Friday, October 30, 2015

The Otherwise Holiness of Spirit

A lot of us have a hard time with loaded phrases like the “Holy Spirit.”  Even those who embrace it a term of their faith and have come to an understanding of what they themselves mean when they refer to it have differing opinions about what it means or the impact it makes on both the world and on them.  To me it is one of several terms that ultimately describes "something that deeply binds us all" and is ineffable, something grand beyond description.  What Christianity names "Holy Spirit" is its term for the unnamable force that connects us all; if that’s not too much of an over-simplification of the theology.  The interdependent web of all existence referred to in the UU 7th Principle is, I believe, our name for the same matter-less substance that matters quite a lot.  But in what other ways have we named this Force?  I believe it is Love.  Love itself is in my opinion the most common term for Holy Spirit.  Some might argue that love infuses the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is its own force.  However, I believe that Love has substance.  Love has physics we have yet to learn how to describe or measure.  Love is truly ineffable. And it is arguably the mayonnaise that binds humanity together.  Why not imagine the term Holy Spirit as an ancient metaphor used to describe this same sacred and powerful bond which occurs between people?  When thought of this way it allows for the term Love to have additional meaning and layers regarding its purpose, its identity, and its role within humanity.  Many cultures refer to Love in different ways.  But none come close to accurately describing it.  And in this way, Love is very much just like God.  In fact, there is no distinction between the ineffable qualities of the concepts of God or Love.  They might even be words used to attempt describe the very same thing without our realizing it.  How many other concepts do we believe in together while arguing the ways we each choose to describe it?

We can experience Love, but we cannot wholly describe It.  We can only describe Its physical and emotional effects on us; we can’t actually describe It.  We can’t even perceive Love with any of our five senses and yet we nearly unanimously accept Its existence as self-evident.  We know It’s there. We know It impacts our lives every moment of the day and energetically cradles us as we sleep.  Even our perceived lack of Love influences each moment of our lives according to how much Love we are capable for feeling for ourselves.  And biblically, that’s the prime directive: Love God as you love yourself.  It’s no wonder many of us have a hard time thinking in loving terms of a god we don’t understand.  One we actively question and with whom we struggle deeply.  

Alternately, and not to suggest this is the only reason for agnosticism, but how could we love anything or anyone if we can’t love ourselves?  How could we possibly believe in the inherent goodness of the Universe if we feel that we are a flaw in the model?  We feel that if we are a flaw in an otherwise perfect system, then the entire system must be flawed, even if it doesn’t know it.  This non-loving attitude becomes a negative feedback loop from which we can struggle for a lifetime to escape.  How could a rational person believe in a God that allows suffering for suffering's sake or as punishment, or one that is described as a white bearded dude on a cloud with human jealousy?  Neither of those descriptions ring true for me and if that’s all I was being offered, I would be agnostic, too.  

What if Love is what we have been describing as “God?”  What if Love is the “Holy Spirit” as well?  I personally don’t have a hard time at all believing that we have come up with multiple terms to describe the same thing: Love.  Snow gets lots of its own words, why not Love?  One might argue that a masterful teacher of Love could be seen as the human embodiment of Love in mystical terms.  They might even see how the resulting philosophy could save people from destroying each other.  “God,” “Holy Spirit” and “Lord” (which comes from the Greek kurios meaning master of the house) in cultural ways have each been seen as words needed to describe one ineffable Thing from different angles; typical for a linear wording system attempting to describe the conceptual.  How does one describe a fog or vapor except by multiple terms and understandings of what constitutes a vapor?  It must have substance on some level and yet it appears amorphous.  It also requires an impetus to become vapor from its previous state.  Something that brings it into its present state and keeps it there.  Substance, impetus, and manifestation.  Each of these things are used to describe vapor. Using only one of them is incomplete and, frankly, unsatisfying.  Love appears to be no different.

Regarding the holiness of Love, holy refers to wholeness.  Love is fulfilling.  Love completes us.  Love allows us to collaborate, cooperate, associate, and relate to one another.  When we feel It, we are able to accomplish things because of It and in Its name we do them.  When two or more gather in the name of Love, the world changes.  

