Monday, December 10, 2012

A Final Sermon

Taoism and Lao Tse

Many of the great world religions are identified with founding/grounding figures.  Judaism has Moses; Christianity has Jesus; Islam has Mohammed; Buddhism has Siddhārtha Gautama; Confucianism has Confucius; Taoism has Lao Tse.  All these figures are shrouded in myth, sometimes conflicting myths, for example, there are two quite different tellings of Jesus’s birth in the Gospels.  (The popular telling blends the two stories into a single Nativity narrative.) Recently, I’ve been thinking about the popular myth of Lao Tse and the origins of one of the great religious books of humanity, the Tao Te Ching, which translates as the Way and its Power. [You may not know much about Taoism, but you surely recognize its main symbol: the black and white circle, with two pollywog, intertwined shapes, a dot of black in white and a dot of white in black, representing the Whole or world of Ten Thousand things and the constituent elements of Yin and Yang.]
I’ve long found compelling the popular story of Lao Tse and the Tao Te Ching:  Living sometime during the Zhou dynasty 1000-300 years before the Common Era, Lao Tse was a Keeper of the Archives and scholar. He attracted a following, though he didn’t have a formal school.  He lived at least 160 years, when he grew world-weary and decided to retire from the world.  He headed west toward a remote frontier.  As he was leaving the city (another rendition says a final mountain pass), a gatekeeper recognized him.  This guard implored Lao Tse to leave a record of his teachings.  Lao Tse complied, producing in a few days the slim volume we know as the Tao Te Ching.  Having completed the task, he then retreated into the wilderness, never heard from again.
In the last few months, I’ve had the impulse to review things I’ve long concerned myself with, highlighting their value and wisdom, as I’m about to depart, not into the sunset, but toward the sunrise. 
Today, I consider a few things that have guided me and which I find to be deep insights.  I’ve not only intuited them as true and right, but also have tried to practice them, putting them to the test.  These explorations—a long career of study and commentary—have reflected my own quest for the right perspectives and practices of living successfully.   They can guide you, too.
Four Sources
I have four sources to leave you with.
1)  A first source comes from an early 20th century Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, often cited as an existentialist, as well as a mystic.  His famous and enigmatic little book known in English as I and Thou is an exploration into the transcendent dimension of relationships.  I and Thou, in my educational era, was a well-known book frequently assigned in introductory philosophy or religious courses.  I’m not so sure how widely read it is these days.
Buber differentiated between an experience and a relationship.  An experience was what he called an I-it equation: an objectification by an I of an it.  Such experiences, he further explained, make up much of the stuff of our existence—a sort of surface or superficial living.  The experience is not only one sided but happens within the I (subject) without affecting the it (object).  However, in what he described as “brief lyrical” moments, we might have an I-thou moment, a deep encounter when the subject I relates to the subject thou and vice versa. It’s mutual and takes place not within either but between each.  It is intense.  Buber suggests that we cannot long live within these, for they are impractical.  However, they bring insight, including an awareness of God, because all I-thou relationships converge in an I-Thou (God) relationship.  We cannot will such moments, but can condition ourselves to be open toward them.
I’ve had a long interest in intuitive mysticism and I-Thou fits into that scheme.  Buber has provided an enigmatic explanation of what the writer E.M. Forester so eloquently summarized as “Only Connect!”
Such depth relationships are possible with many “subjects” other than fellow human beings, including a person and a tree. 
I contemplate a tree.   
I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pillar in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground.
I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core, the sucking of the roots, the breathing of the leaves, the infinite commerce with earth and air--and the growing itself in its darkness.
I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance, with an eye to its construction and its way of life.
I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I recognize it only as an expression of the law--those laws according to which a constant opposition of forces is continually adjusted, or those laws according to which the elements mix and separate.
I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and eternalize it.
Throughout all of this the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.
But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me.
This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation. There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget. Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparably fused.
Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars--all this in its entirety.
The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it--only differently.
One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.
Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.
2) A second source comes from Gandhi and the doctrine he called satyagraha, anglicized as the “insistence of truth” or “zeal for truth,” the philosophy that guided his successful non-resistance campaigns, first in South Africa at the turn of the century and later most famously in India at mid-century.  I first became aware of satyagraha when I picked up a little India published book on a storefront table in Montreal during my McGill days, c. 1970.  It was titled the Science of Truth.  For some 40 years, in my own life experiences, I’ve tested what Gandhi intended.  In his own word, here’s a summary of what satyagraha is:
Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence, and gave up the use of the phrase “passive resistance”, in connection with it, so much so that even in English writing we often avoided it and used instead the word “satyagraha” itself or some other equivalent English phrase.
So, sometimes satyagraha translates as the Science of Love. Many of you have become familiar with the UUA’s campaign known as Standing on the Side of Love, in part drawing from the Universalist tradition’s motto that God is Love.  Standing on the Side of Love resonates to Gandhi’s Science of Truth/Love.
One of the takeaway’s I’ve had from Gandhi’s teaching regarding truth/love/soul came from his instructions regarding a satyagrahi’s essential attitudes/disciplines, which were several.  Above all, the satyagrahi has the obligation to search intentions and to rectify her or his soul, because actions reflect or are concordant with intentions.  Actions are corruptible regarding one’s intentions.
3) A third source relates to a contemporary strategy for peace that has a long  religious lineage.  Truth and Reconciliation is hybrid, but still is firmly centered in the Christian notion of Forgiveness (the sacrament of Reconciliation in the Catholic tradition of Confession and Penance.)  After apartheid, under Desmond Tutu’s leadership, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought about a surprisingly peaceful transition.  It’s become a model around the world
A very recent article in a Pakistani journal offers this summary of TRC:
Actually Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a transitional justice system which is very useful in post conflict recovery situations. The idea behind TRC is to reconcile between victim and perpetrator. Desmond Tutu’s, book No Life without Forgiveness has provided a theoretical insight on how love and forgiveness could transform people’s lives; dealing with their frustrated feelings.
According to TRC both perpetrator and victim have to come before the court, where perpetrator will accept his crime; then it is victim’s choice to forgive him or not. As a result a society will become free from past resentments.
The Canadian Government is currently conducting a TRC regarding First Nations’ people and the “boarding schools” that abused them and too away their cultural heritage.  The official website declares:
There is an emerging and compelling desire to put the events of the past behind us so that we can work towards a stronger and healthier future. The truth telling and reconciliation process as part of an overall holistic and comprehensive response to the Indian Residential School legacy is a sincere indication and acknowledgement of the injustices and harms experienced by Aboriginal people and the need for continued healing. This is a profound commitment to establishing new relationships embedded in mutual recognition and respect that will forge a brighter future. The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation.
TRCs can settle conflicts between nations, with mutual cooperation/commitment.  And it is applicable between persons or groups of persons.  I think that direct lines can be drawn between satyagrahga and TRC—the persuasive power of truth commingled with love.
4) A fourth and final source, takes me back to beginning remarks regarding Taoism.  Few books/philosophies have influenced as much as philosophical Taoism.  Taoism looks to Nature and Reality for guidance.  Scholars suggest that it was compiled by a variety of sages of a similar mind and that the Tao Te Ching was written as a treatise for a leader on how to lead, but even more how to survive as a leader.  Its model is the “Leaderless Leader,” at least to lead so those led experience (mostly by example) persuasion rather than coercion,  (In the realm of political science it is the opposite point of view from Machiavelli’s heavy handed, The Prince.)  When Taoism met Buddhism, Zen was born, so the Taoist way is similar to the popular to what we call the Zen approach.
The Tao Te Ching offers a variety of guiding metaphors: the new born child; the uncarved block; the valley or female spirit; water which always takes the course of least resistance but in time wears down the hardest rock. It talks about the wheel’s center, where there is nothing, being the foundation for the spokes and rim. It essentially declares if you use power or force to achieve an end, eventually reactive power and force will be used against you. It implies that envy and anger will subvert the power you exert or the possessions you have. 
My favorite teaching story of Taoism comes from Lao Tse’s successor, Chuang Tse.
Ting the cook was cutting meat free from the bones of an ox for Lord Wen-hui. His hands danced as his shoulders turned with the step of his foot and bending of his knee. With a shush and a hush, the blade sang following his lead, never missing a note. Ting and his blade moved as though dancing to “The Mulberry Grove,” or as if conducting the “Ching-shou” with a full orchestra.

