What The World Needs Now

Reading
excerpted from “Live For It” by Ellen Bass[i]

Jasmine unfolding, the scent and color attracting the bees,
the darker veins guiding them toward the nectar,
honey in honeycombs, worms aerating soil,
the levity of bird bones,
fins of fish, the eye blinking—
who could have ever conceived it?

The crescent moon, tender as new love in the luminescent blue,
Milkweed silk—who could have imagined it?

And my lover, when she lifts her lips to me
and I first feel that softness,
warm like summer nights as a child
when she rubs against me like fur
and small cries escape my mouth like birds,
“Sing to me,” she breathes
and I sing glory I did not know was mine to sing.

What is this but a miracle?
What is this but the improbable, marvelous reward of desire?

Desire—that fire I was taught to suspect,
that intensity I struggled to calm.
“Don’t want too much,” the voices warned.

No.  Want.  Want life.
Want this fragile oasis of the galaxy to flourish.
Want fertility, want seasons, want this spectacular
array of creatures,
this brilliant balance of need.
Want it.  Want it all.

Desire.  Welcome her raging power.
May her strength course through us.
Desire, she is life.  Desire life.
Allow ourselves to desire life, to want this sweetness
so passionately, that we live for it.

 

What The World Needs Now

(Offered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Chico, February 10, 2019)

What does it mean to love and be loved?  What is healthy love and what is not?   What is the place of love in human life on earth, and why does it matter?

In the field of systematic theology, these questions fall into the category of theological anthropology, or human nature in relation to the divine.  Wow, you may be saying, that sounds dull.  I thought we were going to be talking about eros today!  I was expecting something a little more, shall we say, exciting?

Okay, let’s talk about eros.

Have you ever stood in a winter storm with your arms open wide and your face to the wind and felt it scour you clean?  In the summer, have you ever been so hot that you slipped off all your clothes and slid naked into a cold river?  Have you ever stood between the rising of the full moon, and the setting of the brilliant sun, and felt the turning of the earth?  Have you ever lost yourself in music or painting or sculpting, or danced in joy until dawn?  Have you ever tasted a strawberry picked straight from the plant and nearly swooned as the bright flavor exploded in your mouth?  Have you ever made love with another person and felt, if only for a moment, your two selves become one?  Has longing ever pierced your heart?  Has beauty ever made you cry?

These are erotic experiences, experiences in which we feel the life force moving through us and responding to the life all around us.  We feel a longing to intimately participate in this life; we long to know and be known, to love and be loved.  We see beauty and respond by creating more beauty; we are the world consciously loving itself.  We are part of a great communion of all life.

Erotic love is one of the most joyful pathways human beings can follow to awakening to this communion.  Relationships based on mutual care and pleasure provide refuge and sustenance for their partners.  These would be wonderful enough, but even more is possible.  The ecstatic awareness that comes with erotic love can be a magic portal.  Through it people can enter a new relationship with what some call the interdependent universe and others call the divine.  Do you remember your first mutual love?  Did colors seem brighter?  Did birds seem to be singing in a language you could almost understand?  Did every breeze seem to caress your skin?  Did the moon seem to hang low and lush, just for you?  The heightening of our senses that comes with desire can make us exquisitely aware of our interbeing with all that is.

This was what happened to a Muslim man named Mevlana Jelal Ad Din Muhammad Rumi, in 13th century Persia.  Rumi, as Americans call him, was born in what is now Afghanistan and moved to what is now Turkey as boy.  He was a respected scholar and jurist—until the fateful day when a wandering ascetic named Shams came into his life.  Shams means Sun in Arabic, and for Rumi Shams was his sun.  He fell madly in love.  His love for Shams opened his whole being so wide that he began regularly to experience all life and love as One, in Arabic called Allah, THE One. In the mystical school of Islam that Rumi began, Allah is said to have created the universe that Allah might be known by Allah.  In other words, the universe both is God and is a mirror of God; in still other words, the universe is Godself becoming.  In still yet other words, humans are the divine beholding the divine, both Lover and Beloved.  The job of lovers is to see the divine in each other and grow, through love, toward union with the whole.  In Islam, there is a concept of the unity of all creation.  It is a communion of all life and the divine, from which human beings often feel cut off, but long for.  The name of this concept is tawhid.  According to Rumi’s teachings, this communion, this state of participation in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, is what we seek when we love.