I don’t say these things to convert anyone to anything, but to acknowledge our mutuality.  To show where we are the same.  We are not so different from one another.  We argue over semantics and details to the degree that they become loaded and ineffective to their purpose.  The responsibility of an examined faith is not only to see other ideas, but to also be brave enough to have a second look at the ones we were first given as well. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Virtue in the Vice

Order of Service - First Parish Church - Sunday, October 4, 2015 - “the Virtue in the Vice”

Meditation and Responsive Affirmation: “Books & Covers”
We ought not to look at a thing once and say anything definitively about it.  For there are many layers to a thing.  Every experience, every person, every moment has inherent within them  layers upon layers of value and opportunity.  How many times have you met someone and made a snap decision about them and why they act as they do, or say the things they say?  How many of you have taken the time from the moment of encounter to wonder about them first?  Likewise, we sniff in disdain at anything which does not conform to our idea of normative.  But how many times have you found out afterward that not only was it a good thing, but that it was a miraculous thing?  How often does it turn out to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing?


I am the book.
I am the cover.
I see without judging.
I hear without concluding.
I know without seeing.
I am love.
I am honesty.
I am compassion.
Amen.



Sermon: “The Virtue in the Vice”

Evagrius Ponticus was a 4th century Christian monk and ascetic born 20 years after the Council of Nicea codified Christianity into a single approved doctrine in 325 AD.  Christianity as we have come to recognize it was still in its infancy.  Evagrius was an intelligent and ambitious young man.  Before he became a monk he had risen to prominence in the church as a lector, then deacon, then archdeacon.  He basked in the compliments of his peers.  He loved his fine clothes and paraded them about the streets of Constantinople. He fell in love with a married woman and had to flee.  He fled to a monastery near Jerusalem in an attempt to cool his jets but still the peacock, he couldn’t help but make a big show of himself even in the Holy City.  But then he fell ill and as many do, Evagrius confessed his ways in fear of his immortal soul should he perish.  He confessed his pride to Melania the Elder and she convinced him to renounce his ways and join the desert monks.  Which he did.


Now obsessed with saving others from sin, Evagrius compiled a quasi-original list of temptations which he referred to as “impure thoughts.”  


gluttony (from the latin to gulp wastefully),
greed (more than you need),
sloth (also called acedia, laziness, but also of spirit, idle hands and heart),
sorrow (giving up, giving in, hopelessness, despair, doubt, faithlessness),
lust (over-enthusiastic about anything except God),
anger (be at peace),
vainglory (unjustified boasting),
pride (exalting oneself, self-idolatry).


And that’s a dangerous thing for the Church, pride.  That’s an idea that they kept quite prominent in the teachings and methodology.  Don’t think too highly of yourself.  Don’t get uppity.  Don’t ask any questions and do as you’re told.  Ergo, self-value becomes a sin.  Can you see how that idea infected humanity?  Pride.  Another value-neutral word twisted into a term of judgement.  Like selfish or wrong.  How dare you have pride.


It’s hard to know for certain if Evagrius was obsessed with zeal about the sins of his own past.  Being a fancy-dressing ladies man and all.  But I bet he spent a special amount of time theologizing on lust, vainglory, and pride.   Evagrius occasionally included jealousy on the list, too.  He probably wasn’t all that pleased about the jealous husband of his girlfriend.


His list was revised a bit by a monk only 15 years older than Evagrius named John Cassian.  Brother Cassian rearranged the order but also amped up the name of the list from Evagrius’ “impure thoughts” to “principal faults,” which Pope Gregory I updated the list two centuries later to from eight to seven which he named “deadly sins.”  Even the language used to name the list becomes ever more terrifying with each revision.  “Impure thoughts” becomes “principal faults” which becomes “deadly sins.”  Ramping up the fight against human nature with ever more resistant language.


But what exactly are they resisting here?  They are resistant not to the sins, but what are actually the symptoms of deeper human issues.  Gluttony isn't a problem.  Gluttony is the symptom of a problem.  For sins are actually based on actions that prevent us from being in relationship with one another.  These aren’t that.  The ‘deadly seven’ aren’t actually sins at all by definition.  These so-called sins are not the problems themselves.  The Church would have done well to project (as well as portray) a more responsive approach to serving mankind in their words.  To see honestly the root causes of these behaviors and heal them where they hurt.  Abstinence is no advice for anything.  For relative abstinence from harm is the natural result of increased love and respect of self.  Don’t eradicate the gun, educate the person holding it.  Don’t make a war on drugs, open a safe injection site that doesn’t judge but offers services when those who need them are ready.  Which statistically reduces the crime rate in the neighborhood by the way because the addicts who use it are ones protecting the area.  Maybe they’re protecting it because they don’t want to risk losing it.  Or maybe because they’re grateful to the neighborhood who welcomed them despite their afflictions.  Could be both.  Open one and find out.

