To Love Mercy

 

What are you going to be? Halloween will soon be here. In my neighborhood, and perhaps in yours, a few houses have been decorated with ghosts and spider webs for some time now. Carved pumpkins adorn more and more doorsteps. Our Immigrant Justice group just raised over $1000 selling pumpkins…for a good cause… to provide financial support for local “Dreamers.” But $1000 worth of pumpkins? Some Portlanders are really into this holiday.

And then there are the questions about the costumes for the evening itself. Who are you going to be? It is a Halloween question for some of us, my grandsons included.

Dressing up as a superhero tops the list for children this year. Even for adults, Wonder Woman runs a close second to dressing up as a witch.

For my grandsons, Batman and Spiderman are yesterday’s news. They want to be one of the four ninja heroes from the land of Ninjago. Most of you may never have heard of Ninjago, but if you have children of a certain age you will know these masters of fire, lightning, earth and ice. You will know Sensei Wu who brings the four together to stop the Lord of Evil.

It is a contemporary version, promoted by the Lego folks, of the classic tale of good vs evil, just as sharply drawn as God vs Satan in the Christian story. The battles are epic, just like the apocalypse.

On Halloween, we are allowed, even encouraged to dress up… to take on an identity…to “be” someone or something. Wouldn’t you like to try on a superhero identity, to battle evil and triumph in the end? Wouldn’t you?

Who are you going to be? The question feels, well, very Unitarian Universalist.

We’re a religion that is all about personal freedom…at least that is what we tell ourselves. We believe that our choices matter and that how we choose to live has impact and influence in ways both known and unknown…in our own lives and in the life of the world.

We know that we can either chose to bless or to curse the world.

We are free to decide who we want to be…how we want to be in the world… and not just on Halloween.

And that puts the pressure squarely on our own shoulders, doesn’t it…or even pressing down at little bit on our chests.

This business of choice can feel serious…it can feel huge.

If our destiny isn’t sealed, what is it that keeps us from being our best selves, making our greatest possible contribution…helping that arc of the universe bend toward justice…loving ourselves and those around us into health and happiness and wholeness?

What holds us back? What stands in our way?

Where did those excuses go?

Well, first, there are some limits on our freedom. We know that our freedom comes with some qualifiers. Right?

Obviously we are only free to make choices within the confines of…reality. We don’t inhabit a Ninjago world of magical powers and miracles. There are economics to consider, and geography, and histories of oppression, and genetics, and luck…to mention only a few factors. Some of us are born with a head start…on third base…others with indisputable barriers to overcome.

We begin with what we begin with, and whatever the case, each of us does have significant power to ‘make ourselves up’ to determine not only who we want to dress up as, but who we want to be and to become.

The question that is most on my mind and in my heart these days is whether I am, despite my best intentions, and despite my religious hopes…whether I am coming to accept a binary world of good and evil, a world just as divided as that religious world of the saved and damned that my Universalist theology calls me to reject as flawed and ultimately hopeless.

I know I should resist that division of creation into good and evil.

But the world is feeling a lot like that these days. Blue States and Red States. The White Supremacists and the Anti-Fascists. Gun advocates and the peace lovers. Progressives vs those who would take us backward. MLK’s dream vs Steve Bannon’s nightmare?

As I recite that list, do you hear me falling into judgment? Hear me assuming that I, that we, are the good ones…that the others are evil?

The truth that I am finally accepting is that I have become pretty “dug in.”

I am seeing those on the other side, including too many of our national leaders, as fundamentally flawed…as damaged beyond redemption…I am ready to write them off.

I know a few of you are wrestling with this too.

I am accepting a world of the good vs evil…and it is pretty clear which side I think I stand on.

Does the other side encourage this kind of thinking? Yes, of course. But my better self tells me I can’t allow them to set my moral compass, nor chart my course.

Are there huge differences in how we see the world? Yes, that’s clear. And I believe, in my heart, that “those people” are fundamentally racist, trying to erase our first Black President from history and abort the movement of the world toward pluralism and diversity. I believe that if you want to understand what the culture of white supremacy, the culture of greed and domination looks like, you need only watch our President and his base.

If I may use some biblical language, I have hardened my heart…to those people. I’ve written them off. Excluded them from my circle of care. If I am one of the chosen sheep, they are most certainly goats. They are not members of my tribe.

The problem is not that I believe that I am wrong about them. And I could not be more committed to resisting them. That is not the problem either.

The problem is the spiritual cost of hardening my heart…of living, day after day in a divided and embittered world.

Theologian Frederick Buechner writes: “…to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst—is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The problem with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from.”

I’ve hardened my heart and that puts me at risk of living just as angry, just as unkind and just as unfulfilled as those people seem to me to be living.

But that hardening of my heart conflicts with my universalist theology and my religious commitments. They are at war. That is, I think, why it has taken me this long to confess.

Because that is what I am doing. Your Unitarian Universalist minister is confessing that my faith is being tested.

And I do not believe I am the only one in this sanctuary who is feeling like we are in crisis.

The question is whether our Unitarian Universalist faith can see us through, point us toward a hopeful path, or at least offer some tools and support so that we can navigate these troubled times with integrity.

The Christian traditions that embraced the idea of original sin developed well articulated theological and liturgical approaches designed to help.

