Waiting

“The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.”– Frederick Buechner, Advent

Waiting.  It’s about waiting.  It’s about holding your breath as you pause for what’s coming.  It’s about remembering to breathe so you’re awake to see it arrive.  It’s about closing your eyes so you can hold on to the dream of what is possible, what might be.  It’s about opening your eyes to the beauty and pain and joy and sorrow and harshness and gentleness and passion and peace of everything that already is and everything about to unfold.  It is the excited pins and needles of anticipation.  It is the queasy uneasiness of suspense. Waiting.  We live in a season of waiting.

waiting“The thing I love most about Advent is the heartbreak. The utter and complete heartbreak.” –Jerusalem Jackson Greer; A Homemade Year: The Blessings of Cooking, Crafting, and Coming Together

Yearning.  Feel the yearning.  Let yourself fall into it for a moment.  Wallow in it for a moment.  Let it break your heart that the world is not yet made whole.  Let it break your heart that the promise is not fulfilled.  Let your eyes well with unshed tears for all the tears shed in this world. Stare hard at the reality that our species seems to be forever a painful work in progress. Feel the weighty disappointment of our failure to be what God made us to be and balance it on the sharp pinpoint of the promise we, all of us, feel—the promise of what we could be, the promise of what we’re supposed to be.  Let yourself feel that deep knowing that things are not now as they are intended to be. Let it break your heart.  Then understand that it is through the broken heart that God enters the world.  It is through the broken heart that the promise is revived.  It is through the broken heart that the vision of what should be moves forward toward what will be.  It is through today’s broken heart that we see tomorrow’s vision of the world God is calling us to build together.  It is the light aglow in the broken heart that illuminates the faces of those around us whose hearts are also breaking.  It is in the yearning of the broken heart that we find the Advent of Emmanuel, God With Us.

“Advent is the time of promise; it is not yet the time of fulfillment. We are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.…Space is still filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair and helplessness. But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on them already the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come. From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices, not yet discernable as a song or melody. It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold. But it is happening, today.”–Alfred Delp; Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944

 Arriving.  But not yet.  Almost.  Get ready. It’s coming.  It’s arriving.  But we are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.  Keep moving toward the moment.  Keep moving toward the encounter.  Keep still in the not-yetness of it all.  Decorate. Decorate your house.  Decorate your heart.  Decorate your language.  Decorate your greetings, your symbols, your understanding.  Decorate your soul—from decoratusin the old poetic Latin that still connects our thoughts and words with those who decorated before us, who handed down their most important and enduring ornaments.  Decorare – the verb that tells us to adorn, to beautify, to embellish.  From decus—to make fit, to make proper so that we might be ready with decorum.  And yes, we need to decorate.  Yes, we need to fill the space around us, to fill our homes, our souls, our hearts with brighter things to see, more solid and enduring visions than the shadow parade of destruction and annihilation.  We need to fill our ears with more stirring melodies than shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, songs that lift the heart above the drone of lamentation, the weeping of despair and helplessness.  We need to keep moving toward the music and the light.  We need to lift our eyes to that first mild light of radiant fulfillment to come.  We need to fill our ears with the first notes of pipes and voices no matter how faint and far they may seem.  We need to hum and sing and play the old familiar songs that move our hearts to that softer, readier place where the True Song will be born.  We need to light the ancient candles one at a time to guide our steps down the corridor of waiting, the pathway of arrival.  We need to bring each flame to the heart until the soul is aglow with the depth of its meaning and power.  We need to reignite the flame of Hope to show us our way through the numbing fog of sameness.  We need to internalize the flame of Peace to quiet our anxieties and give us patience. We need to swallow whole the flame of Joy to whet our appetite for the feast to come.  We need to embody the flame of Love to warm us as we journey together, to show us again that we are walking arm in arm and our fates are intertwined, to illuminate the purpose of life, to lead us to the Light of the World.

“For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.”–Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

 Arrive.  But understand in your arriving that even after the meaningful journey of Advent we don’t arrive at Christmas.  Christmas arrives to us.  The Gift comes to meet us on the road to take us to a place we could never attain on our own. We celebrate.  We ponder. We dance and revel in the laughing lights of Hope and Peace and Joy and Love that we carried with us, that brought us to this place.  We gaze amazed at the Gift before us, almost comically humble and plain, artlessly displayed and wiggling inside its wrappings, laid out on a bed of straw in a manger, and yet more artistically subtle, more beautiful and precious than the Magi gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  And if you take a moment to think about what this Gift really is, what this baby really means to the world and what this baby means to you, in particular, you may just hear the voice of Emmanuel saying, “Now the journey begins in earnest.  Be not afraid.  I am with you.”

Tonight’s the Night the World Begins Again

Christmas Eve Sermon, 2016. 

I’ve been thinking about some Christmas gifts…and by that I mean some of the gifts that Christmas gives us.

