Friday, February 27, 2009

Three Other Ways To Say "Agape".... & Why.

Unlimited Love ~~ proposed by the theologian Thomas Oord and a number of others who are actually studying love (both theistic and non-theistic) as the one force that can save humankind. Known as the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, they propose a dialogue between spirituality, theology and science, and describe love thusly:

The essence of love is to affectively affirm as well as to unselfishly delight in the well-being of others, and to engage in acts of care and service on their behalf; unlimited love extends this love to all others without exception, in an enduring and constant way. Widely considered the highest form of virtue, unlimited love is often deemed a Creative Presence underlying and integral to all of reality: participation in unlimited love constitutes the fullest experience of spirituality.

In a paper titled “It’s Good To Be Good: Health and the Generous Heart,” Stephen Post of the Institute argues that practicing unlimited love actually improves health, both physical and psychological, and extends life.

Not all those who exemplify hints of Unlimited Love or something close to it are
religious in the sense of having an established belief system and tradition; neither are all of
them theists. They probably all share a sense of common humanity, deep human equality,
and a developed capacity for empathy and compassion

The Love Economy ~~ Hazel Henderson, evolutionary economist and futurist, writes that women and men who do the work of volunteerism and of caring for the young and old at home do not appear in the economic indexes but make it possible for those who go out and create the industrial economy. In 1995, the UN Development Report estimated that $16 trillion (about 60 to 80k per American household) is missing from the GNP. Acknowledging these services, which she calls the Love Economy, would create a more realistic and sustainable way to go forward. This form of love is often, although surely not always agape, because at its root it is Mother-Love, love for the children, the ailing, the weak and love for the future of the planet. As is said about Buddhist/Deep ecologist Joanna Macy, she has many friends, most of whom are not yet born. What could be a higher form of love?

Holistic Love ~ This is my own hypothesis, and it incorporates elements of the above-described systems. I am becoming convinced that what we have been calling agape cannot be practiced without including the earth, the air, and all of the creatures that inhabit our world. Neither can we claim to be living sustainably unless we are practicing selfless, sacrificial loving and giving to one another. There is no sense in which we can sustain human life and planetary life if we pretend that it is OK to be loving here and to disregard and dismiss over there. Generous here but selfish there. All love, like all beings and all objects, animate and inanimate, is connected.

One might argue that using love as a remedy is unrealistic given human nature. This may be one of liberalism’s greatest blind spots. All love is not license.

Rather shockingly, the young Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided that the only loving thing to do in Nazi Germany was to participate in failed the “officer’s plot” to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for his part in the plot. He appears from his writings to have maintained his grounding in agape love throughout these years of difficulty. It is remarkable that for Bonheoffer tough love meant doing the only thing that he felt could benefit Hitler, which was to free him from his demonic evil. (Post)

One might argue that it’s too late for unlimited love, an economy of love, or holistic love to address a world filled with violence and hatred and greed. That may be true, but it does not erase our obligation to do what we can to make it possible; indeed, that is really the only reason we are here.

Holistic Love ~~ a vision. Of course, we’d need to live it. Here, now.

It’s a tall order, but one I propose that we, Unitarian Universalists, are uniquely poised to tackle. Straddling as we do our historic connections to Christianity and our principles that include inherent worth and interdependent web, we might be just the agents to claim that we are the Church of Love, Holistic Love, true agape

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dreaming California

I lived there for less than four years, but Southern California left a vivid, seemingly indelible mark on my imagination.

It comes up in dreams.We've just spent a week there, visiting my husband's family and our old friends, and showing our exchange student, a German girl, all of the well-known sights. We hit Hollywood, Palm Desert, the Getty overlooking LA, San Diego, and the beach. It was cool but astoundingly clear. Views were abundant.

I always have vivid and fascinating dreams after flying. This time, my dream was a saga, like a long movie that chronicled the story of a man who directed a kind of camp or center for people who came to realize their potential. He engineered things so that many types of people were placed into situations that were geared to intense learning. He seemed to be famous and successful. Later in the movie/dream, this man suffers a fatal incident and dies.. shortly after, however, he is again alive, although now he seems quite feeble and senile, acquiescent where he had been a dominant force.

Somewhere along the way in this story, I see people coming at me who are exact replicas of themselves, but I know that they are constructed of wax or plastic. The only way I can discern this is by the seams along the sides of their bodies. I am fascinated and somewhat frightened by these artificial personas, and find myself looking for the real human beings. That's all I remember, but it's enough.

