Archive for April, 2012


Easter, a New Beginning…

Though I’m done with the Lenten Observance (the Sundays and Easter, esp. are not part of Lent), I thought I’d write something on Easter.  Last Sunday, I signed the book at SMUUCH  (Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, in OPKS) — signing the book is the key action one takes to become a member of a particular Unitarian congregation.  Of course, one is expected to make monetary contributions, as you are at any church, but one is not a member until one signs the Membership Book.  I chose the date specifically — 1 April — because it is April Fools’ Day, not because I plan on using the date as an escape hatch (April Fools!), but rather because I have great fondness for fools and for humor.  My own spiritual journey is a lot about revelation and wonder, and about humor which tends to do the same thing that koans do — mess with the ego and superego — and I think that a key element of spiritual development.  And it was that playful aspect of foolishness that I was highlighting by choosing to become a member at that church on that day.  Today was Easter which has an important part to play in my Unitarian journey.  When I lived in Syracuse, NY, I was part of a storytelling group there called Salt City Storytellers.  Many of the members of that group were also members of May Memorial Unitarian Society and the group had its meetings there, including their monthly concerts/open mike nights.  So I had been in the building for about a year and felt it seemed a bit strange for a church.  The sanctuary was very plain — wooden walls, wooden pews, a dais and a lectern.  What was special about the sanctuary was that it had a very small cupola with glass walls, and small windows at the top of the walls.  The sanctuary was often dark, even during the day, as Syracuse gets only about 50-60 days of sun a year.  Well, in 1993, we hadn’t seen more than a day or two of sun in the winter and early spring.  Easter looked like another cloudy and rainy day.  But at some point in the service the sun did come out,and given the position of the small windows, the sanctuary filled with light.  It had a great effect on all in the sanctuary, including the minister, Nick Cardell, Jr.  And it had an effect on me, a moment of wonder that I saw as an invitation.  And then Nick began his sermon, “What if they found the body?”  in which he argued that the matter of Christ’s bodily resurrection was not something that mattered to most Unitarians, and he felt that the discovery of the body would not have lessened the message of the gospels.  In other words, one could be a follower of Christian values as set out in the gospels without being a Christian member of a Christian church.  That was the message that sold me and convinced me that I would join May Memorial.  Though I didn’t sign the book until 12/12/93 — the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I count my status as a Unitarian from that conversion moment, on Easter 19 years ago.  Nick’s sermon reinforced my idea that I could believe in a human Jesus, without the whole Redeemer and personal Savior stuff added.  It was a wonderful moment.  I have had some conversations with people I knew in college (College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA) who have maintained that Jesus’ message is, in the eyes of the world, nonsense.  What gives it power is that he died and was resurrected, and that he redeemed us.  But I don’t consider that message non-sense.  And I know far too many Christians (and I’d include a lot of people in business schools at Catholic universities) who put more value on economic theory than Jesus’ gospel to the poor.  So much for the redemptive power — for some of those I’ve met who attended or graduated from Catholic business schools Jesus’ saving them is seen by them as giving them license to prosper at others’ expense.  But I like the idea of the message divorced from the messenger — I’m sort of a “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.”  I’m not advocating violence against Buddha or Jesus, but the cult of personality seems to excuse followers for bad behavior, and it devalues the importance of the message outside the framework of a particular denomination or its congregants.  So, I thank Nick Cardell for that message nearly 2 decades ago.  I found it poetic and inspiring, and because of it, and the light on a cloudy day, I am now a Unitarian.


Lenten Observance: Day 40

Holy Saturday — my chief memory of Holy Saturday comes from when, in HS, I was one of the altar boys in the whole cadre of altar boys (there must have been about 40) who were in the procession at the beginning of the service.  On Holy Saturday, the church service begins in the dark (Christ is in the tomb, after all), and the Perpetual Candle for the New Year is lit, and the old year’s candle is switched out with the new.  Fr. Tolland was the primary server at the service (all 4 priests were there) — the lighting of the candle took place at the front of the church, and the first few pews were filled with altar boys, so we had a great seat.  No artificial means are supposed to be used in the lighting of the candle (so matches are o.k., or one can use flint to get a spark going).  The church had bought a match that always lit — it involved striking metal against the flint, and the spark would catch the fabric wick and catch fire.  That was the theory.  In this case, the match didn’t light.  What I recall is Fr. Tolland striking the match against the flint and hearing a quiet “Damn;”  again a strike and again a “Damn;” one more attempt, and then a more flustered “Goddamn it!”  Fr. Tolland then reached into his pocket pulled out a Bic lighter and lit the candle.  In its own way, it was a moment of comic beauty.