Sloth, Gluttony, Lust, Wrath, Envy, Avarice, and Pride.  I see an old man who spits when he talks.  Jowls and rage-filled face shaking as he provokes the very words themselves into retaliating against him like a pile of cartoon letters devouring him.  And in Unitarian Universalism, to ideas like the seven deadly sins we have retaliated.  Or have we?  On many levels, perhaps most levels, this faith tradition was founded in angry reaction to spiritual injustice.  Spiritual inequity.  We resent the tradition that whoever has the most money and power gets to choose the gods the people may worship.  There is a type of person who doesn’t respond well to that.  They see through the sham a bit, and do one of three things: rebel, react, or respond.  Sometimes rebel and react can be the same thing.  For they are both emotionally-charged.  The problem is that they are both about resistance.  “What you resist persists,” as Carl Jung put it.  But to respond is different that to resist.  To respond is to listen honestly.  


Reaction and rebellion are emotional responses to an injury to one’s pride, one’s personhood essentially.  Our families and our safety become entangled with our sense of person, and reaction and rebellion are what keep us safe.  Fight or flight.   It’s where we begin to attach words like honor to the word glory.  And coin phrases like the great rebellion.  We give license to so many kinds of pride that the definition becomes so broad and muddy we lose its meaning.  We lose our sense of the difference between healthy pride and a pride which prevents or destroys relationship.  We give reaction and rebellion glorious and heroic names to perpetuate the meme of Resistance is Tradition.  And resistance has gotten us where we are today.  I mean that both ways.  And you will possibly be resistant to this very idea.  For resistance has an important place in our history.  But so does response.  


When we respond to something we are listening honestly to it.  We are being deliberately nonresistant so that we may discern the deeper meaning.  We attempt to separate the emotional state from the objective view as we try to decide what’s really going on here.  When we are in a state of understanding we make better choices about how to achieve the optimum result.  We are also in a far better state of mind to evaluate what is optimum.  When we are in a state of angry reaction or rebellion, we usually define “optimum” as retaliation.  Vengeance.  When we get mad, we get even.  When we operate from pride we are injured at the heart and we reply with rage.  And there will always be situations where we shall continue to be like this.  It is what keeps us safe in many ways.  But when we are free to make the choice between an emotional reaction or a thoughtful response, taking a deep breath is always a good idea.


The word respond is also a noun, actually.  Not just a verb.  A respond is an architectural form.  A half-column that supports an archway.  There is an ironic poetry to the synchronicity of all that when it comes to talking about faith and covenant.  The legend of Noah stated that God agreed, after the waters receded, never again to resist humanity or bring widespread destruction on the earth.  As a symbol of Its promise God placed his bow in the heavens.  To hang it up.  One of the legends of the rainbow.  A reaction uses a bow to kill and destroy.  A response, however, supports a thoughtful and more loving action.  One that through compassion, seeks deeper understanding first before taking action.  One that holds up under pressure.  Two strong columns, working together in agreement, to hold up an archway, a bow in the heavens, a vault, a promise.  The life practice that emerges from this is the concept of nonresistance.  If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em is usually the way I put it.  Not do what they are doing, necessarily, but don’t resist what’s in front of you.  Surf it.  Make it work.  Don’t resist, respond.  Don’t take it personally, examine what’s really going on here.  Listen honestly.  Be mindful, remain calm, decide what is really best for everyone, including your adversaries, and then do what’s right.  And like a good respond, support others when you see them doing the same.


What you resist persists.   There is a tremendous amount to ponder about the idea.  Except it’s natural to resist something we don’t like.  When pushed, we fight back.  It’s a deeply felt component of the American Idea.  We stand up for ourselves and our neighbors.  We conquered this land fair and square.  Not discovered. Conquered.  We resisted all that stood in our way of doing what we would with this land.  But to respond is different.  What if the Europeans who arrived on these shores had been a bit more responsive to the people they found here?  What might our land look like today if they had not conquered, but cohabitated?  


