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Monday, April 9, 2018

Why the right words never come

In the beginning was the logos--the word.

Written or spoken, a word is a symbol. As an aural stimulus, or as a visual stimulus, a word represents some thing other than the sound it makes on the eardrum or the squiggles on the page.

But words are more than a system of signs. They are a means of connecting minds, a pact between sender and receiver.
Logos: the word

Thus, spoken and written words are actions when they are received, and create a relationship between separate minds.

Kurt Vonnegut, writer, wit, and sometime Unitarian, said that reading a book was in effect 'meditating with the mind of another' and thus one of the most intimate relationships we separate selves can ever have. In reading (or hearing--yay audiobooks!) the logos, the words, of another, we surrender to the writer, allowing him or her to restructure our inner world, to create moods, thoughts, ideas, imagery. Reading literally generates an imagined world, full of real-feeling sensations, for a time. At the beginning of the world was the word, says John.

Words allow us to connect with the mind of another
The imagined inner world made by the connection between writer/speaker and reader/listener does not remain as vivid over time as when we are actually reading or listening in the moment, But it leaves traces in the neural pathways. Repeated encounters with the author builds up these traces in something like sedimentary layers. Reading or listening repeatedly thus changes you. So it makes sense to be selective about what you read or listen to over and over and over.

The logos thus assumes a bond of trust. Perhaps this is why every world religion comes down hard on bearing false witness (lying)--which breaks the logos' fidelity to the truth. They also come down hard on gossip, slander, etc.--words that can wound the tender mind of the one who has given their attentiveness to read or to listen.

So just be careful with them
It thus behooves anyone who would deal in words to offer words which are both true and kind. Or at least not untrue, and not unkind.

Words are actions. Words establish relationship.

In my work, I deal chiefly in logos:

I write.
I correspond.
I read aloud.
I preach.
I dialogue one-on-one.
I discuss in groups.

Funny when you look at them for what they are
In so doing, there is a constant search for the right words in each situation. True and kind, or not untrue and not unkind.

This full-time mental google-search reminds me of the myth of Tantalus, whose punishment was to stand neck-deep in a river under a fruit tree for eternity. Each time he bent over to drink water to slake his thirst, the water receded. Each time he reached for the fruit to fill his hungry belly, the branches of the tree lifted out of his reach.

Searching for the logos is a lot like Tantalus...
The exact, perfect, 'just right' words never come. The words of life that end the existential hunger and thirst. They never will. They do not exist, because they're only symbols for a world just beyond our reach. I have had to learn to live with their fundamental inadequacy.

With apologies and respect to my comrades who would dethrone the logos and replace it with silence, the answer to the limitations of words is not to remove them from worship. There is no silent meditation in existence whose context is not framed by words ('just breathe', 'let thoughts come and go', 'imagine a big ball of warm sunlight in your stomach...'). The answer to the limitations of words is not to ladle on more words through 'open discussion', like some directionless university dorm-room bull session (which verbal soup produces a white noise of multidirectional logos, and encourages competitiveness).

The answer is there's no escape from on-going discernment around the words we use to worship. Understanding that the logos is not what it describes, but is a living word-- it can be fine-tuned, clarified, interrogated, rewritten and resaid. The Logos is not insurance form boilerplate or Apple terms and conditions. The Logos opens like the lotus and invites connection. It does not close off and regulate.

We have to start somewhere. In the beginning was the word.

So it pays to be selective about who you read, listen to, talk with. Every word creates relationship. Every word is a feeble attempt to bridge the gap of our solitudes, a leap of faith that we can make ourselves known to another and feel we are no longer completely separate selves locked in the first-person kingdom of our own skulls. Everyone uses words; not everyone uses them well. You become the words that occupy and shape your mind. Not everyone deserves to be allowed into it.

Besides Vonnegut, I have meditated rather a lot with the mind of the poet T.S. Eliot, who put the problem (rather brilliantly) like this:

“So here I am...
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate - but there is no competition -
There is only the fight to recover what has been lostAnd found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

And so lately, when I am trying to offer comfort to one of my pastoral charges. Or when I am trying to encourage a young leader trying to get a new fellowship off the ground. Or even when I'm trying to tell my wife how utterly in love with her I am...I have to do more than be still (important though that is).

