everyday deeds of ordinary folk. May 7, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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Everyday Deeds of Ordinary Folk
A sermon about Oppression by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on May 5, 2013
Moment for All Ages
The moment for all ages was the book The Juice Box Bully by Bob Sornson and Maria Dismondy. In this story, Pete starts at a new school. In his new classroom, all the children have made a promise to not be bystanders, to take care of themselves, each other, and their classroom.
Poor Pete. He had been picked on at his old school and he had learned to hurt others before he himself got hurt. What a blessing it must have been for him to end up in Mr. Peltzer’s class, where his inherent worth and dignity were affirmed and where the kids would not tolerate cruelty to anyone – even to a bully. Yay Mr. Peltzer – what a great teacher!
Starting today, our ministry theme for the month is “oppression.” On the back of your order of service are some quotes and reflection questions that you can use to help you think about oppression. Oppression and cruelty are similar and overlap, but they are not exactly the same. I used the story The Juice Box Bully because most young children can’t distinguish the difference. I am reminded of the story of a 2 year old telling her playground friends “Don’t oppress me!”
Cruelty is a component of oppression. However, anyone can be cruel to someone else. It takes authority or power over someone in order to oppress them. Oppression is the exercise of authority, or power, in a cruel and unjust manner.
In our story, if the teacher had been being cruel to the students, that would have been an example of oppression, because a teacher has authority and power over students. If bullying has been reported to a school and the school chooses to ignore it, the school becomes oppressive. Power can also mean physical power, so if Pete had kept going and used his physical prowess to bully the other students, that could have become oppression. Likewise, when we experience cruelty or injustice from a boss or higher-up at work, this can be an example of oppression.
We know oppression happens on a larger scale as well. Today is not only Cinco de Mayo (a celebration of the Mexican victory over France at the Battle of Puebla), it is also Holocaust Memorial Day – a day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust, in which millions of Jewish people were brutally oppressed and murdered by the German Nazi regime.
We know oppression does not always involve genocide. The cause of the American Revolution is often understood as Americans fighting for liberation from British oppression.
And we know oppression is not only in the past. Today, women are oppressed in fundamentalist Islamic countries. In Uganda, gay, lesbian and bisexual people are oppressed and murdered because of their sexual orientation. Racial oppression still exists in the United States – if you doubt that let me share that my sermon about white privilege, which I posted online over a year ago, just yesterday received a comment by a local white supremacist who called me a traitor and a communist (I must be doing something right!) He identified himself as a white male – of course – and claimed to be oppressed on this basis. But this is NOT how oppression works: if you have power as a result of being part of the dominant culture, if you have nearly every privilege imaginable, if the vast majority of those in power in the government and in business are people like you, then you are probably not oppressed. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wisely prayed: “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”
Persecution is a type of vioent, harassing oppression. But being contradicted is not. This leads to the question of what are some of the characteristics of oppression? There are four particular qualities of oppression I would like to talk about this morning.
First, oppression is a form of systemic evil. I spoke about evil a few weeks ago, and talked about it being connected to lack of empathy. In that sermon, I briefly mentioned systemic evil, and said I would talk about it today, because systemic evil and oppression go hand in hand.
Systemic evil refers to a complex system or process, in which each small activity may seem harmless. Yet, the output of the system, the product of connecting the individual actions together, becomes harmful and cruel. For example, the March 2013 issue of Louisville Magazine has an excellent set of articles that detail the way the residents in the West End, primarily African Americans, are constantly and consistently oppressed in a complex cycle that continues to get worse. The infant mortality rate for African-Americans in Louisville is more than twice that for white residents. The death rate for African-Americans in Louisville is 39% higher than for white residents, for all causes of death. When you limit your cause of death to specific diseases, like lung cancer or diabetes, you are twice as likely to die of the disease if you are African American. There are many layers to this systemic evil: lack of access to healthcare, lack of access to healthy food, poor schools, consistently cut public transportation service, depressed real-estate values, lack of job opportunities, to name just a few. Each year, it seems, more decisions are made that marginalize and oppress the people in the West End. These decisions, taken individually, may not seem so bad, but combined together result in a systemic evil that is harmful and oppressive.
Second, the effects of oppression can be enduring: they don’t go away when the obvious oppression ends. The student who was bullied may suffer from longterm physical or emotional harm depending on the type and duration of the mistreatment. The plight of Native Americans in this country is testament to how damaging oppression can be to a culture. Even though official discrimination and oppression against Native Americans has been illegal for many years, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, for example, the school dropout rate is 70% and 97% of the residents live below the federal poverty rate. The unemployment rate is between 83-85%. The average life expectancy is only 45 years old, and the infant mortality rate is about 300% higher than the U.S. national average.1The legacy of oppression endures for generations.
The third aspect of oppression that I want to touch on today is that oppressors are also damaged in the process. Booker T. Washington famously said “You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him.” Misogyny hurts men because when one of the worst put-downs to a man is to call him a woman, then a man feels he must repress his emotions and anything else that might be labeled as “feminine,” stunting personal growth and prohibiting true intimacy. Similarly, homophobia hurts heterosexual people: men in particular learn to avoid physical affection with other men and any other actions that might be construed as “gay.” Racism towards people of color hurts white people because whites may experience a sense of being cut off from, of not belonging with, or being welcomed by, people of color (who are a majority of the world’s population).
We have talked about this before: when we objectify someone or some group of people as “other,” we have to wall off a part of our brain that feels empathy and compassion for that group of people, which can cause a cognitive dissonance because we are trying to hold in our minds competing, conflicting ideas as truth. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere observes “This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.”
Of course, Friere’s quote, when taken out of context like this, makes it seem as though it is the responsibility of the oppressed to liberate themselves. But this responsibility also lies with those of us who are not oppressed. This is the fourth characteristic of oppression I want to touch on this morning: It is our moral obligation, our duty, to work to free both those oppressed and their oppressors because we are all a part of the interdependent web of existence and I cannot be spiritually whole unless you are too.
It can be difficult, though, to know where to begin when we struggle against oppression – whether to free ourselves or someone else. We may feel as though we have to do something BIG. But Gandalf the Grey Wizard reminds us in the movie “The Hobbit”, that while some might believe that “only great power that can hold evil in check” but that is not what he has found. Gandalf says “I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”
The class in “The Juice Box Bully” gives us some ways that we can implement these small everyday deeds into our lives. The class had made a set of promises to themselves. Four of their promises can give us pointers as to where to begin when we fight against oppression.
First, we will not be bystanders. Martin Luther King, Jr. wisely observed, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” The silence by the good people is, in part, explained by the bystander effect, which says that the more people there are around to witness a crime, the less likely any of the witnesses are to do something about it.
This is a powerful tool for fighting against oppression – to not just stand by and watch, or cover our eyes, when we see oppression happening, but to name it. We don’t have to dive right into the middle of a war or a fight or an abusive situation, but we can make sure that we stand up and call oppression for what it is. Silence makes us complicit and part of the problem. It is easy for those of us in privileged positions to ignore how our actions, or lack thereof, can lead to oppression, but we do this at our own harm.
This leads to the second thing we can do in our everyday lives to battle oppression: we can choose to not participate in oppression. Now, this one is often easier said than done. We make decisions every day that have an impact on others. It is virtually impossible to live in the United States without being complicit in the oppression of others elsewhere in the world. But we can pay attention and choose avoid it wherever possible.
I cannot help but think of the collapse of the clothing factory in Bangladesh last week. Over 700 people were killed when the poorly built 8-story building collapsed under the weight of overcapacity and heavy machinery. There are many such factories in Bangladesh and around the world, funded by the demand for cheap clothes in places such as the United States. Western retailers put heavy pressure on companies for low prices, resulting in bad pay and poor conditions for workers.
So that cheap t-shirt that I bought last month at the discount store, a t-shirt which was likely made in some sweatshop factory with terrible working conditions, connects me directly to the human beings who made the t-shirt, connects me to their working conditions, connects me to their lives. But knowledge is power. Now that I know how my clothing choices affect people on the other side of the world, I can choose be more careful. Now that I know how low-wage laborers are exploited in coffee plantations, I can choose to buy fair-trade. Whenever we are made aware of how we are participating in oppression, we can work to stop being complicit in such activities.
Which leads to a third way we can work against oppression in our everyday lives: we can forgive ourselves and others when we fail. Because we will – usually unintentionally. What we know about systemic evil is that the cogs in the machinery often don’t realize until too late their role in oppression. If we demonize ourselves or others when we fail, we dehumanize them, which just feeds into the cycle. Instead, forgive even the bully, make it clear that the behavior won’t be tolerated in the future, and move once again toward right relations.