Lord Wen-hui exclaimed, “What a joy! It’s good, is it not, that such a simple craft can be so elevated?”

Ting laid aside his knife. “All I care about is the Way. If find it in my craft, that’s all. When I first butchered an ox, I saw nothing but ox meat. It took three years for me to see the whole ox. Now I go out to meet it with my whole spirit and don’t think only about what meets the eye. Sensing and knowing stop. The spirit goes where it will, following the natural contours, revealing large cavities, leading the blade through openings, moving onward according to actual form — yet not touching the central arteries or tendons and ligaments, much less touching bone.

A good cook need sharpen his blade but once a year. He cuts cleanly. An awkward cook sharpens his knife every month. He chops. I’ve used this knife for nineteen years, carving thousands of oxen. Still the blade is as sharp as the first time it was lifted from the whetstone. At the joints there are spaces, and the blade has no thickness. Entering with no thickness where there is space, the blade may move freely where it will: there’s plenty of room to move. Thus, after nineteen years, my knife remains as sharp as it was that first day.

Even so, there are always difficult places, and when I see rough going ahead, my heart offers proper respect as I pause to look deeply into it. Then I work slowly, moving my blade with increasing subtlety until — kerplop! — meat falls apart like a crumbling clod of earth. I then raise my knife and assess my work until I’m fully satisfied. Then I give my knife a good cleaning and put it carefully away.”

Lord Wen-hui said, “That’s good, indeed! Ting the cook has shown me how to find the Way to nurture life.”
In summary, I have sought and continue to seek four great truths and practices:
1)    Gandhi's satyagraha, guides me to act from the convergent spirit of love and truth, always measuring my intentions, rectifying them whenever necessary.
2)    Martin Buber’s existential notions of encounters/relationships versus experiences, urges me to see all aspects of Reality, particularly fellow beings as subjects like myself.
3)    Truth and Reconciliation insights remind me to listen and forgive, seeking mutual Peace.
4)    Taoism continues to hold before me the attributes of a practical sage, with the mythic attributes of the Butcher whose knife is still sharp after years of use.
These are worthy, remarkable strategies of success and transformation.  I recommend them to all who seek the depths of living.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Gannett Awards 2012

Some years ago I offered a yearly sermon series called “the annual vulgarity awards.”  I would rant a little about four or five egregiously ugly or corrosive aspects of our common culture.  But I tired of that series; and I also felt, I was, ironically, contributing to a toxic social climate.

So I flipped the series 180 degrees and developed a yearly sermon series on what I find to be excellent in our common life.  I immediately named this new series The William Channing Gannett Awards in honor of the first minister of this congregation, whose signature phrase “domestication of the infinite” suited my sense of the source and result of excellence.

