Monday, January 27, 2014

Our Interfaith Future

The Pew Research Center has been tracking religious hostilities around the world since 2007. They have just published a report that found that a third of the 198 countries and territories that were studied in 2012 had a high or very high level of social hostilities related to religion.  That is the highest share in the six years that they have been looking into hostile acts that are the result of religious belief.  Their conclusion? The incidence of violence based on religion whether carried out by private individuals, organizations or groups has increased in every major region of the world except the Americas.

….Except the Americas. 

Maybe, just maybe the interfaith relations work that some have been doing in this country, in every major metropolitan area, and in many middle size and small communities since 9/11 is paying off.  In just over a decade, maybe, just maybe, small groups of people intentionally trying to make a difference in lots and lots of places, have…

Eboo Patel talks in his book Sacred Ground about how in the not so distant past interfaith work was led by and the passion of an older generation. 

Who leads interfaith work and how it is led is changing.  Patel and many others are telling us it is all about creating relationships.  A younger generation is eager for relationships, rather than debate.  They are more and more comfortable with diversity and with friends, loved ones, colleagues who are multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and bring along to their circles of community a rich variety of religious experiences and exposures.

We keep hearing that the “nones”, those who express no affiliation with or loyalty to a particular religious institutions as did the generations before them…think of themselves as no less “spiritual”.   They are not particularly interested in building churches, but they are very interested in spiritually themed conversations.  And they are not satisfied in monolithic or one world-view answers… 

The future is interfaith.

Seven years ago or so, when I first began having conversations that would eventually lead to my becoming the minister at the last church I served some there told me in no uncertain terms that I must be involved in interfaith work.  What those same folks did not know is that UU ministers, at the time, were also hearing strong suggestions that we should all be involved in interfaith work. 

The first week I arrived I called the coordinator of the Interfaith Alliance of Eastern Carolina and offered to help do whatever she needed.  Secretly reluctant, openly humanist, yet a person who finds value in doing some things she is told to do, I helped with management type details that needed to be done in the background.  I sat, once a month, with people who were liberals from a variety of Christian denominations, people who were Hindu, Muslim, Sufi, Baha’i, Quaker and Jewish.  I listened to them quote or pray from the resources supplied by their faith traditions; scriptures, prayerbooks, etc.  It was like a cacophony to me, a tower of babel, prayers and quotes, and sometimes songs…all shared to bring peace, to plead for peace, to tell us that peace would come because it was pre-ordained, that peace would come because our energies merged, that peace would come because we petitioned God, or because it was mandated by the prophet…  I listened, often ill at ease, sometimes bored.  I rarely said very much.

This interfaith group had begun as a response to 9/11.  The monthly gathering, held somewhere, often arranged by me, every month except November was called Prayers for Peace.  Other than the yearly Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, that is all we did together.  And it was always in a Quaker style format.  There was a lot of silence.    

It wasn’t enough for me.  It wasn’t enough for the new rabbi in town either.  Shortly after we had both arrived in this new place for us, we asked to add a ‘learning about each other” conversation to follow the time for prayer.
We proposed that one faith community representative each month share the details of their tradition, followed by questions.  It was within these gatherings over time where I learned that these people wanted not only to share about who they were, what they held to as most worthy in their faith traditions, sharing what they most trusted in life, but they wanted to know the same sorts of things about me. I was thrilled that when I began to tell them, them seemed to really welcome what I had to say…

This group, I had been told to be a part of, became a place that made a difference in my life, in my spiritual life and in my profession life.

Learning and growing in relationship with each other, we all began to think about who was not present.  We invited indigenous (native) Americans to join us, and neo-pagans, even a few agnostics…

By the end of the 5+ years I was with them, our annual Thanksgiving Day services had gotten better and better and even more diverse, led by those of us who knew each other and now cared a lot that all had a place at the table.  The monthly Prayers for Peace still happened, but was always followed by themed sharing where relationships were created and nurtured. 

This morning I want you to consider that the future is interfaith.  And I don’t necessarily mean that you have to get involved with the organized interfaith efforts in this community.  Although that is good thing to do.  Yet, what I most mean is that conversations about the age old themes: grace, forgiveness, suffering, peace, salvation, justice will move out of church buildings…and into the streets, into living rooms and the cyber social gathering places.  Perhaps more importantly these conversations will be among groups of would-be friends that don’t all look the same or speak the same, or dress the same, or like the same food…

And acts of faith will be less about maintaining an institution and more about using whatever vehicle facilitates the sort of conversations that create and sustain understanding, appreciation, relationship and finds commonality amidst diversity.

