Sunday, December 30, 2012

Someone has to say it out loud

Today's political conservatism is inconsistent with religious liberalism, and in particular, with Unitarian Universalism.

That's the first thing that must be said out loud.

It is not because Unitarian Universalism has become intolerant; it is because today's political conservatism, as embodied by the Republican Party, opposes the core value of religious liberalism: the reverence that is due to each person and the seamless reality of the universe.

Religious liberalism and political conservatism have diverged only recently. There used to be many Unitarian Republicans who were "socially liberal, fiscally conservative."  Such a stance is no longer possible in the real world.  The present Republican Party is whole-heartedly committed to reactionary social policy, especially patriarchy, white nationalism, and heterosexual privilege.  Social liberalism is being systematically purged from the Republican Party.

And fiscal conservatism? Today's political conservatism is no longer interested in avoiding deficits and minimizing debt, but has taken on the perspective of economic libertarianism.  And it must be said that economic libertarianism is not compatible with the direction that liberal public theology is taking.  A prudent concern with debts and deficits might have been, but economic libertarianism is not.

"Standing on the Side of Love" is a current UU statement of religiously liberal public theology.  It is an extension of ideas of 'the beloved community' and the 'kingdom of God': acts of imagination of a social order based on something more than a narrow and thin concept of due process and rights.  It is not a stretch to name what we want as the institutionalization of love: a social, political and economic order that is actively engaged in the nurture of every human being.  For those that say that "Love" is too grand and emotive concept to use in a political sense, I remind you of Elie Wiesel's comment that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

Indifference is a concrete political and economic value.  Indifference is the act of not caring about what is happening to someone, of denying any connection to it.  When an investor cheers the announcement that the management of a company has reduced its workforce by some thousands of employees, that investor knows that the lives of some of those employees will be ruined forever.  The investor, however, is indifferent to that fact.  He or she may feel some twinge of pity, but that pity has no practical bearing. When state-provided benefits are cut, the legislators who mandate such cuts are indifferent to the effects of those who will suffer.  Military commanders are often indifferent to the death and destruction an operation might have on civilians.

Conservative and Libertarian economic policy is institutionalized indifference.  What companies, corporations and investors do to maximize their profits is all-important; it is OK that they are indifferent to the consequences on others.  In fact, the conservative political program is prevent any requirement that economic decision-makers be accountable for what happens to ordinary people.

Yes, religious liberalism is deeply committed to individuation and self-determination.  Thinking for oneself, knowing and naming one's self-interest, resisting the pressures of conformity are strong values for us.  But so are accountability, solidarity with others, and compassion.  There is no way that one can stretch religious liberalism's defense of the right of individual conscience into a defense of institutionalized indifference to one's social interconnections.

Politically conservative Unitarian Universalists are in a difficult spot.  Their political loyalties and their religious values are at odds.  They are not the first people in the world to find that themselves in such a position. It is one of the perils of a spiritual life.   If religion is to mean anything, it should have the power to bring under judgment all of one's loyalties and practices.   What is ultimate in one's life?  One's religion, or one's political opinions, or one's economic interests?

The discomfort and anxiety that political conservatives in religiously liberal institutions is profound.  In many cases, they experience it as feeling unwelcome.  Everyone else shares an unspoken agreement, and our conservatives feel invisible and unacknowledged.  Their opinions are scoffed at, or ridiculed.  And so, they accuse religious liberals of hypocrisy: "We claim to welcome everybody, but not Republicans."

The second thing that must be said out loud is this: The discomfort of politically conservative UU's is their problem to solve.  Unitarian Universalist congregations cannot fix it.

Institutionalized Love

Elie Wiesel says “the opposite of Love is not hate, but indifference.”

This statement is the key to understanding the public and social theology of Love.

Human beings know love.  Most have experienced it.  Most can tell when it is present and when it is absent.  Because of its universality, we can use love as a transcendent point of judgement in creating a common understanding of the social good.  What enacts, embodies and encourages love is what is good.  What impedes it is not good.  This does not answer every question; there is room for serious discussion of what encourages and what discourages love, but it gives us a commonly understood premise, because we all know what love is.  

“God’s Will” and “Justice” are not commonly understood experiences, in that each requires training into a tradition to access their meaning.

Our social task is to “institutionalize Love.” To create the human institutions of government, economics and civil society that operate routinely on the principles of love.  

To say so sounds like hopeless niavete, until one returns to Elie Wiesel.  The opposite of love is indifference. 

We live in a system of “institutionalized indifference.” 

Remember when Ron Paul was asked in one of the GOP debates, what should happen to the uninsured person who arrives at an ER without the means to pay for his care?  Congressman Paul waffled on the answer, but the sentiment of the crowd was clear.  He made his choice, and now he should take the consequences.  The rest of us should be indifferent to his fate.  The underlying theory has to do with the fear of the “moral hazard.”  If society is not indifferent to the pain brought on themselves by the irresponsible, then society is incentivizing irresponsibility.   Maintaining a strict boundary between those human conditions that we, as a society, care about and those we are to be indifferent to is the right wing’s battle.  If people care about others too much, there will be a breakdown of indifference and the present social order will crumble.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Barack Obama: Liberal Theologian

President Obama’s statement at the Newtown Prayer Vigil made some theological assertions that are of interest.  

He begins by quoting “Scripture” -- his quote is from 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1, a passage of consolation, in which Paul contrasts his own earthly suffering with the ultimate prospect of being raised with Jesus.  Paul’s second letter is haunted by his unnamed affliction and his sense that his life has been threatened by it.  Disease?  But the image is compelling:  our earthly tent is being destroyed, but we have a building from God, a house not made by human hands, eternal in heaven. 

Obama's choice of text suggests a metaphorical approach to these mass shootings: they are a disease, an affliction, even a sign of wasting away. 

He then tells his audience that they are not alone; the nation grieves with them.  He tells them that the courage of the school staff and the students at Sandy Hook have inspired the nation.

And then, he establishes a basic contradiction: 
In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you've looked out for each other, and you've cared for one another, and you've loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered. And with time, and God's grace, that love will see you through.”
Violence and Evil on one side.  Love on the other.

He turns from Newtown to the nation at large.  

He starts with the love that parents have for their children, describing it.  And then, he poses the question of whether we have fulfilled our responsibilities to our children.  Have we kept them safe? 

And he makes, for himself and for the nation, a confession atypical for contemporary political speech. Political leaders pose problems that are external to them and to the nation itself.  Problems are “threats” not “afflictions”. Our leaders don’t discuss their own role in our nation’s problems, but only tell us that they are prepared to solve them.  The confession of Obama recalls the metaphor of disease, of affliction.  We are afflicted with mass gun violence, as though we are wasting away, and he, the President of the United States, is complicit in it.  