Which is not as easy as it may sound. So the final way we can work against oppression in our everyday lives that I want to touch on this morning is to ask for help and join with others. When we speak together in the world, our voices are magnified. And besides, oppression is all around us and it can be lonely and demoralizing and exhausting to try to tackle it on our own. We need one another when our strength or endurance fails. As Margaret Mead wisely said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
In these ways, we can act with love and compassion to overcome oppression. Because oppression is a form of systemic evil with long lasting repercussions that harms both the oppressed and the oppressor, we understand it is our moral obligation and human responsibility to work to create the beloved community with peace, liberty and justice for all. For every great leader for a cause, there are hundreds, thousands, or even millions of everyday folks who go about their lives, working against oppression in small ways, speaking up for themselves and for others. Like the kids who speak up when they see someone being hurt or bullied. Or the DMV clerk a friend of mine witnessed, who would not allow a husband to answer questions for his obviously dominated wife. Or the black and white students in Georgia who, for the first time ever in their county this year, bucked tradition and put on an integrated prom. Everyday deeds of ordinary folks can create a culture of love and compassion, which truly can save us from systemic evil and oppression. May it be so. May we make it so.
transcendence. April 8, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on April 7, 2013
We had gotten up three hours earlier and to make drive around the island and were finally heading up route 550. The road was winding and I was not comfortable with the rightward pull of the rental car, so we were going pretty slow on our way up to Koke’e State Park in Kaua’i. As the road turned precariously, we noticed a look-off point and pulled over for a short break. The view was breath-taking – Waimea Canyon opened up before us. I realized, first-hand, why this amazing canyon is called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” – it is 10 miles long and up to 3000 feet deep, having been formed by both the steady process of erosion and by the collapse of the volcano that created the island Kauaʻi. The lookout point was near a peak. The red of the clay, the green of the foliage and the blue of the ocean beyond were highlighted by the rays of sunlight coming out from behind fluffy gray and white clouds. Suddenly, a double rainbow formed stretching from one end of the canyon to the other. And I wept.
I wept, because it was so beautiful. And so big. And so, so old. And my life was so insignificant and tiny and precious and amazing in the face of something so ancient and huge. And I wept because I was a part of this amazing cycle of nature that had created both my puny wonderful life and this grand awe-inspiring canyon and in fact we were made of the same star stuff that exploded from the big bang millions of years ago.
I wept. And I remembered one of my favorite lines from the movie Contact, based on the book by Carl Sagan. Ellie Arroway is a scientist who has been sent into space and travels through wormholes and sees planets and solar systems and more. When she comes upon a celestial event, she is struck dumb by the experience: “No words,” she says “No words to describe it. Poetry! They should’ve sent a poet. So beautiful.”
When we experience the transcendent, that which is larger than us, we are often left without words. Because the transcendent is so much larger than we can comprehend. Unitarian Universalist minister Karen Herring points out that poetry can help us talk about the transcendent “because it is all about pointing.” The poet says “Look here! Experience this!” Like this poem, What Is There Beyond Knowing? from Mary Oliver:
What is there beyond knowing that keeps
calling to me? I can’t
turn in any direction
but it’s there. I don’t mean
the leaves’ grip and shine or even the thrush’s
silk song, but the far-off
fires, for example,
of the stars, heaven’s slowly turning
theater of light, or the wind
playful with its breath;
or time that’s always rushing forward,
or standing still
in the same — what shall I say –
What I know
I could put into a pack
as if it were bread and cheese, and carry it
on one shoulder,
important and honorable, but so small!
While everything else continues, unexplained
and unexplainable. How wonderful it is
to follow a thought quietly
to its logical end.
I have done this a few times.
But mostly I just stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing
in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain.
If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass
and the weeds.
There are many ways that we transcend. We can transcend our living circumstances. We can transcend the boundaries of our social class. We can transcend something that we feel pulls us into the depths – whether that is an experience where we choose to take the high road, or where we overcome the anxiety that threatens to pull us downward. And those are all valid understandings of ways we transcend – ways we rise above. But that is not what I am talking about today. Today I am talking about the experience of the transcendent. The experience of knowing that we belong to a larger reality, or as Fred Campbell puts it, when we “participate in the larger process of creativity that permeates our universe.”
Experiences like that of Thomas Merton on March 19, 1958. Merton was a famous writer, Catholic mystic, and Trappist monk. On that day 55 years ago, he was here in Louisville, standing at the corner of Fourth and Walnut (what is now Muhammad Ali Boulevard). That day, he wrote in his journal:
“Suddenly I realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream — the dream of separateness, of the ‘special’ vocation to be different…I am still a member of the human race — and what more glorious destiny is there…Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race, like all the rest of them.”
The spot at the entrance to 4th Street Live where Merton had his epiphany, where he had this experience of transcendence, is marked with a historical marker. But I think that the marker is there because of who Merton was, not because his experience of the transcendence was unique to him. Indeed, many of us have stories of experiencing the transcendent, of experiencing our own particular uniqueness in the context of something so, so much larger. Chris shared one of his stories in his reflection. On the back of your order of service are two stories by other Unitarian Universalists who have shared their experiences. Personally, my experience of Waimea Canyon is one of several ways I have connected with the transcendent – I have felt my own unique preciousness in the face of vast largeness when I was pregnant (knowing that every human being in all of time has been carried in the womb of a woman and that I was participating in something that was unique and universal at the same time); or when I held a baby goat and felt in my whole body my connection to the interdependent web of existence of which both I and the kid were a part of; or whenever I get a chance to get away from a city and gaze up at the Milky Way and pause to consider the size and age and wonder of the universe.
Another poet points to it like this. Primary Wonder by Denise Levertov:
Days pass when I forget the mystery.
Problems insoluble and problems offering
their own ignored solutions
jostle for my attention, they crowd its antechamber
along with a host of diversions, my courtiers, wearing
their colored clothes; caps and bells.
once more the quiet mystery
is present to me, the throng’s clamor
recedes: the mystery
that there is anything, anything at all,
let alone cosmos, joy, memory, everything,
rather than void: and that, 0 Lord,
Creator, Hallowed one, You still,
hour by hour sustain it.
Indeed, this experience of the transcendent is a part of where we as Unitarian Universalists find insight. The very first source in our Principles and Purposes says that we find inspiration and truth in the “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;”
For Merton and Levertov, the name of the transcendent is God. But as Chris aptly pointed out in his reflection, some of the most mystic authors are atheists. An experience of the transcendent transcends (if you will) theology and cuts across all cultures and religions. It is a humbling experience that makes room for empathy and compassion.
In our own faith tradition, this transcending of traditional theology has its start in the aptly named Transcendentalist movement in the 19th century. These were mostly Unitarians who moved beyond a Bible-based religion and into an experience of the divine that could be accessed by anyone, anywhere, anytime. These folks, who include such luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson, his friend Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Amos Bronson Alcott, William Ellery Channing, James Freeman Clarke (one of the first ministers of this congregation!), Walt Whitman, and Theodore Parker (who wrote first of the moral arc of the universe and it’s bend toward justice).
In 1836, four years after he had resigned from the Unitarian ministry to become a lecturer but two years before he gave his Divinity School address at Harvard, Emerson published his first book, Nature. It’s publication marks the beginning of the Transcendentalist movement. Listen to this excerpt:
In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.
This was radical, RADICAL stuff Emerson was saying. The Transcendentalists were not saying that God was transcendent and beyond, instead they were saying that the divine is immanent, all around us, within us – available to us at all time and through diverse ways. They looked at the Bible and declared that the miracles of Jesus were not proof that the Bible was true, as was the party-line at the time. They went on to say that the teachings of Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism were just as valid a way of describing this ultimate reality as was Christianity. They were transcending religion as it was at the time and moved toward an ultimate universalism. They shaped not only Unitarianism but our entire culture. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes the Transcendentalists “one of the first and most dramatic protests against civil religion in America. Perhaps even more significantly, transcendentalism marked the first substantial attempt in American history to retain the spiritual experience and potential of the Christian faith without any of the substance of its belief.”
Without the Transcendentalists, who were, it should be noted, despised by the traditional Unitarian church at the time, we would not have had room for the Humanists. Without the Humanists we would not have had room for the Pagans. It is not a stretch to say that without the Transcendentalists, our faith tradition (which prizes our own direct experience as a source of truth and inspiration) would not exist as we currently know it today.
From the transcendentalist poet William Wordsworth:
And I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts;
A sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
A motion and a spirit, that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
“Rolls through all things,” Wordsworth writes. Because for the Transcendentalists and for Unitarian Universalists today, an experience of the transcendent is not far away but is right here. It is the realization that we are a part of something larger, that I am not the biggest thing there is (thank goodness!). Unitarian Universalist minister Meg Riley writes that “Transcendence does not mean that the holy exists separately from the beauty and heartbreak of life on earth, which pulses in our bodies and daily lives…Rather, divine mystery is woven throughout every moment of time, every cell of our aging and imperfect bodies, every interaction and choice. Our spiritual practice is to remember to see it!”
We call the transcendent by many names: Mystery, Wonder, Spirit of Life, God, Divine, Ground of our Being, Goddess, Grandmother, Grandfather, and so much more. It is an experience of that which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. It is the realization of our own, unique, precious, wonderful miniscule lives as a part of the creative processes of Nature, of the Universe, of LIFE which is so much grander than we can comprehend that we sometimes need poets to help us point to it. Poets, like the Sufi poet Hafiz, whose mysticism speaks to me of the immanence and accessibility of the transcendent in ways that move me and to whom I give the last word this morning:
Cloak yourself in a thousand ways; still shall I know you, my Beloved.
Veil yourself with every enchantment and yet I shall feel you, Presence most dear, close and intimate.
I shall salute you in the springing of cypresses and in the sheen of lakes, the laughter of fountains.
I shall surely see you in tumbling clouds, in brightly embroidered meadows.
Oh, Beloved Presence, more beautiful than all the stars together, I trace your face in ivy that climbs, in clusters of grapes, in morning flaming the mountains, in the clear arch of sky.
You gladden the whole earth and make every heart great.
You are the breathing of the world.
Amen. Ashe. And very, very blessed be.
Easter: a back story. March 31, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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Easter: The Back Story
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on March 31, 2013.