It’s a season of giving – yes, it’s over-commercialized –but in the right spirit that can help us develop a habit and spirit of generosity.  And that’s a gift.

The months leading up to Christmas are a good time to practice delayed gratification.  Don’t buy that now…Christmas is coming.   I know I need to practice that sometimes.  So that’s a gift.

For some it’s a change of habit just to be thinking about what to get for other people, thinking more about others—who they are, what they need.  It can feel like an obligation but it can become a healthy, joyful, even life-giving habit.  That’s a gift.

At Christmastime we are intentional about asking people what they want.  That’s a good exercise for keeping us from being “curved in upon the self.”

Christmas, itself, is a gift.  It’s a change of focus.  It comes with some built-in themes that are important.  Giving.  Receiving. Gathering.  Family.  Peace. Hope.  Joy.  Love. Remembering.  Birth.  The Presence of God.  Wonder.

I don’t know about you, but I  really need the gift of Christmas, itself, this year. It’s been that kind of year.

I need to be reminded to stop and breathe and think about giving and receiving and gathering and family.  I need time to stop and remember.

I need to let words like hope and peace and light fill up my soul for awhile.

I need a time to stop and listen to songs about beauty and joy and angels and promises fulfilled…and God showing up in surprising ways and surprising places.

I need the wonder of it all.

I need the songs.  I especially need the songs and carols… because the music goes straight to my heart and heals me and rekindles my hope and my joy and my faith faster than words alone can ever do. “Those who sing pray twice,” said Martin Luther.

Do you have a favorite Christmas song or carol? Is there one—or maybe there are several?—that touch you in some particularly powerful way?

There are a lot of Christmas songs and carols that I dearly love and I listen to them over and over and over again.  But there’s one Christmas song in particular I keep coming back to these past few Christmases.  And this year, especially, I’ve been listening to it a lot.  In fact I’ve been listening to it off and on all year long.

It’s fairly recent—it came out in 2005, so by Christmas Song standards it’s almost brand new.  It’s called Better Daysby the Goo Goo Dolls, written by John Rzeznik.  Yeah, I know.  Goo Goo Dolls.  Silly name, but a great band.  And a powerful song.  Listen to these words:

And you asked me what I want this year

And I try to make this kind and clear

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

 

‘Cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings

And designer love and empty things

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

Better days.  When all is said and done, isn’t that what we all want?  For ourselves, for our families and friends?  For….  Everyone? Better days.

I need some place simple where we could live

And something only you can give

And that’s faith and trust and peace while we’re alive

Those are some pretty good gifts we can give to each other.  For Christmas.  For every day.  And the song is right… we’ll only have faith and trust and peace while we’re alive if we give those things to each other.  Faith.  Trust. Peace.  But the song knows we need something else if we’re going to be able to give each other faith and trust and peace…

And the one poor child who saved this world

And there’s ten million more who probably could

If we all just stopped and said a prayer for them

The one poor child who saved this world. That’s why we’re here tonight. That’s what we’re here to celebrate. But we’re also here to be reminded that because of that child, Jesus, Emmanuel, God With Us, we have the example and the power to save the world together.  God came in person to give us what we need so we can give each other the gifts of faith and trust and peace. 

 I wish everyone was loved tonight

And we could somehow stop this endless fight

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

The thing is, everyone is loved tonight—loved by God, at least.  But they don’t all know it and they certainly don’t all feel it.  If they did, if they all felt loved, if we all felt loved, maybe it would stop the endless fight that seems to be the curse of the human race.  But the only way for that to happen is if we take the love God gives us and let it be real and meaningful in our lives.  And then give it to each other in real and meaningful ways.

Brené Brown said,  “Jesus comes to show us what love looks like.  God is love.  But God knows that if God just comes down and says I am love and I want you to love each other, we’re going to go straight to hearts and unicorns.  We know it’s difficult and we don’t like difficult, so we’re going to romanticize it.  Hearts and unicorns.  But love is difficult.  So Jesus comes to show us how to do it.  He comes to show us that love doesn’t tolerate shaming.  Love doesn’t exclude people because they’re different.  Love reaches out and touches and embraces all the people we don’t want to touch or embrace. Love does the hard work.  Love does the hard things.”

But there’s something else that God shows us about love by coming as a baby, by coming, especially, as a poor baby.  Right at the beginning—Jesus shows us, God shows us, that love is willing to be vulnerable.  Love is willing to let down all its defenses.

When you think of all the ways that God could have come to us–all the ways we imagined throughout history that God would come to us—most of that imagery is all about power and royalty and thunder and smoke and lightning.  And then God shows up as a baby.  A poor baby. In a poor country.  A homeless baby.  A migrant born on the road on a journey his parents were forced to take.  A refugee baby forced to flee for his life.

One poor child who saved the world.