Here is one of Rumi’s ecstatic poems:

Some Kiss We Want

There is some kiss we want with
our whole lives, the touch of
spirit on the body.

Seawater begs the pearl
to break its shell.

And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild darling!

At night, I open the window and ask
the moon to come and press its
face against mine.
Breathe into me.

Close the language- door and
open the love window. The moon
won’t use the door, only the window. [ii]

Rumi taught that when we love well, when we move past the limitations of our own ego, when we reach consciousness of our unity with the divine whole that is our world, we have no choice but to love that whole and care for every part and being.  Rumi taught his followers to love and care for peoples of all religions, castes, and nations, as well as the other creatures of the earth.

Hafiz was another Persian poet from this same school of thought.  Here is one of his works, which can be found in the back of our gray hymnal.

“Cloak yourself in a thousand ways; still shall I know you, my Beloved.
Veil yourself with every enchantment, and yet I shall feel you, presence, most close, dear, and intimate.
I shall salute you in the springing of cypresses and in the sheen of lakes, the laughter of fountains.
I shall surely see you in the tumbling clouds, in brightly embroidered meadows.

Oh, Beloved Presence, More beautiful than all the stars together,
I trace your face in ivy that climbs,
in clusters of grapes,
in morning flaming the mountains,
in the clear arch of sky.
You gladden the whole earth and make every heart great.
You are the breathing of the world.”[iii]

In this way of understanding, eros, the life force, our drive to love, is the divine moving in us, making us aware, giving us our ability to perceive beauty, making us long for union with all that is.  These Islamic teachers express an idea of the divine as both immanent—fully present in this world now—and transcendent.  Transcendent in this case not meaning something separate and apart, but rather a reality that is greater than the sum of its parts, something of which we are members and in which we participate.

One thing that might occur to you as I speak of these teachings is how familiar they sound.  Do they sound a little bit Unitarian Universalist? The unity of the divine, and the divine as both immanent and transcendent?  The universality of divine love?

This is not actually a coincidence.  Islam directly influenced the development of Unitarianism in eastern Europe, and that influenced American Unitarianism.  The Persian Sufi poets greatly influenced Unitarian and Universalist thinkers, particularly the Transcendentalists.  Think of William Ellery Channing writing:  “Nature is a great shining forth of the Divine Mind.”  And Emerson writing:  “Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball-I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me-I am part or particle of God.”

Partly as a result of these Islamic influences, our faith tradition has a long history of understanding the world as sacred and beautiful, and the human capacity for relationship and sexual love as being one of what Channing called “the powers of the soul.”  Our faith tradition values all healthy erotic relationships.  As Rebecca Parker writes in the book, A House for Hope,

“Eros is more than acceptable in liberal religious understanding, it is revelatory of humanity’s deepest capacities to touch and be touched, to take joy, to be transported and to transport another, to create life… at its best, sexual intimacy can reveal the powers of the soul—our ability to feel and be affected, our capacity for both vulnerability and power, to receive and to give.  It can teach us that we have agency to act in the world and that we can be moved deeply by the presence and the actions of another.  It can transport our hearts into spaces of openness, flexibility, tenderness.  It can renew, refresh, and satisfy our love for life—not only our affection for a beloved, but our affection for the world.  Same-sex affectional and sexual relationships do all this, just as heterosexual relationships can.”[iv]