Listen to the sermon here.
Holy Week, as celebrated by Christians around the world, honors the last week of Jesus’ life. Because our country is steeped in Christian culture, and because it is part of our heritage as Unitarian Universalists, it behooves us to be familiar with the story. One version goes like this: On Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem while crowds of people covered the streets ahead of him with their cloaks and with palm branches. Monday was not the best – he visited the Temple and got furious at the money-changers that had set up shop there. Jesus lost his temper and chased them out of the Temple. After that, Jesus spent Tuesday and probably Wednesday preaching in and around Jerusalem.
On Thursday, things started to shift. Jesus ate a last meal with his disciples. It is during this meal that Jesus famously broke bread and drank wine, asking his disciples to do all this in his memory in the future. After the supper, Jesus and his disciples went to Gethsemane to pray. The disciple Judas had previously made arrangements with the Temple Guard to identify Jesus to them. While in Gethsemane, Judas came up to Jesus and kissed Jesus on the cheek. Jesus was then arrested by the Temple guard and taken to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court.
The men who held Jesus mocked him and beat him. On Friday morning, things went downhill at break-neck speed. The Sanhedrin took Jesus before Pilate at the Roman Court. Pilate asked Jesus, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered and said to him, “It is as you say.” The priests went on to accuse Jesus of many things while Pilate mostly seemed confused.
Pilate had a tradition of releasing one prisoner during this time. He asked the crowd if they would like him to release Jesus. The crowd insisted that Pilate release a murder named Barabbas rather than release Jesus. The crowd got more and more stirred up and insisted that Pilate should crucify Jesus. Pilate conceeded to the crowd.
The soldiers took Jesus and they stripped him and put a robe on him. They twisted a crown of thorns on his head and mocked him. Then they spat on him, took the robe off and led Jesus away. A man named Simon carried the cross for Jesus, as he was by this time to weak to carry it himself.
Then the soldiers nailed his hands and feet to the cross. Over his head was written: KING OF THE JEWS.
Other criminals were being crucified at this same time. One of them said to Jesus: “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.” Another took a different tact: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus said to this one, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
In the afternoon, the sun darkened, the ground rumbled and the veil of the temple was torn in two. Jesus cried out to God, and then he died.
Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate allowed it. When Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his new tomb and he rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb and departed.
Saturday was a day of mourning.
On Sunday, Mary Magdalene and possibly some other women went to see the tomb. There was a great earthquake and an angel descended from heaven. The angel rolled back the stone from the tomb and sat on it. He said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he is risen, as he said….And go quickly and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead, and indeed he is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him.”
The women raced off, and ran into Jesus on the way. They cried with joy. That evening, Jesus stood in the presence of his disciples and said, “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands and his side which had been pierced with the sword. Jesus spoke with the disciples for some amount of time, and then ascended into Heaven.
That is the most common Easter story, with some changes here and there. For instance, the specific words Jesus cried out when he died depends on which Gospel you are reading:
- The author of the Gospel of Mark has Jesus cry out words from the 22nd Psalm: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me!”
- The author of the Gospel of Luke has Jesus say “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit”
- The author of the Gospel of John reports that Jesus says “It is finished.”
There are other differences as well. The story I just told comes from the Gospel of Matthew. The Gospel of Mark shares that the women were at the tomb in order to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. They were wondering how they were going to get into the tomb, when they saw that the stone had already been rolled away. The angel was waiting for them in the tomb. Again, Jesus appeared to the women first, but the male apostles didn’t believe them until Jesus appeared to them as well. The Gospel of Luke follows Mark, except that there were two angels, and they appeared to the women just outside the tomb.
The Gospel of John doesn’t mention any angels at first. Mary Magdalene appeared at the tomb, saw that it was empty, and rushed to tell the others. When they all ran to the tomb to check it out, the angel appeared and told them not to fear. Jesus then appeared to Mary Magdalene, but she did not recognize him at first.
For some modern day readers, these different versions can cause us trouble. We argue: If these books are supposed to be claiming to have been eyewitness accounts, shouldn’t they agree? Unitarian Universalist Minister John Buehrens, in his book “Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals” points out that this was not necessarily the case in the ancient world. Then, the standard was that the more stories there were, even if they disagreed, the more likely the basic story was to be believed – in this case, the basic story about Jesus’s physical resurrection.
The New Testament as it is today, contains 4 different books that give stories of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Though the Gospel of Matthew is the first in the table of contents, if we put the Gospels in chronological order scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark is first. Mark was written to an international audience of Jews and Greeks, closest to the time of Jesus’s life – only about 30 years after his death. Next chronologically are Matthew and Luke – both of these were written 10-20 years after Mark and use Mark as a source. Matthew was written primarily to a Jewish audience, and Luke to a primarily Greek audience. These three are called the synoptic Gospels – they share many of the same stories.
The Gospel of John is more literary and less journalistic in tone. It is the newest of the Gospels included in the New Testament, written in the early 100s to an international audience of Christians who were struggling to figure out who they were in the world.
These four Gospels are the canonical Gospels. This means that they were authorized by the ancient church leaders. By the end of the 2nd century, well before the Council of Nicea in 325, almost all of the 27 documents in the New Testament canon had already gained widespread acceptance by church leaders, especially these four Gospels. It is not that there weren’t other Gospels floating around: there were! But those other Gospels told a different story, and church leaders wanted to make it clear that folks knew that the other Gospels were NOT acceptable. Particularly the Gnostic Gospels.
Gnosticism takes its name from the Greek “gnosis” meaning “insight” or “enlightenment.” Gnostics claim a special relational or experiential knowledge of God or of the divine or spiritual nature within us that other people are not aware of. It is a philosophical and religious movement (still alive today) that actually started before Christian times – there is speculation that it may have started in the Jewish community at Alexandria and was later picked up by some nearby very early Christian groups. By the beginning of the second century, Gnostic Christianity was one of the three main branches of the Church.
But by the end of the 2nd century, Gnosticism was deemed heretical and suppressed. It was so thoroughly suppressed that early 20th century scholars had very little primary source material about it. But with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi books in December 1945 changed that. Not to be confused with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi books were found by farmers in an sealed earthenware jar containing thirteen leather-bound papyrus codices. The mother of the farmers is said to have burned one of the books and parts of a second has heretical, but twelve books and other loose pages remain. These books date back to the 2nd century and are almost entirely Gnostic texts that are believed to have been hidden by monks when the possession of such banned writings was declared a heretical offense.
The books found in Nag Hammadi that have caused the biggest fuss that are very much not in the approved cannon are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.
The Gospel of Thomas does not include a narrative of Jesus’s life, but is rather a discourse between Jesus and his students. The sayings of Jesus found in this Gospel discuss that salvation is available immediately, internally, right at this moment, no matter what the status of your body or the world around you. This Gospel centers on the pursuit and experience of Gnosis, and the availability of such enlightenment to all. Saying 24 has Jesus declare: “There is a light within a person of light and it shines on the whole world.” My favorite from the Gospel of Thomas is saying 2, which takes a more accepted saying of Jesus and, to my mind, deepens it. Saying 2 is “Seek and do not stop seeking until you find. When you find, you will be troubled. When you are troubled, you will marvel and rule over all.” This Gospel presents Jesus as a spiritual guide whose words, when properly understood, will provide eternal life.
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is a dialogue between Jesus and Mary and some of Jesus’s other apostles. In this Gospel, Mary holds a special role of leader among Jesus’ students. She is closest to him and understands him best. She comforts the other students when Jesus leaves, saying “Don’t cry or break into despair or doubt. His grace will go with you and protect you, and let us praise the greatness of his work for he prepared us and made us truly human.” Like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary focuses on salvation as a mystical, internal realization that is accessible to anyone who understands.
Even more recently than Nag Hammadi was the discovery of the Gospel of Judas, which takes what we thought we knew about the relationship between Jesus and Judas and turns it utterly 180 degrees. This Gospel was discovered in Egypt in 1970 but kept secret. For 36 years, it passed from hand to hand, through theft and intrigue, until National Geographic restored and published it. In this Gospel, Judas is a hero, Jesus’ confidant to the end. Jesus tells Judas that his is the most important of roles, for Judas is to “turn the mortal body of Jesus over to the authorities for crucifixion, after which the real Jesus, the spiritual Jesus, will return to the light of the divine above.” In his Restored New Testament, Willis Barnstone writes that Judas is a “tragic figure who must obey the master and ‘betray’; him in order for himself to find salvation and for Jesus’s earthly mission to be realized.” Note: after the service, someone reminded me that this is not at all unlike the role of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter stories, who you think is a villian but turns out to be the bravest of the brave…Great connection!
Like the other two Gnostic Gospels, resurrection is a spiritual event rather than a physical one. This is one of the main differences between Gnostic Christianity and the other mainline versions of the time. Gnostics believed that our human bodies hold us back and are base and animal. This attitude was carried into the Christian church, but the Gnostics took it even further. They believed they would be saved from their corporeal existence through relational and experiential spiritual knowledge. From a Gnostic perspective Judas was helping to save Jesus by releasing him from his physical existence so that his spirit could be freed.
There were other differences between Gnostic Christianity and the established church as well. For instance, the Gnostics tolerated different faith groups outside of their tradition and absorbed various groups within it. Much like modern day Unitarian Universalism, with our UU Pagans and UU Christians and UU Buddhists and UU Atheists and so much more, there were Gnostic Christians, Gnostic Jews, Egyptian Gnostics, and more.
