Fluent in Faith by Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar

At my church, we’re in the process of developing a congregational covenant. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what exactly a congregational covenant is, but after reading Fluent in Faith: A Unitarian Universalist Embrace of Religious Language by Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar, the meaning of “covenant” in this context became clear.

The book (and, I think, the concept) is geared specifically towards Unitarian Universalists, but I think a lot of the themes apply to other liberal religious traditions, too.

Today at church I gave a short (five-minute) talk about covenant based in large part on the new understanding I got from Nieuwejaar’s book. (Today’s service was also our annual Flower Communion, which is one of my favorite services. One day I’ll have to write about that tradition.)

In writing this short sharing, it occurred to me that the mutual promises that are covenants don’t just exist in religious traditions. We make mutual promises all the time in our daily life. In a marriage or a parent-child relationship, in our workplaces, even driving down the highway, we make promises to one another to establish trust. We promise to respect one another, to treat one another fairly, to act in at least a somewhat considerate manner. These are voluntary promises; they’re not enforced (except for traffic laws), and we don’t have to follow them. Often, despite our best intentions, we don’t follow these promises. But the relationships we’re in depend not on keeping the promises but on the sincere intention to keep those promises. Read More

The Nature of Evil

I don’t believe in evil.

In my worldview, there is a force (one could call it “God”) pulling us towards love, compassion, and connection. In each moment each of us has the choice to either follow that pull or move away from it. The choices before us in each moment are dictated by every individual moment that came before. If we—or those around us—make a series of choices against that pull, our next moment may contain choices that seem barely loving at best.

For the vast majority of us, the decisions that came in the moments before do not lead us to walk into a school—or a mall or a movie theater or a political speech—and face the choice of whether to use the firearms we’ve brought with us or not, but even that moment of decision is the product of an infinite number of moments that came before.

What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary on Friday was tragic. It was incomprehensible. It was abhorrent to all feelings of love and human compassion. But was it evil? Is mental illness evil? Is owning a gun evil? Is suicide evil? Is killing another person evil? Is suicide or killing another person evil if it stops more people from dying, or in that moment could it be the most loving choice in the end of a series of very, very unloving choices? If something could be evil in one instance and loving in another, does it serve a purpose to label something either?

It seems to me, to call the murders evil is to dismiss them as something that just happened without hundreds of thousands of prior causes. To call Adam Lanza evil is to distance ourselves from him as a fellow human being and ignore the reality that a whole series of moments led him to that school Friday morning. We’re good, he’s evil, and there’s the division. It’s simple, but it doesn’t seem to explain things for me.

Trouble is, I can’t explain it without “evil,” either.

How do I say, “These are my people,” and mean not only the children who fell or the teachers who protected their classes when they heard the gunshots or the parents who approached the firehouse hoping that their children would be among those walking out, scared but whole? How do I say, “These are my people,” and mean Adam Lanza, too?

I don’t believe in evil. But I don’t know how to explain this.

Perpetual Pilgrimage

When someone asks where I’m from when my husband is around, he jokes, “She’s from the United States.” It’s easier than listing the many places I’ve lived.

All of my life, I’ve moved every few years, and all of my life, there has always been the expectation that, one day, I would stay in the same spot and that place would be home. Every stop along the way was just a place to be for a bit on the way to this home.

As I approached my mid-thirties and realized that I was still moving every few years, I started wondering when I would discover this “home,” this place where I just belonged.

During the year we’ve lived in Massachusetts—which still feels as alien as any place I’ve lived—I’ve come to a realization: I no longer believe that “home” is a fixed place.

This weekend in church, we sang Peter Mayer’s “Blue Boat Home“, in which the earth itself is the vessel in which Mayer sails. A portion of the lyrics:

Sun, my sail and moon, my rudder
As I ply the starry sea
Leaning over the edge in wonder
Casting questions into the deep
Drifting here with my ship’s companions
All we kindred pilgrim souls
Making our way by the lights of the heavens
In our beautiful blue boat home

I give thanks to the waves upholding me
Hail the great winds urging me on
Greet the infinite sea before me
Sing the sky my sailor’s song
I was born upon the fathoms
Never harbor or port have I known
The wide universe is the ocean I travel
And the earth is my blue boat home

For years I’ve thought that the “winds urging me on” were the U.S. Navy or my husband’s job or some pathological need in me to avoid intimacy. But I don’t think so anymore. Those were the excuses to move, but not what propelled me forward.

