Posts Tagged interdependence

Putting Gratitude into Practice

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

“The discipline of gratitude reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and world around us for everything that matters.  From this flows an ethic of gratitude that obligates us to create a future that justifies an increasing sense of gratitude from the human family as a whole.  Gratitude demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return.”  — Rev. Galen Guengerich (UU World, Spring 2007)

One Sunday morning last month, in announcing our Faithify project to help the Unitarian Church of Norfolk, Fellowship President Alan Sheeler shared with us the following story.

“Back in 1972 — I was a bit younger then — I spent the Summer in the Southwest, including a month in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. My camp was in the Needles District and was composed of my…

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Harry Potter and the Problem of Evil

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on July 28th 2013.)

Video: from “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The position of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry seems to have been a hard one to fill.  Another teacher even suggested that the position was jinxed, resulting in its extraordinarily high turnover.  During Harry Potter’s first few years at the school, for instance, Defense Against the Dark Arts was taught, in turn, by one of evil Lord Voldemort’s minions, by a best-selling author who turned out to be a complete fraud, and by a closeted werewolf.  For Harry’s fourth year the school recruits a retired Auror (or Dark-wizard catcher) named Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody who had been single-handedly responsible for capturing many of the world of magic’s criminals.  Paranoid, eccentric and more than willing to defy the system, Professor Moody accepts the invitation to teach so long as he’s allowed to show his students the reality of the Dark Magic they might encounter.

[Moody demonstrates the three “Unforgivable Curses”: the Imperius Curse that controls another’s will, the Cruciatus Curse that induces terrible pain, and the Killing Curse.  Harry is the only person who ever survived the third.]

Anthem: “Double Trouble” by William Shakespeare and John Williams (from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”)

Sermon: “Harry Potter and the Problem of Evil”

I’ve had something of a soft-spot for the “Scottish Play” since studying it as part of my high school English Literature class.  You may have recognized some of Shakespeare’s lines in our anthem, which was composed by John Williams for the Hogwarts choir.  (Our version, sadly, lacks the part scored for toads, which some of the students at Hogwarts keep as familiars.)  In the original play, of course, these lines are chanted by the three witches as they prepare their cauldron for a visit by Macbeth.  “By the pricking of my thumbs,” the second witch intones when they are ready, “Something wicked this way comes.”  And that is Macbeth himself, of course, knocking at their door.

I remember being taught in that English Literature class that Shakespeare’s play is a tragedy because Macbeth, while capable of both good and evil, chooses the latter as the way to fulfill his ambitions, but given the results of his choices he eventually loses everything, including his life.  The witches, who are certainly practicing the Dark Arts if the list of ingredients they add to their cauldron is any guide, don’t actually tell Macbeth what to do — his bad decisions are his own — but in their fortune-telling they do give his ambitions a nudge, sinking the whole kingdom into chaos.

J. K. Rowling has acknowledged that the Scottish play may well be her favorite of Shakespeare’s, and so its influences can be found within the Harry Potter stories.  The band that played at the Yule Ball during Harry’s fourth year at Hogwarts, for instance, was named the “Weird Sisters”, part of their weirdness being, no doubt, that all eight band-members were actually male.  More significantly, perhaps, one of the themes driving the story arc through all of the books is the tension between fate and free will, particularly in terms of the danger that comes from knowing one’s destiny.

So Shakespeare’s Macbeth murders King Duncan because the witches have predicted that he will “be king hereafter”.  By similar logic, Rowling’s Voldemort attempts to kill the baby Harry Potter because of a prediction that one of them “must die at the hand of the other, for neither can live while the other survives.”

Where the comparisons between Macbeth and Voldemort break down, however, is that while the Scot was driven by his ambition for power, the wizard, much as he hungered for power, too, was really driven by his fear of death.

We find out in a later books that, while still a student at Hogwarts, Voldemort learned that there was a way to safeguard a piece of his soul by storing it in some other object, such that even if his body was killed, he would not actually die but could be resurrected.  While granting the wizard immortality, such magic comes at a terrible price: as explained by a former Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, it requires the wizard to commit murder, which, as “the supreme act of evil […] rips the soul apart.”  That is a price, of course, that Voldemort is willing to pay, and in the end it costs him everything.

From the very beginning of the stories, Rowling makes it clear that in the epic struggle between good and evil, Voldemort’s primary opponent has been Albus Dumbledore, whom Harry knows as the Headmaster of the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry.

At first, Dumbledore comes across as something of a kindly old eccentric, with a twinkly goofiness that hides his true power.  He genuinely loves his students and does everything he can to protect them, but in doing so, Dumbledore demonstrates the inevitable tension between being good and being kind.  In his struggle to prevent Voldemort’s ultimate designs, Dumbledore discovers he must, in some cases, withhold the truth from those who otherwise have a right to know it and, in others, resort to various forms of manipulation, to the extent that Rowling described him as “quite a Machiavellian figure”.

If Dumbledore is Harry’s mentor, then Potions Professor Severus Snape is Harry’s antagonist, at least amongst the grown-ups.  The two get off on the wrong foot right from the start, with Snape apparently taking delight in tormenting Harry and never failing to malign the memory of Harry’s father, and with Harry casting Snape as his first suspect in every sinister plot, in spite of the number of times that Dumbledore vouched for him.

And yet almost at the very end of the entire series, we find out that Dumbledore was right about Snape, when his great secret is revealed in what is surely the most powerful scene in any of the books or movies.  If you don’t know what that secret is, I won’t spoil it for you, but I will tell you that Rowling always planned for Snape to find redemption, and in the end Harry sees the good in him and forgives him.

Harry’s antagonist amongst his fellow students, of course, is Draco Malfoy, and there’s a whole psychology thesis’ worth of material contained in the antics of the Malfoy family.

