Saturday, September 30, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 30, 2017 - Reclaiming Our Dignity

    Dignity is a somewhat mysterious thing. It’s entangled with the concept of perfection, but more on that in a bit. The origin of the word dignity comes from the Latin dignitas meaning worthiness. Efforts to retain our dignity go far deeper than just keeping up appearances. They go to the core of our self-worth. Our sense of individual value to the world.
    It’s easy to see that when someone wishes to demoralize another they almost always first seek to undermine their dignity. Hitting someone ‘below the belt’ is just such an exercise. But similarly, governments can accomplish the same through underfunded education and healthcare. Entire societies are transformed into tsunamis of refugees from war fleeing toward a shred hope of dignity in other lands. Often only to be turned away there as well. Of what value must these people feel that they retain in the world?  Very little by the way they are often regarded.
    And of those whose lives are destroyed not by war but weather? Or the sudden shifting of the earth? Are these truly acts of God? Or are they opportunities for God to respond through our acts?
    If we could illustrate love on a map, what would be its topography? Where would we see love building mountains? Where would be its valleys? Toward where does it suddenly rush in a flood? From where does it suddenly flee overnight? Look to the responding sands of our loving attention in the world. We always respond to tragedy with love. When not otherwise prevented from attending to others because of political or economic agendas we always, always render our hearts toward one another. Never fail to notice that.
    Our dignity, exactly like our perfection, exists not because of what someone can do to us or take from us. Our dignity is inherent. Our dignity, our core worthiness, cannot be taken away, it can only be disguised. Perfection also is not about getting everything right; for there is no one right answer to any question. Our perfection is proven more deeply than at the level of our unkindness. That is only a byproduct of fear. It’s not real.
Our inherent perfection is evidenced by the innate human desire to continuously improve upon itself. Whether by intelligent design or fluke of colliding asteroid, we are built in such a way that we continuously seek to feel better, know more, love more, feel safer, make friends, be held. When someone claims a product will heal us we will buy it. Every time. That is our perfection. Even when that characteristic of ours is gullible, it still operates from the same directive: feel better. It’s in our very DNA.
True dignity comes from an enhanced awareness of not only our own inherent perfection but the inherent perfection of others. Neither dignity nor perfection are separable from us. No more so than our own birthdays. We are by design created to improve. As we come to see the inherent dignity and self-worth of others we realize that even the act of desiring is proof of just how glorious we all truly are. How worthy. And no amount of oppression can dislodge it.
Instill dignity in others who have lost sight of it. Remind them of their worth. Remind them of their equality. Let them know that anyone who tells them otherwise is speaking from their own lack of self worth and as such are even more in need of prayer than they. Pray for those who seek to win at board games with swords. They ultimately fear the same loss as you but have no idea how to make a plowshare from it. Our dignity is ultimately exposed by our grace. And this, more than anything, is our salvation.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Concept of Namasté - Meditation and Message from Sunday, September 10, 2017 - Given at First Parish Church of Fitchburg

Meditation: The Trees are Connected
      Science has concluded that forests are networks of communication. The trees talk to each other. Different species collude with one another to take over in ways that include forms of conversation and awareness. If we were to define hearing as an awareness response to a sound made, trees hear. If we define a sense of touch based upon an awareness response from coming into contact with something other than themselves, trees feel and can sense difference. If they alter themselves in some way when around people, they know we are here.
      Take a deep breath and enter with me into the forest. Picture the light as it filters through the leaves. The particular shade of green. The sound of the leaves as they gently clack together in the breeze. The soft creaking of branches and limbs at sway.
      You find a comfortable seat in the forest and just observe it. Inhale it. Immerse yourself in it. Sit quietly for a few moments and allow this thought to penetrate into you. Through your lungs as you breathe, through your skin, through your eyes. Through your soul.

