Tuesday, December 28, 2010

ART & ARTIFICE of CHRISTMAS

a sermon, delivered 12/19/10, at the UU Church of Lexington, KY


UUCL Manger 2009


A “you tube” video has gone “viral” on the internet. If you want to see it, look up “flash mob/Hallelujah chorus.” In it, people who look like normal schmucks eating lunch in a mall food court (it was in Canada, but it could have been Anywhere, NA) begin to stand, one by one and then two by two, and sing the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Soon, to the astonishment and delight of the unassuming fellow-diners, a full scale performance is underway. Silas House, a local artist, posted it with the warning: You will cry. Being a non-cryer, I took the dare. It was touching… but, why?

Flash mobs started in 2003, created by an artist who wanted to disrupt and challenge the conventions with which we trudge through our days. By having dozens, even hundreds of people show up at a preordained location (often a store or commercial enterprise, so there will be onlookers) the “mob” surprises, delights, and sometimes shocks those present. The extraordinary breaks into the ordinary. This is art.


Art is not the imitation of life, but the replication and refinement, the interpretation and highlighting of what is beautiful, horrifying, moving, and inspiring. Art takes the events and the materials of “real” life as well as of the artists’ imaginations and makes them accessible to the masses. In literature, music, painting, photography, drama, and film, those who are the artists bring our own lives to us, so that we may cherish them, question them, comprehend them. Art has existed and shall exist as long as there are human minds and human spirits.

Humans have always been afraid. From the dawn of civilization, we feared annihilation. We still do. What now threatens us is the potential for mass destruction by nuclear disaster or natural demise of all we know through climate change and other ecological scenarios. What once triggered apprehension and terror was the winding down of the year, the growing darkness, the fallow fields, the barren storehouses of winter. In either case, humans need comfort, and hope.

Art provides that.

The story of Christmas, told long before the birth of Jesus, is story of light into darkness, life in spite of death, goodness over evil, and plenty instead of want. Told time and again, featuring earlier gods, the birth of the sun (who became the “son”) and his many avatars, it is really the story of how humans continue to find solace, joy and even mirth in spite of a future that is as grim now as ever.




When the flash mob materialized in that food court, I thought, being not only a non-cryer but a long time mall-hater, all that’s needed is for them to start flipping the tables over to symbolize Jesus’ rejection of the greed and materialism he stood against. Instead, they resumed eating, strolling, and chatting. But the symbol of the setting was not lost on me: the mall, with its glitter, bad food, and excess packaging was a perfect place to set art against artifice. Artifice is fake, phony, and tricky ways of suggesting or imitating a phenomenon. When we can’t have art, we accept artifice. But what we long for is art.

Exchange student Anke & Seth w/ family nativity 2008

The Hallelujah chorus is art; so is Chartres cathedral, the Nutcracker ballet, the iconic paintings of Madonna and child, the simple arrangement of greens inside, the scene painted by mother nature of a snow-covered countryside offset by one red cardinal. The tableau, enacted over and over throughout Christendom, of humble shepherds and lowly animals kneeling at the rude birthplace of a still anonymous child, of magi/wise men traveling throughout the night to fulfill a prophecy, of parents posed in adoration of their infant, is art because it enshrines some of the most noble and lasting sentiments of humanity: hope, nurture, equality, charity, generosity, community, perseverance. It brings together animals and humans, the lowest and most exalted trading places, the whole hierarchy turned upside down. It can, if we strip away the layers of theology and dogma that have been overlaid through centuries, still move the human heart.

In the very funny and delightful book, An Atheist’s guide to Christmas, one writer, Emery Emery, tells of how he hated Christmas because it was also his birthday, and it therefore ruined both every year. His grandmother made him a cake shaped like Santa’s face, and he reports: I especially enjoyed the santa cake because I was allowed to take a knife to good ol’ Saint Nick. There was a cathartic quality to it. I don’t remember any Jesus cakes, but that would have been nice as well. Later in the essay, he reports that while relatives were bringing gifts labeled “Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday,” I was sitting quietly next to the tree, attacking the manger with GI Joe, a commonly held practice of mine.

I think too many of us have confused art with artifice at the holiday season. I also think there are too many people attacking the manger, if not with GI Joe (although that is happening as we speak) then with reason, intellect, and cynicism. If your childhood birthdays, holidays, religion or lack thereof was wanting, then disparaging or dismissing the value of others’ beliefs, hopes, and aspirations is not the way to heal.