We celebrate resistance and rebellion in our culture.  They are fiercely protected ideals.  And yet the philosophy of nonresistance has also managed to stick around.  This is what they mean by the famous advice of turn the other cheek, by the way.  To turn the other cheek when someone strikes you does not mean please, sir, may I have another.  It means nonresistance.  Look to another answer.  Turn away from negativity and place your focus toward what it is that you really want, not at what you don’t want.  To resist is to engage the enemy and give it all your attention and energy.  Stop giving them what they want.  Because then what you don’t want grows.  To turn away from negativity—which sometimes asks us to swallow our pride—and place our attention on growing and building mutually beneficial ideas and solutions; that is the practice of nonresistance.  


Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi both understood this principle.  Reverend King did not fight the law, he ignored it.  He did not resist it, he behaved as if what he wanted was already true.  He walked across the bridge in Selma.  He did not set fire to it.  Gandhi did not rebel against the British.  He invited his people to walk to the ocean and make salt.  Both of these nonresistant actions ultimately led to the realization of their goals.  Somewhat arguably, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Remember, we throw anchors at destinations we can only imagine might exist beyond the horizon of our view, and then drag ourselves there with struggle and sacrifice.  The dreams of Gandhi and Dr. King live on and find their gradual fulfilment in fits and starts.


Leaders who react are resisted.  Leaders who respond are loved.  When Evagrius began to collect together a series of temptations he called “impure thoughts,” it was a reaction to a problem he saw in himself and others.  The mistake of Evagrius was to place the focus of the teachings on what not to do instead of what to do.  On fear instead of encouragement.  This list is an anti-gospel.  The title of the list which started as “impure thoughts,” became “principal faults,” then “deadly sins.”   As the language changed to become even more resistant and reactionary, what was once impure thinking became damnable behavior.  Deadly.  Literally venomous to one’s eternal soul, according to them.  And how long have people believed it?   It’s no wonder we feel manipulated and angry.


But these words, for all their flawed approach, were actually intended to guide us toward virtue; toward a better thought.  But had they been worded as guideposts of aspiration, we might have responded differently to them.  If they were a map of where to go instead of where not to go, we might have gone there instead.  They just all got it wrong.  And religion became the first bastion of fear-based marketing.


As I said before, Unitarian Universalism has it’s appeal to those who have reacted to the tactics of organized religion throughout the ages.  But despite our reaction, our tradition has also encoded into itself a practice of response rather than reaction.  


To these declarations of sin, vice, and impure thoughts Unitarian Universalism has, over time, mindfully responded to the highly resistant language of the famous list of Seven Deadly Sins with the socially responsive Seven Principles.  Many of them are intended to accomplish the exact same goals as each other.  But one uses the language of resistance and fear, and the other is all about responding mindfully to the challenges of this world with love.


Gluttony, greed, sloth, sorrow, lust, anger, avarice, jealousy, vainglory, pride.  Thomas Aquinas believed that all these are related to Pride.  When editing his version of the list a thousand years later in the 13th century he placed Pride first.  For pride is emotional, and it is the emotional state which leads us to behave in ways that are not always in our best interest.  Although pride is more value-neutral than its presence on the list of Seven Deadly Sins would suggest.  Pride is always emotional, but not always bad.  It’s good to be proud of one’s self for doing a good job, or displaying pride as a positive response to discrimination.  That’s a healthy and loving way of responding to life.  


The wretched behaviors on the list of Seven Deadly Sins however, are reactions to life.  They are textbook emotional symptoms of loss, neglect, hunger, abuse.  When we are harmed, emotionally or physically, we often react disproportionately to life thereafter.  A child who grows up hungry—nutritionally or emotionally—may very well find solace in overeating, or sex.  A child who grows up neglected, unloved, uneducated may rightfully give up, feel despair and hopelessness which appear on the list as sorrow and sloth.  And we see the result of oversexualizing and abusing our children in rampant teen pregnancy.  Lust is a self-image problem, a self-value problem.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often results in many of these behaviors.  How do we respond to them?