Mr. Gannett was a remarkable man with an impeccable Unitarian pedigree.  His father, the Rev. Ezra Stiles Gannett, was the first President of the American Unitarian Association, 1825.  Ezra Stiles Gannett was also the associate minister at the famed Federal Street Church in Boston, where the saintly founder of American Unitarianism William Ellery Channing was for senior minister.  Dr. Channing was William Channing Gannett’s godfather, hence the middle name Channing.

Mr. Gannett was a modernist compared to his godfather and father, who were Christian Rationalists.  Young William was influenced by Transcendentalism’s more expansive vision of religion; and when he made his way west, he joined the Unity Men of the Western Unitarian Conference, whose motto “the unity of all things” summarized their broad view of religion.  The Unity Men also promoted ethics as the proper focus of religion, in which character (ingenuousness) blended with what we now call social justice.

William Channing Gannett wrote the great compromise, “The Things We Hold in Common” that allowed the Christians and the emergent not-just or more-than Christian liberals to stay in one Unitarian denomination.    His essay, “The House Beautiful,” inspired the magazine of the same name thanks to the efforts of his good friend Frank Lloyd Wright.  And his plan for our Church-Home has shaped generations of Hinsdale Unitarians over one hundred, twenty years.

Before I present this year’s awards, I want you to think about Mr. Gannett’s signature phrase “domestication of the infinite.”  The ideals we recognize (and you might see them in terms of the great categories of the good, the true, and the beautiful), if they are our ideals, are necessarily compelling—so compelling that we must implement them in our self and our world.  This is a process of domestication—of household and home infusing our larger world.  The doors open in and welcome the worthy; the doors then open out and infuse the world with the warmth, intimacy, and values of the home and the home-like.

I’ve been greatly influenced by William Channing Gannett, through his writings and through his sculpture in wood, brick, and stone, this Church-Home, that he was instrumental in designing.  In his honor and memory I once again lift up the excellent in our common world.

The Hyde Park Neighborhood

This year, I focus upon the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park.  Some of you know Hyde Park quite well, having lived there or perhaps attended the University of Chicago, the area’s indisputable anchor.  The University by itself, is worthy of a thoughtful and attentive stroll.  It’s a tribute to American capitalism, since it was originally endowed by John D Rockefeller on land donated by Marshall Field.  It rose in 1890 from a failed Baptist College of the same name.  Its neo-gothic (Victorian and Collegiate Gothic)  style of architecture, particularly the great conceit called Rockefeller chapel, is noteworthy.  It also has buildings of significant architects, Wright, Saarinen, and Mies van de Rohe.  The Midway Plaisance, a long rectangular park separating the north from south campuses, was a site of the famous World’s Fair--the Columbian Exposition of 1893--that announced the arrival of Chicago as a world city.  If you read Devil in the White City, you might be able to imagine the elegance of the architectural/landscape vision of Daniel Burnham as well as the serial murder spree of  infamous Dr. H. H. Holmes, as you gaze down the Midway. The U of C claims 87 Nobel Laureates, including several economists of what is often called the Chicago School of Economics.  In the early years of the 20th century it was a major football power under Amos Alonzo Stagg.  Under its 5th president Robert Maynard Hutchins who took office in 1929, the University abandoned football and instituted a core curriculum based on a collection known as the Great Books and the teaching style of the Socratic Method.  The first sustained atomic reaction took place within the confines of the old football field. It has a small undergraduate student body of a mere 5,000 students. Among its adjunct institutions are a number of theological schools and seminaries. Until last year the UU Meadville Lombard Theological School had its own building on 57th and Woodlawn, adjacent to First Unitarian Church, yet another neo-gothic structure.

So when you visit my Gannett Awardees from Hyde Park, be sure to include a stroll through the tightly contained old campus north of the Midway known as the Quadrangle, particularly if you heading toward my first awardee, The Oriental Institute.

The Oriental Institute

Similar to the University itself, The Oriental Institute raises mixed feelings.  Its collection dates from the era when outside concerns went on archeological digs in the Middle East and returned to their own countries with what was essentially plunder.  The era ended in the 1930s.  Its core collection dates from that time. The Museum of the Oriental Institute has artifacts from long ago digs in Egypt, Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.

The Oriental Institute is located on the corner of 58th Street and University Avenue in, if you can imagine, an Art Deco/Gothic building, dating it from the 1920s. The interior is spacious and, in my estimation, church-like. The collection provides ample stimulation to contemplation of the human condition and civilization--the latter, a veneer a scant 10,000 years thick, yet seemingly so ancient.  The modern nations whose long-ago ancestors created such stuff of monumental stature, bodily ornamentation, or everyday business, such as Egypt and Iran (once Persia), can rightly claim a very long perspective on world affairs.

For me, the museum and its plundered collection together make for one of the holiest places I’ve ever visited.  Such a place with its collections cannot be replicated today or ever again.

My first Gannett 2012 goes to the shrine of ancient civilization known as the Oriental Institute.

Nuclear Energy by Henry Moore

Still on campus, on Ellis Avenue between 56th Street and 57th Street, in the midst of a stark plaza is a large bronze sculpture, nearly fourteen tall, a bronze statue by Henry Moore. Perhaps it’s meant to suggest a human skull or perhaps it represents a mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion, or both. It marks the site of the first sustained nuclear reaction beneath the abandoned football stadium. That reaction, an effort of the famed Manhattan Project and headed by Enrico Fermi, was one of the most important scientific accomplishments, boding evil, as well as good in the human experience.