What almost but not quite made me cry at the You Tube video was the way the people who sang emerged from the ordinary, eating, talking on cell phone, picking up trash. I think within each of us is an artist, waiting to sing, to dance, to help someone, to create something lasting and lovely, to listen, to share, to honor humanity in our own unique way. That is the art of Christmas.. and will last. All else shall fall away, or change. So may it be. Forever, and ever, Hallelujah!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

OPEN Letter to Gov. Beshear




THE INTERFAITH ALLIANCE
OF THE BLUEGRASS
P.O.Box 910336
Lexington KY 40591



An Open Letter to Governor Beshear,
                We represent lay and clergy leaders from the Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Baha'i, Quaker, Buddhist, Hindu, and other faith groups practicing in Central Kentucky. As an organization that has been promoting and practicing interfaith engagement and understanding here in the Bluegrass for over ten years, we have serious concerns about the recent announcement of the proposed “Ark Encounter” theme park sponsored by Answers in Genesis.
                While we acknowledge their right as a private company to build the Noah’s Ark complex, we do not believe that our Commonwealth government should be giving tax incentives to an avowedly sectarian group, at least part of the purpose of which is to promote one particular brand of religion, namely fostering only one way to read, apply and understand scriptural revelation.
                We know that many people still hold many anti-scientific views. However, when the State/Commonwealth presents even the appearance of advancing or promoting one particular version of faith over other faiths, or over none, it does enormous damage to the future of interfaith understanding, respect, and hope for peace that so many have worked so hard to ensure.
                Even while there may not be issues of legality or constitutionality presently at stake, the explicit support shown by the Governor, and his announced proposal for huge tax incentives may cross this thresholdWe know that members of our congregations and many others who believe in fairness, justice, equity, and the democratic principles upon which this nation was founded will be closely following this saga. We need to make sure that our commonwealth government does not cross this line and what challenges will become necessary to preserve the integrity of our commonwealth's commitment to religious pluralism if it should.
                At the very least, this action by Governor Beshear demeans the progressive and egalitarian reputation that our Commonwealth works so hard to create, foster and maintain. Do we really want to sell out to add 900 low-paying jobs that will discriminate against people who believe differently than do they? Do we really think that the increase in seasonal tourism is worth this compromise? Let them build and operate their business, and let them flourish, and pay taxes, just like every other business in this commonwealth. Or, do we want to be a state that honors the rights and the dignity of each individual, respecting all and discriminating against none?
                Please consider this protest to Gov. Beshear’s actions by the members of the Interfaith Alliance of the Bluegrass, a statement of support for our commonwealth and a rebuke to all decisions that impose upon the dignity of our citizens on account of their faith traditions.
Respectfully,
The Rev. Cynthia Cain, Unitarian Universalist, Lexington
            Rabbi Marc Kline, Temple Adath Israel, Lexington
            The Rev. Dr. Mark D. Johnson, Central Baptist Church, Lexington
            Representing the Board of Directors of the Interfaith Alliance of the Bluegrass.




Monday, November 01, 2010

Handcrafting a Life: Cultural Creatives



Today, like every other day, we wake up
empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to
the study and begin reading. Take down a
musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are
hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
-Rumi

Of course you are a cultural creative! You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.. you’d be shopping at Target, or something equally nefarious. But, just to be sure, take the test:

12 Questions
  1. Do you love nature, and are you deeply concerned about protecting it?
  2. Are things like global warming, the destruction of the rain forests, overpopulation, ecological irresponsibility and the widespread exploitation of people in poorer countries important to you, and would you like to see us take action to act more responsibly in these areas?
  3. Would you be willing to pay a little more in taxes, or for your consumer goods, if you knew the money would go to clean up the environment and stop global warming?
  4. Do you give a lot of importance to developing and maintaining your personal relationships?
  5. Do you think it's important to try and help other people develop their unique gifts?
  6. Do you believe in equality for women at work, and more women leaders in business and politics?
  7. Are concerns about violence and the abuse of women and children around the world important to you?
  8. Do you think our politics and government spending should put more emphasis on children's education and well being, on rebuilding our neighborhoods and communities, and on creating an ecologically sustainable future?
  9. Are you unhappy with both the left and the right in politics, and do you wish we could find a new way that's not just in the "mushy middle"?
  10. Would you like to be involved in creating a new and better way of life in our country?
  11. Are you uncomfortable with all the emphasis in our culture on success and "making it", on getting and spending, on wealth and luxury goods? Do you feel that it all misses the most important things in life?
  12. Do you like people and places that are exotic and foreign, and like experiencing and learning about other ways of life?
(adapted from Paul Ray)

So.. most of us are CCs! Actually, we were told this at General Assembly 8 or ten years ago, when the theories about CCs first came out in Paul Ray’s book, "Cultural Creatives: How 50 million people are changing the world" Cultural Creatives are differentiated from the Traditionalists (Right); Moderns (consumers);and  Corporate interests. They share many issues with but are not synonymous with the “left”. They have been called the “New Progressives,” and are estimated to be as much as 45% of likely voters. Exciting news, but shaky progress!