“I was born upon the fathoms/Never harbor or port have I known.” I thought this was something unique to me and other perpetual travelers, but it’s true for everyone, even those who never venture out of the town of their birth. We’re all searching, we’re just searching in different ways, “all we kindred pilgrim souls.”

We also sang a hymn by Shlomo Carlbach, Return Again:

Return to who you are.

Return to what you are.

Return to where you are

Born and reborn again.

My eyes welled up as I sang: this was just what I’ve been feeling lately.

I love moving—I crave moving—but I’ve always thought of myself as a wanderer or a nomad, traveling about aimlessly, following opportunities or whims. But I’ve come to see my travels as part of a larger pilgrimage, not towards a geographical location but towards myself. Changing locations, I get to see myself against a different backdrop. Each new location yields new insights about who I am and what I am. It even gives me insight into where I am: I’m here. No matter where I go, I am always here.

I am always home.

Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a very fun book. The layering and interweaving of the stories felt a tad contrived, but that didn’t take away from my enjoyment following Shadow through his various adventures.

There were some interesting ideas about America and Americans, about faith and what we as a culture hold sacred, and what the sacred becomes when we forget its origins and follow only the ritual (or when we forget even the ritual). There was also a lot about the nature of sacrifice. And, of course, some walking corpses and giant spiders.

Incidentally, I was thinking that Mr Nancy ought to join Toastmasters. I think he would enjoy getting up and telling his stories and getting applause from the group.

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Review: How to See Yourself As You Really Are

How to See Yourself As You Really Are
How to See Yourself As You Really Are by Dalai Lama XIV
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is deceptively complex.

I started out with the audiobook version, but after listening to the first two CDs about three times and not really taking any of it in, I checked out the hardcover from the library. That worked somewhat better, but the book was still quite confusing.

In a way, it seemed like a very long koan. If the self doesn’t inherently exist—although it does, in fact exist—what is its nature? If you can’t locate it in the mind or the body, where is it?

One thing that I found frustrating (beyond the basic incomprehensibility of the book) was that the Dalai Lama asks these questions and then gives the answer while insisting that the process of exploring the questions is more important than just having the answer. I don’t doubt this is true, I would just kind of prefer if he kept the answer a secret and let me figure it out on my own. Or at least gave a spoiler alert. Having an endpoint for my contemplation makes the contemplation itself less satisfying.

The sensation I had reading this book kind of reminded me of when my then-five-year-old asked me where we were before we were in our mommy’s bellies.

“Where do you think we were?” I asked, thinking that, since she’d been there more recently than I had, she might have a better idea than I did. (“Nowhere,” was her matter-of-fact answer, incidentally).

I’m not at all sure I get the book, although what I think I get is fairly liberating, if I’m actually understanding it correctly. Of course, the fact that I use the word “I” so often is probably evidence that I’m not getting it at all being that it’s all about the emptiness of existence of the self.

From the book:

“Ordinary happiness is like dew on the tip of a blade of grass, disappearing very quickly. That it vanishes reveals that it is impermanent and under the control of other forces, causes, and conditions. Its vanishing also shows that there is no way of making everything right; no matter what you do within the scope of cyclic existence, you cannot pass beyond the range of suffering. By seeing that the true nature of things is impermanence, you will not be shocked by change when it occurs, not even by death.”

At any rate, this book seemed to fit well with the daily meditation practice in which I’ve been engaged for the past five and a half weeks. And contemplation of the nature of the thing I think of as “I” has been…interesting. I’d read it again.

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A Different Kind of Hedonism

Another thing I find fun: dark-eyed juncos at the bird feeder! (Call me anhedonic, will he?)

When I mention my meditation schedule/routine (my Bold Plan) to people, they all say—after a stunned silence— “Wow. That’s really ambitious.”

Until very recently, I didn’t really see what was that ambitious about it. Then the other day a friend asked how the routine looked day-to-day, how did I make it work with the kids and homeschooling and everything?

“Well, I get up with my husband between 4:30 and 5 every morning. I go to the bathroom and wash my face with cold water to wake myself up. Brush my teeth. Then I go down to the basement to meditate or do yoga. I leave the thermostat at 58 if I meditate so I don’t get too sleepy. If I’m doing yoga, I turn it up to 62…”

At this point she stopped me.

“Are you serious?” she asked.

I hadn’t even gotten to the evening meditation.

In that moment I heard my words from her perspective. And I realized that I was describing a fairly monastic existence. All I’m missing is the guy coming by and whacking me with a stick when I start to slouch during sitting meditation.

And I started to laugh.

Because, you know what? I love this schedule. It wasn’t immediately easy, and I still feel resistant to it at times, but it just feels right. It’s like I’ve been waiting for it and here it is. It’s like coming home.

