the center, the tension on the arms of each dancer gets greater and greater.  You can feel the pull of the dancer ahead, and the pull of the dancer behind.  That tension builds until you’ve hit the center and then it explodes outward, just as you are turning and looking at all the others in the line.  As the line moves, everyone in the line gets to be face to face with every other person in the dance.  At Rowe, there were easily 100 of us in attendance, but that dance joined us together as community, and revved us up for that weekend with Selena Fox.

But what made the experience in the hall on that night even more special was that, as we danced, we could all see in one corner of that dining hall a gigantic spider web in one corner of the ceiling – at least 5 foot in diameter.  It had been there all along, but we dined early that first day, so the tables and benches could be moved to allow dancing space, and without backlighting, the web was near invisible. As we danced and passed that corner, that great majestic web, lit from behind, came into view, and we each had a silent “aha” moment.  For me, whenever I hear the phrase “interdependent web,” I am transported back to Rowe in 1993, dancing in my mind, and seeing that great web above.

The spiral dance was, for Starhawk, a metaphor for nature, for the stellar galaxies spinning in the sky, and for the celebratory pagan practice that celebrates all that jazz.  For me, I can think of no better metaphor for community than a dance in which all are equal partners, where one can feel directly or remotely the power and energy residing in each person, oneself included, and where one gets to see every other member of the dance face-to-face.

I will not say that dance “saved” me, nor will I claim that dance in actuality or as metaphor can “save” anyone.  As a Unitarian for almost a quarter century, I know that I rely too much on my mind and on language and on reason.  Dance reminds me that I am soul incarnate, that the mind/body split is all in my head, and that I ignore my body to my peril.

 

03
Apr
16

April Fool’s again (seriously)

It was four years ago, on  April 1, which was a Sunday, I signed the Book at Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church and became a member of that august body.  I’m especially remembering that day this year because I am part of the Search Committee for a new called and settled minister.  That process of calling a minister continues, and so, there will be no details here of any of our deliberations.  Searching for a new minister and recommending one to the congregation is a grave responsibility, and it has been a great honor to be a part of the process.  And it has been a great pleasure (and still remains — we’ve got work still) to be associated with the others on the committee (Alex Knapp, Don Skinner, Jim Crist, Penny Burdge, Spring Lenox and Tiffany Johnson).  Their willingness to share time and ideas and dreams has been humbling and inspiring.  It has been great to look through the packets of so many talented ministers, to read about their ideas and dreams and to get a glimpse of the witness they bring to Unitarian Universalism and the world.  It has been greater still to get to speak at length with some of those ministers and to listen to them as they flesh out their vision.  But it has been greatest still to get to know the members of the committee.  Not only has it been fascinating to learn more about each, but deeply moving to see them as they walk in the world and in the work of this church.  As we move closer to the time when we extend an invitation to one of those ministers, it is our bond as a group that matters most to me personally.  The committee is supposed to be representative of the congregation — the congregation in microcosm — and so, I’ve also come to feel closer to the congregation, even as we’ve been largely absent during this search process.  Last Sunday, Easter Sunday, was my first time back in a service, an Easter service (and Easter has a special part in my Unitarian story), and being back, during the hullabaloo of Sunday, was wonderful.  I expect today to be equally wonderful.

When I signed the book on April Fool’s Day, I did so intentionally (it was not a normal New Member Sunday).  The opportunity to sign the book on that day could not be passed up.  That might lead some to think that I don’t take my Unitarian affiliation seriously.  But I take foolishness and silliness very seriously.  I think that humor allows us to see parts of the truth which might otherwise go unstated or unseen.  When I am dead serious, the light of my reason may flash the more brilliantly, but the beam is often of a narrow focus.  When I am in a lighter mode, my vision is blurred somewhat, but has a wider scope.  And wider scope is what, for me, Unitarian Universalism is all about.  If we can laugh at ourselves, we embrace humility.  If we can share a laugh with others, we include them in community — we embrace hospitality and one another.  And if humor can get past the censors of our mind and help us see a better way, or see some flaw that needs addressing, well, that is all in the service of a greater truth.

So, four years ago, I signed the book at SMUUCh on April Fool’s day, in a spirit of play and joy.  I hope that no one concludes therefrom that I think don’t take our movement, or, more importantly, our people, seriously.  That would be, what we’d call in my Catholic upbringing, a most grievous error.

Happy April Fool’s Day — two days late.  But, it’s Sunday, and a sunny Sunday, so the wait seemed right.

