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Friday, January 30, 2015

Size Simply Cannot Matter

In December of last year I celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of my ordination and August of last year marked the eleventh anniversary of The Universal Anglican Church, the denomination I helped found and have had the privilege of serving as Presiding Bishop since its inception. We all had grand visions in those earliest days, visions that were rooted not in the work we had to do but rather in cultural evaluations of success that were in retrospect completely inappropriate. You see, if you want to change the world, if you want to make the world a better place, then you cannot realistically expect enormous popularity, because what you seek to do is to overturn the status quo and that will upset more than a few people. If you want to change the world you simply cannot expect the people who profit from the world as it is to stand and give you a round of applause.

How different is that from what we've been trained to expect? How many of us have bought into the notion that if you do the right thing the world, by which I mean not a simplistic and dualistic assessment of good and evil but rather the people who profit from the status quo, will stand and applaud? Jesus himself, in what is probably the least popular of the Beatitudes, famously said "Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you." Yet for some reason we expect throngs of people to come are running in joyful appreciation and support of our counter cultural work. An honest assessment will reveal that has never been the case. In fact, you might say that if you are broadly appreciated and you believe you are bringing reform then you should face the truth that the reform you believe you are bringing is nothing more than the status quo in repackaged form.

We all need to consider the reality that the more powerful a movement is, the smaller will be its beginning. The voices that have said there is something wrong with the system have always faced resistance, have always been marginalized, and have always faced those who would silence the message. That does not make the message any less valuable or necessary. The truth is that we live in political and economic times that believe human beings are expendable commodities. When we tell those in power that that is simply not the case, we should not expect rounds of applause and warm hugs. In fact, we might come to see resistance to our message by those in power as a sign that we are on the right track. Those who are invested in the consumer capitalist system will never be able to see that all human beings matter, because the consumer capitalist system sees human beings as little more than revenue sources. If you happen to be a human being who doesn't represent a revenue source, then you are little more than disposable refuse. Those of us who stand and say otherwise will always be seen by the consumer Capitalist system as a problem to be eliminated. Those who are unable to be a revenue source and those who say they have value are a problem to the system.

One of the problems with many of those who work for social justice today is that they seek fame and glory. They imagine themselves to be current day incarnations of the great heroes of justice, but they are unwilling to pay the price that nearly every prophet has had to pay. They want to be famous but not be objects of scorn, they want to be well known prophetic voices but not have anyone attempt to silence them, they want to make the ultimate change without paying the ultimate price. These are false prophets, and they often seek not authentic change but rather to have their egos fed and their pockets filled. I want no part of them, and neither do the people with whom I am privileged to serve.

An obsession with size, no matter the context, is always an occasion for the celebration of ego. The truth is, there is no place for ego in authentic spirituality because the goal of authentic spirituality is to destroy the ego. Regardless of our tradition, we must seek to listen to the voice of the Spirit that fuels the fire within us. And when we hear that voice, we will follow it because we will recognize that there is nothing else we can do. If we believe we have a choice, then the voice we follow is not that of Spirit but rather that of ego. If we think that what we have heard will make us famous, then the voice we follow is not that of Spirit but rather that of ego. The best explanation that I have ever heard of being called to something is that when one is called there is no choice, there is nothing else we can do, but respond to that voice. When we respond to that voice with authenticity we find fulfillment, and when we find fulfillment nothing else matters. It will not matter how many people applaud what we do, it will not matter how large our organization grows, it will only matter that we are faithful to the work and it will only matter that we do our best.

There is in this a wonderful freedom, the freedom to be ourselves, the freedom to move towards that which we were put on this planet to be. Of course, skeptics will say that this is nothing but self-deception, that this is nothing but delusion, that none of this is real. I am afraid they say that because either they are invested in the status quo, or they haven't taken the time to listen to that still, small voice within their own heart and soul and so they have not found their own purpose. They choose instead to criticize the purpose that others have found, and toward them I feel nothing but compassion. Perhaps one day they will find their purpose, but I cannot make their unwillingness to find their purpose an obstacle on my own path to fulfilling that purpose. Each of us has a slightly different path, and each of us must walk our own path.

My wish for you is that if you have not found your own path yet, you would continue listening until you find it, and when you do find it, my wish is that you recognize it and follow it. Do not let cultural definitions of success get in the way of following the work that you are called to do. The truth is that no matter how many cultural assessments of success we accumulate, if we aren't following our heart's true desire we won't be happy. Happiness cannot be defined for us by someone on the outside who doesn't understand our call. Whatever we are called to do happiness consists in doing it to the best of our ability. That thing we are called to do may or may not be a source of income. We may have to do something else to pay the bills and keep a roof over our head, following our call after working hours. That doesn't make it a lesser call. In fact, there is a great freedom in knowing that our call and our happiness lie outside of working hours. Such knowledge constitutes a form of resistance to attempts by employers to control us. When we find our meaning outside of the workplace, we have a freedom that those who find it within the workplace cannot achieve. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with finding meaning in your employment, it means there isn't anything wrong with finding it elsewhere. May you find yours and live fully into it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Spiritual Journaling