The other day when I told my husband that I thought watching television in general and watching professional sports in particular was a waste of time, he accused me of being anhedonic. I started to disagree with him, but I realize that if splashing cold water on my face before sunrise is my idea of fun, I don’t have much support for my counter-argument.

But I’m cool with that. I’m feeling happy. I’m having fun, even when I’m not meditating. I’m excited to embrace each new challenge this project brings me. And I don’t have any great ambition to lead a hedonistic lifestyle. Which is good because not many hedonistic things happen before 9:00. Not on the East Coast, anyway.

A Simple Challenge

During her sermon yesterday, our minister gave us a challenge.

Each day for five days, when we’re feeling in a good mood, we’re supposed to try to find the inherent worth and dignity in three people.

If we get to the end of five days and feel comfortable with this much, we’re supposed to move on to trying the same thing when we’re not in a great mood, or with someone whose inherent worth and dignity maybe isn’t quite so apparent to us.

After five days of that, she challenged us to choose one day a week to keep that spirit of openness for the entire day, and see how we feel.

I like this challenge. It speaks to my desire for simplicity and connection.

I tried it out yesterday, and it went fairly well, partially because after church was over, I didn’t see anyone but my husband and two kids. I’m pleased to announce that I was able to see their inherent worth and dignity (there are some days this is more difficult than others).

I tried it today, too, encountering a rather larger number of people than yesterday. What I found was that just trying to find those three people put me in a more serene and open mood all day long. This means that I almost cried at book club tonight (multiple times), but for me, that’s a good sign. I’m not a crier and I know that when I feel like I’m going to cry, it’s a sign that I’m letting stuff in.

It also means that I had a great time at book club and at my daughter’s flute lesson, and even at the grocery store.

It does not mean that I didn’t swear (loudly and fluently) at the two drivers who honked at me and passed me illegally and dangerously because I wasn’t risking my children’s lives to get through an intersection as fast as they wanted me to. But then, I don’t have to try seeing their inherent worth and dignity for at least three more days.

If you know me in real life and you hear my children swearing, yes, it’s completely my fault.

Ambiguous Morality in Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything Is Illuminated
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s not a coincidence that I started reading this book during a days-long power outage. By candlelight, of course.

Actually, that’s a lie. It was a coincidence. I’d gotten it from the library weeks before and I just didn’t get to it until the power went out. But it did give me a sense of satisfaction to see the book sitting in the small pool of light cast by the candle flame.

After finishing the book, I find this image apt as I don’t know that anything was really illuminated. Just more questions and mysteries about the relative nature of right and wrong and good and evil when every choice is at least a little bit wrong, a little bit evil.

In college, I took a couple of classes in Process Theology. I really felt a connection to it, which makes me suspect I didn’t understand it properly because everyone says it’s practically impenetrable by the rational thoughts of an average person. That’s fine with me; I still like the way I understand it, even if it’s totally off.

One of the things I remember about Process Theology is that, rather than acting directly on the world, God is like a magnetic force, drawing us towards the most God-like action in each moment. As my professor explained, in this theology, “God” is essentially synonymous with “love,” so that in each moment we are drawn to the action that is most loving. We can choose to follow this pull or ignore it. If we follow it, we’re closer to God. If we don’t, we’re further from God. Because the decisions in each moment are determined by what happened in the last, that often leaves us in an individual moment with unclear choices, none of which is clearly the one that is closer to God. The professor used the example of Sophie’s Choice, but a less emotionally fraught one could be whether to stay up and blog or to go to bed early and blog in the morning. One choice is difficult because it’s so important, the other because it’s so trivial, but theoretically, the same principle applies. There is no right answer in either situation, but from a Process Theology standpoint, there is an answer that is less wrong and more in the direction of love.

I feel comforted by this idea because it’s ambiguous and because there is no prescribed course of action that is deemed “right”. I also feel a little terrified of this idea for the same reasons. It feels like a pretty loose framework, but it also feels accurate to me.

At any rate, this is about all I’m going to say about this book because I don’t want to spoil the plot.

Okay, one more thing: I thought the structure of the book was ingenious and Foer handled it with skill. I loved how Sasha and Jonathan mirrored one another until it felt almost like a conversation between the author and himself. Which, I suppose, all fiction is to one degree or another.

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UPDATE! NaNoWriMo Day 6 Word Count: 10,107

Bye, Bye Miss American Pie: Failing at Forgiveness

One of the great things about attending service at a Unitarian Universalist fellowship is how the services draw on so many religious traditions. Today was the Days of Awe service celebrating the ten days including and between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The focus was on remembering the year past, particularly those we have lost to death, forgiving ourselves and those around us for actions which may have brought pain, and mindfully applying ourselves to our intentions for this next year.