25
Mar
16

Good Friday 2016

It’s Good Friday again, and here I am (in my mind at least) in the lower chapel at St. Peter’s Church (Catholic) in Dorchester, MA (henceforth referred to as St. Peter’s Under.  For a kid going to Catholic schools, the Easter Weekend was great – in addition to a full week of Spring Break at some other time in the Spring, Catholic schools shut down for Good Friday and Easter Monday. A four day weekend just as the weather was getting great, and Red Sox baseball was starting up. And then there was the candy!  I think many of my classmates were focused on Easter Sunday for the candy swag, and I have to admit that candy did play its part in my own celebration, but even in grade school, I had a certain fondness for, even fascination with, Good Friday.  I was then, and still remain, a weird kid.  My favorite sacraments (Catholics have favorite sacraments) as a kid were the darker sacraments – Confession and Extreme Unction (later renamed Annointing of the Sick, but to me it’s still Extreme Unction). There are five other sacraments – but as they are not directly pertinent, I’ll leave them be for now.  So, Confession and Extreme Unction were the sacraments that touched me most deeply, and only confession touched me personally (and regularly – every Saturday) – I never had Extreme Unction performed over me.  When I was a kid, Confession was held in St. Peter’s Under.  The upper chapel, where the high masses were held, had wood paneling, a lovely choir loft, high ceilings and was full of light, both from the large (about 10’ high)stained glass windows, but also from the great chandeliers that hung from above – chandeliers that looked like rockets.  St. Peter’s Under had much less light – it was slightly below ground, had smaller windows which got less sun, and had round light fixtures with fewer bulbs, which always seemed to be of a lower wattage. In that dim space, which always seemed warm in winter (steam heat in a more confined space) and cooler in summer (no AC, only fans, and the coolness radiating from the partly subterranean stone walls), I found a comfortable spiritual space.  The stone walls of the lower chapel, their greyness softened in that subdued light, I always found comforting. If the church was holy mother, this was surely her womb.

In the Catholic Church, Good Friday is the only day in the year when no mass is said.  Instead, there is a service of readings (the Passion narrative) read responsively, by the priest (playing the role of Jesus), with help from other priests, or men in the parish as the disciples and Pontius Pilate, and the congregation as the crowd – our big lines were “Give us Barabbas” and “Crucify him,” which we said twice, the second time louder [the stage directions said so]. Though the priest got to play Jesus, and was ostensibly the focus, I felt more aware in that service of the church as community. In the actual playing out of roles, there was (and is now as I reflect) an amazing dissonance going on in my mind.  For our role as congregants was to shout out words of dismissal and hate directed at the very person the narrative said we were supposed to love and even worship. That moment, as part of the “mob,” resonated deeply then, and even now does so.  For I recall that in 5th grade, Sr. Joseph Robert asking us as a class, in our preparations for Easter, to reflect on this very scene, and on how even St. Peter had denied his beloved friend in that dark period after Jesus’ arrest.  She asked the class, “Boys and girls, would you deny Jesus?”  We all said, “No, sister.”  We had no written script, but we all knew that was the right thing to say – it was in our communal script as much as “Crucify him” would be only a few days later.  I remember, though, thinking through this quite a bit.  In a situation where the state, and the multitude of people were calling out condemnation, would I, an 11 year old boy stand up and say “No. This is wrong?” And I had to admit to myself, quietly to myself, that given all that public pressure I likely would have folded, and submitted to public pressure. My “no” spoken aloud in the classroom rang false somehow, even as the “crucify him” did in the church, but in the passion play at church, we knew we were playing a role, and not being ourselves.

But Good Friday also meant something else, something strangely comforting, in a way, reflecting a different sort of dissonance going on within.  For here we sat, in a parish church, members of a parish, which itself was part of an archdiocese, and part of an international church beyond.  And that church was anchored by one cardinal idea – “He is not dead, but risen.”  Easter’s supposed to be about the triumph of love and the triumph over death. I’ve even been told by Catholic friends that without the guarantee of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, Christianity is mere folly. But in that dim, liminal space of St. Peter’s Under, there we were, taking time from a busy day (those who worked, took time off – as the service was held at 3p; and those of us who had the day off from school could be spending the time playing baseball) to focus on the darkness of loneliness and loss, and to be immersed in it.  And the grey tomblike space of St. Peter’s Under was perfect for such an immersion.

In a way, though, as we mourned the death of Jesus, and we each mourned the losses of our own lives, there was an awareness of being in community.  The Good Friday crowd was often a small group, no more than a few dozen, not the several hundred of a Sunday service – St. Peter’s was the largest parish in Dorchester, the largest section of Boston. Small as it was, it was still community and not isolation. In all our brokenness, with the deep holes in all of our hearts, here we were, a patchwork whole, holy and wholly together in that place.

