Saturday, February 15, 2020
I spoke with someone recently who informed me that it was considered inappropriate, by their racial justice group, for white people to sing the social justice anthem “We Shall Overcome.” As a sensitive person, who makes a conscious effort to empathize with people's viewpoints, especially as pertains to race, at first I felt that I must somehow be wrong in my view. I was very disappointed.
I have sung this song many times over the years. I have sung it in choirs, I have sung it with my afterschool kids in the mall on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I even wrote a countermelody to it for church. I have a relationship with this song.
Very quickly after concluding I must be wrong, I started to question that. I also started to question the right of people to exclude others from art.
But there is something to the point she was making. Our job as white people is to listen. Regarding the issue of racism and bigotry, a majority needs to comprehend the value of listening to the minority voices in the room. Talk less, listen more. Support any and all opportunities at which loving dialogue may occur and history recognized. Use your privilege for that.
I thought maybe I shouldn’t sing this song anymore and I should just listen to it. So I did.
I have two thoughts after listening carefully to it. One, is that the “we” in the song lyrics refers to the greater “We,” not just the “we” who have had the experience. The reason I know this is because there is no teaching on earth throughout history which claims that anything is ever accomplished without doing it together.
Which brings me to my second thought. The song is not about the past so it cannot exclude anyone based on their lack of experience with it. The song never once references the past. The past is implied by the words, but not spoken of. This is the grace of this incredible work of poetry and prayer. It is exclusively about a vision for the future accomplished as a group.
To exclude people from singing this song based on their race is not the future the song speaks of. That is an old lyric of the past. And we don’t sing that song anymore. We sing about the future.
We shall overcome. We’ll walk hand in hand. We shall live in peace. We are not afraid. The truth shall make us free. Deep in my heart I do believe that we shall overcome someday.
This is my theology of optimism in song form. It is not something which can be misappropriated or co-opted for darker purposes. It is not something which human tongues can diminish. It is resplendent, and impervious to misuse.
We shall overcome our past because we are already doing it. We’re not there yet, but there’s a provable trend from which to extract some definite hope. Just take a step back and look at the past 200 years and imagine the various categories of civilization, from education to workers rights, especially civil rights, all displayed on a series of graphs. It doesn’t take a sociologist to see the trend.
We are nowhere near anything resembling a finish line. There’s so much work to be done. But the vast majority of our task to date has been the enormous undertaking of revealing the work we need to do in the first place. It took decades of increasing awareness and comprehension on the subject of race to even get where we're at right now. It’s only with this set of generations living today that we are really starting to understand how deep the roots of the problem go and what our responsibility is in doing something about it.
But the one certainly is that a society progresses only in direct proportion to its ability to work together. There is no exclusion in the word we. No one can own it. No one can dictate who belongs within the greater We.
I do believe we shall overcome our past because humanity only ever seeks to know one another better. Is inherently human to be in relationship. We can’t resist it. Even when we are afraid, we seek it. We seek to be at peace by nature. The more at peace we are the less protection we shall need. Only the greater We can make this future possible.
It’s understandable in this age of heightened social awareness to want to ferret out every way in which we have been careless with our words and actions without thinking. We should be mindful of all ways in which one culture diminishes another by misappropriating and misusing its traditions. We should care about the feelings of others. We should want to know how to be better. But don’t confuse sincerity with overzealousness.
First we have to simply become comfortable with the idea that “we“ is inclusive in the future we seek to create. Seek to be welcoming. Welcome any idea that will not harm you. Turn it over in your hand and poke at it. Ask it questions and have the humility to listen to the reply. If someone is in pain there is a truth to be known. Listen for it. It will make your life easier.
I will never pretend to understand all the intricacies of the racial crisis or its solutions. There’s only so much I can personally know about the struggles of others. But that is the purpose of humility. Humility first before all action. Humility first before all prayer, all words, all listening. I supplicate myself before the truth.
I’m sure there’s plenty to be criticized in my words above. Some may think I have no right to think as I do. But I am on the side of love and equality and justice and freedom and prosperity and peace in equal measure for all of humanity. We will all make our mistakes on the road to achieving it, but try to remain welcoming of the intent. The road to hell is not paved with good intentions, it is paved with apathy.
Saturday, February 8, 2020
I don’t remember learning much about the Christian season of Lent as a child. I know it was mentioned. I remember the word Lent being spoken. Not by my immediate family. None of them are churchgoers by nature. I remember that you were supposed to give up chocolate from around Valentine’s Day until Easter when you could get it all back. Seemed like an odd procedure to just break even in the end.