Many of you probably know these well. There is confession. Repentence. Penance and forgiveness. Those practices urge a change of heart on a regular basis.

But for us there is no set program in place. What follows confession in our liberal religious faith is not well worked out.

What I know is that there needs to be a change in me. Because I don’t want to live with a hardened heart.

I want to believe that the world doesn’t work that way. That life is not just a battle between good and evil in which we need to armor our hearts.

I want to believe that there is a common good that everyone can see. I want to believe that the power of love will overcome the love of power and that the Beloved Community is not just an idle dream.

I want to believe that the world does not require a binary choice and that unending battle is not the best that we can do.

I need a conversion. A cleansing. Yes, perhaps a cleansing is what I need. Perhaps those people have infected me. Perhaps I need to be cleansed.

Shinto is the indigenous, earth centered religion of Japan. In Shinto the world is infused with spirits, Kami they are called. All of nature, all creatures and all people have spirit…and all kami are due reverence. The Kami of mountains are particularly important.

In the years before WWII, the Shinto faith was interpreted in a nationalistic, even a nativist way, and put in the service of an ethnocentric, imperial nationalism.

The Tsubaki Grand Shrine is one of the oldest and most influential shrines in Japan, and its chief priest, or Guji, has been a partner of Unitarian Universalism for many decades. The Guji is an inherited position that passes from father to son…though adoption has created some flexibility in that requirement. They haven’t yet welcomed gender equity.

The current Guji is the 97th in his line. His father, the 96th Guji, served in WWII. He came home sickened by the slaughter and the violence on both sides. He determined to purify, to cleanse Shinto of its nationalist associations and return it to the primal reverence for the spirits, the Kami (the Spirit of Life, we would say) that is at its core.

He purified himself, each night, at the shrine in a ritual called misogi. For the ritual, men wear only a loincloth and a headband. Women add a long.but sheer robe.

After preparatory prayer, one steps into a pool carved, by the water, out of the rock and into a small waterfall coming off the mountain where the Grand Shrine is located. The area is in a pine forest that looks a great deal like the mountains of Oregon.

The water is bone chillingly cold. Prayers are said with the hands held together, index fingers pointing outward.

One steps out of the waterfall feeling…cold but deeply cleansed.

I have had the privilege of getting to know Guji Yamamoto through the International Association of Religious Freedom. And the privilege of engaging in misogi under the Guji’s supervison. It was November and it was snowing lightly on the evening when I was first cleansed.

The water was a shock, but soon the prayers chanted by the other priests and the power of the cleansing made the waterfall and my presence under it seem…exactly…and perfectly…right.

I had to be pulled from under the waterfall. I would have stayed too long.

Do not try this at home.

Maria, my wife, was with me…both times we visited the Shrine and were cleansed in the misogi ritual. She too had to be pulled from the waterfall. Both times the experience, for us, was powerful and so prayerful.

I wish I could visit the Grand Shrine now. Do misogi once again. I need to keep my heart from hardening.

But perhaps my awareness will be enough. Perhaps confessing to myself and to you will be enough of a shock, like the freezing water, to soften my heart. Perhaps being mindful of the dangers of the divisiveness in which we live…perhaps mindfulness can provide a kind of conversion…and a recovery of the fullness of meaning of Beloved Community.

To fully embrace kindness and mercy…to feel again the presence of the Kami, of the spirit in each of us and in all of us.

It is a fine line we are called to follow…resisting the violence and hate with all of our intelligence and all of our strength…but not allowing that battle to shape us into one-dimensional hard-hearted cultural warriors.

And not allowing the resistance we must make change our commitment to the saving and the salving power of love.

Hope is not a matter of knowing that everything will turn out all right, either for us individually or for us all together. Hope is more like directing your life toward a point on the horizon beyond which none of us can see, but toward which we all must journey if there is to be a worthwhile future for any of us.

And this community is so important. And other communities like this are so important. Because they allow us to confess how hard it is to move in this world, and hold ourselves and our friends accountable so that we can navigate these troubled times without becoming damaged ourselves.

We are not called to be perfect but we are called to stay awake and aware…and not allow ourselves to slip into spiritual armor that may protect us but will shut out kindness and love.

The words of the 1st Psalm”

Blessed are those
who have grown beyond their greed

and have put an end to their hatred
and no longer nourish illusions.

But they [are present to] the way things are
and keep their hearts open…

They are like trees planted near flowing rivers…

Their leaves will not fall or wither.

Everything they do [can] succeed.

 

We are called to live in this divisive and divided world…to live in this world and do justice, love mercy and walk humbly… toward the Beloved Community… together.

May it be so. Amen.

Prayer:

Will you pray with me now?

Spirit of Life and Love. God of possibilities and of hope.

May we stay faithful to the truth
That we know
Because we do know that greed
And hate and violence will not lead us
Toward the Beloved Community.
Only justice, mercy and kindness open that
Door.
But remind us, get our attention,
When we begin to feel righteous
And pure,
Remind us that it may be time
For us to find some cleansing
Waters.
Remind us that the instructions
Were not to be victorious,
Not to defeat the enemy,
But to be just, and to love mercy
And walk humbly.

How we move through this world,
will surely help to shape
The Community we hope to call
Beloved.

Help us remember.

May it be so. And Amen.