The virtue in the vice is the opportunity they each hold for displaying compassion for your neighbor.  When you see these things, don’t judge them.  Send them love.  Pray also for those who help them because that is their calling.  Place your focus on the blessing of solution. Wholeness.  Relationship.  Restoration.  And as a result, the interdependent web, of which we are all a glorious part, thickens.




Information about the history of the Seven Deadly Sins comes from the following online sources (all accessed Sept & Oct 2015):
  1. http://www.evagrius.net/articles.php?article_id=19
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evagrius_Ponticus
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cassian
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Gregory_I
  5. http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/what-are-capital-sins.html
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Aquinas

Vows and Covenants: Unpacking the Pledge of Allegiance

Order of Service - First Parish Church - October 18, 2015 “Vows & Covenants: Unpacking the Pledge of Allegiance” - Meditation and Sermon

Meditation: “The Spoken Word”

The first line of our covenant at First Parish Church states: Love is the doctrine of this Church.  What do these words mean?  What is a doctrine?  A doctrine is a belief or set of beliefs of an organization or community.  They are an agreed-upon truth and expectation.  They are an intention.  When we say that love is the doctrine of this church we are saying that Love is the only authority we recognize.  We are saying that if it does not hold up to the metric of love, it is potentially suspicious.  The Judeo-Christian teachings that are one of the Five Sources of Unitarian Universalism teach that Love is everything.  Love your neighbor, love your enemy, and love God, all equally.  What the word “God” means is subject to your own interpretation.  But neighbor and enemy leave little room for wondering who those people are.  For they are literally everyone.  Love everyone, even those who hate you.  When we make a promise to abide by the doctrine of this particular church we are making a commitment to loving one another.  To serving one another.  Not just those of this building, but everyone.  The next time you speak a covenant or a vow or a promise, think on that.



Sermon “Vows & Covenants: Unpacking the Pledge of Allegiance”

They “pledge allegiance to the flag
Of the United States of America
And to the republic for which it stands is
One nation, under God, indivisible
With liberty and justice for all.”

People do that.  The pledge their allegiance.  They make a vow.  They give their word that they will give of themselves and their talents and their lives for the greater good of the tribe to which they belong.  They vow to create and build, as well as destroy, on behalf of their people.

Most of us of at least a certain age would instinctively rise, place our hands on our hearts and recite the Pledge when instructed to do it.  And we’ve done so since childhood.  We learned to say it long before we knew what it meant.  That generally comes later.  

Think for a moment about how you feel about the Pledge of Allegiance right now.  Meditate on the idea of it for a moment.  Think about your opinion.  Decide how you feel about it, if you’ve never thought about it before.  Think about it now.  Would you recite it right now if asked?  What if ordered?  Why or why not?  What are the reasons?  In thinking about the Pledge how do you feel right now?  Are you feeling pride?  Patriotism?  Sacrifice?  Or perhaps doubt?  Anger?  Resentment?  

Well, aside from how it came to be, is what’s the point?  What’s the purpose of the Pledge of Allegiance?  It is a curious ritual.  It makes a widespread impact in some corners and in others none at all.  For them it’s a string words we said back in homeroom every morning. And by custom we sometimes have to stand and say it again once in a while.  For others it is an offense.  Considered a violation of the very rights the flag is intended to indirectly represent.  A compulsory state-sanctioned religious prayer.  Fortunately, at least it is no longer compulsory, although 46 states do still require schools to make time for it.

And then there are those for whom it represents its intended meaning: A commitment to a fledgling idea so powerful and loving and radical that it would take centuries to learn how to use it wisely: Freedom.  There are those for whom the Pledge of Allegiance is a sacred act, lovingly given, and with honor and gratitude.  They think of those who have died for it.  Not whether their deaths were justified. They just think about them.  They know that people have died by the thousands over an idea.  They know the color red.

The point here is not to degrade that beautiful intent, but to honor it.  For it is given honestly and forgivingly.

There's a lot that goes on in these five little lines that have become part of our American tradition.   What is its purpose?  What does it accomplish?  Well it's purposes and accomplishments are different things.