I haven’t quoted the refrain that runs through the song.  It’s repeated twice between the verses, but the song ends with it, too.  It’s both a promise and a call to action:

So take these words and sing out loud

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now

‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again

Take these words and sing out loud.  That’s the call to action.

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now.  That’s the promise. It’s also another great gift of Christmas.  In this baby, who is God With Us, we have a chance to start over with a clean slate.

In this baby, who is love itself coming to us in its most human and dependent and vulnerable form, we can find forgiveness and we can learn to give forgiveness— and if we can forgive and be forgiven, if we can let go of old hurts and forgive others, then we really can give each other the gifts of faith and trust and peace while we’re alive.  And then there really is a chance that maybe we’ll find better days.

So take these words and sing out loud,

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now.

And tonight’s the night the world begins again.

 

Tonight’s the night the world begins again.

The Keys to Heaven

The body of the old man lay stretched out upon the table, prepared according to custom and covered with a shroud.  The priest, who had been gazing out the window, or perhaps deep into his own thoughts, broke from his reverie, stood up, and removed a papyrus scroll from the folds of his robe then moved to the body lying on the table and gently, reverently, lifted the edge of the shroud and took something from the right hand of the old man lying beneath it, and lifted it high in the lamplight for all to see.  Everyone reacted to the familiar object dangled before them.  Some smiled wistfully, a few nodded in recognition, one woman buried her face in her scarf and wept.  It was a plain thing, a simple leather thong suspending ten stones, seven smaller, three larger, each separated from the others by a knot in the leather.  They did not catch the light in any particular way.  They did not glow or sparkle.  There was no mystic aura about them.  But the faithful people in that gathering would not have traded those stones for rubies or diamonds or sapphires or pearls. “The Keys to Heaven,” said the priest.  With care bordering on ceremony he handed the odd artifact to the Deaconess who stood at the feet of the old man’s corpse.  She continued to cradle the leather strip and its stones in her hands so all could see it in the soft glow of the oil lamps.   The priest unrolled the scroll and began to read.

By vocation the priest was the chief reader at a busy scriptorium.  Six days of the week he would read aloud to a phalanx of copyists—reading slowly, distinctly, and loudly enough to be heard at the back of the room yet fast enough to keep up with the demands of the business, to meet its deadlines and keep it profitable.  The qualities that made him so very good at his job also made him an excellent public lector, a role which added to his income.  This talent also served him well, of course, in his role as priest in this small community of the faithful.  But now, as he began to read his dear friend’s last will and testament, he put aside his professional voice and tried to find in himself the deep wells of strength and gentleness that characterized his departed friend; he did his best to summon his friend’s voice for his friend’s words.  This is what he read:

My dear friends, my brothers and sisters, grace to you and peace in the name of the One we follow, who was, who is and who is to come.  Amen.  I pray you know how much you are loved.   I have so very little to leave to you in the way of earthly things.  My little house and my poor purse I entrust to this community.  Perhaps they may be used to benefit a widow or two.  Let the Deaconess administer these things as she is most capable.  Let the tools of my trade go Nathaniel, my apprentice.  I have no other possessions except the Keys to Heaven.  These I bequeath to you all for your common use and good, but I must tell you how I came to have them.

 I think that almost every one of you, most when you were children, but some when you were older, have asked me, “Andreas, what are those stones hanging from your belt?” and I would say, “They are the Keys to Heaven and I am giving them to you.”  Then you would say, “When can I have them?”  And I would say, “When you can tell me how they are made!”  So now, I will tell you their story.

For all the years I have lived among you, you have known me as Andreas the Leatherworker.  That was not always my name.  For that matter, working leather was not always my trade, but that is of no importance.  When I was much younger and full of anger at the world I did some dangerous and stupid things.  One thing in particular was even evil, though I did not think so at the time.  As a consequence, I found myself on the run, hiding from the patrols of soldiers that seemed to be everywhere on the road.  I cut my hair and shaved my beard.  I stole the tunic, mantle and belt of a tradesman while he was bathing in the river and left my very fine and costly clothes in their place.  Then I fastened a sword to my belt and kept on running.

 Three nights later, just at nightfall, I saw a man sitting by a campfire just to the side of the road.  Half mad with hunger and exhaustion, I moved toward him, drew my sword and said, “Give me your food and your money.”  I meant to growl it out in a menacing way but my throat was so parched I must have croaked like a raven.  “We will gladly share our food with you,” said the man, “but what money we have with us is not ours to give.”  I started to move toward him with my sword when his words pierced the fog of my hunger.  We.  He had said “we.”  I blinked, looked again, and could not believe I had not seen them the first time—four other men. Two of them were some small distance behind the man by the fire but were now walking briskly toward us.  Another man was emerging from the brush carrying an armload of wood for the fire, and another with a water skin was just coming up from the stream.  Five men altogether.  Even if I weren’t nearly dead from hunger and thirst I could never take on five men.  My head began to swim, my knees gave out and I fell, unconscious.