And I will be bold enough to also say to you that what we think of now as faith tradition, in our case often termed “our living tradition”, will become more be a kind of “street” knowledge, a body of wisdom that anyone anywhere can tap into and live by. 

This every day spiritual wisdom will be what will be known to “work” to make life richer, less lonely, less isolating, less hostile and more peaceful and it won’t belong only to this or that group.  It will be “common” knowledge among a diversity of people the world over.

What I would like to share with you as well… is that what I am talking about already exists, and has existed within every major world religion since the dawn of time.  The collections of “street” or “common” knowledge that are known as wisdom sayings, or what scholars and those who study world religions call “wisdom literature” is in every major body of “scripture”.  Around for ages, there is already a broad collection of all the practical stuff that works to make life go better embedded in scripture the world over. 

What qualifies as wisdom?   The 17th Century poet and linguist Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said; "Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom."    

The dictionary defines “wisdom” what gives one the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting.  It is insight.  Wisdom is common sense and good judgment.  Henry David Thoreau said "It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things"   It is the sum of learning through the ages.  It is the wise teaching of the ancient sages. 

Maya Angelou points out that this body of knowledge is often oral, passed down from grandmothers and fathers to children again and again as short and often pithy sayings.  She says; "In those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations" 

The thing about interfaith conversations that is so wonderful is that while learning about a person or a group of person who are different from you, you can see or hear things that they may be so immersed in they can’t see as clearly as you might.   It is like, how fish are probably not aware of the water they swim in. 

In the Book of Acts, we are told that "Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds." (Acts vii. 22.)  

Did he go to interfaith dialogues!   At least he studied the water, the culture he was in, even though he was not Egyptian, he learned from the wisdom they knew, soaking up what was valuable and constructive from their collective common sense.  It caused him to be mighty in words and deeds! 

Sometimes it is the “stranger” the one not native to a particular place, who can best hear or see the wisdom of a place, of a people, of a culture. 

Wisdom is, as my grandmother liked to say, more than “book learning”.  Being wise means one has the ability to combine knowledge with practical application. 

It has been shown in survey after survey that we UU’s are among the most knowledgeable (meaning book learned) group of church folk in America.  But are we also wise?  Could someone come into our midst and learn all they need to know to live peaceful, relational lives?  …to be mighty in word and deed?

Our third source says that our living tradition draws from the wisdom of the world's religions to inspire us in our ethical and spiritual lives.  How familiar are you with the wisdom literature from the world’s religions?  I know that some of us have immersed ourselves in learning/practicing Buddhism, and/or different forms of Paganism. Some of you are attracted to Hinduism, or know a lot about Quakers, or Judaism.

A long time ago, I became fascinated with wisdom literature. At first what made it so interesting to me, was how you could find various world religions personifying wisdom as the feminine aspect of God.  Sophia was the wise woman who was understood to be the consort, and the necessary compliment, to the father god.  Perhaps the archetype is often female because wisdom is almost always related to the practical and heartfelt aspects of life, and not so much the removed or esoteric.  Wisdom literature as well is concerned with the day to day, and not so much with the dramatic course of history. 

In Proverbs, what goes on in the family, in the kinship system and in society is the topic, again and again.  Proverbs is concerned with day to day practicalities.  It is focused on the ordering of routine life, on how a life can be made good and living prosperous.  Do this and you will have a good life.  Do this and we will all get along.  A stitch in time saves nine. 

The wisdom writings in the Bible, (Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, the Book of Job) are not unlike more secular types of conventional wisdom, (like the wisdom saying that Benjamin Franklin was so fond of).  The Wisdom literature in the Bible is not interested in telling Israel’s story.  It is not concerned with the covenants or promises made between God and man, nor does it have any thing to say about a God who acts to direct the course of history.  Wisdom literature does not claim to be a product of divine revelation.  It is grounded instead in the observation of and reflection upon human experience.  Wisdom literature whether in the Bible or found in other world religions is always the result of insight based on experience.  Its aim is always a self-evident universal truth, that which we often call common sense.

Sometimes wisdom literature is composed of short sayings, like those found in the Tao-te-ching.  Sometimes it is written as if it is one person’s insight into a particular human problem, such as the story of the unjust suffering found in the Book of Job.  Whatever form it takes, it is always, as Marcus Borg says in Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, “crystallized experience - compact insights about how to live generated by long experience of the world.”  All wisdom literature says ‘this is what life is like, and take it from me, this message will help you on your journey’.
My purpose in bringing this up at all, is to offer wisdom literature as a touch point for learning about the sacred writings of other religions, for appreciating what makes the person who seems so different from you tick.  What others consider to be sacred writings or sources are not all fantastical mystery and tales of miracles.    

Have you read Ecclesiastes lately?