Thirty years later from the actual event, the sculptor Henry Moore remembered: “It’s a rather strange thing really but I’d already done the idea for this sculpture before Professor McNeill and his colleagues from the University of Chicago came to see me on Sunday morning to tell me about the whole proposition. They told me (which I’d only vaguely known) that Fermi, the Italian nuclear physicist, started or really made the first successful controlled nuclear fission in a temporary building. I think it was a squash court - a wooden building - which from the outside looked entirely unlike where a thing of such an important nature might take place. But this experiment was carried on in secret and it meant that by being successful Man was able to control this huge force for peaceful purposes as well as destructive ones. They came to me to tell me that they thought where such an important event in history took place ought to be marked and they wondered whether I would do a sculpture which would stand on the spot.”

The enigmatic but evocative bronze was dedicated in 1967, exactly to the minute, twenty-five years after the actual event.

My second Gannett Award of 2012 goes to the gestalt of this incredible and historic event with the monumental sculpture by an important 20th century sculptor.

The Fountain of Time by Laredo Taft

Speaking of sculptures, a third Gannett Award 2012 goes to a truly monumental work, one hundred twenty-six feet long, The Fountain of Time, by the turn of the century Illinois based sculptor Laredo Taft. Time, as it is often called, resides at the west end of the Midway Plaisance.  An oversized figure, twenty-six feet tall, shrouded in a robe and with a scythe, Father Time, presides over a hundred figures that progress in an historical, three dimensional diorama and human life span, progressing before him.  It was intended to fit into a larger landscape design for the Midway that did not happen.

Taft worked on Burnham’s great White City design of the1893 Exposition. Time followed in the grand Beaux Arts style of Burnham’s great success. The sculpture was finished in 1920 and dedicated in 1922.  Taft, for reasons of economy, had settled on the medium of reinforced concrete.  The Beaux Arts representational style was no longer in favor by the time the sculpture was finished. The medium proved to be susceptible to the weather—cracking, pitting, and crumbling.

Thirty years ago, when I first encountered it, it was a crumbling, neglected, very sad site. It bordered the areas to the south and west that were transitional neighborhoods. Then, I found it an ironic statement of the very subject matter it portrayed—the inevitable progress of time, that leaves in its wake decay and yes, death.

I’m sure that this wasn’t what the artist intended.  But unintended consequences added a patina of deeper truth.  One commentator justly observed: “(Perhaps Time felt that Taft’s ambition was impertinent and wanted to team him a lesson.)  In any event, the leading Chicago newspaper soon labeled the outdated sculpture one of the city’s ‘pet atrocities.’ Resentful at the way styles had passed him by, Taft became a leading spokesperson for conservative sculpture and lectured against the evils of modernism (demonstrating that he had learned absolutely nothing about the inevitably of time).”

In this context, the sculpture is doubly richly. In the late ‘90s and in the early years of this century, the sculpture has been restored.  (Remembering last week’s sermon, for me, this has always been a place for memento mori—to think about time and mortality, evoked by a Beaux Arts style that reminds me of the so called War to End All Wars, which I’ve always suspected influenced the artist’s design.)

The Nile

My annual Gannetts usually include a food place.  Hyde Park has many to choose from including Morry’s Deli, opened fifty years ago by Suze Orman’s dad.  Another likely place is the student and neighborhood standard called the Medici, which I’ve long seen as essentially U of C.  However, I’m recommending that you try out a Middle Eastern restaurant The Nile at 1611 East 55th Street, with plenty of on-street parking. I’ve been eating there for at least a couple of decades.

It’s of a type, minimally decorated, bright to the point of harshness.  Behind a tall counter, the food is prepared, often taken from a glass display case. Since I can remember, a solitary Asian waitress has been the server. On the wall is a poster of the city of Jerusalem, the dome of the rock in the center.

The menu includes typical Middle Eastern fare at a very affordable price. It’s a good place to go with a group and share. The humus with a generous basket of warm fresh pita is outstanding.  My favorite is a falafel sandwich filled with freshly fried, sliced falafel, Jerusalem salad, and tahini sauce that oozes deliciously. I like it with a glass of hot tea.

The Fair Trader

Either before or after eating at The Nile, mosey down the street a half a block to 1623 East 55th Street to visit a shop The Fair Trader. Ellie and I were in Hyde Park several days ago. After eating at the Nile, I wanted to see what was new on the block and found this place with the slogan “where shopping makes a difference.” I recognized the women who ran it.  They belong to First Unitarian Church. They joke that this place is First Unitarian East. Stop in, tell them you’re a Hinsdale Unitarian, and that I recommended the store to you. They are celebrating their fifth year of business (an accomplishment in this economy). They might even give you a little celebration gift, a handmade glazed pendant on a chord, as they gave to both Ellie and me. Ellie bought a large bead bracelet and a couple of cards; perhaps you’ll find something to support this business, as well as assist far away laborers struggling to earn a living.

For putting their UU values into practice, for making a difference in their community, for their enthusiasm and perseverance and their entrepreneurial chutzpah, I give Evelyn Johnson, Madeiria Myriekes, and Cindy Prado—the three proprietors of The Fair Trader—a fifth and final Gannett Award 2012.  They are making our larger world more home-like.

That’s what my ten years of awards have honored: people and places that have domesticated the infinite, making our common world more home-like.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Then Comes Marriage

A Daunting Project

Late last winter Skinner House Books, the UUA’s in-house press put out a denomination-wide call for proposals for a wedding guide.  In the brief call, they recommended my 1993 book In Memoriam: A Guide to Modern Funeral and Memorial Services as the sort of format they were seeking. (I was once told In Memoriam is Skinner House’s all time best-selling book.  I was pleased it and I were mentioned in regards to the proposed wedding guide.) Colleagues asked me if I were going to submit a proposal for the wedding book, out of deference I suspected, or not to waste their time if a decision had already been made—that  I might have an inside track.  I told them I didn’t intend to submit.  I was sincere, speculating, too, that Skinner House might want a new voice regarding the great rites of passage. (In addition to In Memoriam, in the last decade I produced four separate quote collections for the great rites of passage: birth, coming of age, marriage, and death.  Nevertheless, I did submit a proposal for a wedding guide, after receiving a personal request to do so from the acquisitions editor, whom I worked with on my previous six books.  I literally dashed off the proposal.)