I believe that everybody should keep a journal. I also believe that the only kind of journal is a spiritual journal, not because we set out to keep a spiritual journal but rather because everything we write reveals our spirit. I have kept a journal throughout most of my adult life. For the last several years I have written daily, but there certainly have been times throughout my adult life when I didn't. Still I have found that whenever I am in a place of stress, or in a place where I'm not sure what to do, or a place of rapid change, it is profoundly helpful to be writing. By writing I mean putting a pen to a
piece of paper, not typing in a keyboard though I recognize that may be different for younger people. For me at least, there is nothing like the physical act of putting the pen to paper in making what I write both real and heartfelt.

Whenever I encounter someone in the course of doing spiritual guidance who is at a crossroads or struggling or feeling especially pent up, and who among us doesn't feel at least one of those things a good deal of the time, I encourage them to write. When I do so I am often met by a look that ranges from skeptical to a look of compassion for me because the person presumes I have lost my mind. That's when the work begins of trying to convince the person to just write. The easiest way to just write is to decide that you will sit down each day and write for ten minutes. You will get a notebook for the purpose. It doesn't matter whether the notebook is fancy or not. At the beginning of your ten minute time you will put the tip of your pen on the page and you will begin to write what ever comes out. Editing and filtering are not allowed. It doesn't matter whether you write about what happened today or yesterday, whether you just make a random list of what ever you're feeling at the moment, or whether you just stringing together words that appear to be absolutely unrelated to anything. The point is that you write and that you continue to write for at least those ten minutes. If you find you are on a roll at the end of the ten minutes there is no law against continuing. After two weeks I recommend that people increase their time to fifteen minutes. Usually after four weeks, people are in the habit and don't need the timer anymore, they just write until they are done.

I find that unless there's some compelling reason not to, it's a good idea to keep your journals. You can throw them on a shelf or put them in a box, it doesn't really matter what you do with them. Every so often though, I find it's helpful to bring out an old journal. Looking at where I was at some point in the past helps me both to understand where I am today and see how much I have grown. I also find that over the course of my life there are recurring themes, issues that come up again and again that I have addressed in my journal. Those issues seem to be the ones that I still need to do work around, the ones that are perhaps resolved in steps and stages rather than at one crack. Other things I look at that were major struggles in the past have never come up again. At times they seem quite silly, but I believe it's important to resist the urge to judge our own growth. We need to be kinder to ourselves than that, and just accept our growth for what it was. Above all our journal should be a place of safety and not a tool for later self-criticism.

If you don't journal already, my hope is that you will start. You really aren't too busy, it doesn't take that long, and if you don't start today I do hope this post plants a seed and that one day at a point of struggle you might remember the idea of journaling and decide to give it a try. It will transform your life!

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Other Side of Wal-Mart

For some years now, it has been popular to bash Walmart. We hear about the greed of Walmart, the fact that they do not pay a living wage, questions about the quality of their merchandise, and countless other accusations and reasons to not shop at Walmart. Despite all this people continue to shop at Walmart, and some observers are mystified as to the reasons.

Some years ago, I pastored a church with a membership that was, for the most part, retired. As a
group, they had been unusually successful in their careers. They had largely fled the city of Milwaukee for the suburbs. They were well to do and liberal, and were quite smug about places like Walmart. They were also rather judgmental about the people who shop at Walmart, and one day I had enough. I pointed out to them that, while it was not their experience, there were many families in the community who needed to shop at Walmart to make ends meet. They seemed shocked when I told them that my family was among them.

It is a good thing to advocate for a fair and living wage for all people. In fact, I believe it is our moral duty to advocate for an increase in the minimum wage, and an insistence that companies offer full time hours and benefits to all employees who desire them. Because I am a fan of honesty, I am compelled to say that until such wages and benefits are offered to all employees there will be a significant number of families who need to shop at stores like Walmart. When I see posts on Facebook and other social media that are critical of the people who shop at Walmart, often characterizing them as greedy and materialistic, I know that I am reading the postings of fools who lack empathy and compassion. In fact, I believe many of these people are projecting their own greed and materialism onto those of us forced to shop at Walmart.

It has been well established that, contrary to the naysayers who have a vested interest in failing to pay a living wage, paying employees such a wage does not substantially impact prices. The only thing that stops companies from paying a living wage is greed, and greed is a demanding mistress. Greed says that even when I have what I need I must fail to give you what you need unless I am forced to do so, and the truth is companies will not pay a living wage until we raise the minimum wage so that it is, in fact, a living wage. The fact that the same greedy people gleefully trot off to churches each Sunday (demographic research has shown that the well to do attend church at a higher rate than others, ostensibly in an attempt to ensure that the church continues to fail in pressing for God's preferential option for the poor), thereby assuring themselves of their righteousness and deluding themselves into believing their greed is a moral value.