These understandings directly counter conservative church doctrines holding that the world is corrupt, human sexual love is dangerous, and same-sex love is wrong.  Was anyone here taught these doctrines at some point in your life? According to these doctrines, the only way human beings can reach union with the divine is through obedience to God’s laws.  Rebecca Parker, again, shares an experience she once had in talking to a conservative colleague in ministry about the divide in the Methodist church over same-sex relationships.  She writes:

“Sam felt loved by God when he was obedient to God’s rule…In (his) interpretation of (Genesis), God created humanity in two genders, male and female, and created woman to be man’s helpmate.   Patriarchal heterosexual union is the way God has ordained things to be.  Only by complying…could people receive God’s love and be in right relationship with God…those who turn away from God’s love will suffer the torments of the damned, and those who accept it will be rewarded with eternal life…God’s love, he said, includes rewards and punishments, because human beings are nothing more than selfish, willful children…motivated by what gratifies us, by what we want, not what God wants…For him, love was inseparable from a hierarchical structure of command and obedience.”[v]

Our faith tradition sees this identification of love with “a hierarchical structure of command and obedience” as precisely the problem—in fact, we see it as the biggest problem facing life on earth.  It haunts personal sexual relationships, structures of political and economic power, and our relationships with the whole web of life.  Relationships with each other and the rest of the world that are based on patriarchal dominance, on control, and power over, cause harm.  Between individuals, at best, they limit women’s freedom, and at worst result in outright abuse and violence.  At larger levels, they give rise to industrial capitalism and empires whose machinery and wars endanger all of life on earth.

Unitarian Universalism offers an alternative.  We affirm the beauty and goodness of eros.  We affirm that healthy erotic love between human beings, whatever our sex or gender, can bring us joy.  Not only that, it can be a doorway through which we enter into profound awareness of our interbeing with all life.  Love is the seed, love is the green growing stem, love is the flower, love is the fruit, and love is the seed again of more love.  Love is the life force expressing itself in our human forms.  Eros, desire, longing…when we can let go of our need for control, and surrender to these powerful forces calling us toward communion, toward intimate relationship with the world, in ways that create life and beauty, we fulfill nature’s purpose.  We are ourselves fulfilled.

This is the Unitarian Universalist theological anthropology about eros.   It is what we believe about what it means to love and be loved, what healthy love is, and what the place of love is in human life on earth. And so it is critical that Unitarian Universalists make our voices heard in the public sphere.  Our faith tradition offers a path to healing our broken hearts and our wounded bodies.  It offers a path to healing our broken society, and our relationship with the whole community of life.  As Rebecca Parker writes:

“As we face the future, we need a rebirth of love for life, for the planet, and for one another, grounded in a relational understanding of human existence…There needs to be a (religious) home built on the understanding that all life is interdependent, whose foundation is faithful care, whose threshold is open-hearted welcome, whose kitchen serves any in need, and where love can lie down in peace and take joy.  This kind of love can provide us the nourishment we need to resist the excesses and injustices of market capitalism.  It can instigate more justice and sustainability for the planet.”[vi]

May this community be such a home for love.

Blessed be.

Artwork:  Pink Rhythms Chalice by Peg Green

[i] Bass, Ellen, “Live For It,” from Woman of Power.  Excerpted in Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, eds., 1996Life Prayers From Around the World:  365 Prayers, Blessings, and Affirmations to Celebrate the Human Journey, Harper Collins, San Francisco. Pp. 234-235.

[ii] There are so many translations of Rumi’s poetry online and in print that it is difficult to choose one to cite. A quick Google search will reveal many possibilities.

[iii] The same applies to the poetry of Hafiz.

[iv] Parker, Rebecca Ann, 2010.  “A Home for Love.”  Chapter Nine in Buehrens, John A., and Rebecca Ann Parker, A House for Hope:  The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-First Century.  Beacon Press, Boston.  Pp. 130-131.

[v] Ibid,  pp. 124-125

[vi] Ibid, p. 136.

What We Can Choose

Spirit of Life, Mystery Beyond Mystery:

“This being human is a guest house,”
says the poet, Rumi,
“Every morning a new arrival.
Welcome and entertain them all…
Be grateful, because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

 

We may never plumb
the depths of the mystery
of our life on Earth.