Close your eyes for a moment and remain seated, but if you’re willing, slowly recite the words, if not, just listen.  [recite the Pledge]   There is a meditative quality to it.  An intoning.  A gathering ritual.  Once can almost understand why teachers might like such a moment at the start of school each morning.  What value it might have in bringing everyone to center.  Likewise a singing of the National Anthem or “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” is also an intonement ritual.  And in that aspect alone they are no different than a hymn in church or the Lord’s Prayer, or a Buddhist chant, or a cheer at a football game.  Physiologically they all serve the same purpose.  A centering. A unifying.  Communally recited, they unify a gathering and align our spirits to one another.  They make us of one voice just for the sake of it.

All intonements have this quality to them.  Where they vary is the words; the intention.  Beyond intoning there is intent.  There is prayer.  There is promising.  There are those things, but also often too are words like honoring and celebration which we often choose to accompany an intonement ritual.  We craft words based on a goal we think we have, but we often find that we are incapable of living up to them.  At least at first.  The Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independance are much like this.  Words as dreams, aspirations, intentions to be more loving, more welcoming, more compassionate.  More than we are when they are composed.  We write the words to impress with our advanced state of being and yet we have not achieved that advanced state, we merely dream of it.

Nearly every country has a Pledge of their own or something like it.  But only the United States makes a pledge first to a piece of fabric and then to the country it represents.  No other country in the world makes a pledge to its flag.  Some might consider that to be a form of idolatry.  And you might wonder why that is so.  But you only have to remember the fact that this Pledge is to the American flag.  The land of both capitalism and freedom.  The New Jerusalem of Free Will.  And even our vows have room for product placement.

On Wednesday it will be the 123rd anniversary of the first reciting of the Pledge by school children. “The Pledge of Allegiance was written in August 1892 by Francis Bellamy (1855–1931), who was a Baptist minister, a Christian socialist, and the cousin of socialist utopian novelist Edward Bellamy (1850–1898). The original "Pledge of Allegiance" was published in the September 8 issue of the popular children's magazine The Youth's Companion (for which Bellamy was coincidentally a writer and publicist) as part of the National Public-School Celebration of Columbus Day, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas. The event was conceived and promoted by James B. Upham, a marketer for The Youth’s Companion magazine, as a campaign to instill the idea of American nationalism in students, and sell both flags and magazines to public schools.”1

They sold 25,000 flags that first year.  James Upham, of The Youth’s Companion who were sponsoring the campaign not only published the magazine that promoted the campaign, but also published the official program for all schools outlining the Pledge, its ritual, and its purposes.  The magazine did pretty well that year, too, I suspect.

Bellamy's original 1892 Pledge read as follows:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag
and the Republic for which it stands,
one nation, indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all.

You’ll notice the words my flag rather than the flag and the absence of later additions like of the United States of America and under God.  Those came later.  Bellamy was a socialist and originally wanted words like equality and fraternity to be in the Pledge but he knew that the “powers that be” were against equality for women and African Americans.  So those words never made it to the final draft.  There was no government agency overseeing the composition and it was approved by Upham and the other members of The Youth’s Companion for publication.

The Pledge underwent a few revisions over the next six decades.  First they added the word to in 1922 so that it read I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic for which it stands.  The following year in 1923 the words of the United States were added as well as the change from my flag to the flag (so as not to confuse immigrants who may have felt an allegiance to their former country), and then the following year yet another addition.  The words of America were added.  After three years in a row of changes, the Pledge remained static for another thirty years until the early 1950’s when the Knights of Columbus picked up a trend started by an Illinois lawyer six years earlier who had begun promoting the idea of adding the words under God to the Pledge.  

The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternity, spread the addition throughout their national organization and eventually handed their revision to the President, Vice President and Speaker of the House.  After a couple of years and the voices of other advocates, “Congress passed the necessary legislation and Eisenhower signed the bill into law on Flag Day, June 14, 1954 (officially adding under God to the Pledge). Eisenhower stated, "From this day forward, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.... In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource, in peace or in war.””2 There are, of course, a number of ways one might feel about that.

According to the Flag Code, the Pledge "should be rendered by standing at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. When not in uniform, men should remove any non-religious headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should remain silent, face the flag, and render the military salute."3

Now what does all this mean?  We have a Pledge that was begun as part of a dual campaign to sell flags and magazines, and empowered by the religious right to add the word God to the ritual.  It would be easy to feel a sense of resentment towards the evolution of this short bit of prosaic covenant.  