I first decided to become a Unitarian in Syracuse, NY, at May Memorial Unitarian Society on Easter Sunday, 1992 (April 19 that year). Part of it had to do with the fact that 1992 had been a rather tough winter, and that we had seen little (maybe no) sun since November.  That day started cloudy, but the sun eventually came out – in fact, it came out while I was sitting in the sanctuary. For this to have full effect, you need to know something of the sanctuary at May Memorial.  The sanctuary has tall dark wooden walls and a ceiling that slopes gently on four sides to almost join in the center, where rises a small cupola with four small windows.  Along the two sides of the sanctuary there are small windows (about 1’ high by 2’ wide) that serve as something of a clerestory at the top of those walls.  The windows are too high and small to get a view of nature without, but can, when the sun comes out and hits them and the cupola just right, admit enough light to fill the sanctuary, normally dark, with light.  Before I go on, please check out the following clip from Blues Brothers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lX5tfRdkoY0 – when I told this story a few years ago to someone at my current church, he reminded me of this cinematic moment.  It wasn’t like that, but if Belushi’s illumination helps, so be it.  The only other place I felt a similar jubilation (or might have, had it been sunny) was in Houston, at the Rothko Chapel – see http://www.npr.org/2011/03/01/134160717/meditation-and-modern-art-meet-in-rothko-chapel for some images.

It had been that moment of illumination that appealed to my image loving side. I looked on it as a kinder, gentler, Damascus experience – no getting knocked off horses or going blind.  But it wasn’t just the visuals that got me.  There had to be something more, and there was.  The sermon that day, delivered by Nicholas Cardell, Jr., was entitled “What if they found the body?”  For those who don’t know the story, when Mary Magdalene and other women go to perform rites for Jesus entombed they encounter a young man and no body, and the young man tells them “The one you seek is not here.  He is risen.” That is a key moment in traditional Christianity, as it is the bodily resurrection of Jesus, a living part of the triune God, which separates Christianity from other traditions.  It is this very event which, for many, validates the Christian message.  As Rev. Cardell recast the story, the fears of Jesus’ followers were realized – their friend, Jesus, was dead.  The body remained in the tomb.  In that narrative, Rev. Cardell wondered — would the teachings of Jesus still hold value?  He argued that they would, just as any teachings of the Buddha, or Muhammad or any of the saints did not become invalid simply because the messengers were mortal.  That message, more than the light, brought me to the Unitarian fold, and that message lovingly shared and masterfully told retains its truth long after Rev. Cardell’s own passing.

So let’s return to St. Peter’s Under, for there it’s there, in the truth of the darkness, and of the broken holiness, that I dwell on Good Friday and have a good cry.  Those tears are not of despair and sorrow though the existential hole within is always here.  For through the sadness, the grief, even the anger, of feeling cut off and alone, I can still see those around me, others going through an experience similar to mine. We share the sadness of a team that has lost its leader, but in that shared loneliness, there is an awareness of community remaining.

This particular Good Friday that tomblike, womblike quality of St. Peter’s has special significance. For this year, I’ve been part of the search process for a new settled minister at Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church. And much of my reflexion during this transition period has been of loss of our previous minister, a two year period of disequilibrium, and of hopes of finding a new settled minister (at this point, the process continues). Since the start of this year I have been absent from services at church – during the main part of the search proper I chose to stay away – and that enforced absence has proven tougher than I thought; it’s been my 40 days in the desert, a Lent like no other.  During this time, though, there has always been the promise of community.  And I imagine that, this Easter, when I rejoin my beloved community, I will feel again that sense of jubilant illumination.  The weather forecast, at this point, is for clouds and rain on Easter, but within our sanctuary that cloudiness without won’t keep me from feeling the warmth of community and fire of commitment as I look on all those sunny faces.

May your own Good Friday and Easter time be spiritually nourishing and give you the strength to feel love and be love, and to build a freer and more just world.

 

29
Feb
16

Leap Day, 2016

Dates often have significance for me, and some dates more than others.  But seeing Elise Swearingen’s (former  All Souler, and daughter of Lon Swearingen) charming video for Providence, RI on the topic of what are you going to do on Leap Day, triggered a lot.  First – check out the video: https://youtu.be/68aXbW1zAcg

It was four years ago today that I resigned my membership at All Souls, something spoken of elsewhere on this blog site.  In the interest of dramatic use of serendipity, I chose Leap Day 2012 to take my leave, or to take my leap of faith in a new direction.  I didn’t land in my new and current religious home until 1 April 2012 (it was a long leap, but I wanted to land just right, with solemnity and silliness in equal measure).

While I contemplated my leap, during the leap, and even after landing (though I continue to bounce), I have periodically posted in this space, named All-Soulo to honor All-Souls, to keep in mind an existential loneliness I find ever-present, to highlight a sense of exile, and to call to mind the Feast of All Souls (2 November) in the Catholic calendar, a day to remember the oft-forgotten souls, the broken souls who have not yet made it into the presence of God (whatever that might mean), as opposed to All Saints Day (1 November) a day of celebration for those who have so made it.  As a kid, I put a lot more time and thought into All Souls Day — the saints didn’t need my help, or my attention, but lost souls, well — maybe my attention and thoughts might have some effect there.