Draco first appears as a thoroughly arrogant snot of a boy, and he quickly becomes a typical school bully.  We gain some insight into Draco’s character when we meet his father, Lucius, a condescending bigot who doesn’t hesitate to abuse his power over others — or to do whatever he can to save his own skin when someone else has the power.  Another family member is Bellatrix Lestrange, Draco’s aunt, and she’s simply insane.  Utterly faithful to Voldemort and trying to find out what had happened to him after he failed to kill the baby Harry, Bellatrix had tortured Neville Longbottom’s parents with the unforgivable Cruciatus Curse and was sent to Azkaban prison.  Bellatrix’s sister and Draco’s mother, Narcissa, on the other hand, is far more concerned with the welfare of her own family, to the extent that she lies to Voldemort in order to protect her son and then, in the final battle between Voldemort and Harry, simply stays out of it, taking both Draco and Lucius with her.

Now if you’ve never read any of the books, nor even seen any of the movies, I hope that this quick survey of some of Rowling’s principal characters at least shows some of the complexity that she brings to her portrayal of the epic struggle between good and evil.  In the first book, sure, it’s pretty simple to identify which characters are good and which are bad, and though there are still a couple of surprises, the lines separating them are fairly clear.  But as the books progress, some of those lines become rather blurred.

Rowling herself made it clear that, just as Harry and Neville and the other students got older through the years, so would her stories invoke more mature and more challenging themes.  Sure, Voldemort is as evil as it gets, but we discover that Dumbledore is willing to lie and manipulate if that’s what’s needed, and we get confused about whether Snape is really bad or good a double-agent or perhaps even a triple-agent, and we even find that we can feel, as much as we might resist it, just a little bit of pity for Draco, if only for a short while.

That adds to the appeal of Rowling’s stories, of course, since an essential part of growing up is realizing that the world is never neatly divided into red and blue, but consists of all sorts of shades of purple.  As Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote during his time in the Soviet Gulag, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.  This line shifts.  Inside us, it oscillates with the years.  Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.  […]  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,” Solzhenitsyn lamented, “and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Now “evil” isn’t a word you’ll hear used very often by Unitarian Universalists.  Aside from being one of those words that’s been used to hurt and oppress, or at least to promote a world-view that seems at odds with our claim of the inherent worth and dignity of all people, it’s all too easy to reduce evil to the cartoonish images that have become embedded in our culture.  One of those images, which I’m sure has already popped into your head, consists of a figure all in red, with horns and cloven feet and a spiky tail and a probably a pitchfork, but unless it’s a costume worn by our own J— to preach his sermon about the subject, you won’t see that image on display within this Sanctuary.

And yet a number of Unitarian Universalist theologians have observed that in refusing to use the word “evil”, in failing to challenge the cartoonish imagery left to us by the Dark Ages, we short-change not only Unitarian Universalism as a faith tradition, but also our individual spirituality.  Cutting out a part of the religious vocabulary to which we have just as much a right as anybody else, we only make it harder for ourselves to address brokenness and pain and hatred and suffering.  As Dumbledore cautions Harry when he struggles to choose between referring to Voldemort by name and using the common euphemism of “You-Know-Who”, “Call him Voldemort, Harry.  Always use the proper name for things.  Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

So let’s face this business of how Unitarian Universalists might use the word “evil”.

First, let’s deal with the First Principle — you know, the one that is usually taken to say that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.  How do we reconcile that with the reality that people lie to one another, hurt one another and generally screw up, whether intentionally or accidentally, just about all the time?

Sometimes it’s much worse than that, but we don’t have to invoke the likes of Hitler to call the First Principle into question; we just have to pick up the newspaper or watch the evening news.  But the First Principle isn’t some existential claim that everybody is really a saint, or a requirement that we should permanently attach rose-colored glasses to our faces, or a demand to never call anybody on bad behavior.  The First Principle, in fact, is precisely about how we ought to treat one another — particularly when, inevitably, we screw up — and for that matter about how we ought to treat ourselves when we realized we’ve screwed up.  So how do we “affirm and promote” someone’s inherent worth and dignity?  We hold them accountable for their actions, and we insist that others hold us accountable for our actions, too.  If we are to take all of the other Principles seriously, particularly the Seventh in its announcement of the interdependent web of all existence, then such accountability is essential.

Second, what do we mean by evil?

In classical theology, goodness is like the water in a fountain, welling up and out from the godhead and overflowing into the rest of creation.  Anything that blocks or removes that goodness is then evil.  Within Unitarian Universalism, we might think of it in terms of the interdependent web of all existence, where a higher quality of interdependence — as gauged by the health of human relationships, for example, and the sustainability of our relationship with the environment — corresponds to greater goodness.  Evil is then damage to the threads of the interdependent web.  Both natural events and human actions may break the threads, reducing interdependence and diminishing the web’s goodness.  Some evil is natural, part of what process theologian Catherine Keller notes is an inevitable part of the creativity of what she describes as “a living, whirling, open system of a world[, …] this real world of finite creatures who live, feed, risk, exult and die, a world of change and interdependence in which suffering is inevitable.”  And then we are faced with a choice: we can learn and grow from it or we can respond with further evil, because in refusing to realize our place in the web, we break the threads of interdependence, resulting in the violence of injustice, ecological damage and unhealthy communities.

Third, how do we respond to evil?

Well, if evil is doing damage to the threads of interdependence, then the good response is healing those threads, healing relationships, healing the community and healing memory.  We don’t need to be able to explain why bad things happen to be able to identify them and call them out, to respond to another’s pain and suffering, to address injustice wherever it takes place, and to find ways to live upon the Earth so that wholeness may be restored to the interdependent web.

There are a couple of aspects of this that, in bringing this sermon to a close, I’m going to lift up by referring back to the Harry Potter stories.