We may never know
why things happen
the way they do.

But we can choose our response.

We can choose
to open our hearts
to what is.

We can choose
to make meaning
from what we are given.

We can choose to create beauty

We can choose to heal brokenness

We can give thanks
for the beauty
and the brokenness,

and we can trust
that we are held,
always,
in love.

Blessed be.

The Life Abundant

Two years ago, my husband and I moved from Davis, California, to Grass Valley.  The first thing we did was plant fruit trees. One day last August, in the sweet early morning, I went to check on the trees, and found, to my delight, that one little tree had grown a single, perfect peach. It was fat and ripe and fragrant. I reached out to tug at it, and it dropped into my upraised hand.

This is my body, grown here for you. These are the words I hear any time I hold a fresh fruit or a vegetable. If there was ever a sign of a covenant between humans and the divine, it is this: we reach out our hands, and ripe fruit drops into them. The act of eating is a communion: we take into our bodies nutrients and water from the dust of long ago stars, distilled by the power of the sun, and the intentions of life itself, into delectable juicy flesh. We partake of the Body of God.

But wait a minute, who is this “we?” Does everyone get to join in this communion? Does everyone get to sit together at our table?

Of course the answer is no. Seven hundred and ninety-five million people are hungry in our world, many of them starving. Seven hundred and ninety-five million. That’s such a big number that it’s hard to make sense of. So let’s take it to a more understandable scale. Let’s imagine shrinking the entire human population to the size of one village of a hundred people. Who are the people and what are the conditions of their lives?

There would be 60 Asians, 14 Africans, and 11 Europeans. Fourteen people would be from the Americas, with only five from Canada and the United States. About half would be female, and half male. Only 16 would consider themselves White, with the other 84 having other identities. 30 would be Christian. The other 70 would not. One person would own over half of all the wealth, and that person would be from the United States. 17 people would be unable to read or write. 15 would be chronically hungry. 23 would have no shelter. 35 would have no sanitation facilities. 13 would have no safe drinking water. 22 would have access to a computer. Seven would have a college education.

Do you have a computer? Do you have a college education? If you do, you are one of the richest people in the world. Do you feel rich?

If we shrank the population of just the United States to a village of 100 people, one person would own 40 percent of the wealth. The richest 20 would own 93 percent. That’s right. Eighty percent of Americans share only seven percent of the wealth of this nation.

One of the worst things about the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few is that the “wealth” is “produced” from the exploitation of ecological and social systems to the point where they break down completely. This is happening everywhere in the world, but perhaps the most familiar example is Syria. Climate change caused by fossil fuel use dried farmlands to the point where they were unusable. So people began moving en masse toward cities, which couldn’t sustain them. This has resulted not only in the horror of war, but also in a global immigration crisis, as rich countries in the North refuse to take in the immigrants whose lives we’ve ruined with our profligate fossil fuel use.

The language we hear in the news about why we should not take in immigrants—why we should build a wall instead of a bigger table—has to do with scarcity. The story goes that there is not enough for all, and at worst, immigrants want to kill us to get our share, and at the very least they want to come take our jobs.

A lot of progressive people scoff at what they consider to be the stupidity of this kind of rhetoric. It’s so obviously fear-mongering for political ends. Or they’re simply bewildered by all the vicious hatred. But there is a reason why some people respond to the rhetoric. Poverty in this country is deep and real and rapidly increasing. When eighty percent of the people have access to only seven percent of the wealth, when it says right on people’s paychecks that the money they are contributing to Social Security might not be available when they grow old, it’s not hard to understand why people are afraid.

And that makes it even easier for the richest one percent to say we can’t afford to stop using fossil fuels. We can’t afford to restore ecosystems or conserve water or clean up pollution or protect wildlife because that would shut down our economy and we need more jobs. We hear that we have to choose between jobs and the environment, one or the other. The economy or the environment. One or the other.