Liberal religious leaders often speak this way; we confess our nation’s faults regularly, and often sloppily, wallowing in collective guilt.  “We drive cars which use gas and so we are all complicit in Middle Eastern political violence.”  I say “sloppily” because it short-circuits concrete analysis of real culpability.  

Political leaders just don’t make confessions like that Obama made in Newtown.  I was reminded of Jimmy Carter’s naming of the national “malaise” that prevented us from grappling concretely with energy policy.  (Had he been heeded, rather than mocked, we would be in different place on climate change.)  Political leaders have since then been relentlessly positive, optimistic and unreflective about all our national problems.

Obama makes a confession and then a pledge that he is going to do all he can to end school shootings.  This pledge is the most conventional piece of his remarks, and has been criticized for vagueness and a lack of specificity. But he is making funeral remarks, not a State of the Union address. 

He turns instead to the question of ultimate purpose.  A confession implies that a standard or purpose has not been met.  For example, a confession of crime is a confession that one has violated the laws made by the state. The conventional understanding of a confession of sin means that one has violated the laws or purposes of God.

What have we failed by allowing the Sandy Hook massacre? What is larger than ourselves that holds us accountable for our inaction?  What are we measuring ourselves against?

Obama is approaching a fundamental problem in all liberal theology.  Religious Liberals get it that there is no external and divine source of human morality.  Religious Liberals know that all human understandings of God are variable and culturally determined and well, human. There is simply no reliable way to be sure of “God’s Will” or “God’s Law.”  

Religious Liberals get it that we are forced to try to sort out some source of authority for human morality, and that it has to come from within.

So, against what authority does Obama measure us, and himself, and find us lacking?  

He comes down to the love that we have for our children.  We have failed to act in ways consistent with the love we feel, as parents, for our children.

He says:
“There's only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have -- for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child's embrace -- that is true. The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves, and binds us to something larger -- we know that's what matters. We know we're always doing right when we're taking care of them, when we're teaching them well, when we're showing acts of kindness. We don't go wrong when we do that. That's what we can be sure of.”

He could have chosen another source of authority.  After all, shooting people in a school is against the law.  He could have just confessed that the nation fails to enforce the law and left it at that.  Of course, that is not the real issue, since the law serves to try and punish the lawbreaker.  In this case, the lawbreaker is already dead. 

No, the confession would have had to be that he and the rest of us had failed to prevent the crime.  And that goes right into all the debates that we have about gun control, mental health and whether we have trained our elementary students to sacrifice themselves by bum-rushing men with automatic weapons.  

Preventing these attacks is complex and our priorities have been elsewhere.  Preserving gun rights, for example.  Saving money in health services.  Selling video games.  Ensuring the rights of those mentally ill people who are potentially violent.  

People argue over policy priorities.  But what should have been the highest priority?  What is the priority that failure to fulfill constitutes an affliction, a sin? 

Obama could have chosen any number of ultimate values: principles of justice, simple species survival, reverence for life over death.  

But Obama says that the ultimate value that we failed was our love for our children.  

Parental is not an intellectual abstraction.  It is not a principle that we have to learn.  It is nearly universal emotion that most people feel, or have at least envied.  It is a foundational human experience.

John Dewey argued that the humanist religious liberal would be disciplined by what he called “idealized social ends.”  The humanist would be willing to make sacrifices, even put his/her life on the line, for things like “justice”, “Peace”, or “solidarity”.  

Instead of “idealized social ends”, Obama argues that we are to be disciplined by generalized, emotional processes.  We move from the love and care we have for our children to the love and care we all have for all children, and then hold ourselves accountable to create social institutions that make that love operational.  In short, we are accountable to the work of institutionalizing parental love as a governing value.

“Institutionalized Love” would be my phrase, and not Obama’s.  But I think it is a plausible extension of his argument in Newtown.  It brings to mind the Unitarian Universalist Association social justice shorthand: Standing on the Side of Love.   It is making a social principle by generalizing from our own personally felt and most noble emotional sentiments.  And it is placing those sentiments as ultimate values, to which we are spiritually accountable.  Against which, we judge ourselves and make confession.

Liberal theology is a search for that which can be placed at the center of both our personal and social lives.  At one point, liberal theologians talked about the Kingdom of God, the phrase used by Jesus.  But if one’s theological explorations have questioned God as a Monarch, and even God as a Personal Agent, then that phrase is an antique.  No one wants to live in a Kingdom anymore.  

Another phrase has been the “Beloved Community”.  To me, the phrase is fatally confusing. “Community” is a subset of “Humanity”. Is the community to attain this status of belovedness, the whole human family, or our people, the church the congregation.  

So, inspired by Barack Obama, liberal theologian, I propose that we consider the phrase “institutionalized love”. Imagine a social order built to make general and concrete our most generous and noble emotion. Imagine  everything built and governed to make love most possible. 

I have no idea where such a quest would end.  But I would know where it starts, because I have felt Love.  I have seen it, witnessed it, and known it.  It is the personal experience of the transcendent and holy, and can be the foundation upon which a life can be lived. 

I do not credit Barack Obama with first articulating a theology based on the personal experience of love, specifically parental love. Really, the fact that he has gotten us this close to Universal Health Care Insurance coverage is enough of an achievement in my book.  

But I think that his speech in Newtown shows how liberal theology might move forward.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Pushed, Fallen or Flown Away?

Pushed, Fallen or Flown Away?
December 2, 2012
First Unitarian Church, Worcester
Tom Schade


The Birth of Jesus Foretold

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Second Reading: 

"A Journey" by Edward Field

The Sermon

I like to watch police procedurals on TV -- shows like Law and Order, Southland, The Closer, Cold Case, and so forth, all the way back to the greatest of them all: NYPD Blue with Dennis Franz.  I don’t like any of the CSI shows because all the victims, witnesses and perpetrators are all very good-looking, and that rubs me the wrong way.  

I also like to read cop stories and detective mysteries, too.  The grittier the better. 

Crime fiction, on the screen or in print, are one of the few forms which try for social realism; they try to show you life as it really is, what really goes on on the streets and the seedy bars and the backrooms of police stations that you never see. 

And occasionally into these stories, a person like yourself appears, wanders in more or less, a good citizen, middle class, educated.  And they, in the story, are not just the victim of a crime, but are a suspect, a perp: they are being arrested.  For you see, somewhere, they went off track.  Perhaps it was an auto accident and they were under the influence of alcohol, maybe they took off after the accident and were now caught.  Maybe they had crossed an ethical line at work, and now were in over their head in a criminal case.  Maybe a sexual escapade had gotten out of hand. 