In June, my editor asked me to work up a more detailed proposal for the review of Skinner House’s Editorial Board.  As she put it, my initial proposal was at the top of the pile of submissions.  I was a little surprised, especially since I’d not thought much about the project for a couple of months.  Of course, I was pleased, feeling for the first time enthusiasm for a UU wedding guide, thinking it would be an addition to my right of passage oeuvre—a capstone.

So in July, I spent considerable time working up a more detailed proposal.  To do so, I was aware of the political shoals of our Association, meaning sensitivity to the various communities that always need to be addressed: same sex, neo-pagan, non-theist as well as theist, traditionalists, and non-traditionalist, humanist, feminist, and so on.  I quickly realized that an inclusive UU guide to wedding ceremonies was a daunting project, particularly to please a scrupulous Editorial Board rife with UU political sensitivities.

As I strove to put together a proposal that might pass their review, I also focused on the institution of marriage itself, to get a handle on the meaning and purpose of a wedding ceremony leading to a legally binding marriage or that everything-but legal covenant between same sex persons, a Civil Union.  Civil Union ceremonies also had to be put into the proposal equation.  The whole project begged for inclusivity, clarity, relative simplicity yet expansiveness, poetic inspiration, and general marketability.

Whether or not my proposal results in a contract, I’m glad for the experience.  It caused me to thoroughly explore what marriage was and is and even speculate what it might become.  (If I do produce a wedding guide, I might shape the institution of marriage’s becoming.) Interestingly and not insignificantly, I did my work while spending the month with my 95 and 96 year old parents, married for 73 years.  And of course Ellie and I have 44 years of marriage.

A treacherous aspect of speaking to marriage as a theme (as in this address) involves dramatic changes that have taken and continue to take place in American society. It’s easy to offend one component or another, including the intentionally single.

Demographics Reveal the  Reality of the Institution of Marriage

Have you heard that the majority of Americans now live outside of so-called traditional marriage?  A review of the statistics from the 2010 census is revelatory, as chronicled in a 2011 NYTimes article, from which I now extensively quote.

“Married couples represented just 48 percent of American households in 2010, slightly less than in 2000, but far below the 78 percent of households occupied by married couples in 1950.
“What is more, just a fifth of households were traditional families — married couples with children — down from about a quarter a decade ago, and from 43 percent in 1950, as the iconic image of the American family continues to break apart.
“In recent history, the marriage rate among Americans was at its highest in the 1950s, when the institution defined gender roles, family life and a person’s place in society. But as women moved into the work force, cohabitation lost its taboo label, and as society grew more secular, marriage lost some of its central authority….
‘Today, traditional patterns have been turned upside down. Women with college degrees are now more likely to marry than those with just high school diplomas, the reverse of several decades ago.
“Rising income inequality has divided American society, making college-educated people less likely to marry those without college degrees. Members of that educated group have struck a new path: they marry later and stay married. In contrast, women with only a high school diploma are increasingly opting not to marry the fathers of their children, whose fortunes have declined along with the country’s economic opportunities….
“Married couples may be half of all households, but that does not mean that only half of Americans will ever be married. The overwhelming majority of Americans — with some exceptions — do eventually marry (though increasingly, working-class people do not stay married).
“Households are changing in other ways. Americans are living longer than ever, so households now include a growing number of elderly singles. Other factors have been the large influx of immigrants, who tend to be single people in their 20s and 30s, and the growing number of young people who live together without being married.
“There are 37 states, plus the District of Columbia, in which married couples make up fewer than 50 percent of all households, up from just 6 states in 2000.
“In all, 41 states showed declines in traditional households of married couples with children. In 2000, married couples with children were fewer than 20 percent of all households in just one state, plus the District of Columbia. Now they are fewer than a fifth in 31 states.
“The biggest change for the decade was the jump in households headed by women without husbands — up by 18 percent in the decade. The next largest rise was in households whose occupants were not a family — up by about 16 percent.”

Wow! In 1950, seventy-eight percent of the adult population was married. Today it is forty-eight percent, though a greater percentage has been or will be married sometime. The safest pronouncement regarding marriage is, it’s an option; but it’s no longer normative.  Yet as an option, particularly for the well-educated, so it seems, it answers particular personal needs and serves society.

Marriage’s Evolved Meaning

I’ve performed several hundred wedding ceremonies in my three and a half decades of liberal ministry. The larger portion by far involved couples outside the two congregations I’ve served.  Unless, asked, I don’t formally counsel the couple; but in an initial interview, I frame the event for them by drawing on insights I’ve cobbled together through the years. I may, in the actual ceremony offer a few words formally known as an “admonishment:” that a declaration of marriage is a serious but not solemn undertaking, from the Roman Church though the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

I tell them that a marriage ceremony contains symbolic elements that connect to the medieval Catholic Church and cultures of Europe. I explain how the ceremony evolved into the generic Protestant outline I follow. 

I never neglect to mention that a wedding ceremony is a public event, with the invited guests serving as proxy representatives for all of society.  Society has a vested interested in committed relationships for the sake of its own survival.  In this regard, a marriage is foundational, a conservative element in our larger society.  So the words spoken on the couple’s behalf, as well as the words they say, have additional importance for the perpetuation of society.