I have to bloody well say something.

Something true and kind, or at least not untrue and not unkind, something that will never be the magic spell we want it to be, wish it could be, or even expect or demand it to be.

But to keep reaching, keep discerning, and like Tantalus, accepting that the reaching is all there is.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Art of the Swap

I will shortly be engaging in what is called a 'pulpit swap'. With a difference.

Normally, it's a straight-up like-for-like exchange. I go to another church; that church's minister comes to mine. And we do each other's jobs for an agreed length of time.

In my case, the minister I'm swapping with is retired and so has no permanent ministry. He has instead arranged for me to provide 'preaching breaks' for three congregations in the UK: Leeds, Glasgow, and York. My congregation gets three consecutive services provided by the retired minister and his wife.

Thus, my geographically isolated-congregation will get a rather deeper experience with a highly experienced minister, and this geographically-isolated, mid-career minister (me) gets a rather less deep experience, but of a variety of congregations.

This is therefore a win-win. My congregation, which has had me consistently for 6.5 years, gets another deep experience of Unitarian ministry in a place where there just aren't any. I get a breadth of experience that cannot be afforded in Australia. It should be educative for everyone.

I have not been on a UK pulpit since Dean Row in 2011. My congregation has not had a Unitarian minister other than me since 2010. Much water has, as they say, been passed under the bridge during these years since. I have changed and adapted to the local context. The local context has adapted to me. It's easy to get stuck in our perceptions of what constitutes the Unitarian experience and Unitarian ministry's shaping of that experience. The swap should address that by providing much-needed perspective for both me and my charges,

What about the three congregations I'm visiting? Since I'm only at each for one service, what might they have to gain? "Einmal is Keinmal" as the Germans say. "Only once is never" Or, that which only happens once, might as well never have happened at all. So is this swap a waste of time for them? They are not, as many UK churches are, lacking for ministry. Two of them are run by awesome permanent ministers; one is lay-led, but has retired ministers in the congregation who take services.

So in their door blows an odd species--an Australian minister who doesn't sound it, whose ministry has developed in a context very different from theirs. What can this offer?

First, variety certainly, and at the very least they won't be as easily able to sit back and let the familiar sensory and cognitive experience of their accustomed service wash over them. They will have to engage afresh, learn to listen to a new way of thinking and delivering. Kind of like reading a book by an unfamiliar author--you might never read the author again, but once will have stretched you some.

Second, the swap can offer a handy preaching break for chronically over-worked ministers. No one who doesn't grind out freshly-baked worship on a weekly basis can have the least idea of how welcome that might be.

Third, they're not just getting a peripatetic minister, a wandering preacher, I. They're also getting the Unitarian brand ambassador for the antipodean region. Switching to my ANZUUA President's hat (there isn't an actual hat as part of the role...), I plan to value-add by outlining the state of the market in Australia and New Zealand and, I hope, establish permanent links between our congregations, the better to close the wide gap of distance between us. Who knows? Sister churches perhaps, like the twin-towns scheme?

So, not just a win-win, but a win-win-win, lifting all our little boats.

That's the aim anyway. Wish me luck, and a spring tide.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Poverty, Chastity, Obedience: The Monastic Vows

There's a wonderful recent piece written by a ministerial colleague on one of the less obvious travails of public ministry--a UU minister can't buy just any car..

The author details his acute awareness of the judgements congregants make about the moral signals a Minister sends when they visibly deploy their cash. The car one really wants and the car one should have are two very different cars. In the end, he drives up to church in a new Smart Car, to the rapturous approval of his flock. And a nagging sense that he's not so much their pastor as their poodle.

Pre-ministry days with my precious--a 1980 Triumph TR7, loaded with a 3.5 litre V8. Off-the-charts power-to-weight ratio. A fond and guilty memory now...
Transitioning into Ministry from academia involved some considerable down-sizing: two years without pay, living away costs, ending in a 40% income reduction once I started working again. So I sold my car, and haven't owned one since. Thankfully my partner makes professor money, so she can and does own a car, and I sometimes even get to use it.