And at some point, somebody, a police officer, a detective, a prosecutor says to them: “That old life of yours, the one you had this morning, with your nice house and your nice job, your nice car -- that’s over.  You’re not going back there.  This is your new life, now.”

There are moments of such radical disjuncture, even in lives as ordinary as ours.  Everything goes up in the air and when it comes down, “that old life of yours -- that’s over.  This is your new life now.”

Last week, Jessica introduced us to the word “liminal” and “Liminality” -- the space in between, the threshold, the moments in life, and the experience by which a person passes from one state to another. “that old life of yours -- that’s over.  This is your new life now.”

Do you think Mary understood that as the unspoken part of the message of the angel?

No where in the story do we hear Mary’s misgivings, and I am sure that there would have been for any young woman in her position.  As she looked into the future, she must have felt herself tumbling over a cliff, falling and hurtling through the air.  Whatever life she had thought she was living -- whether you believe that she was a quiet and innocent girl from a small town or she was the jewel of a religiously activist family -- that was then, and this was now, and her life would never be the same. 

Falling into the future... 

Was she pushed?  

Did she fall?  

Or had she taken flight?

There are days now when I wonder the same about myself.  

Most of you don’t know that my younger daughter Ann had a baby girl on Thursday night -- a little granddaughter named Hannah.  My first grandchild.  So this is a new stage of life for me.

But that is not all, of course.  I am leaving here, this ministry, and starting a life in which I will not be a parish minister anymore.  And I am making this change in response to the changing conditions in my life -- Sue, my wife’s, new job.  It was not my plan, and not my desire, but a change in life pressed upon me from without.  

I talk a good game about what I intend to do in my new circumstances -- I have plans and projects and proposals in the works.  But really, I don’t know -- and I have always had more plans and projects and proposals than ever I actually done.  I have built more boats in my imagination than ever touched the water.  I have travelled further dreaming in my easy chair than ever have I walked.  I hold my plans and projects and proposals in the same dreamers easy grip.  

I methodically check off the tasks of moving a household half way across the country in several stages, trying to keep track of where that book and that file and that sweater is among all the places they could be.  That’s what’s going on on the surface, but really, I feel like I am falling into the future, hurtling headlong through time and will at some point land with a thud in Michigan into a new life, and this one will be gone, forever.  

I am not complaining, and I don’t feel sorry for myself.  I am a very lucky man, more so than I deserve, I suppose.  I am obligated to never forget it and to respond with gratitude. 

But I bring up my own situation because I don’t think that it is mine alone.  This Advent season finds many people in a situation like Mary of Nazareth, or even mine, in that they are looking into an unknown future.  That life they had, this morning, or yesterday, or last month, is gone and is not coming back.  A new life is coming, and they, me, you, Mary don’t know the shape of it, what it will feel like, whether it will be joy or sorrow, a bearable burden or unbearable suffering.  

Last week, Jessica Gray so very bravely and so steadily and so skillfully, taught the children and all of us about her cancer.  She talked about losing her hair and she bared her skull for us.  She drove away the weasel demons of distance and discomfort and euphemism.  She modeled faith -- she engaged in her work, the ministry of faith development.  

But I know that she, too, has fallen head over heels into an unknown future.  Last week’s life is over, and this is her new life, and what it contains has not yet been made clear to her.  

Has she fallen; was she pushed; will waving arms become beating wings?

I see you out there.
I know that some of you are suffering such uncertainty about your life.  I know that some of you must take deep breaths, slow steady breaths, to hold down the fear and the terror that threatens to consume you.  

I know that some of you have undertaken major changes in your life -- new jobs, moving to a new city, planning for an addition to your family.  You are in that Advent space of waiting expectantly for a new stage of life to begin, unsure of it.

And this church itself.  We are going through this Advent season in a state of great uncertainty and anticipation.  I have heard everything from “the place is going to fall apart” to “this ministerial transition is going to go very well.”  I even suspect that there are some saying “free at last, free at last” but they are polite enough to do it out of my hearing.  

A thick cloud of uncertainty settles over the church, and every thing that is unsettled, or in process, or in dispute, about the church seems to come to the fore.  Now is the time to change everything that we don’t like about the church.  And now is the time to protect and perserve everything that makes us special, unique and successful.  But in this period of waiting, and falling into the future, we are not sure which is which, and each person is beginning to get the picture that not everyone agrees what is the wheat and what is the chaff.  What is the baby and what is the bathwater.

Were we pushed?  Did we fall?  Are we learning to fly?

Our colleague in this congregation: Jay Lavelle, frequently reminds me that there are really just two basic stories:  Someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.  I would add to that most stories combine these elements in some way, in plots and subplots and scene settings. 

Overall, the story of Jesus, as told in the gospels, is one of the greatest  “stranger comes to town” stories ever told.  What a mysterious stranger !  He turns out to be a hidden prince of another kingdom and he changes everything before he leaves and promises to return.

But this “stranger comes to town” story contains many “someone goes on a journey” subplots.  The gospels are in the form of journey stories, following Jesus as he moves about the country, preaching and teaching and healing, and eventually making a final fateful journey to Jerusalem.  

And the Advent story contains some journeys.  Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth and ultimately, as the Advent story turns into the Nativity story, Mary and Joseph undertake the visit to Bethlehem where Jesus is born.  

So, the Advent story is more than waiting in the dark for the light to come.  Often the conventional spiritual message of Advent is the lesson of patience.  Our salvation is coming, but it is not here yet.  Be patient.  And somehow that slops into the whole story of children waiting for Christmas.

But I don’t think that this conventional story is the whole story.  Advent is the story of a journey from what is known and familiar but dead and dull, through the unknown and falling through that unknown space into an unknown future.  Not only waiting, but waiting without knowing, of sensing that everything is changing around you, that the old is falling away and the old forms and structures are twisting into new shapes, and nothing will be the same again.  

Like our country.

Like our church.

Like so many of our lives. 

The Advent season suggests to us, invites us to consider the possibility, asks us to believe that whether we have been pushed, or fallen, or tried to fly away, that we will land safely, that there is a power at work in the Universe that will catch us as we fall, that we are waiting for something better and that we will be ready and able for the next stage of the journey once we land. Advent is a journey through the dark and into the light, to use that metaphor.  It is a story that begins with “the people in darkness” and ends in Bethlehem, with angels and kings and a new baby.  

