Thursday, January 06, 2011


a homily. given at the UU Church of Lexington, KY 1/2/11


Stephen Dunn

It was supposed to be Arts & Crafts for a week,

but when she came home

with the "Jesus Saves" button, we knew what art

was up, what ancient craft.

She liked her little friends. She liked the songs

they sang when they weren't

twisting and folding paper into dolls.

What could be so bad?

Jesus had been a good man, and putting faith

in good men was what

we had to do to stay this side of cynicism,

that other sadness.

OK, we said, One week. But when she came home

singing "Jesus loves me,

the Bible tells me so," it was time to talk.

Could we say Jesus

doesn't love you? Could I tell her the Bible

is a great book certain people use

to make you feel bad? We sent her back

without a word.

It had been so long since we believed, so long

since we needed Jesus

as our nemesis and friend, that we thought he was

sufficiently dead,

that our children would think of him like Lincoln

or Thomas Jefferson.

Soon it became clear to us: you can't teach disbelief

to a child,

only wonderful stories, and we hadn't a story

nearly as good.

On parents' night there were the Arts & Crafts

all spread out

like appetizers. Then we took our seats

in the church

and the children sang a song about the Ark,

and Hallelujah

and one in which they had to jump up and down

for Jesus.

I can't remember ever feeling so uncertain

about what's comic, what's serious.

Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes.

You can't say to your child

"Evolution loves you." The story stinks

of extinction and nothing

exciting happens for centuries. I didn't have

a wonderful story for my child

and she was beaming. All the way home in the car

she sang the songs,

occasionally standing up for Jesus.

There was nothing to do

but drive, ride it out, sing along

in silence.

The father of the poem bemoans having “No story” as good as Jesus’.

The liberal religions have no compelling narrative for what the Christians call redemption, the 12 step folks call recovery, and the Jews call keparem, as in Yom Kippur, Atonement, or tekanah, Healing, as in Tikkun Olam. If it is true, as Goethe says, that “All things are metaphors,” then the secular world is missing something compelling.

The closest we have to a “starting again” is the New Year’s holiday, which has no real story.

It is to the ancient rituals of sacrifice and rebirth what the modern baby shower is to the elaborate customs of preparation for childbirth put on in traditional societies. It is, in a word, impotent.

If all things are metaphor, then the Western “traditions” of excess, imbibing, and mayhem, followed by promises one doesn’t intend to keep, suggest that we mostly want to distract ourselves from the passing of time, and that we have no depth to our commitment to self-awareness or improvement. They are superficial metaphors suggesting shallow if not empty motives.

Still, we need not look far for traditions that offer rich and engaging stories:

Redemption – In the Christian tradition and in many of the world’s religions, a new “life” is purchased by some form of sacrificial act. What was for the ancients animal slaughter has moderated into rituals of fasting, repentance, confession, Communion, and the mystical bestowing of Grace.

These are powerful metaphors which address the human need to be absolved, to repair relationships, to restore order and what we might call equanimity.

Recovery is the word used by the Twelve Step programs to cover the entire collection of metaphors and stories which allow addicts to find sobriety and live with dignity. If you have never studied the 12 step program, you might be surprised to find that, while it uses theistic language and employs a Christian-like program of surrender, confession, contrition, atonement, and even evangelism of a sort, it is uniquely designed and crafted to be accessible to every human psyche. Indeed, it was Carl Jung, who also gave us the collective unconscious, who first told AA’s founder Bill Wilson, as he struggled to fashion the basics of AA, that he had never seen a "man" stay sober who had not undergone an experience of conversion. And he meant religious conversion.

The power in real human lives of recovery is a testament not to Christianity, but to the metaphor it and most faith traditions employ: the idea that humanity is flawed, will fail (“Fall”) but can also be redeemed. It is the ancient metaphor of life after “death,” the spiritual death of addiction.

Sadly, I will say again that we have lost the depth and power of this notion in secular life and, I would argue, in the liberal tradition.

So, with what has it been replaced?

I would argue that  a shallow “renewal” has taken the place of redemption. Acquisition, consumerism, grasping, addiction, consumption, and artifice. We (even most who claim to be Christian) have fallen under the spell of unrestrained capitalism and relative excess. It happened gradually, and one day, we woke up to find ourselves gluttonous, greedy, and doomed. We discovered that in our dream of more, we let the Earth get ruined and we lost our souls.