It is a cynic’s delight focused on the shortness of life and how random what befalls us is.  Life live to the fullest, my friend, cause you don’t get long. Que Sera Sera. Whatever will be, will be.  What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” …so let’s keep dancing… 

The collections of common sense sayings from the body of the world’s religions, all of them, not just the cynical ones, have an ingredient that is often missing from secular wisdom.  You can’t read wisdom from the world’s religions without recognizing that they all say in one way or another that life isn’t is as simple as knowing the right things to do and simply doing them.  This wisdom says that life is much more complex than that. 

Religious wisdom does not offer a collection of answers to be followed by the uninitiated.  It is rather it is a collection, a compendium of the world’s “ah ha’s”.  What worked for some community and what might point the way to what might work for others.

All of the wisdom literature from the world’s religions ultimately says that it isn’t just about following wise sayings, we must open ourselves and be vulnerable to the engagement with life. 
Becoming wise is not just finding the answer to "what should I do in a given situation", it is rather a raising the question of "what kind of person should I be?"

Huston Smith in his book The World’s Religions, tells this story about the Buddha.

"In his later years, when India was afire with the Buddha's message and kings themselves were bowing before him, people came to him even as they were to come to Jesus asking what he was. (Not many people provoke this question - not 'who are you' with respect to name, origin or ancestry, but 'what are you?')

When the people carried their puzzlement to the Buddha himself, the answer he gave provided a clue to his understanding of wisdom.  ‘Are you a God? they asked. An angel? A Saint? No. Then what are you?’ The Buddha answered,  "I am awake."

Being awake, alive, fully interconnected with all is the essence of religious wisdom. At the moment we awaken to others who are in this world with us as human beings of worth and dignity we awaken to ourselves – to our human, finite, vulnerable, imperfect selves interconnected with all that is and ever has been.  

Everything we need to know and our children need to know, and the generations that come after us need to live peaceful and good and prosperous lives is not found in one monolithic world view.  Learn from being in relationship with all that is and all who are, as did Moses, and you and your children and your children’s children will become mighty in word and in deed.
Amen.  Blessed be.
Assay - let the people make it so.
Namaste - the light in me salutes the light in you.

Shalom.  A Salaam Aleichem.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Jesus for UU's

Jesus for UU’s , Rev. Ann Marie Alderman, 1/19/2014

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, "Love your enemies." It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies. (from "Loving Your Enemies")”

― Martin Luther King Jr., A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

How many of you are familiar with the painting of Jesus in a white robe, with shoulder length brown wavy hair? In the painting I am referring to he has pale skin, a neatly trimmed beard, a sharp nose, thin lips, high cheek bones… He is looking out and up at something in the distance…

500 million copies of this portrait of Jesus are estimated to be in circulation. It has been said that it is the most common religious image in the world. For decades, especially in this country, this portrait was everywhere. It hung in nearly every Christian church, nearly every Christian child’s bedroom…and in living rooms. It was in the pockets of soldiers going off to war... in was in hospitals and offices, It hung in many school rooms, even in sandwich shops….everywhere!

According to Stephen Prothero who wrote American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, the image meant to depict Jesus became Jesus…at least in the minds of many, many Americans. …in the minds of women, men, children, no matter what color they were… they knew what Jesus looked like.

The portrait and the person it represents, became one and the same. When that happened Jesus was no longer “belonged” to the institutional church founded upon his legacy. He no longer belonged to this or that worshiping congregation. Rather, the Jesus (the man we really “know” only a tiny amount of information about) became someone familiar and instantly recognizable to anyone and everyone. The man, the Son of God, the Savior, the Christ, previously known primarily through the interpretive lens of the various Christian faith traditions, became everyone’s always available superhero.

The portrait meant to make us think about the person known to us through the books of the New Testament, became the hero one need not study the bible to know…and know well.

The image created by an illustrator for a marketing campaign became an icon…and helped further what some call the “Jesus-only-religion”. Individuals with no relationship with a faith community could love, adore, feel good about their relationship with, appeal to, ask favors of, claim to know this Jesus. Our Unitarian forebears played a part in the creation of this distinctly American phenomena: Jesus standing alone, separate from God, separate from the church, separate from the history of doctrine and dogma…. This Jesus, Jesus as icon, as an always available superhero, could take on whatever form the dominant American popular culture needed him to.

Even as the golden haired, savior with the Northern European features started to be replaced by a diversity of images that reflected the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society that began to come forth as early as the 1960’s, little to nothing about those images had anything to do with the “real” Jesus.

So he looked like what we needed him to.

Yet if he was so mutable, so able to change his features to suit what we needed him to be…was there any “truth” there?