Message: Your Special is Showing
      We have arrived at an age when the specificity of our words is important. It matters what we say. Now more than ever, it matters what we say. It matters where we say it, and how. The words we use. The tone of voice when we speak. The emojis we choose when we text. We can so easily be careless with our words. We forget to modify our voices. We forget to proofread our texts. We get frustrated with having to say the right thing all the time. Political-correctness fatigue is real. It’s a thing. We take our anger out on people. We can forget to remember that the person we are speaking to is a human being with feelings and history and reasons why they do the things they do. Just like you. We are faced with so much when we face our neighbor.
      It’s a challenge to see the sacred in another person when they smell bad or when they act strange or when they hurt us. It’s nearly impossible to commit to the idea that our worst enemies are equal to us in divinity—whatever that means. Because if there is divinity in the universe then there is divinity for all things equally. If there is none, then there is equally none. What is in us, is in us all.
      It begs a question: Where do you place your faith? What do you believe about the deep nature of reality? Is there a God, isn’t there a God, does it matter, doesn’t it matter? We most of us conclude that there is at least a unity to all things. A higher unifying force of some sort. After that basic thought, we then get creative with what that higher power is or isn’t, and why we are here; what our purpose really is. All thinking diverges into myriad philosophies, religions, systems of thought all about the nature of our Ultimate Reality. But back here at the point where most of us are still in agreement—the vast majority of us, in fact—what we agree upon is that we are connected.
      Religion agrees with philosophy agrees with quantum mechanics that we are all connected. That vast connectivity is by definition, a network. And one we know very little about. We understand networks, however. We understand the act of networking. I remember the old intercompany mail envelopes keeping various departments connected. But when it comes to the human network, we have barely scratched the surface awareness of our interconnectivity. We have only hints. All we know is that it’s there in the math and it’s there in our stories; we have only to see it now with our eyes to truly believe it. All in good time.
      Networks behave in certain and predictable ways. They connect with the whole on purpose. They have been built in systematic ways for the purpose of accomplishing a goal. What builds a network? Does it build itself? Elaborate crystals form in solution without apparent help. Does a network? Does a higher mind orchestrate it? Perhaps both. That we are connected is an indicator of a system too large for us to see. Much like the forest is too big for the leaf to understand it all. But in looking toward itself it’s given clues to its larger picture. The map of all reality is in the leaf as it is in us. When you look at a leaf what do you see? What does the leaf see when it looks at itself? What does it see when it looks at other leaves?
      Namaskar. It’s a Sanskrit word that means a traditional act of bowing to show respect. It’s when we put our hands together in front of our third eye or heart and bow towards someone. Namasté is a typical verbal greeting when performing the act of namaskar. So, the word namaskar means to bow, but namasté means I bow to you. To you. Just you. All the world falls away and there is only you and I. And you are special. It’s showing. I can see it. I can imagine it. I know it’s there even if you don’t. I bow to you. Namasté. In this single moment, I revere all that you are and will be.
      Here at First Parish we sometimes exchange the word Amen for Namasté at the end of a prayer. But they are not interchangeable. Think of what namasté implies which is different from the word amen. Amen means so be it or may it be so. It’s an agreement with what the prayer has said. It’s a wish that all which has been uttered before it either come true or already is true. You are loved. Amen. But when we say namasté at the end of a prayer or thought we are declaring something incredibly powerful. Something mostly beyond us, but like the leaf to the forest, there are secrets inside which can tell the bigger story.
      When we namasté at the end of a spoken thought we are declaring something about the speaker and listeners themselves, not just the words spoken or heard. When we say Namasté at these moments we are saying thank you for existing, Thank you for speaking. Thank you for listening. The divine spark in me honors and hears the divine spark in you. When someone speaks, we will all hear different words, think different thoughts and imagine different concepts than our neighbor upon hearing the same. I can say The sky is blue and you may all agree with me in one sense, but your experience of the sentence The sky is blue will be different. Your thoughts around the idea will be unique. So we sometimes say namasté to declare and honor the differences between us and our neighbor in how we perceive the same idea. In Unitarian Universalism we honor differences in how we each of us thinks. We don’t always agree. Namasté says, I honor your existence. I honor your intellect. I do not have to agree with you to know that you are as special and as sacred as I am.