In the second book, havoc is wreaked at Hogwarts when Lucius Malfoy tries to dispose of a magical artifact that had once belonged to Voldemort, namely a diary in which he had stored a piece of his soul.  Malfoy slipped it amongst the schoolbooks being bought for Ron Weasley’s younger sister, Ginny, and soon enough she writes in the diary.  In doing so she awakens the piece of Voldemort’s soul and leads to the unleashing of a terrible serpent that had been hidden in the bowels of the school itself.  When Ginny disappears and Harry and Ron go to try to find her, Harry eventually succeeds in destroying the diary, but not before he is troubled by some of the apparent similarities between himself and Voldemort — like their ability to speak Parseltongue, the language of snakes.  Harry later takes it up with Dumbledore, in one of the sections of the book that Unitarian Universalist ministers love to quote.

“Professor,” [Harry said, “the] Sorting Hat told me […] I’d have done well in Slytherin.  Everyone thought I was Slytherin’s heir for a while … because I can speak Parseltongue …”

“You can speak Parseltongue, Harry,” said Dumbledore calmly, “because Voldemort — who is the last remaining descendant of Salazar Slytherin — can speak Parseltongue. Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he [first tried to kill you.” …]

“So I should be in Slytherin,” Harry said, looking desperately into Dumbledore’s face.  “The Sorting Hat could see Slytherin’s power in me, and it …”

“[It put] you in Gryffindor,” said Dumbledore calmly.  “Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand-picked students.  His own very rare gift, Parseltongue — resourcefulness — determination — a certain disregard for rules,” he added, his mustache quivering again.  “Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor.  You know why it was.  Think.”

“It only put me in Gryffindor,” said Harry in a defeated voice, “because I asked not to go in Slytherin.”

“Exactly,” said Dumbledore, beaming once more.  “Which makes you very different from [Voldemort].  It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

It is our choices that make all the difference and, what’s more, we don’t have to make those choices alone.  Throughout the books, one of the two great themes is love.  The baby Harry Potter survives the Killing Curse because of his mother’s love in sacrificing her life to protect his.  Dumbledore, Snape, Narcissa Malfoy — they’re all motivated by love, and that’s where they find their redemption, too.  And Voldemort is ultimately defeated because he neither loves nor is truly loved.

It’s not for nothing that the Second Source of Unitarian Universalism consists of the “words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love”.  It’s no accident that the Unitarian Universalist campaigns for marriage equality and immigration reform and other interfaith public advocacy issues come under the heading of “Standing on the Side of Love”.

Love in our world may not literally be a mystical force that magically grants protection from evil, as it is in Harry Potter’s world, but it comes very close.  It is love that gives us strength in the face of suffering.  It is love that gives us courage to call injustice to account.  It is love that heals our relationships with one another and with our world.  So how do we respond to evil?  We choose love.

May it be so.

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Sky and Water, Land and Spirit

(I delivered this sermon for Earth Day at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on April 21st 2013.)Born with a Bang

Children’s Story: Born with a Bang: the Universe Tells Our Cosmic Story by Jennifer Morgan

Reading: from Song by Philemon Sturges

A few weeks ago I talked about someone I’d met through an organization called the Institute on Religion in an Age of SciencePhilemon had been challenged to write a book about the Epic of Evolution, which is one name for the scientific creation story of the Universe, the Earth and Life as we know it.  As a successful children’s author, he’d accepted the challenge to write not just another technical, scholarly book, but a book for children, and to write it not just in ordinary prose, but in poetry.

The working title of the book was Song, a metaphor for the creative processes of the cosmos itself.  This reading tells the portion of the story where an ancestral supernova created the heavy elements that would later form our solar system, our planet and ourselves.

Quite long ago, yet not so far
from here, there was a giant star.
Tiamat’s the perfect name
for that great sphere of searing flame.
Her balance-dancing did not last.
She ‘xploded with a thund’rous blast.
That roaring fiery furnace forged
new elements.  They were disgorged
into surrounding space, and then
were gracefully gathered back again.

Her stardust gyred and slowly spun;
soon gravity’s great work was done.
Though Tiamat was sorely riven,
her godlike gift of gold was given.

A mellow star was born — our Sun.
Of his [eight] planets there was one
that balance-danced ‘twixt heat and cold,
and there Song’s singing could unfold.

Air-wrapped Earth was bathed in water.
The circling Moon, Her clinging daughter,
stirred amniotic air and sea.
Soon gyring eddies came to be.

As Earth basked in the warming Sun,
Song’s birthing song was softly sung:

Gently turn, slowly spin,
my warmth transforms what errs within.
What once was simple now shall be
imbued with new complexity.

Then, in a still mysterious way,
near a vent, on crystal clay,
or on the edge of tidal sea,
emerged a new complexity.
Two mirrored molecules entwined.
Our Mother, Life, was born.
(And now, perhaps, Her daughter — Mind.)

Anthem: “Above the Moon, Earth Rises

Sermon: “Sky and Water, Land and Spirit”

When I was seven years I started at a new school.  At the back of the room where I had all of my classes other than art and music, there was a tall bookcase, crammed with books suitable for seven-year-olds.  The teacher told us that we were to choose one of the books, to read it as class-time allowed, and, when we were done with it, to select another and repeat.  All of the other children picked books like The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan and The Hobbit.  I picked a book about the solar system.  And when I’d finished reading that one, I picked a book about atoms.

My teacher patiently explained to me that those weren’t really the books that she wanted me to read.  Eventually she succeeded in getting me to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — and I owe her my thanks for my enjoyment of reading ever since — but I have to admit that my interest in the science books wasn’t because of the science, at least at first, but because of the pictures in the books — gorgeous photographs of planets and galaxies, beautiful illustrations of particles too small to see — and they captured my imagination.  It was an incredible feeling to try to wrap my mind around the immensities of space and time, so far beyond anything I’d experienced in my barely begun life, or to think about how everything that I believed to be solid — books, chairs, my own body — was made up of these miniscule bits of matter that were actually mostly empty space.