And now, at SMUUCh, I am part of the Ministerial Search Committee.  At SMUUCh, we have leapt from settled minister to interim, and we look forward to making that leap forward from interim to new settled minister.  So this leap day has some significance all its own.

But, in leaping forward, I always look back, and the ghosts of my past are never far away. I often reflect on William Faulkner’s line (at least it was attributed to him) that “the past is never  dead.  It’s not even past.” (from Requiem for a Nun).  For Faulkner, that line largely referred to the troubled history of the South (and this nation) and how old issues linger on.  I love the line.  At times I share its melancholy, but in its beautiful play of language, I see an opening for better times and a more joyous and useful embrace of the past as we move ahead.  Like Lot’s wife, I find myself looking back, but I like to think that I (and we) can find better use for that salt, to season our lives, to preserve our cherished memories, and to sow into those fetid fields of bitterness that too often flourish and to check them.

As I’ve jumped from one side of the state line to the other to be in community, I sometimes notice that the very superpower of leaping — before he could fly, Superman could “leap tall buildings in a single bound” — which power appears to make mockery of boundaries and borders and barriers, doesn’t last.  I’m thinking of those big fat bullfrogs now — you can tell that they can leap, some quite far, but most of the time, they’re just chillin’ on a lily pad and seem more immovable.  And in that restful state, just chillin’ on my lily pad, boy do those borders and barriers become hightened and highlighted.  And I think — crossing the state line or crossing some other boundary just seems too much work, and I croak out a ribbet and just sigh.  But I then dream and remember, to paraphrase a favorite song about footwear, that “these legs are made for leapin’ and that’s just what they’ll do…” Having leapt away does not mean I can’t leap back for a visit — I have made such hops, and will so hop again.  Borders can be a good thing, and people with a poor sense of boundaries are often unsafe.  But when borders turn to barriers and barricades, well, the leaper in me won’t stand for that — one way or another, I believe, we shall overcome, or and least come over, by leaps and bounds as we are able.  So, I hope you’ll jump over for a visit from time to time.  During this time of search, I’m afraid I have not been at SMUUCh much.  And so, though you are all always and, I hope, in all ways, are welcome at SMUUCh, I’m likely to miss you if you visit before May.But, if you come after May, if all goes as we hope in the search, you will come into a place always welcoming, but energized and reinvigorated in joyful anticipation — oh, it will be a hoppin’ place. Even in the off-chance of a failed search, hop over.  In that case, you will find a place more subdued, but still welcoming. I shall be glad, in either case, to see you again.

I know that the previous sentence had the sound of a coda, but nowadays in movies, it is common to have teasers to possible sequels, so consider the following just such a teaser, a reward to those who stayed through the credits.   This teaser will have the form of a prayer — some of you have heard me say I’m not a praying man, and so are probably thinking Huh??? —  I can only say, it’s leap year, so and prayer feels right for a leap of faith.

The covenant we speak at SMUUCh, and which the church entire (so far as I can tell) loves and cherishes deeply, concludes with the words “so that all souls may grow into harmony with the divine, thus do we covenant with one another.”  The first time I heard, and saw, and spoke those words I saw All Souls and it caused some cognitive dissonance within — for I had left All Souls, and divine is a word that causes some there discomfort. But my connexion to all souls predated my signing the book at All Souls, and it survives my transferring membership across the state line.  And every time I speak that covenant, which has taken on the tone and timbre of a plainsong chant for me, I see and hear, and feel both all souls and All Souls.  In that moment, I am mindful of the world beyond, of all in need, of my part in a greater whole, and of friends and family at 4501 Walnut, all at once.  That’s a long prelude to a shorter prayer (feel free to replace prayer with hope, dream, vision, open-ended promise):

May the coming years remind us that the lines on a map need not confine us, need not separate us, one from the other.  May the coming years recall us to our common humanity, and may it remind us of our uncommon specialness, that definitions are always imperfect, and that there is a porous quality to that which separates us.  May the coming years, on this holy Leap Day, remind us we are more than our labels, and we can all leap to transcend our often self-imposed limits, leap to the defense of those in distress, leap to drumbeats of our hearts.  Finally, let us remember that Unitarian Universalism is a movement more than an institution.  What say you, All Souls and SMUUCh?  Shall we leap together into the future?  I, for one, hop so.