The truth is that if you find stores like Walmart problematic and would really like to see them change, the only way to be serious about that change is to work for an increase in the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage to a living wage would allow most of the people who now shop at Walmart out of necessity to shop elsewhere by choice. That in turn would force Walmart to improve the quality of product that it sells. That's about as close to a win-win situation as we might get in the retail world.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Why All Lives Matter

There has been a lot of talk lately about the truth that "black lives matter." While it is undeniably true that black lives matter, the slogan can be manipulated and distorted and so used to justify a system of ranking the value of human beings and leaving some with more value than others. Nothing could be further from the truth than a system which claims some people matter more than other people, but properly understood our economic system does precisely that. It always has.

During the period of heavy European immigration in the first half of the last century each new ethnic
group took its place in our slums, at the bottom of our socioeconomic ladder. When the next wave of immigrants came, they displaced the group at the bottom of the ladder and in doing so became the "most despised group." We can see evidence of this in the ethnic jokes of each region of our country. I was surprised to discover, when I moved from the Midwest to New England during the 1980s, that what had been Polish jokes in the Midwest were Irish jokes in New England. With those jokes came hatred, marginalization, a lack of opportunity, the belief that a certain group of people belonged at the bottom of the latter, and a very intentional memory lapse that seems to allow people to forget that they, too, had once inhabited the bottom rung on the socioeconomic ladder.

Sadly, in America as well as in other countries, people of color have inhabited the rungs of an even lower latter, a kind of sub-basement in American culture, however, that ladder functioned in much the same way as the European ladder, with each new group taking its place at the bottom and displacing the group that had previously occupied the bottom rung. In doing so, the new group became the object of scorn. It would seem to be a universal human need to reassure ourselves that we are acceptable by identifying a group that is not acceptable and persecuting them. The cycle repeats itself over and over, and I do not believe it will change until we identify it as a problem and show it to be maladaptive.

How are we to do this? How can we convince someone to surrender the very evidence of having arrived, no matter how small it might be, and choose instead to welcome the newcomer. It seems to
me that if we are going to be successful in dismantling the cycle of oppression, we are going to have to show the criteria by which we oppress the other to be false. In other words, we are going to have to show that cultural and ethnic differences are less important than our common humanity. The problem will be that many of us have been led to believe that those same cultural and ethnic differences are the only things that make us special. This has happened because it is the natural tendency of every oppressed group to transform the reason they have been oppressed into a cause for celebration. What was identified as unacceptable is now identified as perhaps the supreme virtue and becomes the basis upon which we exclude other oppressed groups. That thinking simply must be challenged. We must come to see that we are special by virtue of our common humanity. From a Christian religious perspective, we must come to see that the Incarnation makes all people special without exception. If we really want people to understand this, we are going to have to speak out against those religious and spiritual voices that set up other criteria as evidence that we are beloved. In that, we can expect some heavy resistance, especially from those who have gotten rich by telling others that wealth is a sign of God's favor.

There is obviously a lot of work to be done. But the work will not begin until those of us whose nature it is to remain silent and not rock the boat gather up the strength to speak out. We must shout from the rooftops a message of the fundamentally quality and value of all human beings, and speak just as clearly and loudly against any system which would propose anything different. We must
abandon the theological pursuits and talking points that have distracted us from the goal of lifting up the oppressed. Regardless of our tradition, we must loudly and clearly speaks the truth of God's preferential option for the poor and the disenfranchised. We must point out the responsibility that every person who claims to be a person of faith or spirituality bears by virtue of that very claim, the responsibility to dismantle the systems that perpetuate inequality no matter how much resistance we encounter or from whom those claims come. We must not be afraid to point out error where we see it, whether coming from those in power or from the oppressed. We cannot allow ourselves to be silenced by the false accusations that will surely come when we shake the tree in which those in power have hung their honeypot. It is powerful work that we are called to do, we will encounter much resistance, but it is the only path to freedom for all people.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Sins of the Father

The Bible, and other religious texts as well, contains a running discussion on exactly who is responsible for someones actions. Is it that person alone, or is the guilt for their actions passed on to future generations? Am I responsible for the sins of my father, or are they his alone? Can someone rightly ask my children to atone for my shortcomings?

For me, the interesting thing about these discussions is that there are really two questions at work in them. The first is a question of guilt, while the second is a question of responsibility. It is precisely to the extent that I can pass off responsibility for my actions to my progeny that I can avoid my own responsibility for my actions. I would assert that allowing me to slough off responsibility for my actions in fact encourages me to do things that I know to be wrong, while holding children responsible for the sins of their ancestors can put them in a place where they feel that there is no point in trying to do the right things because they were, essentially, born with a guilt load they can never overcome.