 I awakened to find one of the men bathing my forehead with a cool, wet cloth while another was bandaging my arm.  Apparently I had cut it with my own sword when I fell.  The man I had first seen, the one I had threatened and tried to rob, lifted a cup of cool water to my lips but urged me to drink it slowly.  As soon as I was able to sit up one of the men gave me a piece of bread and a piece of dried fish which I devoured immediately without a word.

I didn’t know what to expect next and I was too weak to try to run.  When the big man, the first man I had seen by the fire, picked up my sword I half expected him to kill me with it. Instead he laid it in front of me in the dirt.  “This is yours,” he said, “though I think you might be better off not to keep it.  That’s a Roman Gladius.  A soldier’s sword.  And you don’t strike me as a soldier. I think maybe that sword has already brought you trouble and if I were you I would just bury it here at the side of the road.” 

 I was dumbstruck.  That sword had been nothing but trouble.  That sword and my hot temper were the whole reason I had had to flee for my life. 

 I looked at the big man.  He was smiling at me, and I realized, looking at him, that there was no fear in him.  No anger.  “You must still be hungry,” he said.  “I tried to rob you!” I said, incredulous.  “I threatened you!”  “Yes.  You did,” he said.  “I forgive you.”  “But I…”  I started.  “Let it go,” he said, quietly.  “I have.  What you bind on earth is bound in heaven.  What you release on earth is released in heaven.  I release it.  I release you.  Let it go.”

 I sat staring at the ground for a long time, confused, not knowing what to think. 

I heard him chuckle, looked up and saw him smiling at me.  He leaned over and picked up a smooth agate pebble from the ground, walked over and placed it in my hand.  “Here,” he said. “Keep this.  This is the first Key to Heaven.  Forgiveness.”  “I don’t know if I can be forgiven.” I said. 

His expression became reflective and he gazed into the fire for a long moment. “I felt that way once,” he said at last. “I betrayed my best friend…my teacher…my master.  I betrayed him three times in one night to save my own skin.”  “What happened?” I asked.  “They crucified him,” he said simply.  “But I got away because I pretended that I didn’t know him. Three times in one night someone accused me of being one of his companions and three times I denied it.  And I didn’t think I would ever be forgiven for that.  But he forgave me.  And he helped me forgive myself.  He released me from my sin and he helped me let go of my sin—helped me to stop clinging to it..” 

“Wait a minute,” I said, “I though you said they crucified him.”  “They did,” he said.  “Well then how…when did he forgive you?”  The way he looked at me I could tell he was trying to decide something and it was another very long moment before he said, “That’s another story and if you would like to travel with us I will gladly tell it another day.  For now,” and here he smiled again, “hold on to that little piece of forgiveness and let that be enough for today.”

 And that, my beloved brothers and sisters is how I came to have the first of the Keys of Heaven, the Key of Forgiveness.  Having nowhere else to go and nothing to lose, I became a travelling companion of Petrus, the Fisherman, who taught me the ways of his Master and baptized me into a new life with a new name.  And along the way he gave me the Keys of Heaven and taught me how they are made, or where they can be discovered, so that each of us can have them and carry them with us and unlock Heaven around us wherever we are. 

 The first key is Forgiveness.  The Second is Gratitude.  The third is Generosity.  The fourth is Compassion. These four open your heart to the world God made, the world God loves.  The fifth key is Integrity.  The Sixth is Thoughtfulness.  These two open the soul and mind to look beyond yourself and deal fairly with all others.  The seventh is Be Not Afraid.  This key gives you the presence of mind to remember that you have all the others at your command and it helps you to use them wisely.

Then there are the three larger keys.  These give the first keys their power.  At the same time, the first keys can unlock the power of these three.  They are Faith, Hope and Love.

 So, my beloved friends, these are the Keys to Heaven.  I hope you can see that I spoke the truth all these years when I said, “I am giving them to you.”  I hope and pray that in my life you saw forgiveness, gratitude, generosity, compassion, integrity and thoughtfulness.  I hope you saw me live without fear.  I pray that you are gathering these keys for yourself by the example of our Master.  May you all continue to grow in Faith, Hope and Love until we are reunited in the Life to Come.

Peace be with you.  I am always your brother,

Andreas

The Broken Hearted Season

“The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.” – Frederick Buechner, Advent

Waiting. It’s about waiting. It’s about holding your breath as you pause for what’s coming. It’s about remembering to breathe so you’re awake to see it arrive. It’s about closing your eyes so you can hold on to the dream of what is possible, what might be. It’s about opening your eyes to the beauty and pain and joy and sorrow and harshness and gentleness and passion and peace of everything that already is and everything about to unfold. It is the excited pins and needles of anticipation. It is the queasy uneasiness of suspense. Waiting. We live in a season of waiting.