Also, following in similar footsteps to Jesus, the Gnostics did not discriminate against women. Anyone could be enlightened by special knowledge from the divine and could lead worship. In this way Gnostic Christians reflected the earliest days of Christianity. The letters in the New Testament that were actually written by the Apostle Paul (the oldest documents in the New Testament canon) had this egalitarianism. This stands in stark contrast to later letters which claimed to have been written by Paul but actually were not.
Finally, in contrast to the direction the church leaders were heading, those filled with gnosis had no need of authority from priests, bishops or anyone else when it came to enlightenment: their own experience or secret knowledge from Jesus or from God or from the Divine, was enough. By the second century, church leaders were already entrenched in hierarchy and did not like this at all. And they were (rightly) afraid that if people read these documents on their own, they might come to conclusions the church leaders did not support.
So what does Gnosticism have to do with Easter’s back story? A back story gives a character (historical or fictional) a fuller history. It humanizes a controversial figure and gives us a different way of looking at what we might always have accepted as “the one right way” of understanding a situation.
A good example can be found in the Star Wars series. Episodes 4-6, released between 1977 and 1983, gave us a particular story about Darth Vader. Between 1999 and 2005, episodes 1-3 gave us a fuller view of how Darth Vader came to be. They humanized him. However, there are things about episodes 1-3 that many fans reject. We pick and choose what makes sense to us, and toss out what doesn’t work.
I think the same is true about the story of Jesus. The ancient church leaders chose Gospels for their canon that presented a particular story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. But this was not the only story. The Gnostic Christians of the 2nd century already were viewing Jesus’s resurrection as a spiritual event rather than a physical one. Elaine Pagels (the Ware Lecturer in 2005), in her book The Gnostic Gospels writes “Some gnostics called the literal view of the resurrection the ‘faith of fools.’ The resurrection, they insisted, was not a unique event of the past: instead, it symbolized how Christ’s presence could be experienced in the present.”
Gnosticism and the gnostic Gospels give Jesus’s death and resurrection a totally different perspective than the one many of us are most familiar with. They provide layers of meaning and interpretation to a story that, for most of us, has been presented in one way only; a story that may resonate with us in some places and may seem totally foreign in others. Who Jesus was, what he said, and what his death and resurrection were about varies based on which Gospel you read. And who knows how many other Gospels there may be out there, waiting to be discovered. How wonderful! So be it. Blessed be.
practicing balance. March 24, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on March 24, 2013
Our opening hymn this morning was #128, For All That Is Our Life. It was originally going to be what is printed in your order of service (#352, Find A Stillness) but as I was working on the service, I kept singing “for work and its rewards, for hours of rest and love.” I realized that I needed to incorporate this hymn because this is what we are talking about today – balancing work and its rewards, hours of rest and love, time for our, hearts, minds, and bodies. Like the life mobiles that the Middle Schoolers made in their RE class a few weeks ago using hangers, with “work” and “play” and “family” and “friends” dangling from them, moving the various components around to achieve a balance. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Let’s refresh our memories. What were the four principles that we pointed out with the kids, about what it takes to balance on something, like when you are learning to ride a bike?
- Sometimes we need help – like someone to hold the seat as we pedal like crazy.
- We have to be willing to risk falling down – its going to happen. It might hurt a little at first, but the rewards will be worth it.
- It can change – when you learn on one bike, it can be difficult the first time you try it on another bike, and riding on the road is different than riding on the grass.
- It takes practice – did any of you hop on a bike and ride it like a pro the first time? It takes practice, and as we practice we need to keep the previous 3 principles in mind – Go back to #1 start over each time.
As I shared with the kids, it turns out that these principles of balance are the same whether we are talking about concrete, physical things (like riding a bike or learning to walk the tightrope) or more abstract things (like leading a balanced life or learning to be spiritually balanced.)
Leading a balanced life? How many of you feel that you lead a balanced life? Many of us probably wonder what leading a balanced life even looks like! If we consider a Balanced Life to be a stool – what are the legs? I believe it takes a balance between work, family time and self-care to lead a truly balanced life. Let me explain. If one of the 3 legs of the stool is overly long, or is too short, the entire balance of the stool is off. And when the balance is off, it negatively effects our families, our physical and mental health, our productivity, and more. We end up sitting on the floor with a bruised tailbone!
Let’s take a look at the legs of the Balanced Life stool in more detail, starting with the one that, for most of us (whether we are paid or not, work outside the home or inside) probably takes up the vast majority of our time: our jobs. If we are employed, with today’s economy the way it is, the more our jobs demand from us the more we feel we have to sacrifice in order to keep them. Americans work more and more each year, to the point where we work more than any other developed country. In fact, outside the US, people have seen their work hours cut back. But not us industrious Americans with our overdeveloped work ethic! And the higher our pay, the more we work. In 2008, Sociologist Dalton Conley asserted that higher-income Americans worked longer hours than lower-income Americans. For those of us who work as homemakers or stay-at-home parents, the increasing hours that our partners work effects us, too: we may find ourselves having to pull even more weight around household and parenting duties. Working as much as many of us do causes our Balanced Life stool to be off-kilter.
The family leg of the stool is often next in our priorities. And by family, I mean those people whose relationships we value – it might be family by blood, or family by choice, or a tight circle of supportive friends. After work, these types of relationships are often what get the next amount of time on our parts. But they often don’t get enough: more than 2/3 of American parents who work outside the home say they don’t get enough time with their children. And what time they do get is neither quality time nor quantity time. Thankfully, I am beginning to see a shift in our culture in regards to this leg. At the South-by-Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, TX earlier this month, there was a panel discussion between Chris Anderson (former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine) and Elon Musk (founder of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX). It was apparently a fabulous discussion and the audience listened with rapt attention. At one point in the conversation, Anderson asked Musk about his family life. Musk replied, “Kids are awesome, you guys should all have kids. Kids are great…I don’t see mine enough actually. What I find is I’m able to be with them and still be on e-mail. I can be with them and still be working at the same time.” And apparently, the audience shifted. Shifted! The audience noticed that there was something wrong with this picture. With an increasing number of us in the sandwich generation, taking care of our aging parents and our children at the same time, society is slowly beginning to realize that in order for our Balanced Life stool to be solid and stable, we need to make tending this leg a higher priority.
Finally, there is the third leg of the Balanced Life stool: ourselves. We often do the exact opposite of what they recommend when you are on an airline and the flight attendant is giving instructions as to what to do if the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling. Rather than taking care of ourselves and then our companions, we put ourselves as last (if we make the list at all.) This is especially true if we are women with children. Women today are less happy than they have been in the past 40 years. In part, this is because we have watched our amount of free time just disappear. Women still do the vast majority of chores and parenting, even if we work full-time. It does not give us much time to take care of ourselves. But if the saying “when mamma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” is true, then we have a whole lot of unhappiness going around.
I know I struggle with this piece in particular as a working mother with 2 kids. Some of you may recall that two years ago today, the service was on one way that I was taking care of myself – by skating with the Derby City Roller Girls. Some of my teammates came and helped me out. The local news featured it a few months later. It was quite a service.
Last year, however, things shifted. My family needed me to be around more when my spouse unexpectedly ended up hospitalized briefly. After that, there were other changes in my family life that required more of my time and attention. And you may have heard that General Assembly is coming to Louisville, and although the UUA has wonderful staff and volunteers who know how to make this happen, it has taken more of my time than I ever thought it would. In the process of all these shifts, I am learning alternate ways to make sure the self-care leg of my Balanced Life stool is strong. Which leads me to another type of balance: Spiritual Balance.
Spiritual Balance turns out to be a three-legged stool just like the Balanced Life stool. By Spiritual Balance, I mean a balance between the heart, mind and body, because these are all ways in which we fill our spirits. As with Life Balance, if one of these legs gets too long, or too short, then we become lopsided. When we become lopsided and fall off the uneven stool, we are not as able to appreciate the beautiful moments in these precious, brief, wonderful and scary lives we have discovered ourselves in.
The heart leg of the Spiritual Balance stool is our emotional life. For some of us, our emotions rule our lives. Others of us bottle them up tight and would rather not feel them at all. Neither of these are healthy. We are not solely made up of our emotions, but they are a part of us. Our emotions give us the capacity to move from sympathy to empathy. Our emotions give us the ability to love, to cry, to laugh – sometimes all at the same time. We should not shut them off and become like unfeeling robots, but when they take over they can also cause problems. I tend to err on the “emotions taking over” side. I need to make sure I make time to tend this leg of my Spiritual Balance stool, by journaling or scheduling regular phone-calls with friends. At times when I can’t seem to process my emotions and they threaten to overwhelm me, I get help from a counselor or therapist.
Journalling also tends the second leg of my Spiritual Balance stool: my mind. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. It is our reason and our intellect that give us the capacity to examine, to look at things from various different directions, to puzzle out, to analyze, to question. Our minds allows us to get off the dance floor and up onto the balcony where we can better observe what is going on. I also try to read nonfiction regularly – my sermons would be pretty shallow if I were not stimulating my mind on a regular basis.
Sometimes, our mind leg gets too big in this stool. I think Unitarian Universalists probably become unbalanced this way more often than the other. We over-think. It reminds me of a scene in the Princess Bride movie, when Vizzini and the Man in Black engage in a battle of wits. Vizzini is supposed to choose which cup of wine does not have the Iocane powder in it, and in his choice displays a dizzying capacity for getting stuck in his head. I try to meditate for a few minutes every day to help even out this leg of my Spiritual Balance stool, but it is hard for me – I often feel like Vizzini, over-thinking even my meditating.