Tao 79, 80, and 81

79: “Failure is an opportunity.”  Wow, I’ve got plenty of opportunities!  Of course, Thomas Edison is credited with saying that the secret to success was failing 99 times  and getting it right on the 100th.  I think there is some truth here.  The US doesn’t like failure and likes less to admit it, but getting something wrong can be a step closer to getting something right. 

80: “If a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content.”  This  chapter I found a bit puzzling as it seemed to suggest that happy people are content with their lot, don’t go anywhere, and don’t really need anything.  This seems to suggest that progress is not a good idea.  And I wonder about that.  Travel is not just an escape by people who are dissatisfied, but a way to get another POV on things.  Travel is broadening. 

81: Again, the work ends with the idea “by not dominating, the Master leads.”  It also says that “true words aren’t eloquent; eloquent words aren’t true.”  And I only partly believe this.  The Tao itself is fairly eloquent, and revisits the same idea over and over again, but that does not make it false.  One could say that eloquence can mask a lie, and that too fancy a presentation is likely to mask its truth with its pyrotechnics.  That said, one needs to get people’s attention and to get them to entertain an idea.  That involves some “framing” of the matter.  After all, the story of the Crucifixion that won out was that Jesus was a great religious leader but a threat to the political world which killed him, but his words (and some say he) live on.  Had the Roman Empire never fell, the dominant story might have been that he was a rabble-rousing troublemaker who wanted to destroy Rome, but Roman authorities dealt with the problem.  Framing is important. 

And now we are at an end of Lent.  I was glad that I took the time each day (about 15 min) to write something.  Most of what I had to say was my flailing around, but the discipline of the writing helped me at least.  Have a happy Easter!


Lenten Observance: Day 39

Good Friday — I have to say that Good Friday was one of my favorite days as a Catholic kid growing up, and remained so even into adulthood.  I don’t do much in the way of observing Good Friday any more, not so much because I am no longer a practising Catholic, but because I’m generally working on Good Friday, and so don’t have the opportunity to go to a Good Friday service (in my experience, they are usually around 3 in the afternoon).  Still, Good Friday has some power for me, just as Extreme Unction still has power as a sacrament.  For many, Good Friday is the downer prelude to the greatest of holidays, Easter Sunday.  I remember watching The Passion of the Christ and being most struck by the “Easter” moment in that film.  At the end of the film (maybe after the credits — I don’t recall), we have a muscular Jesus get up from his tomb and walk offscreen to the right.  It didn’t look like the Jesus I’d imagined, all bright and shiny and loving, but rather like an action hero getting up for Round II — “this time, it’s personal!”  But I digress.  On Good Friday and Extreme Unction — what was most comforting to me as a kid was the idea that at the end, when feeling the most alone, there would be someone there for me was powerful and it made Extreme Unction my # 2 sacrament (after Confession).  And on Good Friday, we see what that lonely death looks like in its starkest form.  A prophet speaking out in contradiction to the state and religious authority’s power is silenced.  And because we all have a strong self-preservation instinct, his disciples ran away to save themselves.  And yet, as an audience hearing that story, we are there with Jesus, and that moment of death and loss is a powerful one.  In a way, as sympathetic listeners to the story, or as one of the people enacting the narrative (Good Friday services would generally be performed by the priest and some members of the parish — the congregation gets to be the crowd — “Crucify him!” is our big line), that scene can have tremendous effect.  It can help one notice someone who is alone, and gently reminding that person that you see him/her.  It can lead to the courage of someone like Oscar Romero, archibshop of San Salvador, who was gunned down in church by government thugs.  It can lead to the sentiment expressed by Karl Malden‘s character in On the Waterfront, as he speaks a few words over a man who was killed because he spoke to authorities, that Jesus is down here with the guys in the hold, and that the killing of Dugan “was a crucifixion.” 