Why should this be?

Consider the Greek word “oikos.” It means “household” or “home.” From it we get the English prefix, “eco.” So ecology means the study of our household or home. Economy means the custom or rules of our home.

Now consider the word “environment.” “Environ” means “to surround,” so the word literally means “that which surrounds us.” Isn’t it interesting that the word that white Americans decided to use to refer to the interdependent web of existence is a word that places it outside of—separate from—ourselves? The fact that we use this is a legacy of Western culture. This culture has historically understood the world in a binary, dualistic way, in which humans are atomistic individuals, separate from and in conflict with each other and nature.

And this view is the foundation of our economy system. In a college economics class, my daughter was taught, as I had been 25 years before, that economics is the study of “the allocation of scarce resources among competing ends.” In other words, scarcity is assumed to be the basic condition of an economy, so that individuals must compete with each other for what they need. Economic growth is valued above all because as long as more wealth can be generated, more will be available to all. Nature is seen as a repository of resources for humans to use. When one resource is used up, others can be substituted, so there are no limits to growth.

Now, there are at least two good ways to understand what is wrong with these traditional Western ways of thinking.

One is to look at the shape and size of our planet. It is a sphere. It is finite. So infinite economic growth is simply not possible. To behave as if it is, is suicidal.

The second is to try and stop breathing. Can you do it? Think of all that is necessary for you to take a breath, all that happens in your nerves and muscles and lungs and bloodstream when you do. Think of how oxygen arrives in front of you.

We are embedded in and utterly dependent upon the ecosystems in which we live. WE ARE THE EARTH AND THE EARTH IS US. There is no separation and there can be no separation. We are temporary aggregations of atoms and molecules that are continually being exchanged with those of the atmosphere; every cell in our bodies is being continually remade from the food we eat and the water we drink and the air we breathe. There is no substitute for water. There is no substitute for oxygen. There are no substitutes for the basic nutrients our bodies need.

And we can only get these through the action of healthy communities of billions of other kinds of lives. We need them to fix energy for us and cycle water and oxygen and nutrients for us.

And we need the beauty and diversity and richness of a healthy world in order to feel whole and well and happy, because we evolved in a beautiful and diverse and rich world. We will feel ill as long as the earth, that larger body of which we are part, is ill. This is the reality of interbeing.

So it is no coincidence that global economic and ecological and social catastrophe are all arriving at the same time: we are living in one single interdependent oikos, one household, with one set of rules, which we cannot transcend.
How, then, do we live here?

Well, there is a different model of economics. It’s called ecological economics. Its goal is not growth, but rather sustainability and justice. An ecological economy starts at the local level with meeting people’s basic human needs: food, shelter, water, health care, education, meaningful work, safety, beauty. Each local community finds ways of providing for its citizens’ needs that sustain the supporting ecosystem. Only when there is a surplus does one community trade with another. Larger national and international economies develop then as communities of communities, partnerships of partnerships.

Ecological economists—the only economists who accurately predicted the economic meltdown of 2008—have written volumes on specific policies that would convert our failing, unjust, growth-based economy to a healthy, just, steady-state one.

So then the question becomes, if there is a different model available, and we know how to implement it, then what on EARTH are we doing trying to keep a growth economy going when it is killing us all? What keeps us in its thrall? Why do those of us who are not super-rich keep working so hard, and making wars, to protect the interests of the wealthiest one percent?

One word: fear. The current model says scarcity is the basic condition of life. Scarcity. How does that word feel inside your body? Is there a tightening of your chest, a drop in your stomach, an acceleration of your heart? If I say resources are scarce, do you think people will share with you? Or do you want to run right out and grab all you can for yourself and your family?

This is a model grounded in fear. Fear that we are all alone, there is not enough, no one will share—and so we’ll die.

But what about the word abundance? What if I say, there is plenty for all? How does that feel inside your body? Is there some loosening, some relaxing?