My more recent solutions to transport have involved public buses, taxis, a push-bike, my two big feet, and a 250 cc Vespa. Which method I use depends on the weather, distance, destination, and purpose of the trip. On the Vespa, you can conceivably tool about in a smart suit, like the Italians do. It is of course very energy efficient,  but my partner worries every time I go out on it. I would like her not to worry about me, hence my thoughts turn to car ownership again.

Chosen because it was available in ecclesiastical black...
Poverty, or at least some display of financial modesty, is perhaps the only one of the three traditional monastic vows UU ministers are still expected to keep. Chastity? Well, there is no vow of celibacy in our tradition, thank God (though some could have done with it). Obedience? Our tradition of freedom of the pulpit means our prophetic witness need not obey our associations, boards, or congregants, but only the Spirit as we are given to understand its will. So yes and no.

So the remaining vow of poverty stands as the last enforceable fossil of the old monastic tradition. My stipend is pegged to that of the Uniting Church scale, which I guess is broadly deemed a reasonable standard of living for clergy. Still, it can look like Croesus' bank account if you happen to be a modest pensioner. All relative, I guess, and really not often commented upon, probably more due to the customary bourgeois reticence toward talking about anything so vulgar as filthy lucre.

Still, there are occasions when outward signs of material comfort are commented upon. The subtext, whether approving or admonishing, is always: "How can he afford that on what we pay him?" Smart cloths, stylish eyewear, natty ties, quality shoes, what suburb I live in, and even good grooming all excite comment that assumes someone in the clergy must look poverty-stricken to maintain moral authority.

For the record, before Ministry, I used to make decent money, and invested it in property, and good shoes and suits that wouldn't go spectacularly out of fashion anytime soon. These still serve me well. Over the past six years I have naturally topped them up, but topped them up frugally, and I hardly ever pay retail. I buy:
  • buy op-shop shirts and ties of often remarkable quality
  • discontinued, seconds, or heavily marked-down suits
  • second-hand electronics
The only thing I try not to skimp on is shoes, our primary connection to mother earth. "Look after your shoes, and your shoes will look after you" my father always said. Generally, this means the Florsheim clearance outlet.

Dyed in the blood of the lamb.
But here's the thing: I miss having a safe, fun, reliable car. You can keep it the way you want, play the music you love, have a little privacy on the roads, and stay warm, cool, dry in all weathers. Naturally, like the author of the article, I would want to have the car I want; no one should be able to tell me what to drive. But as soon as I roll up in my ultimate fantasy vehicle (this one)...

1968 Jaguar E-Type. Perhaps the most beautiful and powerful English sports care ever made.

then the JUDGING will commence.

And you know that's true. No, it's not environmentally friendly. Yes, it is a fetish object of conspicuous consumption. No, one does not imagine anyone in a dog collar emerging from it. Yes, it is an index of my shallowness to lust after a hunk of retro metal. I'm only human.

But God I want one. And I could buy one. Tomorrow. It might not be a smart purchase, just an expensive vanity, but what the hell? You're a long time dead...

But you know that ain't gonna happen. The cognitive dissonance will be too great. And worse, in a context where folks get judged for not travelling with a damn 'keeper-cup' absolutely everywhere, this would bring out the worst in UUs--the tendency to sanctimony--a force which no moral authority can withstand. (There's a rich irony for you...)

On the other hand nothing feels as good as judging others, especially by standards one doesn't need to maintain oneself.

For example, I don't use plastic straws, 'cos their bad for the planet. Not using them affords two pleasures: the pleasure in saving the planet, and the pleasure of judging those who do use them. The air on the moral high ground is always Alpine-pure. So maybe I SHOULD buy this car, and give everyone the opportunity to feel more righteous than the Minister. 

But I'll probably settle for Prius...powered, as we know, by the inexhaustible fuel supply of one's own smug self-righteousness.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Kafka-esque Presidency

(This will appear in the next issue of Quest (the newsletter of ANZUUA), as the first of a regular column called "Presidential Ponderings")

Franz Kafka begins his story "The Metamorphosis" with one of the great openings in world literature:

"When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous vermin."

​Gregor's shock, at once horrifying and comical, has become my own. Waking up from drug-and-flu induced dreams on a Sunday last October to find that I had been elected (appointed?) ANZUUA president in absentia and unopposed will probably not be the only Kafka-esque thing that happens over the course of the next few years.