Tao 77 & 78:

77: The Tao as a force keeping everything in balance.  The metaphor of a bow that bends at both ends is used, but the line “They take from those who don’t have enough and give to those who have far too much,” in talking about those who fight against the Tao, I found most powerful.  It sounds like a call for economic justice, but it can be a form of any sort of justice, arguing for affirmative action, and for being on the lookout against racial profiling.  If we are wealthy in this country, we have certain advantages that the poor do not have, and if we are part of the dominant culture, we may go through life without some of the suspicions that are leveled against people of color.  Correcting those imbalances seems the right thing to do, but acknowledging the problem here is the least we can do. 

78: “True words seem paradoxical.”  This whole chapter is another variation on the softness of water, but how it can chip away at the hard rocks.  This metaphor is a common one (the ancient Greeks and Romans use it as well), but sometimes I wonder of the effect.  True, the Chinese autocratic government cannot crush the spirit of the Dalai Lama, but they do make life miserable for many Tibetans who have lost the leader they feel has legitimate position.  And we may sympathize with the Dalai Lama and let his wisdom wash over us, but it seems that passive resistance alone has little effect on what a powerful adversary can do.   According to theTao, it can work, but at times I wonder how.  As to words being paradoxical — words are slippery things;  they change meaning over time and have meaning only in the context of other words (sort of like Tofu, they take on the flavors around them).  And so that makes me wonder what “absolute” truth we can hold and put into words.  Of course, this goes back to the opening chapter — the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.


Lenten Observance: Day 38

Well, today is Holy Thursday — as an altar boy I have a memory of being one of the guys who got to sit on the altar area as Msgr. Doyle washed our feet (to show humility, I guess — and Msgr. Doyle was a pretty humble guy).  I was worried about laughing (ticklish feet), but I managed to keep a stone face (just barely).  My mom was worried about my stinky feet causing the aged Msgr. Doyle to pass out, or for him to get angry at my having stinky feet or my having holes in my sock (which the disciples never had!).  So I had to get ready for my foot close-up by washing my feet and putting on new socks before heading to church.  Success, mom!  He never suspected the usual condition of my feet and socks.

Tao 75 & 76:

75: “When taxes are too high, people go hungry.  When the government is too intrusive, people lose their spirit.”  Boy, this sounds like a libertarian political ad.  Of course, the high taxes that the Tao’s author is talking about would be quite a bit higher and oppressive than anything we’ve ever seen.  And taxes in a monarchy, esp. an absolute monarchy or near-absolute monarchy, go to the king for whatever the king wants (golden throne, or the like) and that helps no one.  In a representative government or a democracy, the people, ideally, choose where the money goes.  And that is different — it is rather like congregationally based churches — if the congregation doesn’t pledge, the church, as a unit, cannot do so much.  Likewise, if taxes are cut too far, then the government cannot do anything, which the libertarians would support, but I’m not sure Lao Tzu necessarily agrees.  And these days, on the intrusive side, boy is there a lot to talk about — look at surveillance practices — in a way, it’s showtime for us all, most of the time.  And women and their reproductive rights are coming under the governmental microscope in a lot of states.

76: “Men are born soft and supple; dead, they are stiff and hard…”  We’ve seen this before, that the way of the Tao allows for and encourages flexibility and response, rather than intransigence.  It is also, I think, the idea behind the statement of Christ in the NT about accepting the kingdom of God as a little child.  Most see it as accepting the kingdom of God without criticism.  I think that it may have more to do with the idea in The Color Purple — that it “pisses God off when you pass by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it” (not exact quote).  A child looks at the world in wonder, and reacts to the wonder of the world with open heart and open mind.  We don’t have to go all the way to corpses to find stiff and hard… As we get older, our limbs and joints harden up, and our bones get more brittle, and our blood vessels get more blockage.  But we have a choice with  our minds and our hearts.  Biologically, our hearts may give out, but following the Tao, our hearts don’t need to give out spiritually.