But we are taught by world faiths to be accepting of all things.  To have peace over them.  Even if you intend to change them, the philosophy is to first have peace over them.  Accept them and see what is there for you.  Then set about making mindful and rational change.

And though we may have varying opinions on what, if anything, should be changed about the Pledge, for the moment it is what it is.  But what is it?

Like all pledges and vows it is an opportunity to speak mindfully.  To make promises with purpose and understanding.  To know what you are saying and understand what it means.  Otherwise you are just stringing useless syllables and words together without purpose or meaning.  They are being said in vain.  

What if we were to not only teach our children the words of the Pledge, but asked them to consider what the words mean before requiring them to recite it?  Why do we diminish the value of making a promise when we take no time to unpack that promise and help them understand it?  We have an opportunity to teach them the value of making a promise early on, but we waste it.  We have been indoctrinated into rote repetition and blind obedience.  This is not what makes a strong country or a strong individual.  This is not a good basis for being impeccable with our words.

And we might look at the Pledge and think that it has no value because it was composed by capitalism and proselytization.  Even the words under God have a somewhat dubious placement because the Illinois lawyer who introduced them did so because he believed that Lincoln had used those words in the Gettysburg Address.  Even though those words do not appear in the majority of the transcripts of the Address.  And while Lincoln may have ad libbed them, the expression under God was at that time the equivalent of saying with God’s blessing.  It meant may it ever be so rather than placing the United States under the rule of Heaven.  For Lincoln, it was about hope not hierarchy.

And so what if it was capitalism that prompted the creation of the Pledge?  Capitalism is itself value-neutral.  It can be done with compassion or with greed.  Capitalism itself is not mutually-exclusive to integrity.  And if you believe in the higher power referred to in the Pledge, perhaps the conspiracy was not on us by the composers, but on the composers by something else.  One never knows what’s really in play.

Perhaps we should remember that capitalism, both for good and for greed, have also been a bringer of great things in the world.  Medical advancement in the case of the greed of insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Civil rights for the LGBT community came as a result of companies realizing that the gays had money they weren’t capitalizing on.  Suddenly, gay-friendly advertisements and television shows started popping up.  Through this, society became gradually desensitized about the issue of LGBT equality and within twenty years were allowed the right to legally marry throughout the country.  Capitalism did that.

And while we must remain vigilant about the motivations of greed, we must also be mindful of the blessings inherent within all things.  We must not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The Pledge of Allegiance may or may not be an advantageous ritual in our society.  It may or may not have lived up to its stated goals of increasing patriotism and nationalism beginning with our children.  That is actually beside the point.  The point here is that when we make a promise, when we make a vow or covenant, we must must must make them mindfully.  Teaching our children to recite a vow at an age when they can have no real understanding of what they are promising is abuse of their trust in us.  We have been indoctrinated into following orders mindlessly when we are a culture that has been built on a foundation of free will and human choice.  When you recite a covenant, even our own here at First Parish, we must do it mindfully.  We must know what we are saying and what it means.  We must not make a promise that we cannot keep.

A study was published in 2014 about promise making and keeping.4  They found that keeping promises was essential to a functioning and honorable society that engendered trust between one another.  Breaking promises had a destructive effect.  But most interestingly was the fact that exceeding one’s promises actually prompted no greater appreciation for having gone the extra mile.  Overall, we don’t care if people exceed expectations anywhere near as much as if they simply do what they say they will.

Keeping promises doesn’t have to require an excessive effort, it only requires that you know what you are promising and stick to it.  Don’t make promises that you don’t think you can keep.  Know the words you are saying and remain loyal to them.

Say the Pledge of Allegiance, don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance.  We are free to make that decision for ourselves.  I invite you to make that decision for yourself.  Place your loyalties wisely and then commit to them fully.  Be impeccable with your word.  For the word has power.  It has purpose.  It has meaning.  Your biology hears it and so may God.  Something is listening regardless on what plane of existence the Listener resides.  If it is within you, be honest and true to yourself.  If it is God, the advice is no different.





1.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pledge_of_Allegiance (accessed Oct 2015)
2.  Ibid. (accessed Oct 2015)
3.  Ibid. (accessed Oct 2015)
4.  http://www.spring.org.uk/2014/07/promises-the-psychology-of-making-breaking-or-exceeding-them.php (accessed Oct 2015)