We might ask what, if anything other than certain genetic material, is passed from generation to generation. At what point, for example, do we stop identifying our ethnicity as being that of our ancestors. In my own case, I am a second generation American. Is my ethnicity American or still that of my grandparents, all of whom were American citizens even if they were not born here? Certainly whatever cultural influences that were present in my grandparents' homes - and I honestly cannot recall any, quite possibly because being of German heritage was rather unpopular during World War II - have long faded away. While I find myself sensitive to any American activity that resembles the concentration camps of my forebears, I cannot honestly say that I feel any personal responsibility for Auschwitz or Birkenau. After all, I wasn't born yet and my grandparents and their extended families were in the United States by that time.

What, then, of the idea that present day Americans hold some collective guilt for slavery - and, if there is collective guilt, does that translate into individual guilt? I believe that, in the same way I am uncomfortable with anything resembling a concentration camp, all Americans should rightly feel a collective responsibility for the fact that not only did we enslave people but we were not among the first nations to stop the practice. It should make us vigilant, perhaps even hyper vigilant, to the issues of modern day slavery to include human trafficking and the sex trade. That is a very different thing than believing that, individually, any person living in the 21st century is responsible for the moral failings of the 19th century and earlier in America. I cannot help but wonder - and I know that many people will disagree vehemently with me on this - if continuing to understand oneself as linked directly to ancestors five or more generations in the past and the horrific mistreatment they endured during their lives doesn't create a self-understanding that is inherently limited and limiting by inflicting a kind of false memory syndrome into my consciousness. That's not to say that people of color don't have experiences of oppression and abuse in present day America because they certainly do. What I am asking is if choosing to take on as my own the experiences of great-grandma and beyond doesn't in fact add to my load and leave me in a place of helplessness so great it is difficult if not impossible to overcome.

The truth is that most all of us, tracing our family histories back far enough, will find indentured servants in their family tree. In fact, between one half and two-thirds of white Europeans coming to America between 1630 and the American Revolution came as indentured servants - a precursor to slavery. What's more, indentured servants continued to exist in America until the early 1900s. I certainly don't mean to say that the two practices were the same, though similarities certainly existed, but rather that most of us can find relatives who were tied up and taken where they would rather not go. As an aside, there certainly seem to be forces within American politics who long to return to those days. I want to say quite clearly the we need to continue to talk about these things and to teach about them in schools so that we never forget the horrific things human beings are capable of inflicting on one another. I also want to say that if you are waiting for me to apologize for any of this, you are going to be disappointed.

In fact, I believe that if we are ever going to move forward we need to learn from our past and then redirect our focus on the present moment and what the future might hold. We simply cannot do that well if we keep looking over our shoulder and pining for what should have been different in the past. We can cry "hotep" all we want, but the past will not change. We can self identify as people of another heritage, but if we are third or fourth generation Americans the truth is that we are only deceiving ourselves when we do so. It's wonderful to hold on to our cultural heritage, but the fact is that were I to decide to move back to Germany tomorrow the fact that I don't speak the language would cause me to be seen not as a returning son but as a foreign immigrant.

Who, then, is responsible for my thoughts, beliefs, and behavior? Three people are - me, myself, and I. When I make a mistake, I should be held accountable. Should you try to hold my children accountable, they should call you out for the fool you are. I'll do the same if you try to hold me accountable for my father's behavior. As for the behavior of relatives whose name I don't know, I will doubtless laugh in your face. Don't take it personally, I do that whenever confronted with the absurd.

Monday, January 19, 2015

How To Know When You've Lost Your Mind

One way to know that you've lost either your effectiveness, your mind, or both is that you find yourself using sentences that are sweeping generalizations. They usually begin with the word "all," then identify a group of people, and finish by saying something these people should do that no sane person could possibly believe they ever will do. The more unlikely your prescription is, the crazier you may assume yourself to be.

Such was my reaction when I stumbled across a statement by someone whom I had previously believed a pretty intelligent and reasonable individual, despite the fact that he associates with some pretty crazy people, that declared that all white people should apologize for Ferguson, MO. You will notice this statement fails the crazy test in the paragraph above. Sadly, some moron immediately
encouraged this individual by apologizing - no doubt because she wants to get in this clown's good graces or into his bed, which in his case is only a shade of difference. The reason we all should apologize is that the media tend to interview a Muslim after a terrorist attack by Muslims. If you can't see the connection there, you aren't alone.