      When we perform namaskar it is an act meant to be done with deep feeling and a surrendering of the mind. It is a meditation unto itself. Think about it for a moment. What does it feel like when you use your imagination for just a few seconds to think about the specialness of another person? When you allow it to show itself to you? When you take a deep breath and give permission for your faith to discern something about the other, what does it show you? What does your own personal faith tell you about the nature of other people?
      Namasté is actually a lifestyle choice. Because to exist in the state of it excludes criticism, judgement, and pity. It gives permission for our better imagination to act on behalf of our usual tendency to assume the worst in people. Someone says something to us and we automatically evaluate them, their words, based upon what we know of their history and our relationship to them. Even their clothes and hygiene can make an impact. Usually we evaluate others with a much harsher eye than is helpful, or likely deserved. How many times have you reacted harshly to something someone did only to find out more of the story later and realize that had the shoe been on the other foot you might have behaved the same? What becomes of your judgement then? What might have become of it had you first remembered that they are special?
      Namasté is a choice to read between the lines. To listen honestly. To engage with another human on the basis of an assumption that they are a remarkable and utterly divine being before they even open their mouth. And holding on to that belief once they have. It’s a faith that everything they say is pure divinity, filtered through the difficulty of being human. But still very much divine.
      Recognize your own specialness. Recognize the specialness of others. It will alter not only how you feel about the world, but along the human network through which we are all one, it will change how the network feels about you, too.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 23, 2017 - Forgiving Christianity, Part II of II

    If we were to forgive Christianity—which is really to say forgive those who have mislabeled themselves Christian—we might find the grace we seek for ourselves. If we maintain compassion and even hospitality for those who have found in their religious sect what they thought was a safe harbor from the world they fear so much, they might give themselves permission for the scales to fall from their eyes.
Surround fear with love. That’s what the teachings say. Even when fear comes from the teachers themselves. Ignore convention. Listen to someone’s heart, not their mouth. Heal their wounds, don’t judge them for their scars. Frightened people make terrible choices. Sooth their fears. Keep them safe. Build their health. Educate them. Eventually they will make better decisions.
Jesus’s teachings ask us to be proactive in reaching out to people who are sick, alienated, rejected, judged. These are the very people who claim to know exactly whom God hates and why. They are the ones who are lost. We are encouraged by the dharma of Christianity to go out into the world and find them. It’s an active outward practice. But even as an internal practice there is exceptional value. How do you feel about Christianity? For those who feel resentment let it go. You don’t have to go to church. You don’t have to pick a denomination. You don’t even have to believe in God. Just sit quietly with yourself and find a way to reach for a higher thought. Reach into your imagination to see a way through someone’s hateful actions to the desperate fear inside them. Send love to that fear. That is the Christian life practice.
Create little examples of compassion for others to see. Not to be commended, but emulated. Invite someone who thinks against you to dinner. Seek every pathway of agreement. Find every commonality. Fear dissolves in the face of true welcoming.
Daryl Davis is a black man who for 30 years has befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan on purpose. He just talks with them. He goes to their rallies and invites conversation as well as friendship with white supremacists. Daryl is a radical. This is exactly what I think Jesus would do.
Davis does not attack them. He does not validate their fears of him. He disarms them with his humanity and in turn they do what is claimed to be impossible. They change. Over the decades, 200 Klansmen have given him their robes. Davis is a fearless practitioner of the dharma of Christianity regardless of his personal faith. And through it he does the job we are all asked to do. Recognize fear and do your part to assuage it. Make friends of your enemies. Shovel your crabby neighbor’s walk in the winter.
Remember the Hindu concept of Namasté. It is in perfect alignment with the Christian dharma and gets to the very heart of it all. The divine in me sees and honors the divine in you. Jesus knew that if we would only just talk with one another we would see ourselves in each other’s eyes. Once that is accomplished, world peace is truly inevitable.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 16, 2017 - Forgiving Christianity, Part I of II

    It’s fair but unfortunate to say that many people have been hurt by religion. But allow me to be more specific. People have been hurt by those who have misused religion. Spiritual guidance has been misappropriated by power structures ranging from popes to pastors to parents. We live in an age where a form of Christianity has evolved that speaks more of fear masquerading as hate than compassion and hospitality. How much of our airwaves have been taken up by those demanding their so-called religious freedom to exclude? From what Bible are they taking their teachings? None that I have ever read.