And I guess there’s an important lesson for all of us, whether we’re teachers or not.  If you want to get somebody to do something, particularly if it involves thinking in a new way, and not just to do it but really to commit to doing it, you’ve got to capture their imagination.  Because after reading those books on planets and atoms, I was hooked.  I’d had an interest in mechanical devices and machinery, thanks to a few children’s television programs I’d seen as well as some of the toys my parents had given me, but now I didn’t just want to build the machines myself: I wanted to figure out how they worked.  I wanted to figure out how everything worked, how we could be part of the same Universe, from atoms up through planets and with us living our lives there in the middle.

NASA: Earthrise at Christmas

NASA: Earthrise at Christmas
Click for more details.

Humanity’s understanding of the Universe has come a long way in my life-time, of course.  Apollo 11 landed on the Moon just a couple of years before I was born.  This picture was taken by Apollo 8 only a little before that, on Christmas Eve 1968, to be precise.  It has inspired a generation of would-be astronauts, as well as the words by preacher and poet Thomas Troeger that the choir sang a few minutes ago, and gave its name to the Fellowship’s Earth-centered spirituality group, EarthRising.  Then there’s the cosmic microwave background — the low level hum of energy that fills all space — that had been discovered earlier in the 1960s, a phenomenon that, as we have studied it, has revolutionized our knowledge about the Big Bang and the evolution of the Universe.

Fifty years later, we know more precisely than ever that the Universe is a little less than fourteen billion years old.  Much as we might be tempted to ask what happened before the Universe was created, that’s not a very meaningful question because time itself didn’t exist before then either.  There was no “before” before.  The metaphor that cosmologist Stephen Hawking gives is that asking what happened before time began is like asking what’s north of the north pole.

One idea about how the Universe was created is that there was an unstable fluctuation in what is known as the quantum vacuum.  To try to explain that, let me simply say that in quantum mechanics, what we might think of as nothingness is actually boiling with activity, with energy appearing and disappearing far too quickly for us to notice.  Only, 13.8 billion years ago, some of that energy didn’t disappear and instead blew up.  As described in this morning’s children’s story, the early Universe expanded and cooled down enough for some of that energy to turn into particles.  They were created with their anti-matter equivalents, which annihilated each other back into energy, but as the particle physicists who work at Jefferson Labs can tell us, there’s a very slight imbalance built into the laws of physics and so there was just a little matter left over.  That slight excess of matter, of course, is what everything that exists today — you, me, this building, this planet — is made from.

NASA: Best Map Ever of the Universe

NASA: Best Map Ever of the Universe
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After a few hundred thousand years, the Universe was cool enough for atoms to form, mostly hydrogen with some helium.  Now this is a picture of the cosmic microwave background, a map of the whole sky that was completed just last year after nine years of gathering data.  It shows very slight irregularities in the distribution of energy in the very early Universe, as a result of which there were places where, even under the very weak pull of gravity between hydrogen atoms, those atoms could be gathered together and eventually form galaxies.

NASA: Pillars of Creation

NASA: Pillars of Creation
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In places where enough hydrogen could collect, of course, gravity squeezed the hydrogen atoms together until nuclear fusion took place, and stars were born.  This is a process that continues even today, in places such as the Eagle Nebula.  This picture was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope; to give you an idea of the scale here, the column on the left is six or seven light years in length.  The Eagle Nebula, by the way, is about seven thousand light years away from us, which means that, given the finite speed of light, we’re actually seeing the nebula as it was seven thousand years ago in the past.

Now only a decade or two ago there was an idea that in our part of the galaxy there was once a very large star, much bigger than our Sun.  In the children’s story, this was called the Mother Star, while others have called it Tiamat, which in Babylonian mythology is the name of the primordial goddess who gives birth to the other gods.  The idea was that this star exploded and, as a supernova, produced carbon, nitrogen, calcium, iron and other heavy elements that were scattered across space.  Given another billion years or so, enough of those elements, along with plenty of the original hydrogen that was still around, had condensed to form our solar system, with the Sun shining at its center.  More recently, astrophysicists have concluded that at least twenty such ancestral stars exploded, contributing the elements that made our solar system, so Tiamat was not a single star but a community of stars.

At the same time that we’ve been making these discoveries, astronomers have also discovered planets around other stars — and some of those other planets are about the same size as the Earth or are orbiting their star at just the right distance for liquid water to exist, which is generally believed to be one of the pre-conditions for life to emerge.  Those solar systems were similarly formed from the elements resulting from ancestral supernovas, so perhaps our solar system isn’t that unique, though we cannot say as yet whether any of those other planets have anything we’d recognize as life on them or not.

In any case, our planet, life as we know it and everything that makes us up was produced by dying stars.  As astronomer Carl Sagan and others have since put it, “We are made of star stuff.”  We all come from the same raw materials.  And we are alive today because, billions of years ago, those stars died.

Of course, once the Earth had formed and the bombardment of comets and other space debris had eased off, the story switches from cosmological evolution to biological evolution.  That’s a topic for a future sermon, but I want to note that it’s in biology that the principle of interdependence is particularly obvious.  After all, the air we breathe and the water we drink and the food we eat are all parts of a vast system of cycles that, powered by sunlight and otherwise left to themselves, support life on this planet just as they have for millions of years.  Everything that makes us what we are was once somewhere else in and on the Earth, even as, billions of years before that, it came from a supernova.

Now there’s apparently a Serbian proverb that captures these ideas and suggests what we might do with them:  “Be humble for you are made of earth.  Be noble for you are made of stars.”  Actually I suspect that the Serbian word translated “earth” here more literally means “soil”, since I’ve seen another translation that says: “Be humble for you are made of dung.”  And there’s little that’s more humble than that.