Because I meant what I said at the BGM (through a healthy proxy)--that I had zero interest in presiding over an organisation content with managing its own decline and irrelevance, and that if you don't want a brisk (and probably brusque) change agent, please don't vote for me. And so it follows (as does the night the day) that you've only got yourselves to blame for what follows from turning me into this...President-creature. 

As regards the 2017 ANZUUA conference, I can't read a room I wasn't in, but reports from eye-witnesses suggest we did ourselves no favours as an association, and I think anybody who was there will know why. Let me say, straight up, that I have zero tolerance for bullying in any context or form. Committee meetings and General meetings will be forums where mutual respect and democratic principles will be firmly enforced. Those who insist that their will prevails by shouting down opposition may wish to consider whether they care to attend any such future events. We need to stop these petty internecine wars if we're ever going to grow and thrive together. 

But maybe that's a mistaken assumption. Perhaps, in our heart of hearts, we don't actually want to grow and thrive together. Perhaps we are prepared to let ANZUUA burn on the altar of our personal/local hobby-horses. Often, the core of such self-seeking destructiveness is having ONE SACRED GOAL against which all others must be disregarded. Social justice martyrdom must trump nourishing fellowship. Atheism must trump theism. Bourgeois politeness must trump speaking prophetic witness. I use the word 'trump' knowingly...

If Unitarians are anything, they are the church of BOTH/AND rather than the church of EITHER/OR. The heart of our spirituality is seeing the divine not in one or another isolated things, but in all beings and all things. This is the stern challenge of our Unitarian faith that has never been as easy as it looks. As an association of churches and fellowships, we have to make enough space in our hearts and in our forums so that all concerns and dreams can be heard and gently held.  Love, and the respect that follows from it, is the one and only trump card we hold.

With that caveat out of the way, here are a few general directions in which the current ANZUUA committee is heading:
  1. Freeing up the frozen assets in the Bottomley Trust
  2. Developing an annual budget
  3. Developing criteria for material support of small and emerging congregations/fellowships
  4. Developing methods of greater resource sharing and communication amongst our congregations
  5. Developing regional ANZUUA in-house print material for all congregations.
Also, feel free to write or call anytime to express hopes, dreams, concerns, whatever. My personal email is robmacpherson1@hotmail.com and my direct line is 0419 550543.

With every good wish and blessing for our shared future,

Gregor Samsa  Rev. Rob MacPherson, President

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Arms and the Land Downunder

Current Australian gun laws, introduced in 1996, as well as their clear effects on suppressing gun-related violence, are frequently cited by gun control advocates in the USA. These laws and their effects were achieved in the wake of the Port Arthur shooting, when a lone, white, mentally-disturbed gunman armed with a stockpile of automatic weaponry, went on a rampage, shooting up a quiet Tasmanian tourist town, killing 35 and wounding 4. Here down-under, such a scenario is the stuff of nightmares, not of the nightly news.

Seems we're doing SOMEthing right down here.

The laws introduced by the then Liberal-National party coalition government (note: for “Liberal” read “Conservative” here. Don’t ask me why…) were sweeping in scope, aimed at a total prohibition on the ownership, possession, sale, and importation on all automatic and semi-automatic firearms. These laws were enforced by a 6-month amnesty, during which time, the owners were invited to sell such weapons back to the government, which, in turn destroyed the surrendered guns. Failure to comply would mean tough penalties, including jail time. Included in the raft of legislation were a national gun registry, stricter guidelines for licensing and training, and an education program. There are still occasional amnesties and buy-backs for unregistered and illegal guns.

Some 650,000 weapons were culled in the first buy-back. 

By and large, the legislation was passed in its entirety—such was the national shock and horror at the Port Arthur massacre. The LNP government saw the political capital in the tragedy, the public mood, and the public benefit, and acted swiftly and decisively under the strong leadership of PM John Howard. As an indisputably direct result of this legislation, homicides fell by 59% and gun-related suicides by 65%. There were 13 mass shootings in the 18 years preceding Howard’s gun laws. There have been no ‘mass’ shootings since. 