Because there really is plenty for all, if we will just share. When we are willing to live within limits, and not take more than what we need, there is plenty for everyone. So the next question is, how do we learn to live in faith that there is enough? How do we calm our fears? How do those of us with wealth release our attachments to it? And how do those of us who live in poverty find the courage to stand up for what we need?

These are some of the central questions addressed by every religion of the world. And every religion of the world says similar things. One of these is that, for those people who have more things and money than we need, a really good way to release our attachments to them, is to release the things and money. Give them away. The less surplus we have, the more simply we live, the freer we are from attachment and fear. I have a friend from Grenada who tells me that her brother is a wealthy man who owns many things. He worries constantly that someone will break into his house and steal everything. But my friend owns very little. She leaves her house unlocked. She is free from worry. She is the most joyful person I know.

A second piece of wisdom from every world religion is that releasing our attachments to things does not mean we should become ascetics who revile the material world. No, in fact, the opposite is true; we should celebrate, revel in, lose ourselves in the beauty here, because simple beauty can fill us so full we need very little in the way of material things. What’s more, all the beauty we perceive, through smell and sound and sight and touch and taste, is a gift we are obligated to appreciate and participate in and share. Think of all the bread and wine Jesus and his friends ate together; think of Rumi wandering around, intoxicated by the moon; think of the erotic poetry of the Song of Solomon. Think of the Buddhist meditations on the lotus blossom, the bright colors of a Hindu festival, the dancing and drumming of a Salish potlatch. In the book Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes a group of Jewish men in a Nazi concentration camp. One of the men could sing beautiful arias. The other men saved their meager rations of food to give him in return for his singing. This is how deep is the human need for beauty.

Then there’s a third teaching I want to share, from Unitarian Universalism.  To understand it, let’s return to the question of fear—that fear of scarcity we need to calm if we are to learn to live sustainably and joyfully on earth. And also that fear of what might happen to us if we claim our power and stand up for what we need.

Nineteenth century Universalist theologian Hosea Ballou said that fear—the kind of fear that keeps us from becoming our best selves—is located in the body. Ballou believed this fear stemmed from the religious understanding, prevalent in his time, that God’s love was scarce, and only the elect would be saved.  He countered that fear with the idea of universal salvation, the idea that God’s love is so abundant that all are saved.  We have transmuted this to the teaching that every person has inherent worth and dignity, that all are equally worthy of love. But what of the fear that still resides in our bodies? Contemporary Unitarian Universalist theologians John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker, in their book A House for Hope, remind us that religious community offers us experiences of beauty that train our bodies out of fear and into love. When we come together in community to experience beauty through ritual and ceremony, through song and dance, through shared food and drink, we are training our bodies to share with each other, to trust one another, to trust in a larger love that holds us all. If we do this well, our fallback behavior during adversity becomes courageous, creative love. If we are threatened with violence, we meet it with love. If we are threatened with scarcity, we find ways to create abundance.

And so here we are today, sharing the bounty of the earth. Here we are, filling ourselves with the beauty of all these fruits and flowers and vegetables, the beauty of our singing, the beauty of all these loving faces. In this way do we begin to restore the covenant between ourselves and the source of life. In this way do we begin to make the communion of eating available to all. In this way do we begin to create the life abundant.

May it be so. Blessed be.

For further reading/viewing:

Buehrens, John, and Rebecca Ann Parker. 2011. A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century. Beacon Press.

Cobb, John B. Jr. 2007. Sustainability: Economics, Ecology, and Justice. Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Kaza, Stephanie, ed. 2005. Hooked! Buddhist Writings on Greed, Desire, and the Urge to Consume. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

McFague, Sallie. Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. 2000, Fortress Press. (An extremely clear and simple explanation of ecological economics from a Christian theologian.)

www.100people.org

http://www.thp.org/knowledge-center/know-your-world-facts-about-hunger-poverty/

https://www.theguardian.com/money/2015/oct/13/half-world-wealth-in-hands-population-inequality-report