Again and Again

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Never Again. This is carved in stone in seven languages on the monument at the Treblinka death camp. I wonder if we ever meant this. It says never again, but we do this again and again. We annihilate each other time and time again, and God weeps.

Aleppo has been devastated (view before and after photos here).  Misinformation from Russia has interfered with the evacuation of civilians from the city.

But this is just the most recent atrocity we have committed against each other.  Cambodia. Bosnia. Rwanda. Darfur.  All of these genocides occurred since the words were carved on this stone in Treblinka. And what for?

Bashir al-Assad wants to remain in power in Syria even if there are no people left to rule over. Russia and Iran are happy to back Assad at any cost. Human life is cheap. It’s about maintaining power for them, too.

Until we begin to see each other as God’s creation, as equals each carrying the face of God, we will continue to treat each other as commodities. We will continue to do this. Again and again.  We can carve whatever we like into stone.  God already tried that with us, giving Moses the tablets containing the big 10.  We aren’t doing to well.  Just to recap here:

From Exodus 20:1-17

Then God spoke all these words:

 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;  you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

We’re screwing it all up. It’s time to pay attention to the words on the stones.

That’s my mite. It’s all I’ve got.

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God is Good, God is Better…

If I believed that we were born in total depravity, then I would have to believe that I am more mature than God. That is a horrific thought. No — I believe — I must believe that God is greater than I am, that God is more mature, wiser, kinder, gentler, more patient, and better in every way than I am. After all, I do believe that I am made, that we are all made, in God’s image. No, I don’t believe in a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation stories, but I do believe that we are made in God’s image, that we carry God’s Divine spark, the ruach – the Divine wind, within us.

But being made in God’s image does not make us God. We are not the original. We are the copies. We are not as good. We are striving to be.

So I do not believe that we are born in total depravity. I am a Universalist. A capital U Universalist and a lower-case U universalist.  I believe that God never gives up on us. Never. Not ever. Which already makes God better than me.

Because right now – and a lot lately, I find that I am just this close to giving up on humanity.  It’s not just this election, or any election. It’s the general level of nastiness that we are showing one another.  The rape culture that is being condoned and excused. Rush Limbaugh, the poster boy for the total depravity argument, on 12 October, 2016, allowed as how those on the left would call any sexual contact that didn’t include consent as rape. Um…yes. By definition! That’s exactly what rape is! You can read his statement here if you haven’t just eaten.

A man thought it would be appropriate to dress his son in blackface as a Black Lives Matter activist for Halloween. Because his son wanted to go as something stupid. And then he posted the photo proudly on Facebook. I weep for this child – for the way he is being brought up.

A seven-year-old was beaten up by other children on his school bus in North Carolina. Because he is Muslim. On his school bus. Where an adult is present, driving the bus. The family is now moving back to Pakistan, because they don’t feel safe in the U.S. Let that sink in for a moment. They are moving back to Pakistan, where they feel safer.

And today, on the 287th day of the year, as I write this, 843 people have been killed by police so far in the U.S. this year.  That’s just about three people every single day. Every. Single. Day. And yes, police do get killed in the line of duty. They aren’t all killed by people, but police do die in the line of duty. So far, in 2016, 99 police officers have died in the line of duty.  And there were 130 police deaths in 2015, and 146 in 2014, so fortunately, that number is trending down. (The average daily death toll for civilians killed by police in 2015 was about the same as it appears to be trending now).

So I see all these things, and many more things, and I get discouraged. I say “Black Lives Matter,” and someone says, “well, I think all lives matter!” And I get tired of explaining that all lives can’t matter if we’re erasing the black lives.

I take a stand against rape culture, and someone says, “can’t you take a joke?” I can take a joke. Having agency over my body isn’t a joke. And I get tired of explaining to men, and sometimes even to other women that my body isn’t here for your amusement.

I say that I want to learn about other faiths, that my way isn’t the only way it is one way, and someone says, “but they can’t be trusted, they could be terrorists.” And I get tired of pointing out that terrorists abound in every flavor, and that while we sit and cower in the corner about terrorists, the poor are still poor, the hungry are still  hungry, many people still don’t have adequate healthcare or education, and so much more.

We spend so much time looking for ways to hate each other. We spend so much time looking for the things that divide us.  If you don’t love the way I do, you must be broken. If you don’t eat, worship, think, look the way I do, you must be broken/wrong/inferior.