And then there is the last (but definitely not least!) leg of our Spiritual Balance stool: our bodies. We are embodied people. Our emotional and intellectual health effect our physical health, and vice-versa. If we are not taking care of our bodies, then our stool gets off balance. No pun intended. Taking care of and respecting our bodies can take many forms, from exercising and eating healthy, to thinking positive thoughts about our bodies, to getting a massage and much more.
I have found that if I don’t do some sort of psychical activity every day, then I fall apart. I have learned to start my day with a quick 15 minutes of yoga to help wake me up mentally and physically. I can skip meditating if I need to, but these 15 minutes of being in my body help set a tone for the rest of the day. Several times a week I try to get in something more strenuous.
Tending our Spiritual Balance stool is an important part of self-care, and it means paying attention to our hearts, our minds, and our bodies. I have mentioned a few of the things I try to do to take care of myself: Yoga, meditating, journalling, reading and exercising. I don’t think I have ever done all 5 of these in one day, but those days when I hit 3 out of 5, I feel pretty good. I feel more balanced internally. My spirit, and my self, feel cared for.
So tending our Spiritual Balance stool is an effective way to shore up the Self-Care leg of our Balanced Life stool.
“This is very interesting,” you may be thinking, “but how does this connect to those 4 principles of balance that you talked about with the children?” Excellent question!
First, sometimes we need help – we need reminders to slow down, to maybe not work so much. We need others to stand up with us for better working conditions and more reasonable hours. We need models who show us balance is possible. This is really important, because if we can imagine ourselves doing it, we have a much better chance of success! We need friends, colleagues, sometimes we need professionals to help us learn how to do something or help us process something. I reach out to every minister mother I possible can and talk about how she makes it work. We compare notes, and inspire each other, and, in the process, we don’t feel so alone.
Second, we have to be willing to risk falling down – to make mistakes. Sometimes, we may err by working too much, other times, we may err by spending too much time on our family, or on ourselves. Towards the end of my Derby involvement, I began to realize the toll that it was taking on my family. My self-care leg had grown out of proportion and my family-leg needed tending. Often-times these errors can teach us things and are part of the learning process. Sometimes we love to much, or think too much, or spend a weekend eating comfort food because life is too stressful. And that is okay. We fall down, and then we pick ourselves back up and try again.
Third, even if we think we have it down pat right now, it can change – life may well throw us a curve-ball. Our kids will enter a different stage of development, we might get a different job, or come down with an illness or disease. Something might happen totally outside of our control and it affects the conditions of our precarious balance. The techniques we previously learned for bringing balance into our lives no longer work. Flexibility and creative thinking are called for.
Fourth, it takes practice – Just like learning to ride a bike, we don’t hit adolescence or our adult years and suddenly know how to lead a Balanced Life or find a Spiritual Balance. We mostly just go along and make decisions and do our thing until suddenly, one day, we find we are way OUT of balance. We throw up our hands and say “Things cannot go on like this!” Then we go up to the top and start from scratch. It takes practice. This is one reason they call it a “Spiritual Practice.” Perhaps we need to also start talking about a “Balanced Life Practice.”
Balance. It is not easy. Like riding a bike, or learning to walk a tight rope, there are certain aspects to balance that apply to our physical balance, our life balance, and our spiritual balance. We often need help, we must be willing to make mistakes. We know that things will change on us – usually just when we think we have it all figured out. And it takes practice – very very few of us are born knowing how to do this. But the benefits are numerous, for all that is our life.
envisioning our future. March 21, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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Envisioning Our Future
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on March 17, 2013
I rewrote the sermon several times and it never worked out right until Sunday morning, when I scrapped it all and just went with the energy in the room.
You can listen to it here.
the nature of evil. March 12, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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The Nature of Evil
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on March 3, 2013
A Reflection on Evil, by Chris Rothbauer, First Unitarian Church Intern Minister
When I came out of the closet in my early 20s, I had a sort of naïve optimism about my life. I thought that, since I came out, things would only get better for me from there. I was dating, making friends, and learning to accept that part of my life. Around this time, I hung out in a little coffee shop that was open late on Preston Street across from Tryangles bar. It became like a haven for me and I felt at home in my new community.
One night, I must have been 22 or 23, I was in the coffee shop with friends when we started hearing people calling, “Fag! Fag! Fag!” and we saw a group of about a dozen teenagers running by. Soon after, a homeless man ran into the shop bloodied up. The employee at the shop took him into the restroom and tended to his wounds. Meanwhile, a couple of my friends went outside to see what was going on. I started seeing panicking people run back and forth so I went outside to see what was going on.
There on the sidewalk was a man, unconscious and bloodied. We would later find out he had been violently attacked by the teens as he walked the block from The Connection to Tryangles. Though he survived, suffered brain damage. Arrests were eventually made, and it was soon discovered the teens lived in Clarksdale, a notoriously violent housing project. Unfortunately, the homeless man was the only witness to the actual attacks and he soon skipped town, never to be seen again. The teens were released due to lack of evidence.
I struggled to reconcile this attack with my burgeoning optimism, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me a bit cynical at the time. It was really my first glimpse into how horrible the world could be. This was an evil act perpetrated on two people merely for being from marginalized places in society. Looking back, though, I can’t help but think about the teens as well. They were marginalized, living in a housing project that no one wanted to raise their kids in. They were forgotten and angry, and they decided to take their anger out that night on two innocent men who were easy targets. The system failed them, as it did the gay man and the homeless man. In this way, they were victims as well, victims of an evil system that marginalizes people, taking away their dignity and self-respect and pushing them
into a life of crime.
Clarksdale is gone but I still vividly remember that day. It’s one reason I have a passion for social justice: because no one should be a victim to an evil system and evil acts. Everyone has inherent worth and dignity, and, if we don’t speak up for those without a voice, they are forgotten, just as these teens were.
In the powerful reflection Chris shared with us this morning about his own experience, he identified two distinct types of evil. One type is the oppressive and unjust systemic evil of generation upon generation of poverty and dehumanization that taught the teenagers that assaulting another person was within their rights. We will talk about systemic evil as an expression of oppression on May 5.
Chris also named what the teenagers did as evil: the actions were cruel and dehumanizing. Many of us wonder: how could someone cause such violence, pain and harm to another person? What was going on inside those teenagers that allowed them to commit such actions against another human being?
These are the types of questions that led Simon Baron-Cohen to write his book The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. Baron-Cohen, as a scientist, is particularly troubled by the fuzzy theology around evil. Religions, he say, can tell us what it is, but a scientist wants to know what creates the conditions that allow evil to occur. Scientists, and most contemporary liberal religionists, are not satisfied by answers such as “The Devil made me do it.” Evil is most often not a noun, but an adjective or an adverb. We want to know how someone is able to commit such actions because, in part, if we know the conditions in which it occurred, then the hope is that we can figure out ways to prevent such evil actions from occurring in the future.
What is it that allowed doctors, for instance, to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural black men in Tuskegee, men who thought they were receiving free health care from the U.S. Government?
What is it that allowed regular people, like the students randomly chosen to be guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment, to, within 48 hours of having been given their new status, douse the “prisoners” (other students!) with a fire-hose, strip them naked and start verbally abusing them?
What is it that allowed Nazi men to kill innocent Jews during the day and then go home to their families and kiss their children goodnight each night?
Baron-Cohen ends up the same place as others before him, such Captain G.M. Gilbert. Gilbert was the Army psychologist who was assigned to watching the defendants at the Nuremberg trials, held between 1945 and 1949 for the purpose of bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. Gilbert writes: “In my work with the defendants I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”
Baron-Cohen has spent much of his professional life studying empathy, and so is uniquely poised to study how what he calls “empathy erosion” sets the stage for and is a precondition for cruel, dehumanizing acts that most would call evil.
But before we go much father, we should clarify what we mean by empathy because it is often confused with sympathy. Basically, empathy is understanding what someone else is feeling, because you have either experienced it yourself, or you can put yourself in their place and imagine how they feel. Empathy requires us to be in touch with our own feelings, and to use our imagination and our people-skills in an effort to understand and, at some level, imaginatively experience, where another person is coming from.
Empathy is a much more complicated emotion than is sympathy, which basically just means that you acknowledge a person’s emotional hardship and are led to provide some comfort. You feel bad for them.
I don’t generally quote politicians from the pulpit, but there is a line from Barack Obamas book The Audacity of Hope that I believe captures the distinction “It is how I understand the Golden Rule,” he says, “not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.”
Baron-Cohen explains that empathy is something that is measurable – and that when we measure it, we find that it is not a light switch, either you have it or you don’t, but is instead more like a dimmer with various settings…7 of them, in fact, ranging from 0 to 6. And when you measure a person’s empathy, and plot it on a graph along with the measured empathy quotients of other people you find that where we fall on the empathy scale creates a bell curve: some people are at the low end, some people are at the high end, and most of us fall somewhere in the middle.
Baron-Cohen connects our empathy quotient to the language of Martin Buber, who defined our relationships as either I-Thou, meaning we recognize a person’s inherent worth and dignity, their humanity, their uniqueness and sacredness, or I-It, wherein we relate to people not as human beings, but as objects. I-Thou relationships are higher on the empathy scale, I-It relationships are lower.