Yes, we should all be uplifted to know that we are made of stars, but we need a good dose of humility, too.  It’s all too easy to look at the progression from energy to matter to life to consciousness, even to claim (and not metaphorically) that stars died so that we might live, and then to conclude that, well, the point of the whole thing was obviously to produce conscious beings as a way for the Universe to be aware of itself.  There’s even something called the Anthropic Principle that claims that the Universe must be the way it is in order for there to be intelligent life that is able to see that the Universe is the way it is.  But when we’re talking about conscious beings, of course, we know we’re really talking about human beings.  After all, wouldn’t we like to think that the whole point of the Big Bang and everything that happened in the fourteen billion years since was to produce us as the pinnacle not only of biological evolution but of cosmological evolution, too?  That seems awfully arrogant to me.

Sometimes, though, it’s easier to be arrogant, to be conceited, to be unquestioningly sure of ourselves, than it is to be humble.  Humility takes courage.  Humility requires that we question ourselves, that we think about things beyond ourselves, that we think of ourselves not in the spotlight at the center of the cosmic stage but as part of an interdependent web where our true value comes from our relationships and not from our fantasies about self-reliance.  It takes courage to hear the scientific creation story of the Universe and embrace its implications for how we are to live on this Earth, how we are to treat one another, and how we are to treat the special planet that supports such diversity of life, not just ours.

For example, Carl Sagan pleaded with NASA during the 1980s to have the first Voyager spacecraft take a particular picture.  Voyager had swung past Saturn up and out of the plane of the solar system, and Sagan wanted it to glance homeward one last time.  It almost didn’t happen — a few project personnel claimed it wasn’t “science” and the project’s technicians were being laid off — but an administrator intervened just in time and so Voyager 1 took its photograph of the Earth — from a distance of more than four billion miles.

NASA: Pale Blue Dot

NASA: Pale Blue Dot
Click for more details.

You may have seen that photo.  Here it is, in fact.  Against an almost black background, a beam of sunlight, reflected off the spacecraft, slants across the picture.  As if suspended in the light, like a tiny bit of blue dust, is our planet.

Describing the photograph, Sagan wrote the following.

“That’s here.  That’s home.  That’s us.  On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.  The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar’, every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Sagan continued.  “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.  Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.  Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.  Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.  Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.  In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

And Sagan concluded with this.  “It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character building experience.  There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.  To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

We are all called to embrace this cosmic perspective, and to do so joyfully.  Our Earth, this pale blue dot that is our blue boat home, is small, but it is special and so very precious.  It is unique, so far as we know, and so are we.  For we are made of earth and should be humble, but along with the Earth we are also made of the noble stars.  Rather than being at odds with one another, though, the humility and the nobility go hand-in-hand, asking us not to look down on our world and one another in superiority but calling us instead to look up to creation in wonder.

The living tradition that is Unitarian Universalism is based on the truth that we are most human when we are in right relationship with one another and with the world around us.  For the fact of our interdependence is manifest in the Unitarian assertion that “We are all in this together.”  And our faith in a better future — in the only way that salvation can really work, which is in this life — is expressed by the Universalist assertion that “Together we shall be well.”  The scientific creation story of the Universe affirms that there is a unity that makes us one, but it is up to us, all of us, working together, to ensure that the future is hospitable to humanity.

We are called to honor the Earth and to honor one another, to care for our blue boat home and to nurture the irreplaceable spark of divinity within each of us.  May we strive to answer that call, now and always.

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The Messiah Is Among You

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on January 27th 2013.)

There was once a monastery that had fallen on hard times.  As the years passed there were fewer and fewer novices and some of the younger monks began leaving in dissatisfaction.  Few people from the surrounding villages would even visit any more.  Eventually only a handful of elderly monks remained and they argued amongst themselves, each blaming the monastery’s decline on the faults and failings of the others.  Their leader, the abbot, didn’t know what to do.

Now an old friend of the abbot’s was a rabbi who had recently retired to live in a small cottage near the monastery.  After years of only seeing one another when the abbot had cause to travel into town, they were able to renew their friendship with more regular visits.  The rabbi and the abbot would sit together, drinking tea and remembering the good old days back when they were both students.

On one of his visits to see the rabbi, the abbot brought up the problems at the monastery.  This was not the first time the rabbi had heard about the situation that so troubled his friend, but this time the abbot specifically asked for advice, particularly something that he could share with the other monks that might encourage them and perhaps even stop them from fighting with each other.

Hearing the abbot’s question, the rabbi was quiet for some time, sipping his tea as he thought.  As the silence stretched on, the abbot couldn’t contain himself.  “Don’t you have some advice that might save my monastery?” he begged his friend.

“Your monks will not listen to my advice,” the rabbi replied, somewhat sadly, “but perhaps they would benefit from an observation.”

“Yes?” said the abbot hopefully.  “Have you noticed something about the monastery that we ourselves have not?”

“I think so,” answered the rabbi, “and it is this: the Messiah is among you.”

That abbot was initially lost for words.  It seemed an outrageous claim, but he trusted his friend, so when he regained his composure he asked, as respectfully as he could, “The Messiah is among us?  But who is it?”

“As to that,” the rabbi replied, “I cannot say.  But I know that it is true beyond all doubt.  The Messiah is among you.  Share this with your monks and in time the truth will be revealed.”

Well, the abbot couldn’t wait to get back to the monastery.  Taking one last gulp of tea, he thanked his friend profusely, jumped up out of his chair, grabbed his coat and, without even taking the time to put it on, ran out of the cottage and across the meadow.  Arriving breathlessly back at the monastery, he managed to convey to the first monk he saw that he wanted everyone to meet in the chapel.  By the time they arrived, he had recovered enough to address them.

“My brothers,” the abbot said, “I have incredible news.  I have just been told, without any room for doubt or question, the following.  The Messiah is among you.”

The monks immediately started talking.  “One of us?  Here?  But who?  How can that be?”  Raising his hands to quiet them, the abbot explained what the rabbi had told him, and then instructed them to be about their work while they reflected on the amazing news.  And as the monks did their chores, each wondered to himself.

“It couldn’t be Brother Samuel, could it?  He always forgets when it’s his turn to do the washing up after meals.  But then, he brings such lovely flowers to decorate the tables.”