Think of what has happened since this was announced at “G.A.”
·        9/11
·        Iraq
·        Tsunami, Katrina & Gulf oil spill.. to name a few eco-disasters
·        Worldwide recession

But, also:
·        Election of first Black US President
·        Health care reform
·        Growing green consumer movement
·        Mass mobilizations against unrestrained capitalism
·        Growing support for Gay marriage, ordination & benefits.
The important message for Unitarian Universalists is that we are far from alone.

Cultural Creatives – A steadily growing population
In 1995, Cultural Creatives were 23.6% of the US adult population, or 44 million adults.
In 1999, Cultural Creatives were 26% of US adult population, or 50 million adults.
In 2008, Cultural Creatives were 34.9% of US adult population, or 80 million adults
[US Adults 18+ years in 2008 = approximately 230 million]
175% growth in 13 years is a little over a 3% per year constant annual population growth rate.
However we have to factor in that the US adult population is growing too. So, the Cultural Creatives’ share of US population went from 23.6% to 33.6%. That is a 42.4% increase in share—about a 2.5% annual growth rate as an increasing share of the US population.*

In fact, it has been suggested that adding about 10% to this demographic would take CCs to the “tipping point.” This may be hard to recognize in Kentucky!

So, what do we do with this information?
I know that the part of the phrase that captured my attention was the word “creatives.” I grew up believing that creative people could draw, or sing, or make up fantastic stories. They were the quirky, off beat but interestingly dressed folks that you looked at with a mixture of envy and anxiety, not knowing for sure what they’d say or do. You weren’t even sure you wanted to be “creative..”!
It took me a long time to understand that creativity takes many forms, including parenting, homemaking, friendship, leadership, and even social justice.
But what are we cultural creatives creating? The biggest challenge to our march toward healing the world may not be the disasters and disillusionments, but our own inaction.

Ken Wilber, one of the thinkers in the forefront of the CCs, argues that:
The big curveball in this wonderfully, transformational, and potential evolutionary tale is that there is no guarantee that Cultural Creatives are capable or willing, even as a majority or possibly because they are majority, to create the breakthrough to (what he calls) second-tier thinking and behavior.
Wilber really flushes out his reasoning behind this difficulty, in his The Theory of Everything, calling the syndrome Boomeritis – a bad case of “pluralism infected with narcissism”.

It may be that what we need most is to create time and space… to think, to reason, and to align our lives with our deepest longings, dreams, and intentions.

Susan Susanka, an architect and author, and a CC, in a book called The Not So Big Life, writes:
A life that’s well composed  is one in which there is authenticity all the way through, a life in which the  outer appearance and the inner substance match up.
Your life is a lot like the house you live in.
The fact is that when architects design or artists paint or composers compose, it isn’t they who are doing the work. Their role is to collect all the inspiration and all the facts they need to execute the creative act and then simply get out of the way and let the art happen through them.
She compares the process of ‘remodeling” our lives with architecture or home design, telling us that all of the blueprints in the world will not do any good unless we start building. At some point, we must do the work.
She also writes that compartmentalizing is dangerous. A house that is chopped up into small rooms is not useful or attractive. We need to open up walls, add windows, and create space. We must eliminate the clutter that keeps us stuck inside our preconceived notions of life. As important as making space & getting started is making connections. 

If you can take these steps, you are far more likely to be able to participate in the creative part of the “cultural creatives” label.
Paul Hawken is an author and speaker, a CC whose latest book is called Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and How No one Saw it Coming.
He says that much of the CC “movement” dates back to Emerson! (“Emerson’s Savants”)When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world
This is the largest movement the world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and ….  the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way.

He asks us to imagine our bodies, and what is going on inside them:
Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past.

Finally, Hawken makes an argument for wonder and worship, aided by Emerson, our own “CC”: Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television.
Today, like every other day, we wake up
empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to
the study and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are
hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.   -Rumi