Early on as a minister, I fell under the influence of an analysis called the Natural History of a Marriage.  In the light of this analysis, I sometimes caution the couple, in a loving way, of course, that they may be getting married for a cluster of wrong reason... In the throes of peer, family, and cultural influences, as well as the intoxication of early love, neither has a true sense of the other, yet.  So one day, when the proverbial honeymoon is over, one or both will wake up one morning, and find they married a figurative stranger.  Then, whether its seven months or seven years, the real work of creating a deep relationship will begin.  Here, I toss in a little of Martin Buber’s notion of an I/Thou, subject/subject relationship, when each part of the equation accepts the other in her and his fullness of being—as subject (or complete person) and not an object.  When this occurs, the Eternal Thou—God—is realized.

In more recent years I might tell a couple not to expect each partner to first and forever fill all the needs of the other.  The mere expectation is a recipe for failure.  No one person can fulfill another person’s needs.  Here I interject what Joseph Campbell called the myth of marriage, that the myth exists outside each partner; and a marriage succeeds when the couple first commit to the myth they share before committing to one another.

Anecdotally, the ceremonies I perform generally result in enduring marriages, perhaps because they are among those with college degrees, who have chosen to postpone marriage for career or in anticipation of just the right spouse.  Only a few that I know of have led to divorce.  This probably measures the relatively mature and thoughtful persons who seek me out, wanting to begin their life together with the sort of a personally meaningful ceremony properly conceived as a religious ceremony.

From what I understand, the state’s involvement in issuing so-called marriage licenses resulted largely from nineteenth century lobbying by evangelical Protestants, eager to impose their moralism on society.  Through the nineteenth century a preponderance of marriages were what we now call common law. …

Same sex marriage continues to be a controversial issue in the so-called, ongoing culture wars.  I come to Gay Marriage with some experience, as well as wide ranging knowledge of the evolution and meaning of marriage.

I favor same sex marriage as a matter of civil rights, including equal opportunity and protection, under the Constitution.  Btu even more I favor it for intimate, relational, and social reasons, which my longtime companion Ecclesiastes has helped inform.

My standard wedding meal blessing draws from Ecclesiastes, an ancient Old Testament work:  “Enjoy life with the one whom you love all the days of your life.  Whatever your hands find to do, do with all your might.  Eat your bread with gladness, and drink your wine with a merry heart, because your God has already approved what you do.”  [adapted]

Long ago I adapted the word “wife” to the phrase “the one whom you love,” to include the woman as well as the man.  Now, as I’ve come to realize that love, straight or gay, comes from the same impulses and has the same results, I’ve expanded my public intentions in saying “Enjoy life with the one whom you love, all the days of your life.”  If the one you love is of the same sex, I simply and emphatically say, “Yes and yes.”

A public ceremony (wedding) and a civil contract (license) together give a love relationship meaning and imprimatur, plus legal status, no less or more for a same sex couple, as for a heterosexual couple.

My Expression of Marriage’s Meaning

Eight years ago I had the distinct honor of presiding over my daughter’s wedding in California.  I wrote the following “Introduction” for the occasion, something of a summary of my understanding of marriage’s meaning.

Katie and Mike, this is your day.

You are about to declare your marriage to one another and to the world.  This is the day you’ve been arcing toward throughout your separate lives from the days you were born.

Today, before your families and friends, you will declare that you are married, that you are, indeed, from this day onward husband and wife—a relationship that is honored for its steadfastness and respected for its integrity.

There is no relationship like a marriage in which there is a giving of self—freely and gladly— and in which there is taking from the other –in desire or in need—as the occasion demands.

What allows such a relationship to succeed is not so much desires fulfilled or needs met, but a commitment to the marriage itself, which is greater than desire and need.  Your marriage will be outside of either of you, but possible only through both of you.

A marriage is a sacred undertaking.  It is the means to a new courage, a more resilient strength to make a larger world out your singular worlds, a sanctuary of comfort and peace, and a mutuality of desire fulfilled.  A marriage is a sacred undertaking born and reborn through the changes of your lives together.

Your marriage is a commitment to fashion a cup of meaning that holds children in its midst, seeking their nurture, that they may mature into capable and confident human beings.

Mike and Katie, this is your day.

Perched as you are on the threshold of your marriage, take pause to appreciate the declaration you are making.  Know the hope you have within you—a reasonable hope.   Imagine the richness that converges for you and opens to an even greater richness you may together create—richness expanding out of richness. 

As you pause and appreciate, make a silent, solemn, sincere vow that you shall keep your individualism, while not violating the individualism of your partner in your life together.  Let your personalities be greater than before, because you choose to be wife and husband to one another.   Thus you will grow in love, because you will continue to grow individually.

Katie and Mike, this is your day.

We,—your parents, your families, your friends,—we give you our enthusiasm and support for what you are undertaking.  We give you our love, of course; and when you seek the wisdom of our days, we will offer you our counsel.  Don’t hesitate, ever, to call on us. 

We are implicated with you in the sacredness of your marriage.  You extend, continue, and complete us.  We are more than witnesses, we are participants in this great occasion.

Mike and Katie, this is your day.