I revisited the concept again recently. I’ve never had a problem with the idea of observing Lent. It just never was a priority. But this year I’ve been thinking about my own personal relationship with Christianity. I’ve been thinking about what parts of the tradition resonate with me and which ones don’t.
It’s actually quite difficult not to throw out the baby with the bathwater sometimes. There are parts of Christian tradition that I have simply ignored, rejected, or were confused by. A lot of that quasi-resentment comes from the bad name that some Christians manage to give the practice of Christianity through their unloving actions and words. It’s enough to give any faith a bad reputation. Jesus said it’s not what goes in someone’s mouth which defiles them. It’s what comes out. Sadly, not all Christians practice Christianity. And so it makes it difficult for those of us who actually suspect there’s something of value to be explored in the teachings of Jesus, and the rituals that have grown in response to them, regarding one’s personal spiritual growth.
It’s taken me all these years to get around my distaste for public Christians in order to become curious about what lies beneath the hypocrisy and corruption which so often eclipses our view. I have concluded there is much to explore.
The lens through which I view all religious traditions and rituals is our intrinsic human nature. If we didn’t like a ritual or a teaching or a story, we would not perpetuate it. If it didn’t make us feel good, or teach us something, or resonate positively with the subconscious part of our human psyche, we would not pass it on. So, about things which have been handed down generation after generation, I am rabidly curious. No tradition exists through inertia.
I started looking at the activity of baptism and the history of its ritual, even prior to Christianity. The word baptism in our present culture refers directly to becoming a part of the Christian faith. But baptism existed before. And the origins of the word refer to a ritual purification not specific to any particular faith. So what is baptism?
In looking at the various layers of the word and the way it has been translated by other languages in the past (which give hints at their context), it has a very specific and nuanced meaning. Baptism is a ritual cleansing by immersion in a pool or body of water deep enough to submerge an adult but shallow enough to stand. That’s what the tradition of the word expresses regarding its physical ritual.
It’s spiritual purpose is always to cleanse and purify as a preparation for a new way of living. Not by scrubbing as if in a bath, but by immersion. This is a cleansing of one’s own sorrow and errors and the weight they place on us. A weight which needs to be lifted periodically through a physical ritual that helps us accomplish relief on the level of our psyche. That’s where inner peace occurs. That’s where the weight rests. Baptism is a ritual of emotional release, of self-forgiveness, prior to a period of deep reflection. You’re going on a spiritual journey. Carry with you only what you must. The fees for excess emotional baggage are too costly.
As far as Christianity goes, Jesus was baptized by his cousin John before he went into the wilderness to fast for 40 days prior to beginning his public ministry. His ministry lasted for three years and ended when he was publicly executed for sedition in full view of a Jewish Passover audience of over two million. It was his teachings which got him into trouble. Neither the state nor the religious scholars of the time were benefited by what Jesus taught. His ministry was a problem to the system.
So when we develop a religious tradition, our intrinsic human nature secretly informs and defines which parts of a story get told and how. We take from it what we need and we expand upon it. We raise a story up as an example on purpose. That’s the part about which to be most curious. Why that part? Why this way?
When you start answering these questions a pattern amongst religions begins to emerge. We start to see our humanity and the lessons we have chosen to pass on, and the ones we have not. When you begin to understand a bit about what we truly need as humans in our rituals, practices, and stories, the baby climbs back in the window.
So I’m looking at Lent. And I’m going to observe it this year. Baptism too. I observed the Islamic holy month of Ramadan several years ago. Why shouldn’t I observe Lent? Why shouldn’t I reconsider what baptism means to me now and refresh my covenant to live according to the teachings? I don’t have to baptize myself into anyone else’s idea. I can consecrate myself to my own. That’s the baby.
Lent is a 40 to 46 day period of time meant for personal reflection and quietness, begun with a ritual of purification and a giving of intent. It is an annual season of preparation and examination. To aid us in this process, we don’t partake of some things which take up too much emotional or hourly real estate. We make time for reflection every day on purpose. In Christianity, this is done as preparation for Easter and celebrating the resurrection of Christ. But Lent and Easter also occur at a time of year when rebirth, reflection, and renewal are intrinsically necessary to our human nature. The winter is ending and we have gained new sorrows which must be attended to. It is in our own best interest to be deliberately reflective. We’re not good at doing that on our own, however, without some structure, discipline, and especially community. Ergo organized religion. That is intrinsically human, too.