Zero empathy, says Baron-Cohen, puts us strictly in the I-it mode, where we can only relate to other people as things, not as people. If you have zero empathy, you have “no awareness of how you come across to others, how to interact with others or how to anticipate their feelings or reactions…not just oblivious to other people’s feelings and thoughts but also oblivious to the idea that there might even be other points of view.”
He points out that we all shut down our empathy occasionally in transient, short-term ways – cutting people off in traffic, walking past the homeless person without looking or acknowledging them. I know that whenever I see pictures of starving, maimed, or abused children in particular, I either collapse in tears or literally can feel something inside turn off in what feels like self-protection. And indeed, it turns out that empathy actually connects with 10 different parts of the brain, and some of these we do have some conscious control over. These 10 interconnected brain regions make up what Baron-Cohen and neurologists are calling the “Empathy Circuit.” Malfunctions or changes in any of these 10 can reduce a person’s level of empathy.
For example, people who are psychopathic, with antisocial personality disorder, or people with borderline personality disorder, have, by their nature, a level of zero empathy. And, not surprisingly, their brain-scans show malfunctions in the empathy circuit. Baron-Cohen advocates for new treatments that address this lack of empathy as a key factor (not just a symptom) in their disorders. Treatments that address the lack of empathy though medical and behavioral techniques, similar to those used to help people with Autism and Aspergers, who also have low empathy but are not inclined toward cruelty to others.
Baron-Cohen identifies twelve factors that influence our empathy circuit. I don’t have time to go into detail on all of these, but here is a brief summary: Our intentions influence the empathy circuit – there are times when we may want or need to switch it off, such as when surgeons are operating on a patient. Also, if we feel threatened, and our fight or flight response has kicked in, it is hard to feel empathy. The third factor that influences our empathy circuit is if our culture tells us it is okay to act in a certain way – such as to treat women or girls in a particular way. Fourth is our ideology, such as our religious or political beliefs. Fifth is our early experience in childhood – were we shown empathy and were we able to form stable attachments to others? Sixth is conformity or obedience to rules and institutions. Seventh is in-group/out-group identification. Eighth is corrosive emotions like anger, hatred, jealousy and revenge. Ninth, tenth and eleventh are genes, neurology and hormones – some people just biologically programmed to have more or less empathy. And finally, physical states such as how tired or hungry we are, or if we have been drinking or taking drugs can also alter the functioning of our empathy circuits.
So we see that there is much that can influence our ability to have empathy for another person. When we drop to low or zero empathy, when our empathy erodes, it can create room for us to engage in cruel, dehumanizing acts – it can set the stage for us to act towards others in evil ways.
I think one of the most important things, in understanding and reflecting on evil, is to have a level of what Angela Herrara calls spiritual humility. That is, to know that just as we are almost all capable of amazing acts of compassion and kindness, so too do we have within us the capacity to act in evil ways. We have the capability, through any of those 12 factors Baron-Cohen identified, through a reduction of our level of empathy (intentionally or not) to become cruel, harmful, and dehumanizing of others. And it is not all or nothing – empathy erosion can occur with specific sets of others – like the Nazi soldiers who would murder Jews during the day and yet come home and be loving to their families. Evil is not always identified with big, glaring, neon signs. This is what Hannah Arendt identified as the banality of evil, when she observed that the great evils in history, such as the Holocaust, were perpetrated not by fanatics or psychopaths, but instead by ordinary people who participated with the view that their actions were acceptable and even normal.
We religious liberals once believed that human beings were inherently good. The modern view was of onward and upward forever. The Holocaust of the Jews changed that. Now we understand that humans have the capacity for good, and for evil. What we believe about the nature of evil has a strong impact on how we relate to one another. Understanding that we all have this capability in us is an important step towards not taking that path. It gives us empathy for those who commit evil acts, because we know we are just like them.
What I particularly appreciated about Chris’s perspective is that he did not name the teenagers themselves as evil. Though it took him time and reflection, he came to recognize that they, too, have inherent worth and dignity, as did the homeless person, and gay man who was attacked. Chris came to be able to see the circumstances and decisions that led to the malfunctioning of their empathy circuit, which enabled them to commit such evil acts. If Chris had labeled those teenagers as evil, he would have been denying their humanity, their inherent worth and dignity. And in denying their humanity, he would view them not in an I-Thou relationship, but as objects – which then makes it much easier to further dehumanize them.
Let me say that again. When we label a person as evil, we deny their humanity and thus objectify them. This makes it possible for us to treat that person in cruel and dehumanizing ways. We see this in our current incarceration system, where prisoners are routinely and as a matter of course dehumanized. Dehumanization is a standard operating procedure in our jails and prisons.
In order to not allow our own empathy to erode towards others, particularly towards those who commit evil acts, we must work to not dehumanize them but instead recognize their inherent worth and dignity as human beings. And then treat them accordingly – with compassion. I believe this is what Jesus was talking about when he urged his listeners to turn the other cheek – to not respond to dehumanizing behavior with more dehumanizing behavior but instead with compassion.
Because, as it turns out, just as empathy erosion can lead us to commit evil acts, so too can amplifying our empathy for others lead us towards compassionate actions, which are the opposite of evil. This does not mean not setting boundaries or enforcing rules or laws. It means acting with an eye to the inherent worth and dignity of all involved: victim and perpetrator.
This is the goal of restorative justice, which is an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims, the needs of the community and the needs of the offenders. Rather than focusing on satisfying abstract legal principles, or focusing on vengeance, or on punishing the offender, restorative justice involves the victims taking an active role in the process and the offenders being encouraged to take responsibility for their actions by working to repair the harm they’ve done—by apologizing, making right what they have wronged, or through community service. Restorative justice involves both victim and offender and focuses on their personal needs. And it provides help for the offender in order to avoid future offenses.
Amplifying our empathy benefits us as individuals, as well. Like the story that was in the news last week, recounting the aftermath of the murder of Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo. Her daughter, Penny, was bitter and angry, with good reason, not just at the murders but the government for how it portrayed her mother. But when she saw the torment and regret on the face of the man who murdered who mother, she began to feel compassion for him, and was able to open herself up and forgive him. It changed her for the better.
Or like Robbie Parker, whose daughter Emilie was one of the 20 children that tragically died during the shooting at Sandy Hook. The day after the horrible tragedy, he shared a message of love and forgiveness and expressed compassion for the family of the shooter.
It is has Martin Luther King, Jr. wisely said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” I would add, evil actions cannot stop evil actions. Only compassion can do that.
If it is empathy erosion that enables people to objectify and dehumanize others, allowing them to then perpetrate acts of evil on their fellow human beings, let us work to amplify our empathy through love and compassion for one another, and particularly for those who may seem to deserve it least. In this way, we may best fight the capacity for evil that is within ourselves.
not “burdening” my religious practice. March 1, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
Dear KY House of Representatives, Senate, and Gov. Beshear,
I would like to inform you of a perhaps unintended repercussion of the passage of HB 279, which reads:
Government shall not burden a person’s or religious organization’s freedom of religion. The right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief may not be burdened unless the government proves by clear and convincing evidence that it has a compelling governmental interest in infringing the specific act or refusal to act and has used the least restrictive means to further that interest. A “burden” shall include indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, or an exclusion from programs or access to facilities.
As soon as this bill passes into law, I will officially begin conducting weddings and signing marriage licenses for gay and lesbian couples, as is standard practice in my religion. It will be my right to act in this manner, in accordance to my faith. If a county clerk refuses to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples, I will have him/her cited for burdening my freedom of religion, but I am sure I will be able to find at least one who will understand and sympathize and act in accordance with the law.
The Rev. Dawn Cooley
First Unitarian Church
being an Evangelical Unitarian Universalist. February 19, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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Being an Evangelical Unitarian Universalist
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on February 17. 2013
Listen to the sermon here.
It took Dan 10 years to go from thinking about coming to church, to actually coming. And it has transformed his life in positive ways.
What would it have been like if someone had invited him to church earlier? Would he have come? Might it have been the impetus he needed to stop waiting and take the plunge?
Just out of curiosity, how many of you came here to church the first time because someone invited you?
And how many you have been invited to someone else’s church?
And now, for those of you who have been coming here for 2 months or more, how many of you have invited someone to this church?
Notice how the number of hands changed with the questions. Only a few of you came because you were invited, and only a few of you have invited someone else. But a whole lot of you have been invited to other churches, presumably by people you know.
This begs the question – what is UP with us Unitarian Universalists? If we have such a transformative faith, then why are we hiding our light under a bushel? If part of our mission as First Unitarian Church is to be witnesses for progressive faith, why don’t we talk about it with people more often?
I think there are a number of reasons why Unitarian Universalists haven’t, in recent history, been very good at talking about our faith tradition. Some of us probably don’t invite folks because we like the size of our church and knowing most of the people who participate. Some of us don’t want to be one of those people who shove their religion down your throat – maybe forgetting that there is a whole spectrum between silence and pushy. Some of us are afraid to talk about it, afraid that we will be stigmatized or pigeon-holed if we do. Others of us find our faith tradition really hard to describe, and we don’t know how to talk about it. And sometimes we assume that the people we know wouldn’t be interested. I am betting many of us would not have pegged Dan as a potential member, much less a potential leader in this congregation, due at least in part to his minority political views. And yet here he is – and let me tell you, he is definitely not alone – we have a healthy & growing political minority. It is wonderful.