“The thing I love most about Advent is the heartbreak. The utter and complete heartbreak.” Jerusalem Jackson Greer; A Homemade Year: The Blessings of Cooking, Crafting, and Coming Together

Yearning. Feel the yearning. Let yourself fall into it for a moment. Wallow in it for a moment. Let it break your heart that the world is not yet made whole. Let it break your heart that the promise is not fulfilled. Let your eyes well with unshed tears for all the tears shed in this world. Stare hard at the reality that our species seems to be forever a painful work in progress. Feel the weighty disappointment of our failure to be what God made us to be and balance it on the sharp pinpoint of the promise we, all of us, feel—the promise of what we could be, the promise of what we’re supposed to be. Let yourself feel that deep knowing that things are not now as they are intended to be. Let it break your heart. Then understand that it is through the broken heart that God enters the world. It is through the broken heart that the promise is revived. It is through the broken heart that the vision of what should be moves forward toward what will be. It is through today’s broken heart that we see tomorrow’s vision of the world God is calling us to build together. It is the light aglow in the broken heart that illuminates the faces of those around us whose hearts are also breaking. It is in the yearning of the broken heart that we find the Advent of Emmanuel, God With Us.

“Advent is the time of promise; it is not yet the time of fulfillment. We are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.…Space is still filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair and helplessness. But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on them already the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come. From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices, not yet discernable as a song or melody. It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold. But it is happening, today.” –Alfred Delp; Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944

 Arriving. But not yet. Almost. Get ready. It’s coming. It’s arriving. But we are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny. Keep moving toward the moment. Keep moving toward the encounter. Keep still in the not-yetness of it all. Decorate. Decorate your house. Decorate your heart. Decorate your language. Decorate your greetings, your symbols, your understanding. Decorate your soul—from decoratus in the old poetic Latin that still connects our thoughts and words with those who decorated before us, who handed down their most important and enduring ornaments. Decorare – the verb that tells us to adorn, to beautify, to embellish. From decus—to make fit, to make proper so that we might be ready with decorum. And yes, we need to decorate. Yes, we need to fill the space around us, to fill our homes, our souls, our hearts with brighter things to see, more solid and enduring visions than the shadow parade of destruction and annihilation. We need to fill our ears with more stirring melodies than shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, songs that lift the heart above the drone of lamentation, the weeping of despair and helplessness. We need to keep moving toward the music and the light. We need to lift our eyes to that first mild light of radiant fulfillment to come. We need to fill our ears with the first notes of pipes and voices no matter how faint and far they may seem. We need to hum and sing and play the old familiar songs that move our hearts to that softer, readier place where the True Song will be born. We need to light the ancient candles one at a time to guide our steps down the corridor of waiting, the pathway of arrival. We need to bring each flame to the heart until the soul is aglow with the depth of its meaning and power. We need to reignite the flame of Hope to show us our way through the numbing fog of sameness. We need to internalize the flame of Peace to quiet our anxieties and give us patience. We need to swallow whole the flame of Joy to whet our appetite for the feast to come. We need to embody the flame of Love to warm us as we journey together, to show us again that we are walking arm in arm and our fates are intertwined, to illuminate the purpose of life, to lead us to the Light of the World.

“For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.” –Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

Arrive. But understand in your arriving that even after the meaningful journey of Advent we don’t arrive at Christmas. Christmas arrives to us. The Gift comes to meet us on the road to take us to a place we could never attain on our own. We celebrate. We ponder. We dance and revel in the laughing lights of Hope and Peace and Joy and Love that we carried with us, that brought us to this place. We gaze amazed at the Gift before us, almost comically humble and plain, artlessly displayed and wiggling inside its wrappings, laid out on a bed of straw in a manger, and yet more artistically subtle, more beautiful and precious than the Magi gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And if you take a moment to think about what this Gift really is, what this baby really means to the world and what this baby means to you, in particular, you may just hear the voice of Emmanuel saying, “Now the journey begins in earnest. Be not afraid. I am with you.”

The Path of the Foxes

playfulfoxIt was my privilege last night to be the keynote speaker at the annual awards banquet of the South Coast Interfaith Council. What follows is my address to that group.

It is a great honor to be here as your keynote speaker this evening and I thank you for inviting me. Also, congratulations and well done to all those being honored here tonight. Before I begin, though, let’s take a moment and turn to the person next to you and say in the language of your own faith tradition—namaste, shalom, alssalam ealaykum—peace be with you.

Human psychology being what it is, I am well aware that there is a high statistical probability that right now at least a few of you are thinking, “Who is this clown, what is he yammering about and how long is he going to be up there talking?”

So…there’s a high statistical probability that some of you are worried that you’re about to be bored, that there will be an as-yet-unknown number of minutes of your life that you will just never get back. Not only that, but because this is an interfaith audience, there is also a high statistical probability that at least a few of you are worrying that I might devote too much time to the perspectives of my own faith tradition or that I might say something insensitive or offensive to your faith tradition. I truly hope I don’t. But if I do, please let me know and I will apologize. These worries are, in fact, very human responses to a situation like this. Those very human responses come from a well documented and universal element of human psychology called the Negativity Bias.