The Arts and Hearts of Transylvania’s Unitarians: Sustainability & Spirit

           I grew up knowing almost nothing about Eastern Europe, but what I did know appeared in my mind’s eye as grim, dark, and dreary.. as if the sun never shone there. I imagined all of the people as sad and the land as cloudy and monotonous.
Imagine my delight to find some of the most beautiful landscapes, folk art, and people I have ever encountered. The Unitarians, our partners and our forebears, are first and foremost Hungarian. That is evident in their music, their eyes and souls, their language, and their handicrafts. Remarkably, because of their isolation and poverty, they have preserved many of the Hungarian traditions even better than has been done in their homeland.
It is no fairytale, even though one often feels as if they have entered a fairytale landscape of thatched roof cottages and ornately carved gingerbread woodwork and snow capped mountains and dark seemingly endless forests. The story of the Romanian people, and, for our purposes, the Hungarian minority in Transylvania is more a night mare, through centuries of invasions, wars, annexation and pillaging. As recently as the last (20th) century, our Unitarian brethren faced inquisition-like Romanian gendarmes, after Transylvania was taken from Hungary at the end of WWI, prejudice and deprivations, invasion by first German and then Russian troops during WWII, and near extermination of their culture under the brutal dictatorship and Communist regime of Ceausescu.  The winds from Chernobyl blew right across their villages. Severe rationing and totalitarian tactics kept every citizen in fear.  It has only been 21 years this December since the uprisings that led to the “end” of Communism, but those years have been far from joyful, especially for the Hungarians, proud and noble people who were once the oppressors and are now the oppressed. Even the oldest villagers living today cannot recall a time of complete peace and security. As you may already know, our own lay President took his own life two years ago this month, and just this summer, a Unitarian minister in another village committed suicide after taking the lives of his young children.

These villages have been called a laboratory for sustainable solutions; “the one place in Europe where the life that existed in the 13th century can still be found,” and “today’s ideal of an organic lifestyle — sustainable farming, local food, natural building methods, a close-knit community.”
The importance of maintaining their Hungarian national identity when they were for bidden to speak or write the language, their children’s names were changed to Romanian, and their Bibles were confiscated along with all other Hungarian books and used as toilet paper may be obvious. The designs carved into the wooden funeral posts, gates, and furnishings, and painted onto chairs, boxes, and pottery, hold many secret meanings and symbols. Hungarians were highly educated and cultured; at one time the University in Kolosvar (now Cluj) was considered  one of the best in Europe. The café society was demolished, but the pride and patriotism was maintained, not only through the church, but through the arts.
It is true that the best of sustainability is practiced here. Nothing is wasted, and Wendell Berry (who visited Transylvania in the 60s) would be delighted to see that ox- and horse-drawn wagons still do most of the farm work. The food could not be more local. One wonders daily when walking through the village whether the duck or goose squawking under one’s feet will be on the table that evening. Great care and effort goes into the preparation of and serving of meals. But economy alone does not make a sustainable world. We will never save the planet by focusing on material and environmental solutions. As I have often repeated: People are resources, too, and relationships are key to a sustainable world.

In his book, Balkan Ghosts, Robert Kaplan asks a villager what the crowd symbol is here. The answer? “The home, the family seated around the humble table with food on it..” (133). One must provide food for his family, if nothing else, and protect their well-being, if possible.
In each small Hungarian or mostly Hungarian village (where Hungarians coexist with Romanians & Roma) the houses are similar, grouped close together along dusty, sometimes muddy roads, but with back yards that extend for long stretches and contain everything one family needs for subsistence: animals, vegetables, fruit trees, nuts, grapes and plums for wine, even, usually, a cow. The fields are worked communally and the forests are often owned by the church. The cows go up to the grazing lands by day, and each cow returns to her own gate in the evening. We call it the cow parade. It is one of many hundreds of rituals and symbolic as well as utilitarian acts that have provided some measure of security, sanity, and predictability to a people who have suffered almost unimaginably, for decades.
But one of the arguments I have advanced about sustainability as it is being touted in the West is that it will never take hold voluntarily unless people can be helped to understand that the simplest pleasures are virtually free and can be enjoyed more  readily when the acquisitive and extraneous lifestyle is eliminated. Flowers on the table, symmetry of design, fabric woven from locally grown hemp, long winter evenings spent doing handiwork, and perhaps most significantly, the art of hospitality, friendship, loyalty, and a simple faith in Universal Love, each of these is a reminder that we can still learn how to live, to preserve, to conserve and to live well. Sustainability  must include beauty.
What is beauty? Symmetry, Order, Comfort, Simplicity, Harmony, color, lack of chaos, lack of strife, freedom from want, joy, surprise, integrity, hope, the human spirit. These are the gifts of our Hungarian/Unitarian partners in Transylvania to the West and to the World. May we honor and respect this partnership.


           
QUOTES:  Balkan Ghosts, Robert D. Kaplan
“As always in the Balkans, bare survival provides precious little room for moral choices.”(89)
“… what Stalin had suggested: provide a means to keep the masses occupied, to give them something to do, while reducing them to a subsistence existence in which the human spirit ceased to exist.” (103)
“…traveling in Romania was often like inhabiting the pages of a Dostoevsky novel.” (113)
“Romanian history has been a long and continuing hustle – the making of one desperate deal over the head of another in order to stave off disaster.” (129)
Ceausescu’s destruction of Romania: “the wish fulfillment of a vindictive peasant.” (184)
Page 149-150 Hungarians in Transylvania

Transylvania

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