It's a dream about control & surrender, and also about artifice and reality. So is California. No state could be more dream-like. In one day, you can be accosted with so many images of such infinite variety that it's hard to remember, let alone assimilate, them all. Every shade of skin and every style of clothing, the scent of food frying and roasting, so many cars trying to get somewhere, or maybe nowhere, music, noise, sun, wind, green mountains and brown deserts, vivid blue ocean and, almost everywhere.. flowers and trees in an array of colors and textures... breathtaking. The overwhelming sense is of a barrage of scenes from many movies, condensed into a montage of snippets of lives, vistas, sensual experiences. Because it would be impossible to impose any measure of order on all of this, one must, like the old man in the dream, surrender to a quiet awe and acceptance.

Such is life. We delude ourselves that we can manage it at all. Those of us in ministry or the helping professions are diligently trying to engineer things for others, to make their lives "better" by our definition. We are seeking the genuine behind the plastic. But nonetheless it all goes on, and ultimately, we let go our striving for order/perfection/understanding, and become thoughtful observers and dreamers. We let go... the part of us that wants to control dies off, and what is left is still us,more humble and more genuine. This is true everywhere, but somehow, in the extravaganza that is California, it plays out for us quite nicely, if we are willing to see it.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Recession-Proof Religion

It appears our church is not the only one facing a big budget deficit this year.

First UU Portland faces a $185,000 deficit and intends to close its doors for the month of July.

What jumped out at me from the article was Rev. Sewell's comment to the congregation, "the congregation needs to own the problems and understand the consequences."

Further, the article stated that Rev. Sewell was disappointed by the congregation's willingness to accept the closure. I couldn't help comparing this with the feelings I had after our congregational meeting in December, when we announced that Staff hours would be cut, all committee budgets and most expense budgets eliminated, and that UUA dues would be removed from the budget (we do have a plan to pay them...). I think many UU congregations are going to be facing the same disappointing reality: pledges are down, costs are up, and individuals seem to feel little if any "ownership" of the problem, much less the consequences.

Simultaneous with this discouraging Stewardship Campaign, our Board sponsored a survey that showed that a majority of folks felt that their giving to the church rated a 4 or a 5 on a scale of one to five.

Recessions bring many things, not all bad.

I was not a UU during the recession of the 1970s, but I remember that there was plenty of fear, discouragement, and frustration to go around. I also recall that joy and satisfaction in life were not sharply diminished for me, because they depended upon friendships, family, and things that were free or nearly free, like reading and discussing literature, and spending time out of doors.

I think our religion itself should be recession-proof. The things that matter most: fellowship, fun, spiritual practice and mutual worship should not be threatened by a contracted economy. But I do think we in leadership will need to work even harder to help people act from generosity and compassion and not from fear.

I actually believe in tithing. Not necessarily giving ten percent, but giving a percentage of income right off the top to charity (church first). I know, because I commit five percent of my salary & housing to the church, that unless my income changes dramatically, my pledge will not change either. But, for way too long, people in UU congregations, who hate words like tithing, have given out of discretionary income. I think a whole entire culture shift will have to take place, and I have a few ideas about how it can happen.

Meanwhile, I feel very sad to hear about the situation in Portland, but I am glad for the opportunity for all of us to work together on this challenge.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Some Say the World Will End in Fire...Update from Kentucky

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I've tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

"Fire and Ice" by Robert Frost

OK, for sure Robert FROST (Hmmm..) lived through an ice storm. This is my second big one since moving to Kentucky ten years ago and they are, like many religious experiences, hard to describe in words.

Ice storms are sensory experiences that initiate you into a special club.. like the Hurricane Club in NJ and other coastal states, where all one had to say was, "Remember Gloria?" or "What about Hurricane Diana.." and everybody nods. Starts telling stories... All you have to say here in Central Kentucky, where certain meterological conditions make these storms a lot more likely is, "In the Ice Storm," and it was a given that you meant February 2003.

Until last week. Now 2009 will be referred to as The Ice Storm until the next big one. This time, my family was spared the loss of power, but hundreds of thousands are still without heat and electricity after a week. My son was one of those.. he's lucky. He can stay with us, no big deal. But there are elderly folks who won't leave their pets, large families with no one willing to take them all in, and, in my congregation, a couple who was delivering their third child in the hospital while their power was out at home.