So I think that God must have infinite patience. I think there must be so much more that we are capable of. Because I cannot bear to believe that we are totally depraved. This is my prayer. That God grant me the strength to continue the work. That we will come to know how to be better humans. That we will continue to build the kingdom. To repair the world. It is the only way. God must be greater than all of us. Let us find our way to God.

That’s my mite. It’s all I’ve got.

 

Living in the Wall

Rahab was a prostitute who lived in the wall Jericho. She literally lived in the margin. She hid Joshua’s spies and helped them escape, thereby helping Joshua to capture Jericho (Joshua 2).  For this, she and her family were spared, and she was honored in Israel’s memory. Rahab is even one of only four women named in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1.  But Rahab couldn’t have been much of a hero to the citizens of Jericho. After all, she betrayed them to the Israelites.

What could have made Rahab turn against her own people? What can make anyone turn against their own society? Well, Rahab lived in the wall. Rahab was marginalized. She was in the most vulnerable place – in the wall – in her society. Rahab chose to do something for herself – she had no allegiance to her own people. She sold them out to the Israelites, and really, who can blame her?

Whom are we marginalizing in our own society? It seems that we are living in a time of increased political polarization.  Donald Trump has been pandering to the fears of white people who are feeling a loss of power. While these are not the truly marginalized, we ignore them at our peril. These are people fighting to keep the status quo. They fear the empowerment of the currently marginalized.

But Trump’s tactics have been to pour gasoline on the fire. He’s been advocating divisiveness and hate, and has recently demonstrated that he’s willing to sell out our own government to foreign powers.

Trump and his supporters have engaged in racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions.  He’s mocked the Black Lives Matter movement.  Trump and his supporters are actively working to squeeze people into the wall. They’re working to make sure that people remain in the margins.

What will become of us if we continue to push people to the margins? God has shown once before that God did not stand with the people of Jericho. We are becoming Jericho. And the more voice we give to Trump and his fascist supporters, the we will push the marginalized to welcome Joshua’s spies.

Where do you want to be when the walls come down?

That’s my mite. That’s all I’ve got.

 

 

Enough With The Emerson Already! Or How To Save Congregational Polity

Recently I’ve heard more than one of my colleagues say that they wish we had bishops.  I confess to these thoughts occasionally myself. But bishops?! We’re Unitarian Universalists! We trace our congregational history all the way back to the Cambridge Platform of 1648! Bishops don’t tell us what to do. Ministers don’t tell us what to do. Nobody tells us what to do. We tell the leadership what to do. We’re Unitarian Universalists.

Ah. Yes. Well, there’s the rub, you see. Nobody tells us what to do. And this is where we get into trouble.

Our polity is congregational. It has been ever since the gathered churches of the Massachusetts Bay Colony got together and covenanted with each other in the Cambridge Platform of 1648. These early proto-Unitarians (and proto-Congregationalists) were fierce in their assertion that it was the people, not the bishops, who had the right to determine what happened in the churches. The churches – the faithful themselves – would call their own ministers. They would determine what was required for membership. They would determine who would be ordained.

But how could they be sure that they would call ministers who would preach to them what they needed to hear and not just what they wanted to hear? To be sure, this is the great weakness in congregational polity. The prophet Micah warned of this:

“If someone were to go about inspired and say deceitfully:
“I will preach to you for wine and liquor,”
such a one would be the preacher for this people!” (Micah 2:11)

Still, the gathered churches understood that they weren’t just getting together for the hell of it (as it were). They weren’t country clubs – they were churches. And as such, they did believe that there was someone who had ultimate authority to tell them what to do. But only one someone, and that was God. And that’s the big thing. Those early churches might have been passionately congregational, but they also had a rigorous theology. These two things cannot be separated without dire consequences.

And then along came Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson, (who ended up leaving the ministry, by the way), who preached a fanatical individualism. And Unitarians, and then Unitarian Universalists, latched on to Emersonian individualism like ticks on a dog. We became all about “me” to the point where some of us have forgotten about “we.” And we’ve even codified this into our Unitarian Universalist Association covenant in the principles and purposes.