    But there is a message inside the jewel-encrusted bottle we have been taught to worship. The teachings.
    Regardless of his parentage, Jesus of Nazareth was first and foremost a teacher of a practice. The practice is what really got him into trouble. Rome wanted to be in charge. The teachings taught us that we are in charge of ourselves. We are in charge of how we feel and how we love. We are in charge of forgiveness. They teach us a way to get under the skin of something through the simplest channels possible.
    Catholicism—the original world conduit of Christianity—is structured in such a way that its Pope defines the true character of the Church. The declared “infallibility” of the Pope in all things theological means that what the Pope thinks, the congregation thinks also. Of course this isn’t practically true, but it’s comforting to note that a single good man can actually effect a change that could finally bring the church into a more complete alignment with its own teachings. For this reason I have hope for Catholicism. I can see it evolving. And as the de facto parent of world Christianity it will have a ripple effect throughout the system over time.
    Yet in the meanwhile we are so often forced to throw out the baby with the bathwater. We have so much resistance built up as a result of those who continue to use Christ as a weapon rather than Jesus as a teacher. We intrinsically know that it’s wrong. We reflexively resist it. We are correct to do so. But it leaves us wanting. Self-abandoned.
    It brings me to the obvious, even laughable question: What would Jesus do?
    Of course I do not know what Jesus would do. I’ve never met the man. All I have is what has filtered through to today. Through centuries of translations and historical critical thinking and theological debates over what the teachings mean. Through the lens of my own culture and what it expects of me. These are the thickest of goggles through which I attempt to decide exactly what Jesus might do with times such as these. The question really becomes: What do I think Jesus would do?
    His teachings focused on nonresistance, forgiveness, compassion, hospitality and empowerment. How might they be best applied to all those who have abused us through the act of preaching without practice? No man has the ability to withhold or distribute God’s grace. Ergo, we too are in possession of it. Those who lovingly facilitate it are welcome. Those who would act as a middleman are by default anti-Christian, anti-Christ. They know not what they do. Do we?

Friday, September 8, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 9, 2017 - Belief in God is Optional

Thank you for whatever It is. It doesn’t matter what makes atoms hold together. It’s not important what reality created or sustains us. I am grateful for whatever the confluence of circumstances it is which makes it possible to exist. Some believe It is a being named God or Allah or Adonai. Maybe they are all correct. Maybe they aren’t. I have no ability to confirm or deny it. I personally believe in God by many names, but I can’t impose that belief upon anyone else. It may be that spending our time fussing over a definition of “God” is the exact opposite of what we are made to be doing. Or perhaps we were not 'made' at all. Does that thought change anything?
However, gratitude remains essential. It connects us with the fullness of experience. It creates a tendency for even more things about which we can be grateful to gravitate towards us. We become a vacuum of abundance. Religion shows us a way to make gratitude, a.k.a. praise, a part of our daily habit. It is correct to do so. We need it. But we don’t always need religion to help us practice it. We need not marry the midwife.
So I say thank you for whatever It is. I am grateful for It. Whatever reality It may be, whether chance or choice, which allowed—or at the very least did not prevent—the existence of life, thank you.
I’m sure it can be argued that nothing created or prevented life, it just happened. Why not be thankful for that? Be thankful that life happened. Don’t worry about what made it happen. Say thank you to Reality for existing. Be glad to be alive. Be glad for gravity. Be happy that most people have a tendency to want to collaborate, to get along, to be good neighbors. Most people are good. Be glad for that. Don’t spend your energy on maintaining anger over those who aren’t. Focus on gratitude for those who show us the way.