 

03
Jan
16

I(,) Sa(a)crifice(d) — my sermon at Shawnee Mission UU Church, 3 January 2016

The Aqedah (“the Binding”) of Isaac is one of the most difficult and troubling passages in the Hebrew Bible.  In it, God appears to demand that a father sacrifice his son, and that father and that son offer up no word of protest.  It is the passage’s difficulty that appeals to me.  Along with the Book of Job and the Book of Jonah, this story serves as something of a koan, a “riddle” that admits no easy answer. I’ve heard some dismiss the story as a sign, not of anything divine, but rather something demonic, the very thing the Epicurean poet, Lucretius, condemns in his On the Nature of Things, as the very sort of craziness that religious fundamentalism leads to.  One can read it as a story of “blind obedience,” as some scholars, including Soren Kierkegaard, do; today, though, we know only too well the terrible results of blind obedience, especially in the days of terror bombings and mass shootings for a “higher cause.” But must that be the story’s point, or could it be something else?

The Midrash, the rabbinic commentary on the Torah, discusses this story again and again; in difficult times, Jews have turned to this passage and seen, in the rescue of Isaac, a God who would see them through difficult times; Zionists of the 1920s saw themselves as Isaac, willing to die that a Jewish state might live;  some Christians see Abraham and Isaac as prefiguring the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross; artists have painted and sculpted images from the story from the Renaissance to the present day; philosophers ranging from Soren Kierkegaard to Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, and Charles Schulz have put their two cents in; musicians from Igor Stravinsky to Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen have set this story to song.  I found at least half a dozen sermons done by Unitarian-Universalist ministers on the story, and the story gets extensive treatment in the UUA curriculum, Tapestry of Faith, where participants act out the story and have a chance to ask Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, and even God questions. There’s a poem by an Israeli poet which looks at the story from the ram’s perspective – the ram is the one who “saves the day.”  And, at the level of the ridiculous, there is even a video game called The Binding of Isaac, in which players try to keep Isaac away from his crazy mother, who’s trying to kill him.

My own history with the story goes back to 1967 when I first heard the story, retold by my sixth-grade teacher, Sr. Paschal (that’s right, her nun name was that of the Paschal, or sacrificial, lamb), a woman for whom the story may have had deep significance.   In high school, I first heard Leonard Cohen’s song, a song which has stayed with me all these years.

I am now doing this service, though, to honor a pledge.  In the first year of her interim ministry at All Souls Church across the state line, Rev. Lee Devoe instituted a Worship Associate program.  At the initial meeting of the Worship Associates, Rev. Devoe tossed out ideas for services she’d like to do to see who wished to help.  The others showed no interest in the biblical stuff.  When she mentioned the Binding of Isaac, I alone had my hand in the air.  Of that first meeting with Lee Devoe, it is that moment I most remember.  I was really looking forward to working with her on that service.

Of course, the “troubles” soon arose.  A vocal minority was convinced that Rev. Devoe’s challenging interim would destroy the church.  Rev. Devoe never mentioned Isaac again, and, in the circumstances, I saw no way to resurrect the idea.  When her second year of interim began, the troubles only intensified and her ability to be an effective interim waned.  Finally, she was dismissed by a bare majority of a splintered board, and left the area for the Northeast where she had been a successful interim.  I didn’t keep up a correspondence.  Immediately after her departure, it would have been wrong, and, as time passed, my hopes of striking up an epistolary dialog on Abraham and Isaac passed too.  When Rev. Devoe died of cancer a couple of years ago, I knew I had blown my chance of any such dialog, but I still felt a need to honor my pledge and wrestle with the story alone.

In doing my own study, I found that I could not disentangle the story from my own story.  At different points in my own life, I’ve been the various figures in this story.  Like Isaac, I found myself on the block, a victim to some bully or other, afraid, but unable to effect a way out of my sacrificial state;  like Abraham, I’ve been willing to sacrifice others – not physically, but emotionally, to placate an angry god within.  I’ve even been the ram, willing to take a hit for the team.  Like that Israeli poet, I too see the ram as heroic. In Kansas City, some five to six years ago, I was the servant on the side.  During the “troubles,” I had friends on both sides of the dispute, and chose to remain neutral, just as the servants who say nothing when Abraham and Isaac leave together without a lamb, and when Abraham returns alone, without Isaac.

What I have said to this point may seem critical, but I don’t want to leave that impression.  Let me state clearly that I believe that sacrifice is sometimes called for.  I cannot help but think that the sacrifice of men and women in World War II was necessary, that the loss of life in the Civil War was terrible, and necessary.  And when victims of oppression or violence fight their way out of abusive situations, it can also be terrible, but necessary.

That said, I believe that any sacrifice, especially a sacrifice of another, comes at a cost.  The most moving line I recall reading in preparing for this service came from Barbara Cohen’s children’s book, The Binding of Isaac.  In that book, Isaac, late in life, recalls that awful day to his grandchildren, the sons and daughters of Jacob.  When Isaac gets choked up as he remembers that horrific moment where he nearly died under the knife, one grandson, Joseph, reminds his grandfather that he didn’t die.  Isaac, in reply, says, “You’re right.  I didn’t die.  But something died on that mountain.”  It is clear in Cohen’s telling that the “something” Isaac refers to is not the ram.  It’s the love between father and son, and perhaps the love between wife and husband.  Whatever Abraham’s motivation, the action he almost took must have seemed a betrayal to Isaac and Sarah.