Declarations such as these are never productive, and when they are made by someone who is actually sober all they do is discredit the person making the statement. Even if it was a good idea, there is no way to get every person of any group of any kind to do anything. This means that if it's your intent to see your demand met, you are going to be disappointed. It's therefore reasonable to assume that, unless the speaker has had a recent traumatic brain injury, they really aren't looking for their demand to be met. Rather, they are attempting to accumulate more "evidence" that the group they are attacking is really quite unreasonable. The problem, actually one of the many problems, with statements like these is that they employ the very thought processes used by bigots in what is ostensibly an attempt to overcome bigotry. Surely we have learned by now that the tactic of the bigot is to reduce the hated group to a single, homogeneous entity that can then be dismissed. The formula, "all _________ are __________" is always intellectually lazy and so never contributes to a solution to any problem - yet here was someone who fashions himself a heavy duty player in social justice resorting to the very laziness so often utilized by the oppressor.

We need to call everyone involved in the important work of social justice to a higher standard than this kind of sensationalist drivel. If we are going to have substantive discussions, we need to recognize that inflammatory, formulaic nonsense doesn't lead to helpful dialogue. We also need to recognize that there are some people for whom substantive dialogue and progress is not a goal. These people seem to derive more pleasure from lurking safely out of harm's way while throwing gasoline on a fire. Their rhetoric is designed to divide rather than work toward healing, and very often they are people who have reached a point in their career where they are confronted with the truth that they will never be the big time player they imagined they would become. The result is that their bitterness turns them into a pointless agitator, only further cementing their position at the margins. It's really quite tragic, but not as tragic as when fools believe their nonsensical rhetoric and people get hurt needlessly.

Friday, January 16, 2015

To Whom Do Religious Precepts Apply?

It seems there is an awful lot of confusion these days about religious precepts and to whom they apply. We can see this in America among conservative Christians, who seem to feel that they have
the right to impose their religious perspectives on others. To be fair, however, it isn't only conservative Christians who have this problem it seems to be conservative believers of all traditions and, to a certain extent, conservative political figures as well. Where, precisely, this idea developed is a bit of a mystery.

In France last week, conservative Muslims staged two terrorist attacks, one at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and the other in a kosher supermarket. At the time of this writing, the second attack seems to have been carried out by friends of those who conducted the first attack. Therefore, the second attack may be seen as somewhat atypical and not germane to our discussion in this post. Presumably, the first attack was the result of a number of satirical cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo and directed at Islam. Some depicted the prophet Mohammed, which is prohibited under Islamic law. There are similar prohibitions in other traditions, perhaps the one most known to most Americans is the Jewish prohibition against images of God. We can see, then, that the idea of religious law that addresses the use of religious imagery is not uncommon. However, the publishers at Charlie Hebdo were not Muslim.

In America, we have seen a number of attempts by conservative Christian leaders and politicians,
both Protestant and Roman Catholic, to impose their religious worldview on the entire country under the guise of religious freedom. Under attack lately are issues of reproductive choice, including the use of birth control. It is important to note that even among conservative Christians whose tradition does not prohibit the use of contraception there have been attempts to make it more difficult for Americans to procure contraception. This would seem to mean that what is at issue here are not always specific views or teachings, but rather a desire to increase political power. That having been noted, there are also conservative elements within the Roman Catholic Church where contraception is prohibited working with conservative Christians for whom contraception is not a problem to make it less accessible for the public at large. Other contemporary issues toward which conservative Christians have attempted to flex their political muscles include marriage equality, the availability of health insurance, prayer in schools, gun ownership, and just about anything involving the use of one's genitals.

What makes both the situation in France and the situation in America more than a little absurd is the truth that religious laws and teachings are directed only at the adherents of that particular tradition. Just as the laws of Mexico do not apply to citizens of the United States, the laws of Islam and
Christianity do not apply to people not belonging to those two traditions. Perhaps more importantly, unlike civil laws, religious laws are generally understood to be unchangeable. Given that most religious laws were written literally thousands of years ago, many contemporary believers find that at least some of them no longer apply to contemporary culture. By and large, however, conservatives have felt the need to retain the ancient laws exactly as written. This creates no small amount of conflict in contemporary culture, and has resulted in the splintering of some traditions in the birth of newer, reformed branches of the same tradition.

Even among believers who understand their scriptures to be either written or revealed by God, there are disagreements about which precepts were intended only for the era in which they were written and which precepts were intended for all time. We can see, then, that even determining the meaning of a particular precept is not an easy task nor is it one that leads to unanimous agreement. This seems so blatantly obvious that one cannot help but wonder how even the most radicalized individual would believe they could achieve uniformity with in their tradition, much less outside of it. The answer lies not within the teachings or the tradition itself, but in the culture of fear and tribalism embedded deep within conservative religious traditions.

If I believe that my future throughout eternity is dependent upon my ability to convince as many people as possible or, worse yet, everyone I encounter that they must follow the teachings as my segment of my tradition understand them, it's not too hard to see how easily I might become terrified
of what the future holds. From such a perspective, confronted with an all but impossible task, dying while trying to achieve it seems preferable to eternal damnation. In this light, actions such as suicide bombings and terrorist attacks are slightly more understandable, despite not being rational. After all, fear is often not rational.