The event that shocked a nation and its leadership into action

Such events as Las Vegas or Sandy Hook simply do not happen here any longer. More than those statistics is the freedom one feels here: freedom from random gunfire, freedom from being torn apart by high-velocity rounds blithely squeezed off by someone having a very bad day. Australians can go to any large event, walk on a crowded street, study on a busy campus, or catch mass transport, and it will never occur to them that more than half the people around them are strapped and loaded. Because they aren’t. Only the cops are. So, to sum up…

A mass shooting.

A shocked nation.

Strong, decisive leadership.

Comprehensive, practical action by legislators and law enforcement.

These events combined to produce unarguably positive results for Australia. 

If you sense some ‘buts’ coming, you’re right and here they are:

1.       The legislation was initially opposed by a significant slice of the National party, part of the Liberal-National coalition government that generally represents the interests of farmers. Australia is still a frontier economy, based on primary production, and weapons are part of every farmer’s tool kit. While it is true that you don’t need an AR-15 to deal with the feral pest control of foxes and dingoes that attack grazing stock, nor to control native grazing animals like kangaroos, farmers find semi-automatic rifles pretty useful in the management of threats to grazing and growing. There is still, among farmers, a strong resentment to control of such weapons, and corresponding pressure on National Party members to soften the laws.

2.       Australians continued to buy guns since 1996. In fact, there are now more privately-owned guns that there were in 1996, although with population increasing the per capita rates are significantly lower than they were before the legislation. As gun technologies change, as wealth from pressure groups like the NRA are deployed internationally, the Australian government will need to be vigilant to resist pressure groups, keep effective laws in place, and toughen them where needed. The past ten years has seen much leadership instability—5 changes of PM, minority and coalition governments, and wafer-thin majorities. Swift, decisive, unilateral leadership may be becoming a fond memory in the sunburnt country.

3.       The NRA has Australia in its cross-hairs. Since Australia is held up as a model for intelligent gun legislation, the NRA has pushed-back with propaganda ads full of outright lies about the country—that populace are in revolt against gun control, that ‘only the criminals here have guns’, that we are suffering under big-brother socialism, etc. etc. You know the tune. But you wouldn’t know these are false if you are at geographical and cultural distance from here. The NRA are coming for our guns, Australia, and they want to hand them back to us.

NRA spokesman: "Black is white, up is down...etc., etc., 

4.       John Howard was no saint. Howard, along with Bush and Blair, was arguably guilty of war crimes in his fervent and active support of the wars of the past decade. While genuinely and visibly shocked, appalled, and angered into action over local white deaths in a tourist town, Howard had not the least compunction about the collateral slaughter of Iraqi or Afghani civilians and their children, and still does not. The gun laws may be his one triumphant legacy.

5.       Australians have no right to feel smug about what its gun laws have achieved. They may express bewilderment at a culture with such a huge pathology--an average of one mass shooting per day—that could be so easily solved with such comparatively straightforward solutions. However, Australia as a country is in denial about its own violent pathologies, namely:

a.       the international disgrace of our harsh, punitive, inhumane, militarized, and torturous asylum-seeker policies;

b.       the systemic oppression of Indigenous Australians evidenced in low mortality rates, high incidence of aboriginal deaths in custody;

c.       the gleeful cashing-in on fossil fuels in a time of rising temperatures, sea-levels, rates of climate-related deaths;

d.       progressive de-funding and de-institutionalization of Mental Health care

I am a US-born Minister serving here; I grew up in West Baltimore (The Wire, anyone?). I left the US as a young man in 1985, in part because I didn’t want my children to grow up in a place where gunshots ringing out in the night were entirely normal, where their right not to be shot was trumped by everyone’s right to own assault weapons, where the pathological addiction to weaponry was a normal fact of life.