Now, you might have noticed that I said that it was recent history that Unitarian Universalists have not been too good at talking about our faith tradition. That is not the case historically. When I was at General Assembly two or three years ago, I went to a workshop about honoring the history of the Universalist side of our heritage. I learned that Universalists used to kidnap unsuspecting Protestants and tie them up and argue with them until they converted! Those Universalists were so convinced that they had a radically transformative message of love and hope that they would hold someone hostage until that person realized that they were a child of God and that nothing they did would alter God’s love for them. No matter what!
So this reticence to talk about our faith is newer. And while I am not advocating kidnapping folks and holding them hostage until they convert, I do believe there is something between that and our silence, something called “being an Evangelical Unitarian Universalist.” Now, by evangelical – I am talking about the original meaning of the word – someone who is a messenger or bringer of good news. I think it takes three things to make a person bring the good news of Unitarian Universalism, to make someone an Evangelical Unitarian Universalist: a desire, a message, and practice.
First, if you are going to be an Evangelical Unitarian Universalist, you need to want to be one. Perhaps you want to share our dream in order to transform the world, or perhaps you know that it is fun to have friends here to worship with on Sunday morning. Perhaps your youth group is too small and you want to grow it, or maybe you have had a life altering experience and you want to let other people know that there is a church that recognizes that we are each loveable and are loved.
Maybe you know some folks who are looking for what we offer. Robert Karnan points out that “Our task is not to make more UUs or to make bigger congregations or to raise great gobs of money. It is to heal and to inspire, to open and to remake, and thus change what is sorry to what is a joy. It is why we gather in the spirit of love and justice.”
In order to be an Evangelical Unitarian Universalist, you have to have a desire to share our radically transformative good news with others.
Which begs the question – what is our radically transformative good news? The second thing you need to have to be an evangelical UU is a message! How can we share our faith if we don’t know what our faith is? And I don’t mean what it’s not. That is a trap that many of us have fallen into for years – defining who we are by adamantly stating who or what we are not. We don’t believe…we aren’t, we won’t make you…We need to share our faith in positive ways.
I share my version of our radically transformative good news as the benediction each week, when I say that here, in this congregation, may each one of us know that we are lovable simply because we are a child of the universe, a child of God. And that, as such, we are loved – we don’t have have to do anything to earn that love, or believe the right thing, or be the right gender, or sexual orientation, or in the right kind of family, or the right kind of education – none of that. We are loved because we are lovable. Each one of us! Because we know that we are lovable, and that we are loved, and that every other person is deserving of love as well, we take this radically transformative love out into the world and change it, work for justice, bless the world with our love. Of course, I say it in a much shorter way each week, but this is what I am trying to say.
Robert Karnan says it a bit differently, he says “Our churches and fellowships matter because they are places of the spirit, temples of forgiveness, synagogues of compassion, mosques of meaning in powerful and enduring friendship, congregations of courage and of love set free to transform and to face the times of our lives with an honesty that casts out fear and invites peace.”
We each have our own way of understanding and experiencing the good news of Unitarian Universalism. If we want to be evangelical UUs, we need to know what our individual understanding of our collective message is. That is one of the reasons I really like the Standing on the Side of Love campaign – it makes it easy to talk about our faith, and it makes us really recognizable. It was so amazing to look out at all the horribly mustard-colored shirts and hats and banners and signs at the I love Mountains rally on Thursday. There must have been between close to 75 Unitarian Universalists there from all around Kentucky. As I was standing there, a woman came up to me and asked who we were. “We are Unitarian Universalists, Standing on the Side of Love for Mountains” I said. Her response moved me powerfully: “I am so glad you are here.” she said “You are so inspiring, wherever you guys show up, you are impossible to ignore and it just fills my heart with hope.”
We have a message, a powerful message that is radically transformative, that speaks of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, of our connection to one another and the interdependent web, of being lovable and loved, and that out of this we work to bless and transform the world. Each of us may say it in a little bit different way, but lets say it.
Which leads to the final thing I think we need if we are to be Evangelical Unitarian Universalists: practice. We need practice talking to people, practicing saying out loud what we find so comforting and challenging about this faith tradition. Practice saying what we believe in affirmative ways, not just by saying what we don’t believe. We need practice being vulnerable, putting ourselves out there, sharing our message, sharing our best and brightest hopes and dreams with others so that, in our sharing, we might transform the world.
And what better place to practice than right here, with people who already get it.
What I would like you to do is turn to someone near you, or a group of someones – 2-3 of you – and practice talking about Unitarian Universalism. I invite those of you who have been around a while and are comfortable doing so to find someone who you don’t already know, who may be new, or visiting for the first time. Take just a few minutes to practice sharing what it is about our faith tradition that keeps you coming back. What is your take on our radically transformative message? If this is one of your first times being here, I invite you to just listen. Or, if you feel comfortable doing so, perhaps share what it was that brought you to be with us.
Thank you for moving into the discomfort and practicing sharing your faith with each other. I invite you to take a moment to recall the person who Dan asked you to think of at the beginning of his message – and I invite you to take what you just learned and practiced and let your light shine brightly as you share your story with them. As Douglass John Traversa writes:
In a world filled with the darkness of ignorance, let us bring the light of reason.
In a world filled with the darkness of despair, may we share the light of hope.
In a world filled with the darkness of hate, let us shine the light of love.
our covenant with the interdependent web of existence. February 10, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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Our covenant with the interdependent web of existence
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on February 10, 2013.
Listen to the sermon here.
The book that Linette read this morning in our Moment for All Ages is one of my favorites: Winston of Churchilli, written by Jean Davies Okimoto and illustrated by Jeremiah Trammell. And did you know that it is based on a true story? Well, sort of. The town of Churchill, in Manitoba, Canada is considered to be “ground zero for everything having to do with polar bears. Every fall the town is overrun with bears waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze. The bears, in turn, are trailed by herds of tourists, tour guides, scientists, green-leaning types and B-list celebrities”
All these folks are following the polar bears around because Polar Bears are to Arctic Ice what Canaries are to coal mines: the warning bells that something is dangerously wrong.
Sixty years ago, Polar Bears were over-hunted. Intense conservation efforts were put in place, which helped them begin to flourish. This is part of what makes the disappearing ice so heart-breaking: this is a species that conservation efforts were saving, but now, with the disappearing ice, these efforts may feel like they were for naught.
“Ice is nice!” the polar bears all declared in the book. But ice, some of which polar bears live on, is disappearing…fast. In the documentary “Chasing Ice,” filmmakers Adam LeWinter and Jeff Orlowski point out that “It took 100 years [for the Ilulissat Glacier in Western Greenland] to retreat 8 miles, from 1900 – 2000. From 2000-2010, it retreated 9 miles. So in 10 years it retreated more than it had in the previous 100.”
The ice is melting due to rising temperatures around the world: June 2012 broke or tied over 3000 high-temperature records in the United States, and came on the heals of the warmest May ever recorded for the Northern Hemisphere. In an article in Rolling Stone in August 2012, Bill McKibben points out that May was the “327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7×10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.” (which is approximately 10×10-24)
Rising temperatures cause ice to melt and cause the amount of water in the air to increase, which causes larger storms, like Nemo, which just hit New England.
The major contributor to these rising temperatures is our use of fossil fuels as energy sources. Fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) contain high levels of carbon, formed over millions of years of decomposition. When we use them as energy sources, that carbon is released into the air as carbon dioxide, and the carbon dioxide, traps heat in the air, creating what is called the “greenhouse effect.” The more carbon dioxide in the air, the larger the greenhouse effect.
Lets take a look at one of these processes to see how it works, and to see how, even beyond the greenhouse effect, these non-renewable energy sources are killing the planet. Let’s look at the coal cycle, because it has direct effects on us here in Louisville, here at First Unitarian, and because carbon emissions from burning coal are one of the leading causes of global warming. The Coal Cycle is also the focus of our public witness event at General Assembly here in June, when several thousand Unitarian Universalists from all around the country will be here in Louisville, many learning about and demonstrating against the devastating effects at each level of the coal cycle.
Coal is extracted from the ground through a mining process. In recent years, mining companies have been under pressure to produce more coal, in a safer and cheaper manner. The solution was MountainTop removal, wherein large portions of mountains in Appalachia are blown away, granting access to the coal buried within, and devastating the environment in the process. Not only unsightly, the mountaintop removal process dumps millions of tons of rubble and toxic waste into the streams and valleys below the mining sites. It poisons drinking water, destroys forests (which help regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the air), destroys wildlife habitat, increases the risk of flooding, and wipes out entire communities.
The mined coal, is then transported to a location (often using some sort of oil-based fuel to get there, thus emiting more carbon into the air) where it is burned to create energy.
The Sierra Club reports that burning coal is responsible for one third of US carbon emissions. In addition, acid rain, from sulfur emissions, is almost entirely due to coal burning. And it is making us sick: the pollutants from burning coal are directly responsible for as many as 13,000 premature deaths every year and more than $100 billion in annual health costs.
The Louisville area is home to several coal burning power plants, but two stand out from the crowd. The Cane Run plant in South Louisville emits 202 pounds of mercury into the air each year, and has generated a 15-foot-tall mountain of toxic coal ash. Residents who live nearby are sicker than average Louisvillians due to the amount of toxic waste discharged by the plant. And the R. Gallagher plant, just downstream from New Albany, was the dirtiest major power station in the US in 2006 in terms of sulphur dioxide gas emission rate.
From mining to transportation to burning, coal has more environmental impacts than any other energy source and is the source of close to 95% of both Kentucky’s and Indiana’s energy.