The covenant as it is written now in our bylaws lists seven principles – and most of our people can name the first and seventh if they can’t remember the five in-between. But I think our principles are completely out of order.  We’ve placed individualism above all else with our first principle: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote  the inherent worth and dignity of every person;…”

We started…we started with the individuality bit. Not community. Not spirituality. The supremacy of the individual. What could possibly go wrong? Well, I’ll tell you. Way back before the Unitarians and the Universalists merged and before the apotheosis of the individual in the principles and purposes, Unitarians, fed on the diet of Emersonian individualism, were already firing ministers who were speaking uncomfortable truths to the people. Moncure Conway was kicked out of All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington, DC for his outspoken abolitionist stance. The people didn’t want to hear that. But the people needed to hear him.

I don’t really think that we need a shift to episcopal polity. But I do think we need to change some things. I think that we can’t have congregational polity without a rigorous theology. We are not the church of “do-as-you-please.” I’ve heard this more times than I care to count from people in our churches, “I come here because you can believe whatever you want here.” Um….no. No. We have other principles in the current covenant that follow that inherent worth and dignity one. Principles such as “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; and  a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Just to name a couple. So no – you can’t believe whatever you want or do whatever you want – that’s not responsible.

So we could start by taking a harder look at our own covenant and holding ourselves to it. And then we might want to consider the form of our current covenant. Perhaps we might want to re-order the principles.  And then we might want to take our spiritual journeys seriously.

We can govern ourselves – but not until we’re ready to put aside the “me first” mentality. Because it’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about all of us and those yet to come. When we make decisions for the church the decisions have to be about what’s best for the church – not about what I think I might want at this very moment. It’s not about what we want, but what we need. And sometimes we need to hear the hard things. Let us remember the covenant. Enough with the Emerson already!

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.

Killing Me Softly?

I just got an appeal in my e-mail asking me to contact my governor because the state is poised to bring back an old method of execution.  Specifically, the e-mail calls this method of execution “barbaric” and says that we need to act fast to prevent the state from taking this giant step backwards. Which got me thinking. Is it?

Why are we debating about the methods we use to kill people? Let me say that again – why are we focusing the debate on the methods we use to kill people? Has anyone noticed that we’re still killing people? Why should we be making it more socially acceptable? Why should we be making it more palatable for the public?

We don’t like to say that we kill people, so we use the word “execute.” But what does that mean? The word means to carry out or carry through.  It’s come to mean “to put to death according to law” or “to murder or assassinate” because we keep using it that way – but it’s a euphemism.  So I say if we’re going to do the deed, let’s call it what it is.  Putting to death according to the law.  We are killing people.

Now, I understand why attorneys who are appealing death sentences often appeal on the grounds of the methods used. If I were trying to save someone’s life I would use every method open to me, and that would include going after methods. But for the rest of us, I think it is distracting from the real issue. While we debate whether it’s better to hang people to death, or electrocute them, or stand them in front of firing squads, or give them lethal doses of drugs, we are still killing people. We put 28 people to death in the U.S. in 2015 (overwhelmingly black and latino).

Let us consider Exodus 20:13.  Much depends upon the translation of the Hebrew here.  Some translate ratzach as murder, and some as kill.  But the form of the verb is clear.  It is not an intense form – there is no intensity added.  The command is You shall not do ratzach.  Further, the command is in the second person singular.  It is aimed at each one of us individually.  YOU, yes YOU sitting there reading this, YOU shall not kill. Perhaps you translate that as you shall not murder.  But where do we draw that line?

When we kill people, we are diminished. J.K. Rowling has told us that this is how we create horcruxes – we divide our own souls. And we have done something irreversible. We cannot say “I’m sorry” and make it all better. It doesn’t matter how we do it. We can give people teddy bears and tuck them in and kill them in their sleep, and they will still be dead. And we will still be responsible.

Perhaps we ought to stick with the more gruesome methods of putting people to death. Perhaps we ought to go back to firing squads and hangings. Let us keep the hard truths in front of the people. Dead is dead.

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.

Cain Wasn’t Completely Wrong

Now that I’ve got your attention – I’m not talking about murder here.  Cain was wrong in that.  Don’t kill your brother.  That’s wrong.  Murder is wrong.  OK?  Good.  But after Cain murdered his brother, after he let his anger get the better of him, after that, God went looking for Cain and God asked Cain where Abel was.  And Cain shrugged the question off and answered God, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s guardian?”

Well, Cain did know where his brother was.  But the thing is, as much as he was being a smart-ass to God here (a lot of false bravado, I think, as he’s being called to face what he’s done), he’s not entirely wrong.  Cain is not his brother’s guardian. Not ultimately.