“Surely it’s not Brother Albert!  He’s always muttering to himself, and when he’s not muttering it’s because he’s being rude.  But then, he’s always the first there to look after us if we get sick.”

“What about Brother Leo?  He’s always dirty, and he smells bad, too.  But then, that’s because he works so hard in the field, growing the most delicious vegetables.”

“And I can’t believe it’s Brother Thomas!  He always spills ink all over the desk where we write out the scriptures.  But then, his drawings and decorations of the scripts are so vivid and beautiful.”

The monks continued to try to figure out who amongst them might be the Messiah, but none of them came to any conclusions.  Still, they realized that they could sometimes see the Messiah in one another’s faces; they could sometimes hear the Messiah in one another’s voices.  And they began to treat one another more kindly and more fairly, just in case.

And as time passed, the villagers noticed that something was different about the monastery, and they began visiting more often.  And more of the young men who came to inquire about training as novices decided to stay.  And the elderly monks and their abbot found themselves at peace, content to enjoy their golden years doing what they loved while all about them the monastery thrived.

[This is one variant of the same story found in many places, including Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World by Elisa Davy Pearmain.  Some story-tellers give credit for the original story to Francis Dorff, O. Praem, of the Norbertine Community of Alberquerque NM.]

I first heard this story a few years ago and it stuck with me.  It speaks to what we all want in a healthy community, I think, which is people treating one another kindly and fairly in spite of their faults and failings, the kind of spiritual health that is not only good for the community itself but is also a beacon of hope to the wider world.  The story does use one idea that is specific to Christianity and Judaism, though it can always be re-told in different cultural settings.

That idea of the Messiah comes from the Hebrew word “mashiach”, which literally means “anointed one”.  It refers to a king or a high priest traditionally annointed with holy oil, and in the Hebrew Bible is used to refer to a number of people, including the non-Jewish king, Cyrus of Persia, who released the Jews from their exile in Babylon and commissioned the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple.  More often, though, the Messiah refers to a future Jewish king, of the line of David, who will rule the reunited tribes of Israel and usher in an age of world peace.  As such, there are many passages in the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Isaiah, that describe the qualities and actions of such a leader.

Now somewhere in the third century Before the Common Era, scholars in Alexandria began the process of translating the Torah into Greek, since, as legend has it, the Jews living in Egypt at the time were not fluent in Hebrew, whereas Greek was spoken throughout the eastern Roman Empire.  By the time of Jesus, that Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which became known as the Septuagint, was already in wide use by Jews all around the Mediterranean, including those living in Palestine, which is unfortunate because the Septuagint has a number of mis-translations.  One of those, for example, is the sentence in Isaiah that, in the Greek, refers to a messiah being born of a virgin, whereas in the Hebrew the word translated “virgin” doesn’t mean virgin at all but rather means a young woman of child-bearing age.

In any case, the Hebrew word “mashiach” was translated into Greek as “khristos”, which also means “anointed one”.  So when a new religion started to emerge around the idea of Jesus as the anointed savior, he was given the honorific “Christ” and his followers called themselves “Christians”.  And yet, since Jesus hadn’t fulfilled many of the expectations of the Messiah, those early Christians assumed that he would soon return to complete all of the prophecies.

In other words, while the rabbi and the abbot in the story could both come together over the idea of the Messiah being hidden in their midst, the difference was that for the abbot it would be the Messiah’s second coming whereas for the rabbi it would only be his first.  Either way, as the story goes, the possibility that any one of the monks might be the Messiah causes them all to pause before judging one another, to focus more on the good aspects of each other’s character and behavior, something that would be nice, of course, if we could all do it all of the time.

Now in Unitarian Universalism there is no Messiah concept as there is in Judaism or Christianity.  I don’t know when it dropped out of our common theology, though I’m guessing that the Universalist side of our religious tradition held onto it longer, given that the Unitarian side emerged from Christianity around the primary faith claim that Jesus was, in fact, fully human, rather than God incarnated in human form.

Perhaps, though, we don’t need to believe in a Messiah as such to arrive at the place where we can treat one another kindly and fairly in spite of our faults and failings.  There are, after all, other faith claims — or, at least, other religious metaphors — that might work just as well.

For instance, one of the things I remember a former minister of mine talking about was the idea that there’s a spark of the divine within each of us.  Actually I remember hearing that idea from a local rabbi, too.  It’s a more Universalist idea than it is Unitarian, another version of the claim that we are all children of God, and the beauty of that, for me, is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a literal faith claim or a religious metaphor.  What does matter is how we treat one another, and if we can see something of good, of value, of worth, even of divinity in one another, then maybe we’ll treat one another accordingly.

Actually, the same faith claim is already familiar to us, just in more humanist language.  Rather than referring to the spark of the divine within each of us, we can speak of “the inherent worth and dignity of each person”, but it’s just another version of that same classical Universalist claim that we are all children of God.  And it’s no accident that the promise that goes along with that Principle is to “listen actively and speak and act respectfully to others”.

So why did I end our Responsive Reading with what is otherwise the First Principle, and thus the First Promise, rather than putting them, well, first?

There’s a school of thought within and beyond Unitarian Universalism that, out of all Seven Principles, the one that is truly theological is the seventh, which speaks of the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  Some people have suggested that it should actually be listed first, since it’s the foundation and context for the other six principles.  That’s why I listed the Promises in reverse order, moving from the interdependent web of all existence, the grandest scale of being imaginable, down to the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

For as I have claimed before, our inherent worth and dignity only makes sense within the larger context of our interdependence, calling us to relate to one another in life-affirming ways.  So I was glad to see that the promise that goes along with the Seventh Principle is to “live lightly on the Earth, beginning with our church community”.  But what does that mean?

Well, in the words of welcome that our lay leader spoke at the start of the service, you heard one meaning of that.  “The Fellowship is working to integrate reverence, gratitude and care for the living Earth into everything we do.  By committing to sustainable lifestyles as individuals and as a faith community, we are on the path to official recognition as a Green Sanctuary congregation.”  Doing the intentional, soulful work required to become a Green Sanctuary is indeed one way that our own church community aspires to live lightly on the Earth.