We give you our blessings, as well as our hopes on this momentous day

Monday, September 24, 2012

Teaching the World To Die: Unitarian Universalist Death Ways

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For the last few summers, I’ve worked on a series of discrete projects with an eye to independent publication
  •  in 2010, I journaled an extended meditation on the Book of Ecclesiastes, a reflective journey into an ancient wisdom tradition that I independently published as Wisdom for the Ages; 
  • in 2011, I collected and edited my poetic meditations, sermons, and other writings  around the extended Holidays and independently published the collection If Only for the Season; 
  • and this summer, I wrote an historical and opinion essay on UU attitudes about death, some 8,000 words, for publication as a Kindle edition I called “Teaching the World to Die.”
Before settling on the UU ministry, I’d studied and planned to be an historian, perhaps teaching and researching in the academy.  My area of interest was ante-bellum U.S. history, specifically popular intellectual history—the sort of trends and interests of the hoi polloi. For example, I studied the enthusiastic religions that followed the westward progress of the Erie Canal from the great revivals of Charles Finney, through the rise of Mormonism and other home grown religions, through the phenomenon of Spiritualism on the brink of the Civil War.  In graduate school, 1969-70, at Vermont during the Vietnam War and Kent State, I became interested in the roots of the American Peace Movement, discovering that the first American Peace Society was formed  in William Ellery Channing’s study.  That introduction to Unitarianism changed the trajectory of my life.

I’m still an historian at heart, with the gathering of information and its ordering into a narrative my essential approach, the narrative having a purpose and always open to reinterpretation.  I love history, yet maintain that any history is only one version of many possibilities.

History isn’t one story, but many stories.

The story I tell in “Teaching the World to Die” is about how we historic Unitarians and now contemporary Unitarian Universalists have greatly influenced American death ways.  I’m a player in this history.  Over the course of two centuries our tradition has humanized and domesticated death, resisting supernaturalism and its traditions, lifting up what is naturally transcendent and sacred about a human life.  It’s a grand story set in what, for many is still a morbid context.

The Rural Cemetery Movement

It begins in the 1830s around Boston, already the Athens of American and home to the Enlightenment religion freedom, reason, and tolerance known as Unitarianism.  There was a reform movement led by Unitarians that sought to take death out of the pallor of the church’s graveyard into the countryside and beneficences of Nature.  The movement had sanitary or health considerations, and cities, including Boston, were running out of burial space.  These Unitarian reformers looked to a classical ideal known as a cemetery (place of repose) in the countryside resulted in a cultural phenomenon in Cambridge known as Mt. Auburn, the first carefully landscaped rural or garden cemetery, a place for the living and for the dead in the context of Nature.  This picturesque place became a bona fide tourist attraction, the equal of sublime Niagara Falls. Soon similar suburban cemeteries became a national standard.


Next, in the 1870’s, a radical Unitarian minister in NYC  Octavius Frothingham preached the first sermon advocating cremation, an option made possible by the recent technology of the crematorium brought to the US from Europe.  Frothingham’s arguments were really thinly veiled remonstrances against supernatural religions and the superstations they promoted. 

Cremation was slow to catch on, particularly in the face of an aggressive funeral industry grounded in embalming—one of the legacies of the Civil War, including the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  His embalmed body took a slow journey from Washington to Springfield and was viewed along the route.

Memorial Society Movement

After World War II, an emergent Memorial Society Movement, in the name of the people, resisted the practices of the firmly entrenched funeral industry.  Cremation, somewhat dormant, then offered an alternative to an immediate and often costly funeral.  With cremation a memorial service at a later date was possible.  Many Unitarian congregations led the way in establishing local memorial societies.  In fact, the San Francisco Memorial society was organized in a Unitarian minister’s living room, attended by a small group that included Jessica Mitford’s attorney husband.  Ms. Mitford soon wrote one of the most influential books of the twentieth century, The American Way of Death that challenged the funeral industry’s practices and launched a larger consumer movement.

Celebrations of Life

Unitarian clergy also led the way in creating a new sort of final rite of passage, not a mournful funeral, rather a memorial service (often) that acquired the name of “Celebration of Life.”  My twentieth century colleagues became accomplished and renowned for speaking to the deceased life in a thorough, loving, and honest fashion.

I built on this tradition when in the early 1990s I published my innovative collection of memorial service templates in a Skinner House Book: In Memoriam: Modern Funeral and Memorial Services reissued in a 2000 second edition, now with an eye to a future third edition.  As I’ve mentioned before, In Memoriam is a best-seller and now considered a classic.

Through these four innovations led and supported by our forebears, the rural cemetery movement, cremation, the memorial society movement, and artful celebrations of life as a person’s final passage, I make a persuasive case for how our tradition has taught the world to die, not to shrink from death but to put it in a natural and human scheme.

This morning I can only sketch this little history.  I recommend that you take the time to read the essay that is available on Amazon as a Kindle.  Incidentally, you don’t need a Kindle device.  You can download a Kindle reader to your computer, easily, quickly, and without cost.  The cost of the essay is a modest ninety-nine cents.

I am proud to have personally played an important part in this ongoing reform movement.  Death is at the heart of human meaning, and religions seek to offer meaning. How we face death as a liberal religious tradition is one of our sterling marks. 

After we sing our second hymn, I’ll sketch our UU outlook about the keystone to Life’s meaning.

Death and Dying Among Contemporary Unitarian Universalists

Unitarians had an abiding interest in reforming American death ways. They significantly influenced, intellectually and practically, how the greater culture deals with the overarching reality of the human condition: mortality and death. Unitarian innovations and reforms cited in this essay served to domesticate death in the name of the universal human condition; challenged traditions and the supernaturalisms that supported those traditions; resisted the commercialization of death by a funeral industry; and lifted up the dignity and worth of the deceased through artful and meaningful “celebrations of life.”
There is a palpable Unitarian Universalist way for meeting death, though that way is not prescribed. Remember, Unitarian Universalism is non-creedal, as well as progressive. Its ethos has continually encouraged the proving of all things while holding on to that which is good. This search for truth has been tempered, humanized, by love. To seek the truth in love is an enduring mantra. That notion of love has many dimensions, ranging from love of self and others like one’s self to a love of Life and its often-inscrutable ways.