The Negativity Bias. I will say more about it in a moment, but first I want to distract you from your Negativity Bias with a story about foxes. Domestic foxes. Pet foxes. And to do that, I’ll start with dogs.

Dogs have been, unarguably, the most important domestic animal in human history. They were the first animal that humans domesticated and we have formed a bond with them that has not only proven mutually beneficial, but has quite literally transformed both our species. Many anthropologists now believe that our relationship with the dog was a significant factor in our own evolution as a species and even enabled us to develop civilization. So well done, Fido.

We’ve known for a long time that dogs are simply domesticated wolves, a fact that’s now been proven through DNA. So that little Chihuahua peeking out of Paris Hilton’s purse? That’s a wolf…which will give you some idea of what can happen with selective breeding. But how did we ever come to domesticate the wolf in the first place? How is it that in some distant past our hunter-gatherer ancestors struck up this partnership with a species that was not only one of our primary competitors, but actually quite dangerous to us—as we were and are to them?

Dmitri Belyaev, a Russian geneticist, wondered about this, too. He believed that our prehistoric ancestors selected wolf pups based on temperament. So, along with Lyudmila Trut, he set up an experiment in 1959 to prove his hypothesis. He set out to see if, selecting for temperament alone, he could create a distinct breed of domestic foxes–pet foxes—a tame version of an animal related to wolves and dogs but one that had never been domesticated.

They set up their experiment in Siberia near the Soviet government facilities where foxes were being bred for their fur, so they had an ample selection of fox pups to choose from. Their selection process was fairly simple. The fox pups that showed aggression or bit them or would flee from the experimenters when stroked or handled were put into one group. Those who responded with curiosity, playfulness and friendliness were put in another group. They continued breeding selectively for these traits of friendliness and curiosity, and in only six generations Belyaev and Trut had succeeded in breeding a new class of foxes they designated as “domesticated elite,” foxes who not only tolerated human companionship, but were eager to establish and maintain it. Foxes who behaved very much like dogs. After 20 generations of breeding, nearly 80% of that group were rated “domestic elite”—suitable as pets and human companion animals. The breeding project is still going and they now help support their research by selling some of these foxes as pets.

freddytopBelyaev and Trut were able to create domestic foxes by selecting pups that were willing to overcome their Negativity Bias. See, humans aren’t the only ones who have it. Many mammals have it, especially those with more highly developed brains.

The Negativity Bias is a feature of our psychology that originates in our physiology – our neurophysiology, to be specific. The Negativity Bias arises from the most primitive part of our brains, the amygdala—sometimes called the Lizard Brain. This is the part of our brain that looks at everything as a possible threat and responds with only 3 options: fight, flight or freeze.

The Negativity Bias is a universal factor in human psychology and it served a very practical purpose in our evolution as a species. That thing you’re about to pick up, is it a stick or a snake? That shape on the horizon, is that an antelope or a lion? That person coming toward me, is that a walking stick in his hand or a spear? Is he from my clan or is he one of those people from two hills away? Is he here to offer us a partnership in something or to scout us out for a raid? But the Negativity Bias doesn’t just make us evaluate things, events and people, it biases us toward the negative—it makes us lean toward fight, flight or freeze instead of investigate, make friends, and play.

I’ve done a fair amount of reading about this and I could say a lot more about the Negativity Bias, but I’m mindful that there’s a fine line between a long speech and a hostage situation.   So let’s cut to the chase. What does all this have to do with the South Coast Interfaith Council? Well I’m coming to that…but to get there I have to go here.

This is an election year and election years have a tendency to throw a lot of things into sharp relief—and nothing shows up more sharply than the shadow of our fears. Election years in general, and this one in particular, have a way of bringing out the worst in us because candidates and parties play our Negativity Bias like a violin. And since we, as a species and as individuals, are always only one layer of civility away from being ferocious, this is a very dangerous thing.

Remember those other foxes? The pups who bit or acted aggressive or fled from their human handlers? Well they did a breeding experiment with them, too. And the results are terrifying. On the other side of the compound from the tame foxes are the cages that only specially trained handlers can enter. They have to wear protective gear when they go in to feed these other foxes, because these foxes delight in attacking. They live for it. They are bigger, meaner, and astonishingly aggressive. And now nobody knows what to do with them. Animal rights people don’t want them euthanized, but there’s also a very real worry that they might escape into the wild–and that could be a whole new ecological disaster. They are a living object lesson for us.

Election years tend to bring out that aggressive fox inside us, the one we’ve kept somewhat subdued, barely restrained in the tension between first-amendment free speech and laws against hate speech.   There is a spirit of meanness and fear abroad in our country that wants to manipulate our Negativity Bias, that wants to make us suspicious of each other, that wants to make us feel threatened by each other, that wants us to imagine each other as enemies so that we can be directed to vote for the manipulator who promises to be our great leader and protector, who promises to keep us safe.