But there’s another side to what it means to be a church community living with awareness of the interdependent web of all existence, and that’s to recognize that we, here, in this congregation, form our own interdependent web in miniature, and awareness of that relates directly to how well we truly believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

This was brought home to me in a particularly clear way about a year ago, when the Board was evaluating me as part of the final phase of assessing my fellowship as a minister with the Unitarian Universalist Association.  The UUFP Board included this comment in their evaluation: “Rev. Millard needs to continue to remind each of us about the larger mission of the UUFP and that our individual interests can only be met if the UUFP itself is vibrant and healthy and functions as an integrated organization.”

“Our individual interests can only be met if the UUFP itself is vibrant and healthy and functions as an integrated organization.”  I think that’s what the monks in the story discovered for themselves.  They didn’t have any understanding of their interdependence, so they needed someone to point them in the right direction so they might discover it for themselves.  The rabbi’s observation that “the Messiah is among you” prodded them into being more careful in the ways they related to one another, and ultimately that allowed them to be more caring, too, finally able to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of one another, no matter their apparent faults and failings.

The monks had a big advantage, though.  They were already on the same page theologically in terms of what they believed about the Messiah and what would be appropriate behavior toward the Messiah.  The rabbi’s observation, then, was all that was necessary to help them behave in those same ways toward one another.

I think a similar case can be made for us on the basis of our Seven Principles, but it’s not nearly so simple.  Belief in an anointed savior figure who will return in glory to bring peace to the world is, for many people, very compelling; for some people, in fact, it may be the only thing that keeps them going in life.  Our Seven Principles, however, are not nearly so compelling.

Oh, intellectually they’re very reasonable.  The ideas they contain are certainly big and important, but at face value they’re also mostly abstract.  The words themselves are hardly poetic.  As promises that congregations make to one another in order to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, and even rewritten as promises that we make to each other as individual Unitarian Universalists striving to grow the Beloved Community, we need to find ways to internalize them, to truly make them part of our souls, rather than leaving them as rather abstract ideals with which we agree intellectually but don’t always live.

And I think that’s one of the things that attracted me to Charles Wesley’s hymn, “I Want a Principle Within”, quite apart from the great tune to which it is usually sung.  Because, aside from Wesley’s eighteenth century obsession with sin and temptation and more sin and the blood of Jesus, he really was expressing a yearning for the strengthening of his own moral compass to help him find the good at those times when his own heart and mind would wander away from his best self.  I like to think that one of the most important things we can do as Unitarian Universalists is cultivate such a principle within ourselves that helps us to figure out right from wrong.  Yes, these written Principles, these mostly abstract and regrettably unpoetic words, speak to important truths, but reading them, even saying them out loud together, is only the first step in a journey together, a long journey that involves removing the splinters from our souls.

And how do we do that?  Well, only at each and every moment of our lives.  Let me give you a simple example.

Within the first few months of living about a mile the other side of Warwick Boulevard from here, I became convinced that I knew where, one day, I would die.  And that’s because, on those days when I drove to work, I had to get across the intersection on Warwick to get here, and then to get home again.  And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the turn lanes on the side streets either side of Warwick don’t quite line up, and not having any signals on is, I have discovered, an indication to most other drivers that I intend to turn right.  Or left, for that matter, but definitely not straight, and cars would regularly cut across the intersection in front of me — or screech to a halt when they noticed that I was actually going straight through.  After a while, the urge to honk was too much for me to withstand, and often there was swearing involved, too.

Well, sometime last year I realized that I ought to be better than that.  Rather than getting angry and impatient, I decided to try compassion instead.

If someone didn’t understand what my lack of signaling meant, well, I could wait patiently until I knew what they were going to do first.  If they really had to cut across the intersection in front of me, well, I could hope for them that they reached their destination safely.  If it took me a few more seconds to get to the office or to get home, or even a couple more minutes if I missed the light, well, I could be grateful that my commute was barely one mile.  And maybe it’s just me, but it has seemed to me lately that more of the people coming to that intersection from both side streets, most of whom are turning left or right onto Warwick, are better at letting cars go straight across, and, for that matter, better at signaling their own turns, than they were a couple of years ago.

I’ve tried the same change in attitude in other settings, too — when I’m on the telephone talking to someone in customer service about some frustration, for instance.  I don’t always succeed — I’m the first to recognize that I’m no saint — but whenever I can, I remind myself to look for the spark of the divine in the other person, and to treat them accordingly.

This is something that we can all do, at each and every moment of our lives.  You can start by picking one person with whom you interact and, without telling them, imagine what it might mean if they were the Messiah.  Try looking for that spark of the divine in them.  Think about what it would really mean to truly believe in their inherent worth and dignity.  See how it changes your behavior toward that person if you can see them in that way.  And if you notice that you’re treating that person more kindly and fairly in spite of their faults and failings, try it with other people, too.

For this is the soul work that we are called to do.  In our mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, we are called to cultivate a spiritual health that is not only good for our congregation but is also a beacon of hope to the wider world.  Everything we say and do is a chance to grow the Beloved Community, bringing the interdependent web of all existence into our hearts and minds and hands so that we might know one another’s inherent worth and dignity.

So may it be.

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Consideration and Loving-Kindness

May I be well; may I be happy; may I be free from suffering.
May my good friend be well; may they be happy; may they be free from suffering.
May the neutral person be well; may they be happy; may they be free from suffering.
May the difficult person be well; may they be happy; may they be free from suffering.
May we four be well; may we be happy; may we be free from suffering.
May all beings be well; may all beings be happy; may all beings be free from suffering.