So what meaning might this story have for UUs, and for us here?  Well, I would agree with Elie Wiesel, who sees Abraham’s not slaying his son as the central point.  It is that which makes him a hero, and which makes him a figure worthy of respect in Judaism.  Wiesel suggests that, had Abraham killed Isaac, he might still have been the patriarch of a people, but it would not have been the Jewish people.  Wiesel notes that Jews do not die for God, they live for God, and, in this scene, which Wiesel reads as Abraham faking God out – by preparing this act, by taking the action all the way (or almost all the way), he gets a concession from God that God will never make such a demand on his people again, and, when they mess up, as they will, he will be forbearing, and forgiving.

For Wiesel, this reading makes the most sense, for he knows Abraham.  Abraham is a man who left his own people for God; he is a man who saw his own responsibility to call God out when God wanted to destroy the city of Sodom.  For those who don’t know the story, God was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because they were so sinful.  Abraham argued with God, winning concessions from God, that he would spare Sodom if only a few good people might be found.  A man willing to argue with God to save a city of sinners, Wiesel reasons, surely was not willing to kill an innocent, especially when the death of Isaac runs counter to God’s own promises to Abraham.  Abraham doesn’t argue openly with God here, but he would not slay his son.  Unitarian-Universalist minister, Ana Levy-Lyons, sees in the story the ever-present possibility of transformation.  Sacrificing a first-born son likely was part of many cultures in the Middle East, including those in Canaan; in giving up something beloved, even adored, these cultures demonstrated faith in God, gods, the universe, to provide.  And Abraham was ready to do as others had, but, then, something happened, and Abraham found a new way.  The story says it was a voice Abraham heard; some scholars suggest it was Isaac’s voice, which Abraham heard as angelic commands, breaking through. Unitarian-Universalist minister, Mary Ganz, attributes this breakthrough to Abraham seeing, really seeing, his son, and then dropping the knife.

And here, I’d like to return to All Souls.  One of the first stories I heard about All Souls was about how Westboro Baptist Church (you know, Fred Phelps’ ecclesiastical gang) used to come and protest outside All Souls on a regular basis.  It happened so frequently that members of the church would come out, especially on a cold day, with hot coffee for the protestors.  I love that story, and, it was probably that story, as much as anything, that made me fall in love with the church.  Radical hospitality shown to those spewing bile won me over.  For me, it was Abraham arguing with God over Sodom.  Abraham didn’t endorse Sodom, but he wasn’t willing to give up on those people, either.  Nor did All Souls endorse the hate platform of Westboro Baptist, but instead of getting into a fruitless shouting match, they extended hospitality, and helped to defuse a potentially volatile situation.  They looked past the hateful placards and slogans and saw the people beyond.  Equally important, they let those people know they had been seen.

With Lee Devoe, I think some at the church forgot that insight.  The angry few saw Rev. Devoe as a threat, and felt fine about sacrificing her, and the many fellow members who left their company in the wake of that incident, all to protect the status quo.  But some of those who participated in this sacrifice were the same who had acted so marvelously with Westboro.  In this instance, Isaac got no reprieve.

In the story of the Binding, what is it that makes Abraham turn his hand?  The story makes it clear that it is the voice of an angel who stops him, a voice that has to speak out twice.  But I like to think, as Mary Ganz suggests, that it is that Abraham really seeing his son before him that does the trick, enabling a way for the transformative power of love to work its miracle. And I like to think, as Elie Wiesel does, that it is not Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son that makes him a hero, but that he does not carry out that awful task.

Even though Abraham stopped, harm was done.  Isaac and Abraham never again spoke to each other.  Sarah dies in the very next chapter.  And Abraham never again hears God’s voice.  None of us will be engaged in human sacrifice, but I think we all face this trial in our lives, where a system clouds our beloved from our sight.  But we can do the following: pledge to see each other and look out for each other; pledge to let our voice be heard; pledge to listen to each other as we learn and teach; let us unclench our fists of fear and hate and extend an open hand and an open heart to our brothers and sisters. And when we mess up, let us do what Jews do every year in the Days of Awe, recall this story – admit our failings, ask forgiveness, and begin together again in love.

Bibliography

Allen, Woody. “On Abraham and Knowing the Voice of the Lord.” Allen, Woody. Without Feathers. New York: Random House, 1975. 26-27. Print.

Artson, Bradley Shavit. Passing Life’s Tests: Spiritual Rflections on the Trial of Abraham, the Binding of Isaac. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2013. Print.