Religion is one of those traditional dividing lines that can be easily manipulated if we’re not careful. Religion has always been a productive field for those who want to play on our Negativity Bias. There are loud voices right now in our culture who not only want to make scapegoats of particular religions, but want to widen the divisions within our religions. There is a loud noise of Xenophobia and unbridled racism shouting in our land, and I have to say that right now, as a white, male, Christian Protestant, speaking to this wonderfully diverse and eclectic group of people, I feel like I should apologize for some of the things that other white Christian Protestants are saying and doing. Quite frankly, sometimes I am ashamed of my people. We have a lot to answer for. But that’s another speech for another time.

I’m not here tonight just to tell you what you already know about the bad news, about anti-Muslim rhetoric or blatant racism or the long litany of injustices that are all manifestations of our fears, especially White Anglo-Saxon Protestant fears. I’m not here just to tell you the bad news about our Negativity Bias. I’m here to give you the good news that there is an antidote.

There is an antidote. It comes in two steps. First, it’s necessary to acknowledge the Negativity Bias. Admit that it’s there. Second, it’s important to intentionally focus on positive possibilities and positive dynamics.  Focusing on possibilities allows other parts of our brains and psyches, more highly developed parts, to take the lead instead of those instincts driven by fear.

You are here tonight, we are here tonight because we are the tame foxes. We are the ones who have had enough curiosity, bravery, friendliness and even playfulness to look beyond the edges of our own religious traditions to try to see what others are seeing, to try to understand what others are understanding. We are the ones who are curious enough to learn to appreciate a different perspective without abandoning our own. We are the ones who have read past the rare verses in our sacred texts that would exclude us from each other or pit us against each other if taken in the wrong context to find the rich and plentiful vein of gold in those same texts that calls us to transcend that impulse, to be inviting, to be accepting, to embrace the stranger. We are the ones who see that our destinies are woven together. We are the ones who hear that clarion voice in every one of our traditions that says simply and firmly, “Be not afraid.”

There are things we can do together as an alliance of faith communities, things we have been doing, that can show the rest of the world that religions do not have to be in competition with one another or antagonistic to one another but can cooperate to achieve things together even more effectively than what we can achieve independently. The Farmers Markets initiated by this Interfaith Council, the support of Centro Shalom, the Habitat for Humanity building programs—these are all great examples of how we make a positive difference together, of how we “intentionally focus on positive possibilities and positive dynamics.”

But there’s more that we can do together. We can advocate for improving the status of women. We can brainstorm about how to improve education…and access to education and affordable child care. We can find ways to address injustices in our policing and criminal justice systems, particularly those injustices endured by persons of color. We can work together on water and environmental issues—after all, regardless of whatever else we do or don’t agree on, we’re all riding through space and time on the same planet.

I would especially like to suggest tonight that we unite as advocates for the homeless. We can speak with one great, united, faithful voice to our cities and counties on behalf of a people who have been literally swept to the curb. We can get creative together to imagine new ways to address this growing problem that all too often winds up on the doorsteps of our houses of worship. We can advocate for comprehensive housing-first programs that address the needs of the whole person to give those forgotten souls a new lease on life. And we can do it all in the name of God, even if we don’t mean exactly the same thing when we say that.

We need to be doing good things together and we need to be very visible in the doing of them. We need our positive interfaith actions to speak louder than their anti-faith words.

I can’t help but think sometimes that maybe we are at a tipping point in the domestication of our own species. Who will win? The aggressive foxes or the tame ones? The aggressive foxes have been let out of their cages. This is no time for us to sit quietly in ours. This is the time for the tame foxes to come out and play. With gusto.

Peace be with you. And be not afraid.

 

 

Stirred Up or Battered Down?

I saw a Facebook post today that cast a shadow over my afternoon. It was written by someone I greatly respect and admire, a person whose opinion I value highly, a person who has shaped my own thinking more than a little. Here’s what he wrote that saddened me: “Remember how unrealistically high hopes for an Obama presidency crashed when he actually began to govern? It’s far simpler to make stirring speeches than to effect genuine change. I am increasingly inclined to vote for Clinton’s pragmatism over Sanders’ utopian fantasies.”

Now before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I don’t want what I’m writing here to be taken as any kind of statement in support of or against any candidate. I do have a preference among the candidates, of course, but that’s something I keep mostly to myself. No, the matter that worries me, that saddens me, is not that my friend is leaning more toward Clinton than Sanders, the matter that deflates something inside me is that more and more we the people of these United States have become willing to give up our ideals of what’s possible and settle for what’s pragmatic. More and more we are willing to characterize our best hopes as “utopian fantasies” and sacrifice them on the cross of pragmatism, lamenting them and praying that the next generation will resurrect them even as we abandon them to the forces that will crucify them.