Oh yes, sure, we have covenanted to live in society with one another, and in that sense we must all look out for one another. But ultimately, for those of us who are of legal age and in possession of our faculties, we are only responsible for ourselves.  We have free will. This goes back to an even earlier story in Genesis.

Why did God put the tree of knowledge in the middle of the garden of Eden and then tell the humans, who were completely naive, like toddlers, “Whatever you do – don’t touch that big, juicy tree right there in the middle.”?  I think God was expecting them to eat of the fruit of the tree – to eat of the tree and to become fully human.  God risked everything – God made God’s self vulnerable to be able to have a complete relationship with humanity that included free will.

So we have free will and we are responsible only for our own behavior. This doesn’t get us off the hook in terms of how we behave with others. We don’t get to be jackasses (well, we could be, but there are consequences, and then we’d be, well, jackasses).  But I am only responsible for my own behavior. And while I strive to be a good and kind person, I am not responsible for anyone else’s happiness.  And that’s the thing.

Over the last few years I’ve noticed a whole lot of things being shared around on social media that tell us the things we “must know about” “should know about” or “how to act around” various types of people.  How to interact with introverts.  How to behave with an extrovert.  Things you should know about people who went to Walden University in 1973.  Why is this on me?

One of the things I’ve noticed in many of these pieces is that a lot of what they’re saying is just about being plain-old polite.  Being polite should not have gone out of style.  It’s not that it’s hard for introverts when someone constantly pushes and prods them to go out when they don’t want to go out.  It’s just plain rude!  Let’s name that. It’s rude.  It doesn’t matter that the person is an introvert.  So how about this:  Don’t be rude!

However, beyond being polite, it really isn’t on me to take on someone else’s issues.  Sure – it’s good to get to know people – but if you don’t like parties, then it’s not on me to make sure I don’t invite you. It’s on you to politely refuse the invitation.  “I’m having a party on Saturday night and you’re invited.”  “Thank you for the invitation – it’s kind of you to think of me.  I won’t be able to make it.”  That’s all it takes.  I don’t pester you about why you don’t come, and you don’t owe me any explanations.  It’s an invitation, not a demand.

Recently, I saw someone’s Facebook post about the difference between friends and friend-zoning.  This individual proposed the the difference was that in friend-zoning, the burden is on the person who isn’t interested.  “She friend-zoned you!” – Why is it on the person who isn’t interested?  If I have a crush on you, and you aren’t interested in me, that’s on me! You owe me nothing.  Otherwise, each one of the Beatles would really be very responsible for my feelings.

I fear that in a culture of privilege and entitlement, we’re coming to expect that responsibility is always someplace else.  But this is the price of free will. We aren’t naive toddlers in the garden.  We are fully human – in relationship with one another and with God. As such, we must accept responsibility for our own feelings and our own behavior.

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.

Dust to Dust

You are dust, and to dust you shall return.  On Ash Wednesday, today, Christians are reminded of this as the ashes of palms are imposed upon our foreheads.  You are dust, and to dust you shall return.  And thus begins the season of Lent.

We’re encouraged to sit with this on Ash Wednesday as we prepare for the journey toward Jerusalem and the cross, and ultimately to Easter.  We are dust – this is far deeper than just being about our mortality.  To be sure, we are mortal.  We will return to dust.  I find this comforting.

Dust is ordinary. We’re ordinary.  We’re of the earth. Of course we are. Adam – remember Adam? Adam – literally “Earth Creature” – is named from adama – earth.  We are ordinary, and yet we do extraordinary things.  We are ordinary and yet we are made in God’s image.

Ultimately, we will return to dust.  It’s the great equalizer.  We will all be the same in the end.  As a Unitarian Universalist, I find this fits in beautifully with the Unitarian Universalist principles of affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice equity, and compassion in human relations; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.  It’s like Aunt Eller sings in “Oklahoma!” – “I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!”

Ash Wednesday gives us permission to be imperfect.  It’s not an excuse to give up, but it reminds us that we just aren’t all that. And that’s fine. Ash Wednesday helps to keep us grounded. We may reach for the stars, but we remain anchored on earth.  We belong to the earth, and that binds us to each other.

On this Ash Wednesday, I invite you to consider what it means to be made of dust and to know that we will ultimately return to dust.  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. And may your Lenten journey  bear spiritual fruit.

That’s my mite. That’s all I’ve got.