But truly, Central Kentucky is in great shape compared with the western communities. Here, roads are passable and power outages are scattered enough that everyone can find a place to stay, even if it is a shelter. There, the nature of Kentucky's rural terrain, and the massive impact of the storm have rendered swaths of the state completely disabled.

I can't stop thinking about trying to help... but I don't know what to do.

Today, I will talk with some of my clergy colleagues, and perhaps we can come up with a plan. But currently, basic survival is what's needed. Getting trees out of the way so people can get help. Getting water and supplies to stranded people.

Frost was right... I've lived through fires, in California, and they have some degree of predictability and, usually, some route of escape. But ice storms, like hate, kind of sneak in during the silent night and cut you off, leave you isolated, hungry, and wounded. Like hate, and evil, they can also be extraordinarily alluring and even beautiful.

Indifference really is a form of hate.

Please pray, if you pray, for the 300,000 Kentuckians still without power.

Meanwhile, I will let you know what I decide to do.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Eros Run Amok: John Updike's Stories

John Updike has been one of my favorite writers since college, when I first read “A&P,” a short story that may be singlehandedly responsible for me own desire to write short stories. He died on Tuesday at the age of 72, but had been writing and creating and conducting interviews up until late Fall. He was nothing if not prolific. But almost all of his work was autobiographical in some way. He actually was married to the daughter of a Unitarian minister, the Rev. Leslie Pennington. Like the fictional marriage of Jerry and Ruth, or his other famous couple the Maples, John and Mary’s marriage suffered infidelities and dissolved after 20 years and four children. He remarried, but according to associates, never overcame bitter resentments toward his first wife, whom he described as an artistic, Unitarian hippie.

In many ways, Mary Pennington was the opposite of Updike: he the over-pampered son of rural Pennsylvanians, whose mother expected perfection and goaded him to be a success, the stuttering, asthmatic, psoriasis-tortured introvert who chose writing to avoid people; she, the daughter of Unitarians, a free-spirited, artistic, unconventional, non-believer who challenged all his assumptions and made him profoundly uncomfortable. She, through the characters who represented her, came to symbolize one of the central tensions in his fiction, between faith and doubt.

In a story called "Marching Through Boston," Updike describes the day that Joan & Richard go on a Civil Rights march. She had been to Selma, and upon her return, he notices that she has changed: "He had never known her like this… her posture was improving, her figure filling out, her skin growing lustrous… he distrusted this raw burst of beauty." Richard finds the march barely tolerable, and develops a fever, tells Joan that King is corny and forced. He notes that he "lacked the faculty of believing in people generically. Whereas his wife, a minister’s daughter, lived by abstractions." He contracts while she expands into this universal love.
What’s all this got to do with eros?

Eros means many things, but it is usually understood as romantic, idyllic, erotic love. It can be contrasted with philia (shared interest), agape/caritas (unconditional love), and storge (familiarity-family).

Most of us know by now that romantic love is not all it’s cracked up to be. But I need to be reminded regularly that love is not, as Scott Peck famously said, a feeling. Love is an activity. Love is work. Love is sustained effort. Love is a lifetime endeavor. What better time than Valentines’ month, based entirely upon the myth of romantic love, for me to become reacquainted with that important knowledge?

Harville Hendrix is one of the most effective teachers on relationships that we have today. He has used Jungian theory and his own extensive work with couples to write bestsellers and teach individuals and healers about love.

Hendrix says, of this idea of romantic love:
Chances are that the people you are drawn to and admire possess qualities that you long for or that were dismissed and disdained in your home…. You feel more complete through the association. This is your “missing self”. (But) while we choose partners who possess the positive traits we have buried, we also pick partners with our own disowned negative traits. This can be called the Denied Self. This explains how what we once adored about each other is now the source of our complaints! The projection of our disowned traits onto our partner becomes the core of the power struggle in our relationships.

I am going to go out on a limb and guess that John Updike never really did the work that was required to reconcile this vast and almost universal difficulty. If his characters and what we know of his own story are any indication, he simply engaged in infidelity and then cutoff through divorce. As Hendrix poignantly pints out: “They say that breaking up is hard to do, but that’s wrong. It’s easy to walk away before the going gets tough, to find another dreamboat-- until the ship starts to sink again . It’s waking up that’s hard to do."