Here are markers of Unitarian Universalism’s contemporary, convergent attitudes and understandings regarding death.

Death should not be invisible. Death is a hard reality both to accept within one’s own mortality and to experience through a beloved. The American culture has devised strategies of denial. Yet death is a pathway to living fully, even joyfully, in the moment. The ancient philosophers, the Stoics in particular, counseled memento mori to be regularly reminded that living is dying, not obsessively, but now and again to give living context and perspective.

Think of Unitarian Universalist ways in terms of the domestication of death, coming to a certain intimacy with death through a variety of attitudes, behaviors, and strategies: memento mori, including contemplation of mortality in a garden cemetery or similar setting, not sequestering the aged or dying, leaving the body in a natural (unembalmed) state, tangibly commemorating the deceased, and through subsequent years remembering.

Death should be conditioned by Nature.  This might be literal, that is, interring the body, or cremation remains in a garden cemetery or similar natural setting. Cremation allows many options, including scattering at a meaningful site or several sites. Unitarian Universalist churches may have a carefully designed cremation garden or more informally include the ashes in a planting, the tree or shrub serving as a living memorial. Furthermore, death should be construed as part and parcel of Nature’s cycles of Life continuing through the generations—a natural phenomenon. Being natural, death is right and fitting in Nature’s scheme. Nature inspires a richer living through acceptance of mortality’s place in the Web of Life.

Death of a loved one, friend, or member of a community should be observed in an artfully crafted funeral or memorial service. In this service, a formal eulogy or a series of individual remembrances speak with loving truth of the life that the deceased chose to live, the influences that played on her or him through the years, how she or he shaped our common world, and what of that person endures in us. With a dignified service and the promise to remember, the deceased have has a blessed assurance that in death and repose there might be a peace said to pass understanding.

Unitarian Universalist ministers should be, and generally are, well prepared to plan and conduct funeral and memorial services, entrusted by their congregations and a larger community to navigate the complexities of end of life concerns and rituals. This includes grief-counseling skills. A Unitarian Universalist minister seeks to express transcendent meanings, such as the continuing influence of love that the deceased brought into the world—a love that endures and is passed on through the generations.

The funeral and memorial service should address the varied grief that the family and gathered community are experiencing. This includes a continuing promise to remain steadfast for those who grieve, acknowledging that grief is an extended process, unique to each person who grieves.

Death should be planned for. This planning has certain aspects. Every individual should leave instructions about final wishes. This includes the practical and existential, what is often included in a Living Will, regarding the parameters of medical procedures to take or not to take in one’s final days. A Living Will often designates a trusted person to have Power of Attorney for Health Care, charged to make ultimate decisions. Such a directive often is accompanied by a designation of the same or other person to have a fiscal Power of Attorney. Of course, a legally drawn will alleviates hindrances and complications of the deceased’s estate. Valuable, too, are instructions regarding final rites; this includes disposition of the body, burial or scattering. Instructions might include memorialization, such as cemetery plot and monument, but also designated charities for contributions in the deceased’s memory. It is good to memorialize in tangible forms; and for those who survive, it is good to visit memorials, respecting and remembering. Also important are directives for the funeral or memorial service: music, readings, participants, officiant, location, and the like, again in consultation with family and clergy.

It is good to do such planning in conversation with family and perhaps clergy. This models how to confront death, honestly and compassionately, letting genuine feeling have its full day. Such planning has benefits when death comes with grief in its wake.  

Such planning addresses considerations around consumer concerns regarding funeral providers. A valuable resource is the not-for-profit  Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) successor to the memorial society movement’s national organization. The FCA declares, “We are the only 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting a consumer's right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral. We offer education and advocacy to consumers nationwide and are not affiliated with the funeral industry.” The FCA website has many valuable resources to inform and guide.

Typically, after a house and car, a funeral is a person’s third greatest life expenditure. End of life arrangements should not be undertaken during duress, when circumstances are pressing and emotions are vulnerable to compliance techniques. All involved should counsel together about desired arrangements before death comes.

Hospice care, often at home, has become an increasing choice for Unitarian Universalists. This fits earlier considerations regarding the domestication of death.

An emerging option among Unitarian Universalists is green burial, allowing the unembalmed body, often in a simple shroud, to decompose naturally in a natural setting. This reflects scruples about cremation’s effects on the environment, particularly the energy required to fire the crematorium. Green burial also looks to the body’s constituent parts leaching back into Nature. (In advocating for a rural cemetery in the early nineteenth century, Unitarians cited a dramatic example of Nature’s embrace of the body. When the body of Major John Andre was exhumed in 1821, his skull was held and pierced by roots of a peach tree. For those advocates of the taking death into the countryside, this offered a romantic and compelling example of “Nature’s embrace.”) Today, green burial resonates to the Unitarian Universalist seventh principle: “respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.”

There is no doubt that the first principle of Unitarian Universalism, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” summarizes, as well informs this liberal religion’s attitudes regarding its death ways. Through two centuries Unitarian Universalists have increasingly emphasized the personal and universally human, especially above traditional dogma and theology. 

Unitarian Universalist reforms and innovations around death and dying emphasize essential human dignity. Unitarian Universalists find the human condition transcendent and sacred.

As I intoned in In Memoriam:

A human life is sacred.
It is sacred in its being born.
It is sacred in its living.
And it is sacred in its dying.