Baez, Joan. “Isaac and Abraham.” By Joan Baez, Wally Wilson and Kenny Greenberg.Play Me Backwards. New York, 1992. Compact Disc.

Berman, Louis A. The Akedah: the Binding of Isaac. Northvale, NJ: J. Aronson, 1997. Print.

Bryce, David M. “Forgiving the Unforgiveable.” 23 September 2102. First Church of Belmont (MA), Unitarian-Universalist. Sermon. 1 December 2015. <http://uubelmont.org/forgiving-the-unforgiveable/&gt;.

Cohen, Barbara and Charles Mikolaycak. The Binding of Isaac. New York: Harper Collins, 1978. Print.

Cohen, Leonard. “The Story of Isaac.” Songs from a Room. By Leonard Cohen. Nashville, 1969. Compact Disc.

Dittmar, Sharon. “The Binding of Isaac.” 24 September 2006. First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati, OH. Sermon. 1 December 2015. <http://lists.firstuu.com/Sunday_Services/Sermon_Archive/2006/9-24-06.pdf&gt;.

Dylan, Bob. “Highway 61 Revisited.” Highway 61 Revisited. By Bob Dylan. New York, 1965. Compact Disc.

Ehrman, Bart D. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer. New York: Harper Collins, 2009. Print.

Ganz, Mary McKinnon. “Awakening to the Meaning of Suffering.” 4 January 2009. Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, VA. Sermon. 1 December 2015. <http://www.uucava.org/page/awakening-to-the-meaning-of&gt;.

Goodman, James E. But Where is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac. NY: Schocken, 2013. Print.

Kirkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. Trans. Walter Lowrie. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.

Lerner, Elizabeth. “Hineini: Called to Be More.” 14 September 2008. Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Springs. Sermon. 01 December 2015. <http://www.uucss.org/worship/worshiplinks/Sermontranscript.php?date=2008-09-14&gt;.

Levy-Lyons, Ana. “God, the Outlaw.” 9 June 2013. First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn. Sermon. 1 December 2015. <http://www.fuub.org/home/god-the-outlaw/&gt;.

Moyers, Bill, et al. “The Test.” Genesis: a Living Conversation. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities, 1996. DVD.

Sacks, Jonathan. Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2015. Print.

Sifonietta, London and Oliver Knussen. “Abraham and Isaac.” Stravinsky: the Flood. By Igor Stravinsky. London, 1995. Compact Disc.

Wiesel, Elie. “The Binding of Isaac.” Great Figures of the Bible: Legends and Legacies of our Biblical Heroes. New York: Sisu Home Entertainment, 2004. DVD.

 

 

 

 

 

 

12
Dec
15

On the 23rd Anniversary of my “signing the book”

It was on a cloudy 12 December 1992 that I joined Rev. Nicholas Cardell, Jr. of May Memorial Unitarian Society of Syracuse in his office to “sign the book” of membership.  We were joined by his wife, who served as witness.  I chose the day, 12 December, because it was the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  When I do anything significant in my life, I like to choose a date that has some significance, if I have the choice.  I did not have a choice in my Christening date, nor on the date of my First Holy Communion (and First Confession), nor of my Confirmation (you only get one, hence no “first”).  Those dates were chosen for me (by my parents in the first case, and by St. Peter’s Parish, Dorchester, MA, in the second case, and by St. Peter’s and the Archdiocese of Boston in the last case).  When I got married, I had some say, but not a decisive say — my fiancee had some say (a lot of say) as did the church in Erie (first wedding) and in Kansas City (second wedding) as well as when the reception hall was available.

When I signed the book, something I’ve done 3 times — first, on 12 December 1992, at May Memorial, next on the Sunday closest to All Souls Day 1994 at All Souls’ Church in Kansas City, and most recently on 1 April 2012 at Shawnee Mission UU Church, now of Lenexa, KS.  My choice of the final date might seem as if I didn’t take religion or UUism seriously.  That perception would be false.  I take foolishness seriously.  I think that humor allows us, without benefit of pharmaceutical aids, to get to truths that would ordinarily elude us in our rational day-to-day life.  And I think that “playing the fool” is a liberating experience, something people look for in religion, and in gentle mockery, the all-powerful ego can be tricked, ever so briefly, into letting the guard down, and, for a moment playing along.