During the homily, our minister spoke about forgiveness.

“The line between forgiving and forgetting has always been a difficulty for me,” the minister said. I share this difficulty.

How is it possible to remember the wrongs done to me (or the wrongs I have committed) and still forgive?

Forgetting I’m good at. As long as I don’t think about the way I treated my best friend in middle school or the rather poor choices I made in college, I can feel like I’ve forgiven myself for them. But then something will come up and remind me of a stupid thing I’ve done and I’ll realize I’ve not forgiven myself after all.

Last night, my husband and I were watching The Office. At the end of the episode, Dwight and Michael sat in a graveyard butchering the lyrics to Don McLean’s “American Pie,” and I was reminded of a sleepover I had in high school with the girl who would become valedictorian of our high school class. This young woman was someone I admired and always felt somewhat inferior to (truth be told, I still feel inferior to her). She was first-chair clarinet, took AP everything and excelled, scored a 1600 on the SAT (the old one, not the new easier one they started giving in the mid-90’s), never said stupid things, and was amazing in Model UN. In addition, she dressed well and was always kind to everyone. I could not believe she was my friend, much less that she was sleeping over at my house.

We were singing along to my mom’s 45’s and having a great time. “American Pie” came up and at the part where he says, “I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck, with a pink carnation and a pickup truck,” I sang, very loudly, “I was a lonely teenage drunkin’ f***…” My friend just looked at me quizzically. I could tell she was revising her opinion of me.

Now this was not the first time I’d mis-sung lyrics to a popular song, nor was it the last. It’s something of a habit of mine to hear and then sing back loudly the wrong lyrics to songs. But with this particular friend to whom I already felt inferior, my idiocy was mortifying.

Even now, when I think of this, I cringe. I fear that this is why she’s not responded to my suggestion that we get together for dinner now that we live near each other again (even though there are plenty of other very logical non–me-related reasons for her not responding).

The only way I have any peace around it is to block it out. I’m mostly okay with that, but that’s not forgiveness.

What would it feel like to be able to recall that gaffe and not feel all of the mortification that accompanied the event in the moment?

I recognize that this is a fairly silly example (“That’s not a painful memory,” my husband said, “that’s just a funny story.”), but if I can’t even forgive myself for something silly like this, how can I have any hope of forgiving myself or anyone else for more egregious errors?

If we don’t forget, aren’t we always on guard for the next hurt? If we’re always on guard, can that be consistent with forgiveness? And if we’re not on guard, how can we protect ourselves from being hurt (or hurting ourselves) in the future? Does forgiving necessarily mean accepting the possibility of future pain?

Is it possible to forgive without forgetting?

And for those curious about the ongoing evolution of my wardrobe, this is what I wore today:

I already had the skirt, the cardigan, and the stockings. All the rest is new. Thanks to my husband for taking my picture this morning. The mirror thing just isn’t working very well. (And the pile of stuff by my feet is a pair of jeans and a mei tai.)

You Scratch My Back…

Backscratcher

Image by San Diego Shooter via Flickr

Now that the local Unitarian Universalist congregations are done with their summer schedules and are back to regular Sunday services, we’re back to visiting churches.

Today, the minister offered a reading in which Rev David Bumbaugh suggests that the fall of mankind wasn’t caused by an apple or a conversation with a snake, but rather by a backscratcher. The idea is that until the backscratcher, when we had that itch we couldn’t quite reach between our shoulderblades, we had to have someone else scratch it. By allowing us to reach the itch on our own, the backscratcher gave us the idea that we could be self-sufficient, and we were banished from the Garden where all creatures are interdependent into a world where we’re all trying to go it alone.

I’ve had some trouble developing the kind of community I want since we moved here. Granted, it’s only been three months, but I’m feeling particularly sensitive to the setbacks and plunge into hopelessness rather too readily, I think (at least I hope it’s too readily). I’ve found myself listening longingly to that surly voice in my head that says, “I don’t need them! I don’t need anybody!” The voice sounds a lot like Steve Martin in The Jerk.

Being at church today reminded me just how much I do need that interaction and that interdependence. It’s a painful reminder because it means I have to keep on trying and keep on risking rejection (or at least missed connections, which feel to me like rejections).

As painful as it is, though, it’s just what I needed to hear today.

Back to the socializing grind. Well, maybe after I energize with a few hours of reading.