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.