The teachings of world scripture work with or without a belief in a deity. Practice them. Practice forgiveness. Don’t resist the world, bathe it with love. Teach people to be creative. Teach critical thinking without being critical. Empower those around you. Be generous with your time and talents.
The fact is, if a spiritual life practice is truly worth its salt it shouldn’t need a deity to be valid. Forgiveness is a good idea either way. Doing no harm will only make life better. Being hospitable, neighborly, and encouraging is a part of our social code. It’s the ethical standard we teach our children even when we can’t live up to it ourselves.
Religion can be a beautiful thing. A belief in God, no matter how you name It, can be a fulfilling and meaningful way to express our gratitude at the wonder of existence. But one must not feel compelled. It may very well be that a belief in our connection with something larger than ourselves will be the natural result of the practice of the teachings over time. Perhaps we are putting the cart before the horse to insist that we must first believe to experience it.
If there is a God, It would be more patient with us than we are with each other. It would know how we come by our own enlightenment best. It would gladly step aside our adoration of It in favor of our adoration of one another. It would allow no statues, no idols, because we would then waste our focus on a piece of stone rather than our neighbor. It would let us use the free will we have been given to discover our own light for ourselves, in our own time.
The Ultimate Reality—whatever It is—does not require our belief in order to exist. Whatever is really true will be true whether we believe in it or not. Spend your time being good to one another. The rest will work itself out on its own.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, September 2, 2017 - Do no harm

    Make a decision. Do no harm. It’s simple enough. Don’t wreck anything. Don’t hurt people, things, or life. Don’t make a mess unless you have the courage to both learn from and clean up the results. It’s okay to break things, especially rules. Yet still, try to do no harm.
    Then comes the contemplative part. Spend some time to sit with the thought of it. Mull it over. What does it mean to do no harm? How creative can we get? How far do we go? There are monks of some orders who pluck the hairs from their heads rather than run the risk of having to someday kill lice. Mother nature is doing the job for me, thankfully. I’m glad I managed to dodge that bullet. But I still have to decide what impact I am willing to make upon the world. Even the gentlest of footprints alters the landscape. It’s impossible to leave no trace of our existence on this planet. Is there a distinguishable line between what’s ethical and what’s practical?
We see nature and conclude that harm is everywhere. We see in humanity the same. We have such a dark view of ourselves. Infected with an idea of unworthiness when the only unworthy thing is the idea itself. We wonder why we should bother with a cup full of water when the fire is raging. Yet that is the only way.
Against logic, it is easier to change the world by starting small. Begin first by doing no harm to yourself. That’s the part they forget to tell you about. But how can we “do unto others” if we don’t take steps away from harming ourselves? Start small. Quit smoking, or switch to ‘lights’ at least. Order only from the dollar menu. Do whatever you have to in order to make even the smallest decision in favor of yourself. Do less harm.
Then make a choice never to step backward from it. Never. Every step forward is progress. Every step backward is harm. Do no harm. Make mistakes. Fall a million times. Still, intend to do no harm. You may fall on your face, but that’s still forward.
Notice it every time you succeed. Notice every time someone else does what you also want to be able to do. Congratulate them in your heart. Move forward with them. Hop on their jetstream. Learn from geese. It’s easier to fly in formation.
Notice what you eat. How much harm are you willing to live with? It’s easy for a single millennial to be an organic vegan these days. Now add kids and life and two jobs and the line starts to budge. What is practical? When in doubt, eat local. Be a locavore. Decide for six months to eat food that is locally grown and see how you like it. There are several services which will deliver it right to your door. That’ll pull the plug on a whole bunch of harm right there. Some solutions are delicious.
Do no harm may mean switching to an electric or hybrid car next time. There’s plenty out there on the market now. Or even just choosing a slightly better gas mileage than intended. Make a decision to use public transportation one day a week as a voluntary offset and talk about how awesome you are on Facebook. It’s okay.
Keep inching in the direction of doing no harm, and always be sure to notice it. Take pride in your forward movement no matter how insignificant it might seem. I guarantee you, it isn’t. No hair goes uncounted.