You could find a black Jesus, a muscular Jesus, a hippie, Jesus with a creepy “come-hither” look, and on and on. There is even a famous painting of a black “female” Jesus.

It was still rare for any of the newer images of Jesus to have much or anything to do with who or what he might have looked like or any of the many understandings of who he was for his first century followers….

Skeptics wondered if there was any truth to be found. Is it all made up? If it is, is it alright for any of us who care to, to just pick out what we need to be true?

How could some UU's in the light of this sort of skepticism call themselves Christian?  Why would some UU’s secretly or even boldly…if they dared…claim to be UU and Christian?

Aren’t we the reasonable people who search for the truth?

(You know these days, it just didn't happen if there is no video evidence!

Look on the cover of your order of service!

Not very long very forensic anthropologists decided to find “the truth”. They gathered data from skeletal remains from Jesus’ time frame and where he was raised. Then they used computer graphics and all the latest technology to create an image that is the best we can “accurately” show what Jesus and the people of his time and situation looked like.

What do you think?

How do you feel about this guy?

Is this a Jesus you could admire?

I am guessing this image might be shocking for some of you. Or maybe it isn’t because you stopped thinking about Jesus a long time ago. You never believed so much of what seemed so unbelievable about the guy…and any relationship with him is in the distant past. Or you never had a relationship with him in the first place.

But maybe you wonder if there is something there. …especially when you admire people like Martin Luther King, Jr.. who found something immensely powerful in the example of this guy…. And how he lived.

No matter how we might feel ….Jesus won’t go away…

In the pamphlet “The Faith of a UU Christian” the Rev. Stephen Kendrick says; “Nothing has ever been simple about Jesus. He confounded and confused people in his own time, and so it is no wonder UU’s today are still wrestling with him, his message, and the tradition that claims him as a God.”

He goes on to say; “…I believe that people who are attracted to a place of free faith, spiritual seeking, and non-dogmatic religion have much to gain by grappling with the legacy of this teacher whose power and charisma seem undimmed from two thousand years ago.”

I’m sharing this image of Jesus to try to shake you up. If I can get some kind of reaction out of you….maybe, just maybe …we can move together into a space where we can get some distance from our assumptions…about what we have been taught in the past or what we vaguely assume we know…

Some space in which to move away from where we have been, to stand in the in-between…

It is this space….where you may be able to give your religious imagination some freedom…freedom to move…..

To get there you’ve got to smash some idols…

For, even though they can and do serve great purposes….they can also obscure our perception of the “real thing”…

Icons, created by humans to point to the sacred, can become the sacred. It is like mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.

We come from a religious tradition that guards against that. Those Unitarians that had a hand in creating Jesus as the American Icon, meant well by cutting and pasting the gospels…taking out all the unbelievable miracles, removing all the inconsistencies…removing what couldn’t be true according to their understanding of reality. They were smashing idols.

We have some of our own to destroy…

Many of us of a certain background or of a particular generation did that with Christianity. It couldn’t be the faith for us, because too much was unbelievable…didn’t ring true.

Jesus may be making a comeback.

Jesus may be making a comeback among UU’s.

This forensic anthropologist rendering you have in your hand depicts a simple, working class man.

This rendering you have in your hand may be quite nearly accurate…

If it is, or if it might be…does that make a difference for you?

Nothing has ever been simple about Jesus. There is very, very little “proof”, other than accounts written by those who believed in him, that he even existed.

What he might mean to you, or to the person sitting next to you is and probably always will be a matter of faith. The holy work we ought to be doing is not precluding what our faith journeys might move us to believe. What we ought to be doing is freeing ourselves from whatever keeps us stuck in place. Sometimes, we get stuck in the business of rejecting what doesn’t sound right or feel logical. Searching for what feels right and what brings love and justice is important spiritual work. UU’s have for too long gotten stuck in the place of rejecting the unbelievable miracles of Christianity. We have for too long gotten stuck in the place of rejecting the unreasonable doctrines and dogmas of Christianity.

The work that we ought to be doing is not just freeing ourselves, but also moving into a place where once freed we then can creatively imagine what new symbols or not yet seen images might better channel our spiritual yearnings.

Martin Luther King, Junior was a good-looking man.  He was a fabulous preacher.  But adoring him is like mistaking the finger for the moon.

What if Jesus looked like a common, rough working man? What if his hair was unwashed, his skin ruddy from too much sun. What if his nose and his brow were thick?

Would you adore him? Want to hear what he has to say?

What if this man in this picture said to you: “Did you feed the hungry? Visit the widows? Go see the prisoners?”

Would you find a way not to listen? …not to see? …not to do what is asked of you?