Oh, I am not saying that every story has a happy ending.  That every illness will be cured.  And that every transition is going to be a step forward.  There is a line in one of Paul’s letters in which he says that “everything works for the good for those who have faith.”  If you take that to mean that believers get only happy endings, its a pretty dumb statement, and one that has been disproven again and again and again.I think that it means that for some people, those who have great faith and trust in life and the universe and God, something good and useful and healthy can be found in almost any situation, no matter how dire.  

Edward Field’s poem this morning struck me as apropos to Advent, and our fall into the unknown liminal space:  we do not know the buried narrative of the poem, we just find a man on the way to the train station, fighting back to the tears of some great sadness all the way, and then he takes a journey on a train, and on that train, he, hemmed in by social expectations and his own emotional reticence, gives way to his grief, fully expressing it, and that when he arrives he has somehow transcended it.
“And at the end of the ride, he stood up and got off that train:
and through the streets and in all the places he lived in later on
He walked, himself at last, a man among men,
with such radiance that everyone looked up and wondered.”

That is us.  That man is me. That journey and that train are one dimension of the process we are going through.  

We will arrive at that far station, and we will be healed of the grief and anxieties of this unsettling period in life   For as Mary says in her Magnificat: He has helped his people in remembrance of the promise He made to our ancestors.

Monday, November 26, 2012

"Lincoln": The Films that Get Made and the Films that Should be Made

The criticism of the Spielberg/Kushner film "Lincoln" is that it continues to distort the history of the end of the Civil War, by focusing so much on Lincoln and events in Washington.  The untold historical movement of the times was the self-liberation of slaves who presented themselves to the Union army and demanded to fight.  This story is only partially told in popular film (I am thinking of "Glory"), and never from a point of view inside the slave community.  Imagine that movie, for a moment:  the disintegrating plantation life, the panic among whites, the enslaved calculating the risks of staying or going, the flight, the encounter with the resistant Union army which disdains their willingness to fight.  It is an inspiring and dramatic story and would make a great movie.

The scene at the beginning of "Lincoln" in which two African American soldiers talk to Lincoln hints at some of this drama.  One is more awed by the President, but proud to tell of his unit's fighting.  The other is bolder and presses upon Lincoln the injustices that the black soldiers have faced: the lower pay, the non-combat assignments, the segregation of the officer corps.  Lincoln has no answer for him, except to point to a bright future for the man in politics after the war.  Hanging in the air between them is the man's invocation of real political equality -- is it a prophecy?  A bitterly laughable dream?  A taunt to Lincoln?

Abraham Lincoln is such a towering and enigmatic figure in our history that all popular history tends to circle around him.  Like Jesus, we hear what he says, and see what he does, but what he thought and intended is obscured behind veils of deception and contradiction.  The Spielberg/Kushner movie makes this clear -- the central action of the passage of the 13th amendment was a skillful deception and obfuscation on Lincoln's part -- allowing the Conservative Republicans believe that negotiations with the South were imminent, while denying the same to the Democrats in Congress.

The problem is that this mystery of Lincoln's intentions (what did he intend and when did he intend it?) draws the attention of the popular historian.  And another problem is that because Lincoln dies, everyone else in the story is reduced to their relationship to him.  And so, because they opposed him on many issues, the Radical Republicans become Lincoln's nemeses.

I am not a real historian, just an interested party, but to me, there is a jarring disjuncture between the popular representation of Lincoln's postwar planning and what actually happened.

Lincoln is portrayed as taking a softer, more forgiving line on Reconstruction than the Radical Republicans.  And because he is Lincoln, and because he was shot, and because his rhetoric was never put into action, we are left with this vague vision of a lost opportunity in Reconstruction.  The South could have come back, bygones would have gone by, none would have suffered malice and charity given to all, and the widow and orphan cared for.

But the real lost opportunity was the creation of a free society in the South.  Tommy Lee Jones gave voice to that lost opportunity in a speech for Thaddeus Stevens to the effect that the slaveowners's land would be confiscated and distributed to the freed slaves, and that by the force of arms, the US government would protect them, and thus establish a free, multi-racial democratic society in the South.  As we well know, that did not happen, not because Lincoln was shot, but because the Republican party  agreed to remove federal troops in 1876 in order to win the Presidency for Rutherford Hayes.

I would be interested in understanding Lincoln's real intentions regarding Reconstruction.  I know that his rhetoric was conciliatory up to the end of the war.  I also know that his rhetoric at the beginning of the war was studiously neutral on the question of slavery itself and seemed designed to keep some border states from joining the confederacy.  I am not sure that Lincoln is himself a reliable witness as to his own intentions. Witness our peace delegation from Richmond, a group which simultaneously was, and was not.  And I am sure that Lincoln was pragmatic and ruthless.  His great accomplishment was to be able to follow the dialectical relationship between ending slavery and preserving the Union (as the institutionalization of democratic government).  In an exceedingly complex situation, he was able to shift and turn until the underlying reality was brought to the surface, that they were mutually dependent.   Both had to be done.

Stephen J. Carter has written a counter-factual novel called the "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln" which imagines that he did not get shot, but lived on to be impeached by the bad-guys of all our popular history, the nefarious Radical Republicans.  I would love to read, or see in a movie, another counter-factual imagining, one of Lincolns' Reconstruction.  I still want Daniel Day-Lewis in the role, but I want to see him follow the unfolding contradiction between his irenic rhetoric and implacable resistance to black empowerment in the South.

I would like to see a happy ending to this story, if only in a movie, just so, we can all understand what might have been, and what might still be.......

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Two Thanksgiving Prayers 2012

We prayed with these words on November 18th.

A Prayer of Individual Gratitude for the Church....

O Spirit of Life and Love,
God of many Names and Forms

We give thanks for the changes you are working in us,
turning us from delusion to truth,
from pride to humility,
from cynicism to reverence, 
from conformity to freedom,
from indifference to compassion, 
from disdain and judgment to openness and curiosity,
from isolation to solidarity. 
Each day, you call us beyond our selves, 
and even if we do not answer, 
we are grateful that you call.

We give thanks, this day, for this church and our fellow congregants, for all that they share: 
words, stories, music, 
working hands and creative minds, 
and their kind witness of our changes.

We give thanks for those who came before us, 
for this beautiful room, and a stable institution,
 and the traditions that have sustained a beacon of the free spirit. 
We are grateful that long before we were here, 
here was here, 
waiting for us.

And we give thanks to you, O restless spirit, 
O creating, sustaining and transforming power not made by human hands, 
for inviting us into your works 
of drawing together humanity, 
binding us together in peace and love, 
and healing the world. 