My friend and teacher is right that many of our high hopes for the Obama presidency have gone unfulfilled. We were, many of us, naïve in our assessment of how much pressure for change his election could really bring to bear on the status quo. We grossly underestimated the kind of backlash and opposition he would face in response to that pressure. We were unaware of any number of commitments and entanglements that would limit his effectiveness. And we seriously failed to anticipate the myriad ways in which a Black Man in the White House would become a catalyst who would surface the not-at-all latent systemic racism that is still too much a part of the fabric of our national culture…if there is such a thing as our national culture.

My friend and teacher is also right that it is far simpler to make stirring speeches than to effect genuine change. That’s absolutely true. But let’s not dismiss or discount the power of stirring speeches too quickly. I have lived long enough and have studied history enough to remember some powerful and sweeping changes that were initiated in this country by stirring words in both documents and speeches. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson ignited an effective change when he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” And yes, it’s true that “all men” meant “all property-owning white males” at the time, but deep inside us we knew that these words represented a higher ideal than that. It has taken a long time and extraordinary sacrifice by many and the work is certainly not finished, but most of us now know that all persons are endowed by their Creator with those inalienable rights and that Governments should not only be instituted and maintained by Men but by all persons. We know now that “consent of the governed” is supposed to apply to all the governed. It took us a long time and more than a little hardship to get there, but it is the ideal planted in those stirring words that has carried us forward through two centuries to a day when we can see it begin to blossom as a pragmatic reality.

In 1962 at Rice University, President John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…” In more ways than any of us could have anticipated, that stirring speech—that stirring fragment of a stirring speech—shaped not only the remainder of the decade but our entire future. It gave us a goal. It gave us a national will to achieve something great. And in spite of the myriad voices that warned that it couldn’t be done, that it was not practical, that it was too dangerous, that it was not economically feasible, we did it. We did it, and in the doing of it we also initiated an era of tremendous inventiveness, creativity, education, industriousness and prosperity—a prosperity that didn’t trickle down from the wealthy top but that flooded out from our common center. I grew up in the flowing heart of that stirring speech, and it made me believe that if we put our minds and hearts to it we could, indeed, make our utopian fantasies a reality.

“I have a dream,” said the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963. “I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream—one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men [sic] are created equal.’ I have a dream…” This stirring speech, too, rang through my childhood and adolescence, continued to stir me through adulthood and still brings tears to my eyes as I quote it to my grandsons. And yes, this dream, too, is still unfulfilled. This dream, too, is still far too much a utopian fantasy and not nearly enough a reality. So should we abandon this dream because it has proved far more difficult to realize than we imagined? Should we settle for a diminished national soul because racism is still with us a half century after this prophetic and stirring speech? Or do we repeat these words to ourselves and rekindle the power of that dream, that utopian fantasy, and let that stirring speech inspire us to keep working for a more perfect union, toward a day when we will rise up and live up to our creed?

“Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable” wrote John Kenneth Galbraith, and somewhere along the way during the last 15 years we all swallowed that poison pill. We have allowed cynicism to infect all our dreams. There is a spirit of meanness abroad in the land—how else to explain the popularity of the Hitleresque Mr. Trump and the disturbing Mr. Cruz?  There is a loud voice shouting through our country to tell us what we cannot do, what we cannot accomplish, who we should not help, who we should not trust, and what we should not even try to imagine. That voice stirs us up to batter us down.  It wants us to think that we cannot feed every hungry child and provide medical care for every person or provide job training and education for every young adult or….well, it’s a long list, the things that voice wants to tell us we cannot do. But I don’t believe it. I grew up listening to a different voice. I grew up listening to a voice that stirred our hearts by announcing a dream that called us to live up to our national creed. I grew up with a voice that inspired us to work toward the realization of our utopian fantasies, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…”
There is so much at stake in this divided nation of ours right now. There are too many who are being stirred by speeches full of anger, hatred, xenophobia, Islamophobia– energetic  speeches that play on fears and resentments of every kind. And lest we forget, sometimes those speeches, too, have stirred many, have moved history and swept whole nations and even the world into an ocean of suffering.

So yes, we need to be ‘wise as serpents but innocent as doves’ as another stirring speaker once said long ago. He was the same one, though, who announced that the ultimate utopian fantasy was within reach.  “The kingdom of God is at hand,” is the way his words are usually translated, but make no mistake–he wasn’t talking spiritual pie-in-the-sky.  He was talking about a utopian world of justice and equality, a world where no one goes hungry, a world where everyone’s basic human needs are met.  We’ve been working on making his vision a pragmatic reality for more than 2,000 years now.  Lord knows it’s been difficult and costly, but I, for one, refuse to give up on it.  I, for one, still believe it can happen.  So yes, Candidate, please show us your pragmatism.  It’s essential.  But more essential than that, stir us with a vision.