What a mess. I believe we can’t help but wonder how we got here: how did we allow the environmental crisis to get so bad? Certainly we can point to a lot of symptomatic factors: we like cheap energy, we have subsidized the oil industry, we have allowed our government to turn a blind eye to corporate polluting. These are all true. And they happened, I believe, because deep down, at our core, we have fallen out of covenant with the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. We have fallen out of covenant with the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.
Let me unpack that for you.
First, notice I did not say the interdependent web of life. The 7th principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association says that in our congregations, we covenant to affirm and promote “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” We understand that it is not just life that is interconnected on this planet, it is all of existence that is interconnected. We are part and parcel with the earth itself and what we do to our planet – including the rocks and waters and air – we do to ourselves.
So then, what do I mean by covenant? A covenant is a spiritual contract that rests in relationship. Rather than a simple exchange of goods or services, a covenant is a promise or set of promises held within the relationship of those who engage in the covenant. Marriage is a covenant. The Hebrew God had a covenant with Abraham. Our faith tradition as Unitarian Universalists is covenantal rather than creedal – based on promises we make to one another and to ourselves rather than on a required set of beliefs.
What, then, do I mean when I refer to our covenant with the interdependent web of existence, our covenant with the earth? Virtually every world religion, including our own, has something to say about how human beings are supposed to be in relationship with our planet. Underlying these instructions, specific to each religious tradition, is what I believe to be a shared covenant that goes something like: If we are good stewards of the earth, then the earth will support and sustain us.
If this is, indeed, our covenant with the Earth, then we are not holding up our end. In part, perhaps because the covenant is worded and focused a bit differently in each tradition. And there may also be another reason. There are actually two different types of covenant: conditional and unconditional. A conditional covenant means that both participants have to agree to something – like the vows in a marriage covenant. However, an unconditional covenant requires only one participant to do something; nothing is required of the other participant. The covenant that the Hebrew God had with Abraham was an unconditional covenant – God promised to do all these things and Abraham didn’t have to do anything.
I believe we have too often thought of our covenant with the earth as an unconditional covenant: the earth will continue to support and sustain us, with no regard to how we treat it. And we know now that this is not true – what we have is instead a very conditional covenant with the earth, and we have broken our promises, we have fallen out of covenant.
How badly have we broken our covenant? Is it beyond repair? Bill McKibben says we are close to the point of no return. He cites what he calls “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” and it boils down to this: we have five times more oil and coal and gas available to us than climate scientists think is safe to burn. And we are not slowing down on its consumption – even changing out incandescent bulbs for twisty compact florescents or LEDs, American energy consumption is increasing, and more and more of the developing world is jumping on board. I wish it were as easy as what Winston of Churchill said, that all we need to do is “burn less gas, make less garbage, and plant more trees” but that is not enough at this point.
I believe our first step in repairing our relationship with the interdependent web of existence, the first step in restoring our covenant with our beloved planet Earth, is to own our guilt and ask for forgiveness. Because asking for forgiveness is always the first step in reconcilliation. In this spirit, I invite you to open your hymnals and read with me #478, a Prayer of Sorrow from the U.N. Environmental Sabbath Program. Rather than as a responsive reading, I invite us all to read it together:
We have forgotten who we are. We have alienated ourselves from the unfolding of the cosmos.
We have become estranged from the movements of the earth. We have turned our backs on the cycles of life.
We have sought only our own security, we have exploited simply for our own ends, we have distorted our knowledge, we have abused our power.
Now the land is barren, and the waters are poisoned, and the air is polluted.
Now the forests are dying, and the creatures are disappearing, and the humans are despairing.
We ask forgiveness. We ask for the gift of remembering. We ask for the strength to change.
The strength to change, it says. Because changing ourselves, our culture, the world, is hard.
Change starts with continuing the smaller, easier actions. Continuing to change out light bulbs is not enough, but it is an important step. Making sure you turn off the lights when you leave a room, or, for example, here at church please make sure you switch the thermostats to “night” – whether you were the one who switched them to “day” or not. Our LG&E bill was 3x as high for January as it was for December. That is not good stewardship – of our financial or environmental resources. Flip the thermostat switch to “night” when you leave a room to save energy and money. Like Winston’s wife implored him, we need to walk the talk. “How can you convince people to stop doing what they’re doing unless you can show that every little bit helps?” she asked.
We can also participate in actions such as the one this Thursday: I love Mountains Day at the Kentucky State Legislature. Join me and my kids and others from Louisville on the Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light bus as we go to Frankfort to rally in support of efforts to stop mountaintop removal. This is an annual event – someday, perhaps, it won’t be necessary, but that day has not come.
We must also be willing to put our money where our values are. We can do this in little ways, and in big.
For as little as $5 per month from LG&E, we can buy renewable energy certificates for our home energy usage. This investment ensures “that renewable energy is delivered onto the regional electric grid from new renewable energy sources, such as wind power, biomass and low impact hydro electric.
On the larger scale, we can make sure that our home and institutional investments are not in the fossil fuel industry. This divestment campaign harkens back to the campaign in the 1980s demanding divestment from companies doing business in South Africa due to the country’s system of enforced racial segregation, called apartheid. Historians argue about whether the campaign had an economic effect, but it definitely “required prominent people to grapple with the morality of apartheid, altering the politics of the issue. Economic pressure from many countries ultimately helped to force the whites-only South African government to the bargaining table” and, ultimately, to change.
Why would we attempt this same pressure on the fossil-fuel industry? McKibben says that it has become abundently clear that “we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light.” He writes “It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”
Not only does the fossil-fuel industry continue to look for more sources of fuel, though they already have more 5 times more than can be safely burned, they also have prevented renewable energy sources from getting the kind of subsidies they themselves have enjoyed over the decades – last year over half a trillion in US dollars from countries around the world. Energy prices on coal in KY, for instance, are kept ridiculously low through these subsidies, while wind-energy subsidies are only sporadically renewed and are not dependable or durable enough for many to make the investment in creating wind farms. The International Energy Agencies chief economist recently said “In the presence of these fossil fuel subsidies… we have no chance whatsoever to meet these climate change targets and provide room for renewable energies to compete with coal, oil and gas as they are artificially cheap as a result of those subsidies.“
Dozens of college campuses are beginning to withdraw their endowments from fossil-fuel investment. More and more are forcing the conversation with their administration every week.
We can do this with our own investments if we have them. I was surprised to learn that some of my own retirement investments are in the fossil fuel industry. Not much, but some. I am filling out the paperwork to change that. We can also ensure that our First Unitarian Church Endowment is invested in socially conscious funds that do not include the fossil fuel industry. It may be that divesting of funds in the fossil fuel industry means that the investments do not make quite as much money, but that is a price that I believe we must be willing to make, knowing why the fossil fuel industry is so lucrative.
And there are things we can do locally, as well. I would like to invite Thomas Pearce from the Sierra Club up to tell us a bit about their work here in the Louisville area, and ways we can support our local community efforts at renewing our covenant with the earth and with each other.
…Thomas speaks and tells his story, why it matters to him, what some local ways of getting involved are …
Thank you, Thomas. It is good to know what is going on in our surrounding community, and to have multiple ways that we can work to repair and renew our covenant with the interdependent web of existence.
We have forgotten who we are and have become estranged from the movements of the earth. We ask for forgiveness, we ask for the strength to change – to make difficult decisions, to live our principles and values. We must work to renew our covenant with the earth, for ourselves, for our children, for the sake of all that exist on this beloved planet. As Winston of Churchill reminds us, we must “never, never, never give up.”
leaders and managers. January 30, 2013Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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I am at the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association CENTER Institute for Excellenece in Ministry in St. Petersburg, FL, with several hundred of my UU ministerial colleagues. Each day starts with worship, then workshops, then we end with worship as well. And the worship is always amazing.
Tuesday morning’s worship connected to what I have been working on internally for the past few weeks. As you may recall, I have been working on being a human “being” and not just a human “doing” (which is my modus operandi).
One of my recent realizations along these lines is that I use the administrative details of church life to distract me from the harder, more “being”-oriented spiritual matters of church-life. I like administrative details! I love things to be organized, and I love, love, love crossing things off my to-do lists. It is really hard to cross spiritual items off my to-do list!!
So the worship dealt, in part, with the difference between leaders and managers. Leaders have vision, Cheryl Walker reminded us, and managers have plans.
For the past few months, I have been trying to manage my congregation rather than lead it. I have not been the vision holder, but have been stuck in the muck of the administrative details!
Now both leaders and managers are important. A vision that has no plan will never be realized, and a plan w/o a vision just maintains the status quo. However, my congregation has plenty of managers who are capable of implementing plans. They need me to be their leader – to have a vision of where we are going and why we exist as a congregation. And to enunciate and share and remind them of that vision.
Beyond that, dare I say it, they need me to be their spiritual leader. They need me to encourage them to live lives of deep meaning, to develop and/or deepen their relationships with the divine/sacred/mysterious wonder of the universe, to help them expereince their own inherent worth and dignity, to remind them that we are all connected and that this has ramifications in how we live our lives, and, not the least, to help them bless the world with their love.
That is hard stuff – and it is not easily crossed off a list. And, most importantly, if I have no spiritual life of my own becuase I am too busy doing the managing, I cannot lead with authenticity.
And so, I am working on “being” more than “doing”, on leading more than managing, on cultivating my own rich spiritual practice. Isn’t it wonderful how these things all tie together?