- Rev. Tom Schade, 2012

We will pray with these words on November 25th

A Thanksgiving Prayer

O Heavenly Kindness,
Forgive today our many ingratitudes --
our boredom with all beauty and 
the cynicism with which we meet all hope.

Forgive today our entitlements
that deny the pleasure of all giving 
and any receiving.

Forgive today our guilt
by which we diminish our charity
and convert the kindness of others 
into our indebtedness.

Teach us today to receive, 
to accept help, 
to hear praise, 
to hug back, 
to say thanks and 
and to be loved. 

- Rev. Tom Schade, 2012

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Always Answered Prayer -- 11/18/2012

It never seems that I have been grateful enough.  Thanksgiving rolls around and I am asked for what I am grateful, and to whom am I grateful, and the questions seem to catch me flat-footed, and by surprise.  Well, I am grateful to everybody for everything, of course.  But somehow, when you asked me, I wasn’t thinking of it right then.  I seems to me that I should have been more aware of it, more consciously thankful.  

Of course, gratitude is not always on one’s mind.  We live mostly in the present and in the future, but gratitude is a type of memory.  If one lived in the present all the time, without a thought to the past or the future, you wouldn’t feel grateful very much.  It is said to be a second pleasure.  Gratitude is the memory of a something pleasurable, a favor, a friend, a moment of grace.  And so, gratitude comes to us when are reminded, and so it can come as a surprise. 

Gratitude is a way of remembering the world, a way of remembering life. It is a way of making sense of everything that is happening, and has happened, a way of making sense of life.  It is a way of sorting and classifying, it’s a way of evaluating what has happened.  At the end of the day, when you look over what happened, you can tell a story about how everything went wrong, and people were thoughtless and inconsiderate to you, and even how you were, once again, screwed over by the implacable forces of evil.  Or, you can tell a story of how you were blessed with good fortune during the day -- acts of kindness, good luck, great weather, even beauty, none of which had to happen, but they did. 

At the heart of gratitude is the mystery of contingency.  

Today, I am enjoying the memory of last night’s John Henry Hammer’s Coffee house, Walter Crockett and the wannabe wabbits and Dennis Brennan, a folk rocker.  It was here at the church.

I am grateful to the performers, especially Walter Crockett who sang two wonderful songs expressing his loss of his wife and his daughter, and I am grateful to everyone who made the event happen, the radio station,  WCUW, the people from the church here (Scott Hayman, and  Seth Popinchalk, and Linda Wyatt and Bob and Susan Shaw,  and others).  It wouldn’t have happened without them.  You see, in order to be grateful, I have to be conscious of the fact that none of it had to happen.  

We might have decided not to host the coffee house again, when the idea first come up last year.  There might not have been anybody willing to take on the task.  The radio station might have approached another church.  The performer might have decided to go into his father plumbing supply business instead.  His car might have broken down on the way to the gig, or he might have gotten a cold.  There could have been a terrible storm and the power might have gone out. 

I might have decided that it wasn’t going to be worth the drive and stayed home.  I might have not gotten far enough on writing this sermon.  I might have gone into his father’s plumbing supply business and never become a minister.  That passerby who noticed the smoke coming from the eaves of the church back in 2000, could have looked the other way (literally been looking the other way) and not called the fire department, and the church might have burned to the ground.   

As soon as you look at anything, and calculate the huge number of other possibilities that might have happened instead, you are struck by the overwhelming odds against reality.  It was to sound a bit like Joe Biden, LITERALLY, so statistically unlikely that you and I are even here today that it boggles the mind.  

The Brazilian poet Carlos Drummon De Andrade wrote a poem called “in the middle of the road”.  It was translated by Elizabeth Bishop, a poet claimed by Worcester.

[read Poem] 

In the middle of the road there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
there was a stone
in the middle of the road there was a stone.

Never should I forget this event
in the life of my fatigued retinas.
Never should I forget that in the middle of the road
there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
in the middle of the road there was a stone.

On the one hand, the poem seems silly.  I can hear people now saying, “Remember when Reverend Tom preached about the poem that just went on and on about rock in the middle of the road, like it was the second coming of the Christ.”

On the other hand, if you think about it enough, the fact that that rock was in the middle of that road is as good a concrete example of the unknowable mystery of reality as anything else.  It is no less strange and wonderful than the song of birds, the swell of the ocean, the shape of clouds, the invisible wind.

I don’t know what is harder to believe: that an all-knowing God, complete with white robe, beard and sandals, made it all happen just so according a very complicated plan, or that it happened by sheerest, most unplanned and impersonal chance.  

So therefore, it is a miracle and highly unlikely, and almost against all odds, that we are here together today, we should take the time to ask ourselves: what on earth are we doing here? 

I cannot say why you come to church on Sunday.  

I can only say what I think that the invitation that the church is making to you. And when I say “The church” I do not mean this congregation, but I mean the long tradition of Unitarian Universalism as now understood by its ministers, my colleagues.  But ultimately, I am speaking for myself.  What I think I am doing by leading worship in the Unitarian Universalist tradition.

At the heart of worship is the work of gratitude.  

Think over your week, your day, your life.  You’re telling yourself a story about it -- what story are you telling?  You are sorting and sifting and evaluating.  Since last Sunday, I planned a memorial service and I heard about the life of a man I never met, Reuben Patton.  I talked to Rosel and his sister and his brother and his step-son:  I could remember how hard it was to do this work, but I also remember how much they shared, and how they made visible their feelings.  And I went to a retreat of my colleagues, which could have been time away from the work that I wanted to do, but it was also a time when I could feel their affection, and I learned some important stuff, and I even had some difficult conversations with colleagues.  I try to remember that they trust me with that.  

And on and on... I am pushed by this service, by these hymns, by the words of the Psalm to look at this ordinary week as a week in which I was gifted and blessed with good work to do, and with great companions, and occasions of great beauty and meaning, none of which had to happen and none of which were owed to me. 

Our goal in the liberal church is to increase your capacity for gratitude, whether it be gratitude to the God that watches over you, or gratitude to the horse that brought you home.

Because gratitude is the beginning of all spirituality.  If you are grateful, then you will be generous.  No one can give unless they know how to receive.

And if a person is grateful, then that person can see the miracle in everything, and in that grateful, reverence will grow.  If you can slow down, and relax enough, and refresh your fatigued retinas to never forget the improbable fact of the stone in the middle of the road, then how can you not notice the image of God stamped upon the face of everyone you meet, including that face you see in the mirror.  So self-possession and solidarity grow together from gratitude. 