Many well-meaning people, seeking to end the violence inherent in terror attacks, wonder if we might not somehow appease the terrorists by censoring journalists, or prohibiting depictions of Mohammed, to cite but one example. When we consider that the mandate the fundamentalist believes he has been given is the total conversion of all people, we can see that half measures will not appease anyone. In fact, it may will be that half measures and concessions will only encourage these people. We would be much better served by engaging in frank and open discussions in the public arena on the subject of religious precepts, what freedom of religious practice really means, and the use of fear as a control mechanism in fundamentalist religious circles. Of course, fundamentalists will not be a party to these discussions, but the education of the public would go a long way to increasing understanding and decreasing the likelihood of offering concessions that will only make the situation worse.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

I Think Women Should be Naked

Their faces, that is. I think their faces should be naked. Don't you feel silly now? Maybe you clicked on the link coming here so that you could chew me a new asshole. You said to yourself, "what a sexist pig, I'll go show him a thing or two." On the other hand, maybe you're a man, trolling around the Internet with your pants around your ankles looking for pictures of naked women. You thought you'd find them here, didn't you? Pig! Aren't you ashamed? In fact, the truth is most of you probably came here looking for something other than what you found. Shame on all of you. You ought to head right over to church to confess your sins.

But I digress.

You see, all of this started when I read a Facebook post from a friend of mine just the other day. It
seems that there had been an incident at her child's school, and she had to go over there to pick her up because the weather was rather severe. She just left the house and went, and when she got there television cameras were present. She posted on Facebook that it was a terrible day to not be wearing any makeup because she was pretty sure that the cameras might have caught a glimpse of her. Now, this woman is really very pretty, and understands how to apply makeup so that it isn't conspicuous. I think we all know people who don't quite understand that, so they go out in public looking like a profoundly nearsighted 90-year-old woman who has applied her makeup in such a way that she looks most like a clown - but she has the excuse that she can't really see what she's done. Anyway, this Facebook post started me to thinking about the truth that we have a cultural expectation that women need to wear makeup in order to be attractive, and yet as a man I can stumble out the door just the way I am. We have similar double standards around weight, clothing, and just about anything else you can think of. How many times have we seen some Internet troll commenting on a famous woman who has gained some weight as if in doing so she had betrayed him personally as he sits in front of his computer guzzling another beer and resting the keyboard on his potbelly.

Of course, we all want to look our best. None of us stands before the mirror and says "oh yes, I look really bad today I think I'll head right out." Even the most hygienically impaired among us usually at least checks for crumbs on their face before leaving home. That's not the sort of thing I'm writing about. Rather, I am writing about this notion that anyone is somehow unacceptable just as they are. Don't get me wrong, some of you are ugly. I've seen your Facebook profile pictures, and I can only assume that you've chosen the most flattering one you could find, and some of you still frightened me. However, in all honesty, if that's how you really look then no amount of makeup in the world is going to fix it. All of the primping and pruning and spreading out your tail feathers won't disguise the fact that you been beaten with the ugly stick. So just head out the door. After all there is more to a person's attractiveness then just their physical appearance, but I believe that one of the reasons we don't see that is that we so seldom see half of the population's real appearance.

Now, as clergy, I admit I'm somewhat biased against makeup - not because of any particular religious
belief, but rather because some of you show up on Sunday morning looking more than a little kabuki theater and that stuff is hard to get out of clergy robes. All kidding aside, the cosmetics industry worldwide grosses $160 billion a year, and Americans spend more on cosmetics than we do on education. That means that we spend more on creating false appearances then we do on expanding our minds, and that should frighten all of us. When you add to that the $12 billion a year we spend on cosmetic surgery, the picture becomes even more dismal. I certainly don't want to become involved in that most detestable game of blaming the victim, but if women really want men to respect them for who they are it might help to stop showing us someone other than who you are. I will readily admit that you probably feel pressure from men and society at large to conform to appearance expectations, but the pressure only works if you cave in. On the other hand, maybe there is some sort of huge secondary gain involved in going through all of this effort to alter your appearance rather than insisting you be respected as you are. I suppose that is a decision everyone has to make for themselves. As for me, I say, "get naked!"

Monday, January 12, 2015

Love But Not Like

Have you ever known someone whom you loved but didn't really like? These people tell us more about love than the most passionate love affair, because they draw us into what
love really is - caring for another in such a way that you want to see them achieve their full potential in every sense of the word, but especially spiritually. This also gives us a sense of what Jesus (and other teachers) meant when he told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He wasn't telling us to become the neighborhood Lothario, he was telling us to not only want what's best for others but also to help them achieve it to whatever extent we are able. Obviously, achieving full potential is largely the work of the individual involved, but often there are opportunities to help them along the way - whether they appreciate those opportunities or not. Tough love falls into this category. We may absolutely despise the behaviors we see in our loved one and make the decision that the only way they are going to have any chance to mature enough to become more whole is to create some distance between us. Often times in these situations the tough decision is the only way we will get some sanity for ourselves, as well. They of course won't like our decision, and we may well get called all sorts of names in the process, but it's a small price to pay for a move toward wholeness on all sides.