Yet these things, so bizarre to Australians, are entirely normal if you grow up in the states. My father was entirely normal, and the most peaceful man you could know, yet even he kept three—THREE—weapons in the house: a Saturday night special six-shooter, a Mauser semi-automatic, and a pump-action shotgun. The shotgun was bought on the QT from ‘a guy down at the plant’. Soon after he bought it, he was showing it off to my elder sister one day. He demonstrated how you pump the stock to put one in the chamber…and promptly blew a hole in the bedroom ceiling the size of an NBA hoop. Fortunately, my mother was not home. He swore my sister to silence, and being a gifted handyman, got up in the loft and patched and painted the hole so you’d never know it was there. My sister and father kept this secret until after he and mother had passed away.
Let's keep this a secret...
But if my sister’s tender, beautiful, face had been in the way of this dumb, atrocious accident, there could have been no denial, no secrets, no lies. That is the sort of shame and horror that cripples families and ripples down to affect generations yet unborn. None of us, and none of our children or their children, could have gone unaffected by it. The sins of the fathers (even my sinless father) do indeed get visited upon the children. I grieve for the victims of Las Vegas and their families and friends. But I grieve somehow more for the generations of kids yet unborn who will be brought into life in so violent a place as the USA.

The USA has not been so lucky as my family was. As a nation, my birth-country lost its crucial parenting moment at Sandy Hook. If a pile of the bullet-riddled bodies of kindergarteners doesn’t change the national taste for violence, I’m not sure if anything will. But the lies about gun violence, the secrets about the wealth and corruption that keeps guns firmly entrenched in our homes, and the denial that this is a national pathology must be exposed, exposed now, and by those in the position to do something about it swiftly and decisively.

Leaders can begin by listening to voices outside the US media bubble. Australian is not some other planet. It’s very much like the US. And Australia is not alone in having effective gun legislation. Apologies for salty language, but fuck your exceptionalism, America. Learn from us and from others before more innocent lives are mown down by this ongoing nightmare, the apocalyptic scythe that stalks your every home and street.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Lectio Divina as Post-Modern Worship

Few initiatives in my one-and-only Ministry have been as risky and as necessary to the unfreezing of our faith tradition as offering Lectio Divina as weekly worship.

Lectio Divina is a four-stage process that seeks to engage the whole person
Lectio Divina is Latin for 'divine reading', and is a fairly ancient and rather monastic way of approaching scripture. It offers a method of reading any text as way of prayerful practice. I say 'any text' because, in our pluralist way, we have put together a 'wiki' of influential readings (democratically sourced) to draw from, and these 100 or so have been bound together in no particular order in a large, hard-copy volume.

"Risky" first, because it can be perceived as Christian reconstructionism. While the Latin name and the big book may appear a bit old-high-churchy, Lectio Divina, stripped of Bible and personal God, is no more Christian (and far less Catholic) than lighting votive candles, which we happily do weekly at Sunday service.

Beyond surface impressions, what makes this practice truly risky is that it is a 21st-century Post-modern project in a church still largely stuck in late 19th-early 20th century Modernism. For those unfamiliar with these philosophic terms, here is a quick precis:
As a post-modern approach relates to words, texts, and their meanings, we need to admit that language and meaning are fluid and arbitrary. They are “messy”, because they're subjectively experienced and subject to pressures of culture and personal experiences within those cultural settings. Only power decides which readings of a text are objective, privileged, or 'right'.

A word or phrase, for example, may have connotations for a reader that the author never intended, but that does not make them wrong. Your experience is your experience, and your subjectivity is real.

Lectio Divina encourages exploring and developing your subjective experience through lateral thinking, free associations, and personal narratives prompted by a reading. It discourages rational analysis, whose object is to assert the superiority of the reader over the text, first by 'cracking' the text open like a walnut to extract the useful message, and second, by prevailing over the offered text by agreeing or disagreeing--as if one's approval were the only arbiter of value. It hardly needs pointing out that these twin modernist drives seek to exploit and to subjugate through 'reason', which alone leads to universal, objective truth, which is necessarily 'good'. If only that were true...

The problem of course is that the modernist world-view--where language is transparent and the signifier (the word) equals the signified (the thing or concept)--has been utterly exploded, not merely by advances in both philosophy and physics in the last 50 years, but also by anyone who is prepared to be honest about the way we experience the world.

"This is not a pipe" is true...it's a rendering of a pipe. The difference between signifier and signified is critical.
The inner world of each of our subjective consciousness is a universe in itself, and one worth exploring. The multi-dimensionality of our consciousness is predicated on the recent revelations of quantum mechanics: the universe goes infinitely outwards and inwards, and what's 'out there' and what's 'in here' are both infinitely complex and deeply interconnected. Thus, your experiences, associations, feelings, and mental images of pipes will be different from mine: neither is more valid. So, respect for a person's inner life is necessary, and may be the underlying metaphysic of our first UU principle: "The inherent worth and dignity of every person."