In choosing the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I was doing (or so I thought) three things.  One, I was connecting with my Catholic upbringing, which is never too far from my own religious path.  If I walk a Unitarian path, that path, for me, is illumined by Celtic spirituality and sensibility, with a Catholic flavor.  Two, for all my rationality, I am a sucker for miracles and revelation, especially those which point to a generous world of wonder.  In the story of Juan Diego, the poor Mexican native, who had a vision of what he imagined to be Mary on a hillside in Mexico.  The Catholic authorities were skeptical — after all, he was a poor native, someone who lacked the schooling of the Spanish clergy and civil authorities, to whom such visions should come.  When asked to provide proof, Juan Diego had no idea what to do.  After all, who was he to ask the celestial lady for proof?  But the lady complied — the proof was roses, roses in the wintertime.  Had I but known the hymn “Come, sing a song with me” at the time.  This story, in which the “least” are given a special power of vision, moves me a lot.  I am wont to tell people that “I live for revelation.”  And, in my life, I’ve had plenty of revelation, and witnessed plenty of miracles (nothing that contravenes the laws of physics). Three, this particular day serves as Valentine’s Day for Latinos (esp. those of Mexican descent), in which one gives a rose (red) to one’s beloved.  There is a line in Joni Mitchell’s song, “Clouds,” in which she hails the spirit that moves one “to say ‘I love you’ right out loud.” Of course, she later pooh poohs that spirit, but I’ve known that spirit, as has Mitchell, and I could think of no better day to say “I love you (or UU)” right out loud than 12 December as the day to “sign the book” for the first time.  You only get one “first time.”  And I wanted to do it right.

So to all who may be reading this post — Happy Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe!  Get yourself a rose (or two) to celebrate.  And think of the miraculous in your own life.  And as you do, I hope that finding wonder there, it helps make your day.

21
Mar
15

Lent, Day 28: A Reflection on Language and Grace

This morning I found myself watching some documentary in which Shakespeare and especially Shakespeare’s History Plays were being considered.  As I watched, I was aware, as I always am, in reading or hearing Shakespeare, just how masterful Shakespeare’s use of language is.  But Shakespeare is not just some huckster, pushing a particular idea or view by casting it into beautiful language.  He is a philosopher of language.  He takes words and uses them in new ways (the example I always record is “But me no buts” from Hamlet, where he takes a conjunction, “but,” and uses it as a verb — but he does this all the time using verbs as nouns, nouns as verbs and the like).  In doing that, not only does he show himself a master of language, but shows, in his play, the very malleability of language.  In beautiful and poetic language, he demonstrates that language is not fixed, as we can always use it in new and creative ways, and because language cannot be nailed down, it cannot “define” any eternal verities.

And the fact of the changeability of language is a cause of wonder for me.  I’m just amazed whenever anyone uses language in some creative way, playing with language to suggest new possibilities.

For me, this masterful use of language by someone like Shakespeare (or Bernard of Clairvaux, a man who was considered a master of Latin style in his day, whence his nickname, Doctor Mellifluus. — the mellifluous or honey-tongued doctor) is maybe even more significant in that I think there is little we can “know” outside the realm of language.  There is a truth beyond language — certainly the truths of ecstasy and of agony, where we are reduced to a series of interjections, are something beyond language.  But the world we know we know and express through language, and language tends to color the world we see.  In his book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum describes the wonderful green color of the emerald city, but that color is entirely due to the spectacles given to those who enter the city.  It is the green glass of the spectacles that make the Emerald City green, not the city itself.  I think language can have that effect as well.  For Bernard of Clairvaux, much of physical desire is cast in terms of sin, so that, instead of experiencing sexual pleasure, or the pleasures of the palate, Bernard is likely to condemn them as leading one astray.  It is language, with its binary nature, that leads Bernard and other Catholic writers of late antiquity and the Middle Ages to equate the mind and soul with the good, and the body with the base or bad, and so asceticism is good, but sexual or other pleasures are bad (suspicious at least).

But when poets are at their best, and Shakespeare is a poet at his best, language becomes a way to celebrate language itself, and by playing with it, demonstrate both its limitations and suggest something more than the words alone can say.  Shakespeare’s history plays are a good example of his use of language and how he uses language to suggest something else, something more.  They are largely based on Hollinshed’s Chronicles, and in some cases — the scene between the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Henry over the legal justification for his war with France — Shakespeare lifts whole lines and passages from Hollinshed, but in others, he takes great liberties to comment on the historical record as well as open up broader issues (what makes a ruler?  the ability to command (Henry IV and Henry V have that), or divine right of kings (which Richard II has on his side, despite his poor qualifications as a ruler);  what does it mean to be a good man or a good son?).

In his very use of language, Shakespeare demonstrates a kind of grace — his verbal dexterity can entrance us.  But part of what makes it full of grace in another way is that it does not use that verbal dexterity like commercial peddlers do — to convince us to purchase a particular product (“he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me”) — but rather to raise questions, to expand the discussion and our views.  At the beginning of Henry V, Shakespeare has an actor, as “chorus,” come out and suggest that the author, by his words, should excite the imagination of the audience so that they can see the “vasty fields of France” in the small confines of the Globe Theatre.  And I guess that’s what I see in language, and what I want in language — something to excite passions, dreams, tears, laughs, and something to provoke thought.  And in doing so, language reflects something greater than itself, and that seems to me my path to grace.