I know of a family where the adult son stole his mother's pain medication, initially lied
about it, then admitted it but only because it was clear he did it, then threatened suicide and was hospitalized. In the hospital he claimed that his mother taught him to abuse substances, which was untrue, and so got himself released in a couple of days and avoided any meaningful treatment. Now, a year later and no longer living at home, he cannot understand why the family has problems trusting him. There is in this person a refusal to take responsibility for his actions, and the only way he is going to learn to take responsibility for his actions is to be forced to do so by living on his own - and that's what this family finally did a few months ago. In truth, we have a generation of young adults who struggle to take responsibility for their actions and often fail to move forward with their lives because they have been taught that people are rewarded no matter what they do by a culture that has decided that low self esteem results from failure. Nonsense! Low self esteem results from only being valued when you succeed, not from failing! Good God, if we weren't valued because we didn't win the occasional game nobody would be valued, because we all lose the occasional game!

These lessons transfer very well to romantic love, and are just as important there as in
child rearing. What should I want from my loved one? Our culture tells us I should expect that they meet my every need without regard for their own. That's tripe, and it's the result of a culture of narcissism. If I really love my partner, I will want them to achieve their full potential - especially spiritually, because spiritual fulfillment is the only path to lasting happiness independent of external circumstance. In turn, my partner will want to the same for me. Who wouldn't want what's best for someone who wants what's best for them, absent serious pathology? Who wouldn't feel loved by a partner who supports them to become fulfilled and happy? Who wouldn't return the favor? We might say that even the most selfish person in the world should be selfless, because that's the best way to ensure they get what they want!

We so often settle for less, equating an orgasm to being loved. We look for a servant
rather than a partner, a prostitute rather than a lover, a minion rather than an equal - and then we wonder why we are dissatisfied in our relationships. We imagine every moment will be just like the movies - which are, after all, fiction. Then our partner farts under the covers and our dreams are shattered, never mind that we, too, pass the occasional gas at inopportune moments. We tend to get wrapped up in the incidental insults so much that it seems we crave them, yet overlook that fact that our partner offers us space to pursue our interests and dreams. We care about whether they wear designer clothes or perfume while ignoring the sacrifices they make on our behalf every day. Worst of all, we care more about the shape of their bodies than the shape of their spirit and the size of their hearts. Then, after all of that, we decide that we deserve better. We may just have that backwards. It may well be they who deserve better.

Could it be that the person most in need of our tough love is ourselves? Might we make,
in the parlance of Alcoholics Anonymous, a fearless moral inventory of ourselves and discover than we aren't the flawless prince or princess our mommies told us we were - and that, despite that, we are still pretty darn lovable? Might we give up our fairy tale fantasies, and come to see that even fairy tales don't always work out as we are told they should? Might we come to see that in the daily grind of real life there are moments we like each other and moments we aren't so sure, yet those feelings are transient and mean nothing in terms of a lasting life together? I believe that if we can do that we may well escape the fantasy world of love our culture has created and replace it with a much more realistic love of mutual responsibility, caring, growth, fulfillment, and happiness. We would treat each other with dignity and respect while treating ourselves with more humility than hubris. That's a revolutionary vision, but it's one that will actually work if we have the courage to apply it.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Terrorism on Behalf of God

The terrorist attacks in Paris this week at the offices of Charlie Hebdo raise yet again the issue of safety in the 21st century. Unlike most other terrorist attacks, this one also raises the issues of censorship, freedom of the press, the safe and effective use of satire, and the role of religion in society. As usual in situations like this, opinions are not in short supply, also, as is typical of situations such as this, a great number of those opinions are rather ill-informed.

First and foremost, I believe it is important to state quite clearly that fundamentalist expressions of religion are always perversions of both the intent and the teachings of the founders of religious traditions. In other words, there is no such thing as a legitimate fundamentalist expression of any of the great historic religious traditions. Fundamentalism, as its name implies, seeks to reduce the great historic religions from their great inherent, nuanced complexity to four or five bullet points that are easily remembered and serve a political, rather than a spiritual, agenda. Such a reduction to the point of absurdity lends itself easily to the mindset behind terrorist attacks, racism, bigotry, hatred, and the persecution of those least able to defend themselves.

In the aftermath of this truly horrific attack, some have questioned the wisdom of the kind of satire and critique used by the publishers at Charlie Hebdo. It seems to me, however, that the legitimacy of a particular form of expression cannot be determined on the basis of whether or not it elicits a violent response. Criticizing Islam, contrary to some things I have read, "is not the same as yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. It is wrong to yell "fire" in a crowded theater because doing so puts the patrons of the theater in immediate danger. Satire, on the other hand, creates only the possibility of danger and that is a very different thing, indeed.