What are the stories of this sorry excuse for redemption?

They are easy to find: turn on the TV. “Biggest Loser,” “What Not to Wear,” Hoarders,” Househunters, Plastic surgery shows, Bridezilla, on & on. All propose to “save,” not by the hard work of contrition and repentance, but by magical cures and more money spent. What used to be Grace has been replaced by some marauding TV host who arrives with a crew that will renovate your house, or by a surgeon who will cut away your flaws and enlarge or reduce your parts.

It is not only the sanctity of life that has been lost (although that loss is cataclysmic) it is also the precious aspects engendered by the redemptive community and/or the recovery movement that we have forgone:

• Hard work & perseverance

• The beauty of simplicity

• Relationships built on mutual love and not manipulation

• The virtues of respect, and dare I say it? Reverence.

So, at this time when thoughts of “new” and beginnings are in our minds, let me suggest a formula by which we can return to a semblance of deep humanity. It’s a scheme that requires no traditional faith, and yet bows to what is likely the most ancient of human beliefs: the earth and those who walk upon it are sacred.

I didn’t invent it, and its stories are already being told. Not so much on TV, since TV is the medium of those who must sell and manufacture more to stay in business, but in increasing numbers of books, websites, and rooms, like this one, where people are beginning to wake up from our collective night mare of centuries.

Coined by the ecology movement, adopted by the EPA, but universal in scope, it has become familiar to most school children.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. What if that were to form the basis of our spiritual program? How might that look? What could our new narrative become?

REDUCE – Simplify! LESS is more.

To recognize earth and humanity’s precious nature, one must slough off the excess that masks it. As a society, we are going to have to wrest the X Box controls from our kids’ hands and sit down to play a guessing game, sing a song, or tell stories.

REUSE – Tried & true. Go back to your sources. Most of us adults have discovered the ways that we heal and renew ourselves. We know intuitively what brings us back to life. Most of us don’t need to purchase anything new or pay anyone else to enlighten us. We have the tools. We know the true teachers. We only need come home.

RECYCLE – share, give back, teach, keep gift going. Here is the place for community. TV and the internet have isolated us from real human contact. To have true community, the place where what used to be called “Grace” happens, we have to show up, participate, volunteer, commit.

The European countries have added layers to this hierarchy of R-R-R. At the top of the pyramid is “prevention,” and below the 3 R’s are the least desirable alternatives of disintegration and disposal. This pyramid, fleshed out with metaphors, narratives, myths, and symbols, could be the new “religion,” the one that takes us forward toward what Joanna Macy calls “The Great Turning.” This turning is a world-wide time of starting anew, of redemption for the world, and it seems clear that we are both enmeshed in the decline that will lead to it, and beginning to see the signs of increasing numbers of people and groups who “know” this must be the way.

Where is "God" in the pyramid?

The Japanese have a concept called mottainai.

It is hard to define in English but it means both shame and regret for wasting that which could be used.

Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan Nobel prize winner &professor, visited Japan and has adopted mottainai as a guiding principle. Besides an expression of regret for wastefulness, it means rebuke for being irreverent, disrespectful, and overly acquisitive. We need more of these words and the stories that go with them.

Joseph Campbell, master of myth and story, relates that Schopenhauer, in “On an Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual,” points out that when you reach an advanced age and look back over your lifetime, it can seem to have had a consistent order and plan, as though composed by some novelist. Events that when they occurred had seemed accidental and of little moment turn out to have been indispensible factors in the composition of a consistent plot. So, who composed that plot? Schopenhauer suggests that just as your dreams are composed by an aspect of yourself of which your consciousness is unaware, so, too, your whole life is composed by the will within you… the whole thing gears together like one big symphony, with everything structuring everything else. Perhaps the “Higher Power” for those who cannot conceive of an anthropomorphic God is precisely that aspect, that will.

In dreams and in our own narratives, stories abound as do rich and redemptive metaphors. We actually already have what we need for the Art of Starting Over – individually and collectively. We just need to wake up.