Lenten Observance: Day 37

Tao 73 & 74

73: “The Tao is always at ease.  It overcomes without competing…”  Again the idea of wu wei, of doing/not-doing.  The idea of being at ease suggests that it is not tense, and not worked up.  That does not mean that it cannot do things, but it doesn’t work itself up into a state over doing things.  Often my 6-ness (Enneagram 6) causes me to play out all sorts of disaster scenarios (very time consuming and energy draining).  And often I find that I cannot just relax;  there is within me the sense that, if I relax, all will collapse.  Strangely, I think that all may collapse anyways, but, if I have put some time into planning and worrying, I absolve myself of guilt.  In the area of “at ease,” I have much to learn still. 

74: “If you aren’t afraid of dying, there is nothing you can’t achieve.”  Though I am afraid of dying, I have learned not to be afraid of getting up in front of people (which is a big fear);  as a result, though I am an introvert by nature, I can seem an extrovert and can enjoy being in the spotlight.  It used to petrify me if I had to get up before people, and so I did that badly.  Once I was able to overcome that fear, I still bomb from time to time, but less so, and have more enjoyment.  In improvisation, one of the rules is “Yes, and…”  Take what your partner gives (don’t deny it) and see what you can do with the gift.  It’s a good way to live life — when I am at my best, I think I can do this pretty well.  Unfortunately, fear is ever present in my life, so I find myself second-guessing, or trying to trump a gift given (a way of denial rather than acceptance).    The end of 74 deals with using the master carpenter’s tools.  If you are not the master carpenter, you will cut yourself.  To me that sounds almost like mixed signals, and would likely intimidate me from taking up the master carpenter’s tools.


Lenten Observance: Day 36

Tao 71 & 72

71: “Not-knowing is true knowledge.  Presuming to know is a disease.”  Of course, the author is not attacking wisdom or knowledge, or knowing things.  Knowing to live the Tao would be a form of knowledge.  This is an attack on the “experts.”  When people become experts, there is a tendency for others to revere them, and for the experts themselves to get caught up in their own expertise (this is when they lecture and pontificate).  And they confuse their own expertise, which may be extensive, for true knowledge, which it is  not, and they don’t see opportunities to get knowledge which doesn’t fit their paradigm.

72: “When they lose their sense of awe, people turn to religion…”  When what starts as wonder and awe at the majesty of the world becomes crystalized, it becomes “organized religion,” and then the followers of a particular group hold on to various dogmas.  In science, we can see this in the case of the geocentric view — long after it became untenable to hold to Ptolemy’s system, the church and other groups held on to it, despite evidence to the contrary.  And there is the chance that years from now, scientific truths we hold will come under attack and those who have a vested interest in the theories of today will dig in and fight any changes.  Of course, we see this turn to fundamentalism today as a case of the people losing their sense of awe and wonder.  And I’d include dogmatic atheism in this mix as well — at times, it seems all dogmatic people have is dogma and they lose the wonder of life lived, with all its messiness and complexity.


Lenten Observance: Day 35

Tao 69 & 70

69: Here we have a military metaphor — the generals know that it is best to understand your enemy, and to wait and see, rather than to rush in.  But the line that really jumped out at me following an injunction not to underestimate your enemy, “Underestimating your enemy means thinking he is evil.”  And this seems a large part of fighting in a war — the enemy is demonized and dehumanized (as a means of placating the conscience, I guess), but such actions then tends to justify all sorts of atrocities against the enemy — after all, if the enemy is some inhuman monster, any action taken against him/her is justifiable.  Yipes!  Of course, I wonder if you can continue to view the other as the “enemy” if you begin to understand that person, which would mean more waiting and seeing and less rushing in.

70: We’re almost in “koan” land here:  “My teachings are easy to understand and easy to put into practice.  Yet your intellect will never grasp them, and if you try to practice them, you’ll fail.”  Sounds very Holmesian — of course it’s elementary, Watson, but your puny intelligence can’t get at it.  There has to be more than that here.  I’m guessing that part of the point is that when we try to “understand” something, to apply the intellect to a problem, we are limited in our grasp, as our way of understanding involves more than our reasoning mind.   In the case of human interaction, we can fall in love, but we cannot analyze our way into love.  We have to feel it.  So the problem here is not that it is impossible to get this, but it is impossible (or almost so) for the intellect to get at it.