One thing is certain, capitulating to the demands of terrorists only produces more terrorists with more demands. As tragic as loss of life always is, I do not believe those who worked at the offices of Charlie Hebdo were unaware of the danger inherent in the kind of work they did. This can be clearly seen by the fact that the offices had a police presence within them at all times. I do not believe that it would be wise to get into the business of stopping people from pursuing their passion simply because that passion is dangerous, or because someone might object to it and so engage in violent attacks because of it.

Equally ill-advised are those who would paint Islam with a broad brush in light of terrorist attacks. Most who would do so suffer from either an anti-religious bias or a kind of Christian xenophobia that reflects the same kind of fundamentalist perspective that leads to terrorist attacks themselves. In short, to say that we must eliminate the legitimate expression of the distorted religious perspective held by the terrorists is to engage in the same kind of thinking that motivated their attack in the first place. It is the kind of false logic that Americans seem to love and that is seen clearly in our criminal justice system and our refusal to abolish the death penalty. It is not possible to make a clear and unequivocal statement that something is wrong by engaging in the very behavior one seeks to show is wrong.

Perhaps what lies at the root of many of the knee-jerk responses to this tragedy is the steadfast Western refusal to come to terms with death. Those who worked at Charlie Hebdo clearly believed in what they were doing, clearly knew the risks involved, and chose to do it nevertheless. They understood that there are some things worth dying for, despite living in a culture that is so fearful of death it seeks to sanitize it and hide it away in nursing homes and funeral parlors. The truth is that one day each of us will die, and all of the denial in the world will not change that fact. We must ask ourselves whether it is better to die while trying to flee death or to die while living our lives to the full, consistent with our beliefs and having an understanding of the purpose of our lives. It seems to me that the latter holds far more dignity.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Curious Case of Merit

I have to confess that I struggle with the Buddhist notion of merit, the idea that spiritual practice or contributing money to spiritual causes generates merit that impacts one's karmic circumstance. Even more curious is the idea that merit I generate can be reassigned simply at my request, though who might actually keep the books on this is a bit unclear to me. The Universe? The great karmic gods? To be honest, it reminds me of the curious Roman Catholic practice of indulgences, which can be acquired by engaging in certain spiritual practices or giving money to a specific cause. Presumably, those indulgences can either be applied to shorten the time the practitioner - or their designee - spends in purgatory. At least here the alleged merit banker is identified as the Church, which presumably then gives instructions to God which God is bound to obey.

Huh?

It's not that I can't believe that things we do are in and of themselves meritorious, at least in the sense that we and/or others might benefit from them. I think the benefit in such situations is clear. I also
support the idea of choosing not to take advantage of the merit one has accumulated as an exercise in humility, a quality of which our world is in decidedly short supply. It's what I call the commodification of merit that leaves me a little flat, along with the sometimes subtle but more often blatant manipulation of practitioners by spiritual teachers and centers around the idea of merit that borders on spiritual extortion that I find hard to swallow. In its Roman Catholic expression, these kinds of behaviors - specifically the selling of indulgences - contributed in no small way to the Protestant Reformation. In Buddhism, it manifests in year end reminders of the opportunity to build merit through contributions (not to mention tax benefits, which tend to not be mentioned). If it seems to you that there are only shades of difference between the two approaches, I would agree.

Of course, to be fair, there are special practices on special days in Buddhism that are seen to be especially meritorious, just as in small "c" catholic Christianity there are special holy days of obligation and other, non-obligatory holy days when God is allegedly especially tickled if you drag your butt to church. Lest Protestants get too giddy about not being guilty of this sort of thing, the so-called prosperity gospel is a prime example of this sort of thinking, and you New Thought people with your Law of Attraction aren't very far behind, if just a wee bit more subtle in your marketing.

It's one thing to say that if our time together has generated any merit we would like to dedicate it to the benefit of all beings. Such an attitude doesn't sound as if we are barking orders to God, to the universe, to the karmic gods, or to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It has some humility to it. It's quite another to say, in so many words, "cash in now, the moon is full," or whatever the special event might be. Perhaps I've been jaded by too many people being manipulated for too long, or perhaps I am inherently suspicious of claims that are made without any sort of explanation or identification of the agent who will carry them out. For my part, we would do much better to leave all of that hocus pocus behind and focus on teaching that doing good has an inherent benefit of its own and so requires no reward. That's a spiritually mature perspective that transcends the self-centeredness so often involved in accumulating merit, indulgences, or prosperity. In other words, do right simply because its right, and don't ask for a reward.

On the other hand, if you aren't convinced then I must tell you that it is especially meritorious to send me money, regardless of your spiritual tradition. You may assign the merit from your contribution to whomever you wish. I will handle the details.