How can you let that holy image of God, seen in the face of another, go hungry, or sleep in the street, or cower in fear of a bomber or a rocket, or pick through garbage all day for food, or walk five miles a day to bring water to her family, or live with pollution and filth, or be condemned to never dream?  

Gratitude begats reverence which begats self-possession and solidarity, which begats a deep dissatisfaction with the realities of the world.  The same world for which you give thanks.  

How can you live in a world with such injustice, such cruelty, such hatred, such violence?   

There is a prayer that is always answered. 

Stand in your spot -- that spot for you. 

Stand beneath the stars, shimmering into the distant reaches of space.

Stand in the summer fields, buzzing with life and lazy with abundance. 

Stand amidst the autumn leaves all brightness and crimson

Stand in your kitchen, all clean and quiet at the end of the day.

Stand in the cemetery where the elders rest and wait for you

Stand in your children’s bedroom and listen to them breathe

Stand in that spot, that piece of holy ground

and whisper this prayer:  Thank You !

Thank your lucky stars, or ALmighty God, or the horse that led you home, but 

make a prayer of “thank you! “ and send it into the Universe.

And the Universe will answer “you’re welcome.” 

You’re Welcome.

You are welcome here.  

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How Religious Liberalism does: (1)

What does a Religious Liberal do, or not do?

A Religious liberal doesn't demonize...

When a big storm comes along and governmental officials tell people evacuate a neighborhood or a community, some people won't go.  Maybe they had a good reason, maybe not.  Maybe they had no other choice, or no way to get anywhere else, or nowhere to go.  Or no cash to get there.  Maybe they screwed up.  Maybe they were screwed up at the time when they should have been thinking straight.

They may end up needing help, or rescue, or assistance, any of which cost money, and may place others in danger.

Public officials will need to point the objective and necessary actions over and over again.  The media will need to reinforce this message.

But a religious liberal doesn't demonize people who need help, even if they are not blameless.  They don't call them "jerks" or "stupid" or "ignorant" or "show-offs" or any of the other things that are thrown around by political figures or media people who consider themselves "tough talkers".

There is no need ever to demonize and disparage people who need help.

When people do things that seem irrational, or selfish, or dangerous, respect demands that you try to find out why, with some sympathy.  People are worthy of respect.

Religious liberals don't demonize; we humanize.  It's how we do.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Imaginative Leap -- Sermon October 14th

Oh My Gosh!  Last week was Columbus Day weekend, and I didn’t say anything about Columbus Day.  

By the time you get through the traditional Christian holidays-- Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Palm Sunday, Easter and Pentecost -- and you add in the National Holidays -- Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King;s Birthday, Abraham Lincoln and/or George Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Flag Day, 4th of July and Labor Day, and then throw in Mother and Father’s Day -- you got a lot of the church year blocked out for you.  And don’t forget some of the newer days of observation that folks promote:  National Coming Out Day, Day of Transgender Remembrance, the Association Sunday, and don’t forget Pledge Sunday.  There are people emotionally attached to every one of these.

But do not fear, I will get to Columbus day today, which actually fell on October 12th -- Friday.  It is also the National Day of Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples.   A counter holiday.  You have perhaps seen that little poster that says “Let’s Celebrate Columbus Day by going into someone else’s house and saying that we live there now.”   I imagine that among some of the First Nation people (to use the Canadian phrase) it is also a day of solidarity against Illegal Immigration.

I am not going to talk about the absolutely disastrous result of the European conquest of the Americas has had on the peoples and nations that were there, here.  I am confident that like most educated Americans you know about it. By every contemporary standard of international law, it would illegal today.  It was genocidal in effect, and was intended to be so.  The effects of it carry onto today.  There is nobody now who defends it.  It is both indefensible and irreversible.  And, of course, since there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it, it is all that much easier to condemn it.

But today, I want to look at Christopher Columbus and the other explorers.  

While what they did was a disaster in the Americas, what they did was remarkable in Europe.  And for this overview, I am relying on Edwin H. Friedman, a rabbi and a student of systems thinking, especially as it applies beyond families to organizations, congregations, and even nations and civilization.

15th Century Europe (the 1400’s) was monolithically Catholic, recovering from the plague, and stuck.  It was the age of cathedrals -- the productive and innovative powers of the continent were directed toward building cathedrals. The cathedrals were magnificent architectural representations of the unchanging cosmic order of the Universe -- they were symbols of the medieval ways of thoughts.  There were scientific disputes over the shape of the cosmos, but the old systems of thinking were still in place and dominant.  

16th Century Europe  (the 1500‘s) saw the Reformation and the Renaissance, Michelangelo and Da Vinci and Copernicus and Galileo and Michael Servetus, one of those we claim among the first Unitarians. It was a time of new art and architecture, new science, new religion, new everything. The old medieval world view was swept away.  It is interesting that in the 16th century, no new Cathedrals were begun.

Europe had been imaginatively stuck and could not even absorb and use the new information it was receiving, and suddenly it wasn’t.

Friedman asks us to consider the explorers, including Columbus, as a precipitating factor, in what we would now call a European paradigm shift.  The explorers were leaders who took the risks to step outside the conventional thinking of their civilization and proved in practice that the old ways of understanding the world were just wrong.  

How does a civilization, a country, a congregation, a family get imaginatively stuck?  Friedman argues that it is not a lack of information, nor a lack of ideas, nor a lack of effort.  A system looks stuck because it is caught up in the same questions, in circular reasoning, inside the box thinking, unresolvable contradictions.  But the problem is not cognitive, its not in the thinking. 

A stuck system is, first of all, stuck emotionally.  It’s emotionally gridlocked.  The people and institutions that make up the system have developed a stasis, a balance, which appears as a set of unchangeable and unquestioned assumptions that cannot be changed.  And they are emotionally committed to some element of that stasis which makes it impossible to see outside of it.  An emotionally gridlocked system is one which is highly anxious, where everyone is very afraid that something terrible is about to happen

Families get like that; congregations get like that -- especially around all the important issues: worship, money, music, children -- 

Nations get like that: We are like that.  One sign of a stuck emotional system in the United States is that our politics gets so polarized.  Our assumptions of the system limit the number of options to a few unacceptable choices.  Just for example, and something to think about: the country is stuck on this question of should we tax some people more or should we cut benefits and spending. Either/Or?  Meanwhile every candidate for every office from almost every party ends every speech saying that the United States is the Greatest Nation on Earth.  That’s the unspoken, unquestioned assumption.  And it turns out that means for most people that the United States has the world’s most powerful and expensive military in the world.  So our parties argue over funding PBS but do not discuss the level of military might we need. 