There are three challenges in Lectio Divina. First, being willing to get past the ego's desire to dominate the text, pull it apart, and assert and defend a 'meaning'. Second, becoming a psycho-naut. Freed of the lenses of judgement and criticism, you can boldly go where you've maybe not gone before--letting the text interrogate you, rather than the reverse, and expanding your stock, culturally-formed responses by 'accessing all areas' of the bottomless universe that is you.

Third, and perhaps hardest to cultivate, sharing what random associations and lateral connections you've dredged up with a room full of other people doing the same thing. This takes time, for it relies on daring and trust and the building of a safe space within which to offer what is deeply and particularly inside you to become common knowledge. And when people do share such things, listening and accepting the truth of their experience without judgement or comment., we can grow in compassion and acceptance.

How is this worship? Easy: it 'raises to worth' truth, generosity, humility, grace, and cultivates respect and compassion for each other. Indeed, as someone said of Lectio Divina, you come to find that "Listening and Loving are closely related."

How is it a challenge for UUism? Again, easy: there is an underlying assumption in Modernist thinking that all reasonable beings will come to the same coherent, humanistic conclusions. That justice looks the same for everyone. That objective truth exists 'out there' waiting to be discovered if only we could just think more rationally.

The science and philosophy of the last 50 years has made this a nonsense. The trouble is, UUs are caught in transition between these two world views. The latest UU thinking has for example, rejected the Modernist "Freedom, Reason, Tolerance" mantra in favour of a recognition of the greater complexity and convergence implied in the words "Generosity, Imagination, and Pluralism".

Lectio Divina, though a practice of that past, shows a fruitful way of engaging the contemporary religious life without Modernist delusions.

Monday, May 22, 2017

While we remember the victims of Manchester...

While we remember in our thoughts and prayers the victims of the Manchester bombing, let us be mindful--
  • Before certain politicians and media companies begin a fresh round of demonizing an entire religion in the self-serving lust to garner votes, clicks, and tweets...
  • Before this tragedy is used as a fresh excuse to ramp up the  militarized security state and kick down on refugees fleeing similar daily atrocities...
  • Before governments with a tenuous hold on the electorate beat more loudly on the drums of war...
  • Before the rush to judgement and condemnation...
--that the innocent kids we see fleeing the concert bombing have their counterparts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and other places.

Yes they do.

We see young Mancunians run from a bombing. We do not see people in Muslim countries running from bombs every day. Getting out, getting anywhere away from daily round of destruction, carnage, and 24-hour climate of fear. Getting all the way, sometimes, to Manus and Nauru.

We see young Mancunians, wounded or terrified, desperately seeking help, refuge, safety, comfort, We do not see (or do not allow ourselves to see) wounded or terrified Muslims fleeing their homelands to seek help, refuge, safety, comfort. Sometimes from us.

We see young Mancunians apparently intentionally targeted by a crude device. We do not see the schools, hospitals, wedding parties, markets, and workplaces intentionally targeted by sophisticated devices like drones and laser-guided missiles. Delivered and sanctioned by us.

We grieve for the young Mancunian survivors who will have to live the rest of their lives with the images of body parts, pools of gore, and children's corpses burned into their memories. We do not grieve for those who see such things as a matter of daily routine. Routinely ignored by us.

When people are slaughtered, survivors run away, whether in Manchester or in Fallujah. This is a equally normal response.

No child should have to witness the human form blasted into chunks of meat, whether in Manchester or in Aleppo. The trauma they will carry is equally inescapable.

"Why us?" they cry with one voice. "It's not fair to target us."

No, it's not fair, no matter where you are.

Why does distance and difference blind us to the simple truth that people are people are people?

Writing in a different time about a similarly oppressed and demonized people (the Jews), Shakespeare wrote:

"If you cut us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? And if you wrong us, shall we not seek revenge?" God (or whatever means The Good) forbid that the full measure of their revenge is not visited upon us.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us: what fearsome words to pray.