— Metta (loving-kindness) meditation based on the Theravada Buddhist Path to Purification

Think of a time when you’ve been in an argument.  Maybe it was with someone you value as a good friend or with a family member you love.  Or maybe it was with someone with whom you rarely agree at the best of times.  Think about what was driving your side of the argument.  Were you trying to make a point?  Were you trying to defend yourself from what you felt was an unfair accusation?  Were you trying to explain why you thought that the other person was mistaken?  Were you trying to convince the other person of what you thought was a better course of action?

I know I’ve been in arguments for all these reasons and more.  Some of them were modest disagreements with no raised voices or unkind words.  Others of them… weren’t.  Particularly if the other person is someone I respect, like or love, though, there can be as much of an argument going on within myself as there is between me and the other: the belief in my own truth and the feeling of my own righteousness sometimes overpowers my desire to treat the other person’s beliefs with fairness and their feelings with consideration.  In this way there’s often a tension between our passion — for a plan or a cause or a world-view — and our compassion — for those with whom we disagree as well as for ourselves.

The general consensus of opinion concerning last year’s shooting of Rep. Giffords and others in Tucson is that it wasn’t directly caused by the poor quality of public discourse in the country, yet there’s also general agreement that we owe the victims and the survivors our efforts to do better.  Heated arguments are nothing new, whether in politics or elsewhere in society, but there doesn’t seem to be a good reason as to why it needs to be that way.  Passionate speech for or against a particular issue is to be expected, but name-calling and epithets bordering on slander are at best a distraction and at worst destructive of the public soul.  It’s past time for compassion to be a part of our civic discourse.

This isn’t about “political correctness”, going to great lengths to censor ourselves for fear that we might offend anyone for any reason whatsoever.  Fear rarely allows for rational behavior, and the only way to be sure to never offend anyone is to never say anything (and, for that matter, to never be present).  It’s also not about giving in or wishy-washy compromise, much less empty and value-less moral relativism.  If we are to truly affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we must also expect every person to be accountable for their words (and their actions).

It is, rather, about consideration and loving-kindness.  In recognition of our common humanity, we can begin by assuming that the person with whom we are arguing is, like us, doing so sincerely out of their own convictions.  As James M. Barrie put it, “Never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own.”  In recognition of our own limits as finite beings, we can try to abide by one of the many variants of the Golden Rule found throughout the world’s religions.  And in recognition of our interdependence as human beings in community and living beings in Nature, we might find ways to yoke the passion of our love for ideas and beliefs to the compassion of our loving-kindness for ourselves, one another and the world.  In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation.  The foundation of such a method is love.”

May you and I be well.  May the friend and the stranger be well.  May the one who works with us and the one who works against us be well.  May we be happy.  May we be free from suffering.

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Covenant in the Face of Reality

“The people’s covenant is a covenant with the essential character and intention of reality.  It is not merely a covenant between human beings; it is a covenant between human beings in the face of reality.  The fundamental demands and possibilities of reality are not created by humans but exist in its very nature.  The understanding of reality is appropriate only when it is seen in terms of an ethical covenant.  The covenant is with the creative, sustaining, commanding, judging, transforming power.”

— “The Prophetic Covenant and Social Concern”, James Luther Adams

A couple of years ago I visited the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Durango, Colorado, where I had been invited to preach.  My sermon was entitled “The Dance of Freedom and Responsibility”, referring to the Fourth Principle — “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote … a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” — and the struggles we face in our everyday lives between the “fundamental American ideology of individualism”, as linguist Ronald Scollon named it, and the inescapable inevitability of our interdependence within families, cultures and societies, not to mention the biosphere itself.

During my sermon I used the word “covenant” a few times, and in discussion over coffee following the service I was asked what I meant by it.  Now in part because I was nearing the end of my years in theological school but also because I was working with District staff and ministers, I knew that Unitarian Universalism was beginning to rediscover the power of covenant.  I was beginning to understand how it was the gift of our religious tradition — indeed, how it is our gift to the world.  I was starting to see how covenant connects us in the process of becoming human, recognizing that we may not always get it right and that success comes through faithfulness not fallibility, and how it embraces us, in the words of James Luther Adams, as “the charter and responsibility and joy of worship in the face of death as well as life.”

What came to mind, though, was the Homeowner’s Association where we lived, and how visitors to the development were greeted first by big letters on a wall ominously spelling out “A Covenant-Controlled Community”, and then by a number of other signs forbidding some activities and threatening others.  With this mental image I realized that, in some people’s vocabulary, “covenant” might not be an altogether positive word.  (Even those free of the often petty tyranny of an HOA might have heard of it as the name of a crime organization in the television show “Alias” or the mysterious force that wreaks havoc on Jim Carrey’s character in the movie “Yes Man”, neither of which are glowing recommendations!)

So, trying to undo some of the damage done to the idea of covenant, I proceeded to talk with the Durango UUs about it in terms of the promises we make with one another concerning both our individual and collective behavior, promises to bring our best selves to our relationships so that, as UUs, we can be “a church of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hand.”  It has since occurred to me, however, that covenant isn’t just about voluntary promises — and, indeed, the HOA use of the term (and even its part in “Yes Man”) isn’t completely off-base.

For there are “fundamental demands and possibilities of reality” that constrain our behavior as human beings.  From the impossibility of exceeding the speed of light — as the bumper sticker says, “186,000 miles/second: It’s not just a good idea; it’s the law!” — to the inadvisability of changing ecosystems in unsustainable ways to the illegality of neglecting turn signals while driving, there are plenty of times we find ourselves part of arrangements not of our own making nor often of our own choosing.  Aside from the hard laws of physics or even the soft laws of biology, though, we are nonetheless faced with choices when it comes to human laws, whether the covenants of HOAs or the rules of the road.  How do we respond to what we see as injustice, for instance?  Bearing responsibility for the character of our own society, how do we speak truth to power?  If working within the system fails to bend the arc of the moral universe, when is civil disobedience justified?

Born into a world we did not create, it is through the choices we make that we help one another become human.  What do your choices say about your becoming?

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