Again, this is not a problem of thinking: everyone knows that the Pentagon spends a huge amount of money.  It’s that there is an emotional system at work here.  What we spend at the Pentagon is primarily an emotional issue.  It’s all tied up with pride and patriotism, with what we owe our service people and veterans and those who died in war; it’s tied up with our fears of being attacked, our pride at doing good in the world.  It’s tied up with the same emotions that have us believe that every service person is a hero and that every time we engage in conflict, they are fighting for our freedoms.  And it’s tied with all sorts of lesser emotions -- jobs and economic security.  And our resentments and feelings toward other Americans: their wealth or lack of it and on and on.  

And all those emotional factors are part of a much larger emotional system that is our politics and culture.  Which is emotionally gridlocked, which now takes the form of a paralyzed polarization or a polarized paralysis.  

Now, Friedman argues that it takes leaders to unstick a system. And here is the most important point:  A leader is not someone who has the best idea, or the most political skills, or is the most popular or is the most eloquent -- a leader is someone who has achieved emotional independence from the emotional system that is in gridlock.  That emotional independence shows up often as risk taking, but isn’t the risk taking, it is the lack of anxiety that makes for the leader to emerge.

So Europe feels stuck in the 15th century, and one of the reason that is stuck is that it feels that it cannot get to the Far East, which is wants to do.  All kinds of reasons for this sense of encirclement: the repulsion of the Crusades, the Moors in North Africa and South Europe.  Part of this has to be religious -- they are the homeland of the one true faith, Christianity and they are surrounded by heathens and infidels.  Blah-blah-blah says Christopher Columbus and the Explorers --let’s go the other way.  Never work.  They said -- let’s just go take a look. 

Now, I believe that it one of the callings of Liberal Religion is to create condition for each of us to become leaders -- by becoming emotionally detaching from the anxieties that are gridlocking the emotional systems in our families, in our organizations and in our country and culture.  That’s what I call “self-possession” and it is an essential part of liberal religion.  It’s thinking for yourself and it’s not being enslaved to the fears and anxieties are in the air and the water.  And by becoming detached, we become able to make an imaginative leap into new ways of thinking and being and being together.  

To bring this back around to Columbus Day.  This is why I am drawn to declaring myself a celebrant of the National Day of Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples rather than an observer of Columbus Day.  

You see there are a whole series of emotional claims on me that are leading me to identify with Christopher Columbus when he first sets foot on the Western Hemisphere and encounters the people living there.  Really, they just come down to the fact that he is the white guy in the picture.  He was not representing any country that I come from -- he does not even represent Italy because the Italy we know did not even exist then.  He does not represent any religion that I claim -- even his understanding of Catholicism is so different than current Catholicism.  He represents the feudal aristocracy, not even emerging capitalism in Europe.  He is not me and I am not him, except in this one ay -- he represent whites vs the non-whites.  Our identification with him is part of an emotional system of racism, that I think we ought to be leading people away from.  

Really there are just as many similarities between me and indigenous people who met Christopher Columbus as there the other way.  

They were born on this continent, as was I; as were most of you. They loved this land as their own, as do you and I.  They thought the people who walked the land here were more important than the gold that lay beneath the soil, as do I, and I hope you too.  They sought to meet the stranger with kindness and hospitality, as I hope I do and as I have seen you do.  Their home was here, as is mine, as is yours.

It is not petty, nor superficial, nor silly, nor politically correct to choose to observe this day in solidarity with the people of the First Nations.  It is declaring an independence from a whole emotional system of vanities that starts with the delusion that Europeans were bringing Christianity to the natives and goes through the errand into the wilderness and Manifest Destiny to the idea that America is God’s elected nation on Earth and ends with the concern that we, as a people, might be losing faith with the idea of American Exceptionalism.  Oh, to see ourselves as others see us. 

Yes, one must give credit to Christopher Columbus and the other explorers for making an imaginative leap that broke open the sclerotic 15th century and brought new life and creativity to Europe.  But we know that yesterday’s imaginative leap is tomorrows’ orthodoxy which must be overthrown.  500 years is long enough.

So, let us think again, and think anew, and think for ourselves and leap, leap, leap into the unknown future.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Reawakenings (Sermon October 7, 2012)

Psalm 100
1Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
2Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
3Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

Modern Reading:

Pure Beauty, benediction: you are all I gathered
From a life that was bitter and confused,
In which I learned about evil, my own and not my own.
Wonder kept seizing me, and I recall only wonder,
Risings of the sun over endless green, a universe
Of grasses, and flowers opening to the first light,
Blue outlines of the mountains and a hosanna shout.
I asked, how many times, is this the truth of the earth?
How can laments and curses be turned into hymns?
What makes you need to pretend, when you know better?
But the lips praised on their own, on their own the feet ran;
The heart beat strongly; and the tongue proclaimed its adoration.

           Czeslaw Milosz, New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001, Ecco Press

How do you be a Unitarian Universalist?  

How do you BE a religious liberal?  

Not just GO to a UU church, or BELONG to some other religiously liberal institution, or DO some particular spiritual practice, but BE a religious liberal, and particularly BE a Unitarian Universalism.  Not just support some causes?  How do you live a life that embodies a generous, open-minded, self-possessed, committed spirit.  How do you have that influence on the people around you?  How do provide a liberal religious presence? 

Just to be clear, I think that religious liberalism is one of the great American religions these days -- right up there with evangelical Christianity, and Liturgical Orthodoxy, and Ethnic Solidarity. (Someday, I will explain that to you, but not today.)  Unitarian Universalism is one particular way of being a religious liberal.  Other religious liberals are liberal Christians, many Jews, many Catholics, many Buddhists and adherents of other world religions, and many who consider themselves to be unaffiliated -- the great ranks of the Spiritual but Not Religious.  

I believe that religious liberalism is a spirituality that equips people to live in this world, as it is, with the people who are here with us, with grace and with joy and in right relationship to others.  I believe that you will be happier and healthier and more at ease if you take this simple path to heart.  I believe that the world will be more just and compassionate if more people were religious liberals.

But what is this path?  How do you get on it?  

Last week, I said, to your great amusement, that you pay me to tell ridiculous and impractical things that you already believe, but need to be reminded of....things like that Life has great meaning and purpose and that is worthwhile to do the right thing, even there seems to be no advantage in it.  

You also pay me to make suggestions to you about how to live your life that are out of left field and from outside the box.  After all, I am not your financial advisor, looking at your retirement plan, and I am not your lawyer, looking at your will, and I am not the guy who is inspecting that state of your house wiring, and I am not your doctor, looking at your blood work.  I am your minister.