This is why humanity has kept the tradition of Lent and other religious practices. Not because a priest or bishop has told them they must. But because there’s a hidden value for everyone in the practice of it. Neither judge a book by its cover, nor heed the commentaries of others without reading it for yourself.
But be aware. Sincere personal reflection has its consequences. After you go through it, there will be things you can no longer tolerate and things you will embrace you never thought you’d love. Those around you will notice it. Not all of them will like it. We honor the sacrifice Jesus made in order to teach his message and speak a difficult truth to a very powerful system. We aspire to do the same.
Your personal consequences will not be as grave. But your life will definitely change. The old you will be gone and a new you will be born. You shall be resurrected, as it were. The process has its discomforts. But joy is the result.
A good spiritual practice worth its salt can handle any scrutiny. Dig deep.
Saturday, February 1, 2020
First it was a bear, in Europe, before they became scarce. Then it was a badger. Although even before the bear, it was people. Once arriving in the United States, it became a groundhog.
This is the genealogy of the harbingers of spring.
Groundhog Day here in the US, occurring annually on February 2, is a tradition which began, according to legend, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania in the late 19th century by the Pennsylvania Dutch following their emigration from the German-speaking regions of Europe.
Its purpose is as much meteorological as it is divinitory. We want to know how much longer the winter will last. We want the groundhog to tell us by the shadow it does, or does not, cast as it ritually emerges from its “hibernation.” A shadow means six more weeks of winter. No shadow means an early spring. I've always thought it ironic, under the circumstances, that a sunny day portends a longer winter. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Nonetheless...
Groundhog Day, though not at all a religious observance, coincides with the Catholic and Lutheran festival of Candlemas which honors Jesus’ first presentation at the temple following his birth and the end of his mother’s postpartum confinement. Candles are lit and blessed during the mass in recognition of the expanding light which has entered the world.
The feast of Candlemas, and the likely reason it has the name Candlemas in the first place, is because of its ancient pagan roots in the Gaelic celebration of Imbolc. Although, of course, Imbolc has even further ancient roots of its own.
Traditionally occurring on February 1, Imbolc marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It is a ritual of candle-lighting. It is a time for reflection and renewal. It is for the healing of old wounds and the waking of things long sleeping, both literal and figurative. It marks the passing of the old ways into the new, refreshed.
There are also other candle-based traditions in February as well such as the Catholic Blessing of the Throats, which is performed with two candles intersecting to form a cross on February 3. In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, the celebration of Luminescence on the third Sunday in February has gained in popularity across the country since its introduction in 2007. There are many others as well.
Throughout history, candles were lit to chase away evil spirits, cure disease, and ward off death—something the winter knows all too well. We know today that sunlight is a natural disinfectant. Which may cause us to wonder whether the cart was before the horse all along in earlier humans’ recognition that light had properties which science only now recognizes. What might be learned from that?
February also includes with it every manner of light-oriented symbols and rites, across cultures, going back to ancient Roman times, and likely before. These varied traditions were meant to instill hope, foster purification, and instill readiness for the coming spring.
So why does this matter? Because it points to something which is intrinsically human: the need to remind ourselves that Winter will end and the Spring will come. It is our entry into a phase of anticipation which heightens the emotional and physiological value of the thing we anticipate, once it arrives.
We eagerly anticipate the spring, the process of which raises the level of its emotional and physiological value to us. The coming warmth encourages us and bolsters our flagging confidence in surviving the remainder of winter. We examine our shrinking stores of food, the remainders of last year‘s harvest, and take heart that they may just be enough to get us through. Hold on.
Today we may not fear the final phases of winter quite as much. Or perhaps amid the bustle of our busy lives we forget to notice that we fear this time of year. The rate of disease and death is always higher around this time. The long winter has taken its toll on our hearts as well as our loved ones. If there’s one thing we need right now, it’s encouragement. All shall be well.
In the 21st-century, we have not shed our humanity. We have not evolved beyond the point of feeling reflexive discomfort as the winter grinds on. Add to that the complications of our modern world, and perhaps we need rituals of comfort and renewal even more now than in ancient times.
The advice here is to actively seek that comfort, even if you don’t consciously feel you need it. If you are human, this time of year will affect you in one way or another. Modern terminology coins it as seasonal affect disorder, but that’s only a scientific equivalency to our own long history with winter. Heed it.
Turn your face to the light whenever you can. Close your eyes and turn toward a sunny window and feel the light penetrating you. Light a candle and take note of its warmth. Go to a Catholic church and witness the ritual of Candlemas. Seek out neopagan groups who hold public rituals of Imbolc. Search for light at this time. You need it more than you know.