Folks, here is my message for today:  you need more REVERENCE in your life.    

No, not more REVERENDS, more REVERENCE.  

Reverence is a religious word, and like all religious words, it can confuse as much as clarify.  So let’s break this down.  Some poetry might help.

Milosz again, from today’s reading: He is looking back on his own life and the spiritual journey that he has taken.  He is a Roman Catholic, yet very materialist in his way.  He, like many of the Eastern European poets of the 20th century is a philosophical poet, not a lyricist.  He is not a transcendentalist -- he doesn’t see nature as being the evidence of God -- he does not hold nature as sacred -- in fact, he is the opposite -- to him Nature is the endless cycle of birth and death and predation-- he wonders what lies beyond nature -- what is eternal and merciful to us.

But yet, he feels wonder.

Wonder kept seizing me, and I recall only wonder,
Risings of the sun over endless green, a universe
Of grasses, and flowers opening to the first light,
Blue outlines of the mountains and a hosanna shout.
   (Four lines of wonder and appreciation of the beauties of the earth)
I asked, how many times, is this the truth of the earth?
How can laments and curses be turned into hymns?
What makes you need to pretend, when you know better?
   (Three lines that ask if this beauty is all there is.)
But the lips praised on their own, on their own the feet ran;
The heart beat strongly; and the tongue proclaimed its adoration

He celebrates the beauty of the Earth -- the endless green, the grasses, the flower, the blue outlines of Mountains -- but he wonders if this is really the truth of the earth, which is as often so marked with laments and curses than by hymns.  But yet, still, almost against his will, he moved to praise and adoration, to reverence. 

There are many people who cannot see the hand of God behind the world and all its things, but still they are moved to reverence, a reverence born of wonder and expressed in hymns of praise and adoration.  Today we are singing those hymns of praise and adoration.  (The hymns of the day were "Morning So Fair to See", "For the Beauty of the Earth" and "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee."

What is it that we revere, when we are moved with wonder and delight.  

In a sense, it is not the object itself that calls forth reverence.  It is not the grass, the hills, the trees themselves.  It is something hidden within them.  

I read this poem in 1999 at my pre-candidate sermon in Littleton before I was called here .

At the Shore
Mary Oliver

This morning
wind that light-limbed dancer was all 
over the sky while
ocean slapped up against
the shore's black-beaked rocks
row after row of waves
humped and fringed and exactly
different from each other and
above them one white gull
whirled slant and fast then
dipped its wings turned
in a soft and descending decision its
leafy feet touched
pale water just beyond
breakage of waves it settled
shook itself opened
its spoony beak cranked
like a pump. Listen!
Here is the white and silky trumpet of nothing. 
Here is the beautiful Nothing, body of happy,
meaningless fire, wildfire, shaking the heart.

            West Wind, Beacon Press, 1999

After several lines of Mary Oliver doing what Mary Oliver does so well and so often -- carefully observing and describing some element of nature -- in this case, a sea gull, settling on the water just beyond the breaking waves, she ends: 

Here is the white and silky trumpet of nothing. 
Here is the beautiful Nothing, body of happy,
meaningless fire, wildfire, shaking the heart.

Yes, this is reverence, but it is not the worship of birds.  It a reverence for NO THING, but the body of happy, meaningless fire, wildfire, shaking the heart.  It is the raw and powerful life force that animates the bird -- that shakes the bird’s heart, that shakes her heart.  Spirit of Life, Come unto me, one might sing.

So putting these two poems together, what do we know of reverence, this way of being in the world, that I am saying is at the core of the way of life that is religious liberalism.  A religious liberal holds life, that mysterious energy of life, with reverence.  

Reverence comes from wonder, Milosz says.  It does not come from a philosophy or a theology or even a theory about the nature of reality.  Yes, the world is full of endless green grass -- yes, they have to be green because of the chlorophyll in them, and it is a function of way light travels over long distances and how our eyes process that light that makes the distant hills look blue -- it’s all explainable, it’s all just science, but yet, almost against our will, there is wonder, and hymns of praise, and eyes wet with tears.  

It’s not grass, nor the hills, nor the waves, nor the bird, adds Mary Oliver, -- what is wonderful, what shakes the heart is nothing, NO THING, but this energy, this wildfire, this powerful energy of is-ness that is in everything, even the rocks and hills and grass.  As Long as hills and mountains last, you could sing.  

We live in a world dominated by a pragmatic materialism.  

We live in a world where men look upon verdant hills and sunny valleys laid out like a quilt and ask themselves how many McMansions can be built here and what can we get for them?  

I am not trying to go all Wendell Berry on you, but I am trying to say that we shield ourselves from wonder, and fail to see the wildfire of energy, of is-ness shaking the heart of everything, and everybody around us.  We are pragmatic -- we ask what good is this?  what is useful here? and we are materialist.  it’s just rocks and hills and dirt and some plants and some little animals skulking around in the dirt, like vermin.  Pray to God that none are endangered species, because that will complicate our plans. 

And that’s how it is so easy to treat each other as is so often done. 

Let reverence happen with you.  Treat the world with the respect and joyful appreciation as a child’s picture brought home from school and hung on the refrigerator door. 

I said last week that love puts its foot in the closing door in our minds behind which we are letting others slip into our indifference.  The three most important words of Love are “wait a second.”   So, too, reverence.  Wait a second, look again.

Another poem about reverence, this one by Mark Doty, who channels his dog: 

Golden Retrievals.

Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
seconds at a time. Catch? I don’t think so.
Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who’s—oh
joy—actually scared. Sniff the wind, then

I’m off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
of any thrillingly dead thing. And you?
Either you’re sunk in the past, half our walk,
thinking of what you never can bring back,

or else you’re off in some fog concerning
—tomorrow, is that what you call it? My work:
to unsnare time’s warp (and woof!), retrieving,
my haze-headed friend, you. This shining bark,

a Zen master’s bronzy gong, calls you here,
entirely, now: bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow.
      Mark Doty, “Golden Retrievals” from Sweet Machine: Poems.

Perhaps, the two most important words of reverence are “bow-wow”

OK, when should we start this up:  Today, this afternoon, Monday?

My final words on reverence -- from William Stafford:

You Reading This, Be Ready
William Stafford
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life -
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around
       (The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems, p. 45, 1996, Graywolf Press.)

Nothing more to say.  Are you waiting for time to show you some better thoughts? 

and "What anyone give you greater than now, starting here, right in this room, when you turn around."  

I have nothing more to say.