Yes It's Real, Delivered May 6, 2012 for First Unitarian
Church of Pittsburgh, 11 a.m. Service.
TIME FOR ALL AGES:
There’s a little nursery rhyme that I
remember from when I was young. I’m not
sure if people still tell it, so let me know if you’ve heard it.
are little girls made of? Sugar and spice, and everything nice.
what are little boys made of? Snips and snails, and puppy dog tails.”
When I was a kid, that left me with a
few questions though: What happened to the puppy dogs? I don’t know!
And why are little boys made out of all sorts of crunchy things? Why didn’t we get any sugar and spice mixed
in? And I imagine there were some girls
thinking, “How come I have to be made of everything nice all the time? Why can’t the boys be made of everything
Here’s another version of the story: [‘free
to be’ p.38]
think love and care and skin and hair are some better ingredients, because when
you think about it, all kids are kind of made out of the same things. Still, that tells you what you’re made
out of, and I think you might be more than just those things.
How about you kids? What do YOU say you’re
Today’s reading is on The Loss of Certainty, by Rev. Dr.
Paul Rasor. It is an excerpt from the
chapter The Postmodern
his book Faith Without Certainty
. [pp. 64-65]
is the branch of philosophy
that deals with the nature of knowledge.
It asks questions like “How do we know what we know?” and “What counts
as knowing something?” In the modern
period, the emphasis was on
finding bedrock foundations for all our knowledge. People looked for ideas that could be
accepted as universal truths, which could provide the foundation on which to
build further knowledge. Descartes’
affirmation of his existence as a thinking being is one kind of epistemological
foundation. The empiricist theory that
all knowledge is based on data received by the senses is another.
In the postmodern
world, these foundations
have disappeared. There is no such thing
as certain knowledge or ultimate truth.
Things we once thought gave us firm foundations, such as universal human
reason or common experience, turn out to be bounded by language and culture and
gender. Everything is relativized. What we used to think of as truth is now seen
as interpretation. Because of our
cultural limitations, all our interpretations are only partial. And it’s not just that each of us has only a
partial view of some larger truth. The
metaphors we commonly use, such as looking at the same light through different
windows or going up the same mountain on different paths, are all challenged in
postmodernity. In the postmodern way of
thinking, there is no larger truth. We
are all wandering around on different paths (or lost in the brush) on different
mountains. We each have our own truths
and our own knowledge, according to our circumstances.
condition leaves us with more decisions to make but fewer bases for making
them. “As less and less can be taken as
given, so more and more responsibility is placed on the individual to account
for, and act in, the world.” This is a
social problem as much as an individual one.
As David Lyon recognizes, one of the central postmodern dilemmas is how
we can find “authentic post-foundational starting points for social criticism.”
religious terms, we are left potentially without a deep grounding or even a
shared reference point for our prophetic voice.
The year prior to moving to Pittsburgh, I
was a chaplain at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in downtown San
Francisco. While I was there, I had the
privilege and the honor of meeting people of all walks of life, with stories
from all over the map. In that one
hospital, I met people who had rubbed elbows with presidents and dignitaries,
and I met people who put their elbows on a double layer of cardboard on the
sidewalk as they lay down to sleep each night.
Now, I know my values. Our first
principle refers to the inherent worth and dignity in every person. That principle comes to mind when I think
about the indignity of people sleeping in the streets. It came to mind when a man freshly released
from the hospital approached me trying to scrounge up $14 to make a copay to
buy himself some pneumonia medication.
He wanted to wash the windows of my car for $2—the only means of
production he owned a rag, a bucket, and soap and water. And he was working with an active case of
is such a far cry from the fulfillment of any of the principles we hold dear,
it is just surreal. But it's not. It's real.
grew up Christian—Lutheran to be specific.
One text I heard several times was from the book of Matthew, chapter 6,
verse 26: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not
sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds
them. Are you not much more valuable
than they?” This was regarding worrying
for your future and well-being, and he seeks to offer comfort saying the Lord
provides for the birds, and he will provide for you as well. But eventually, every one of those birds
Jesus was referring to gets to the end of the line and dies, sometimes sooner,
sometimes later. The thought was deeply
jarring to my theology. God takes care
of you.... until he doesn't.
The most financially poor
among us generally receive poor healthcare and dental care, and sometimes get
sick with avoidable diseases and tend to die much younger. Good people have very bad things happen to
them sometimes--whether it's homeless people getting assaulted while they
sleep, the far-too-common murder of transgender people (not that any murder rate would be acceptable), state-paid police
officers assaulting people protesting
for justice, or people driven to end their life when they lose their ability to
support themselves and there is no safety net.
are hard facts of life during this epoch of humanity's social evolution. I don't like those facts. And I don't like talking about them. But these facts may be part of the realities
of members in this community. And even
if not a reality for those within these walls, these injustices definitely
happen to those in the community just beyond.
If there's injustice, a loud bubbling discourse is a good way to bring
attention. Those hard facts may be the
“is” of our current situation, but they're not the “ought” of what I want for
anyone's future. To match the values I
hold dear, I hope to usher in some serious change. If God can't be there to take care of us,
can't we work it out so that we can be there for each other? Apparently not as a nation. Not yet.
An undemocratic mass media pushes dialogs on these injustices to the
margins, keeping us up-to-date on the latest distraction stories about Miley
Cyrus, Tiger Woods, the “debt ceiling,” or the next videogame platform. Corporations don't have concern for the poor,
or for anyone's well-being except where it affects the purchase their services
and products. Most politicians don't
have time for the poor, and pay the most heed to those who can help finance
their campaigns. And many politicians
also work for these corporations through revolving doors. The same people who work as leaders at
companies like Monsanto, Goldman Sachs, Enron, Pfizer, Exxon and British
Petroleum are also the people in government who are supposed to be regulating
those companies. It seems surreal, but
reality being written is that the taxpayers' budget is going toward things that
don't reflect our common values. And the
budget is most definitely a moral issue.
A quick plug: any of you who have the opportunity to come to the UUPLAN
action in Harrisburg tomorrow about the governor's drastic General Assistance
cuts against our state's poorest residents, please let me know if you want to
be part of the carpool. One of the most
surreal budget matters is the hand-in-glove connection between our lawmakers'
refusal to end the drug war, and the support for the drug war offered by
powerful lobbies such as the private corrections corporations, who are offering
to help manage the prison population for the government as long as the
government can guarantee that the prisons be kept 90% full. You heard that right—they want more prisoners,
so they can get a greater profit. And
they are more connected with those who make the laws and appropriate the budget
money than you and I. This is creating a
reality where Pennsylvania is subtracting large sums of money from the budget
for schools and transportation, and increasing the budget for prisons. To those among us who don't believe in
punitive incarceration at all, much less as a replacement for a good education,
this seems surreal. But it's real.
In your personal life, if
you've ever received an errant medical bill, or experienced a crediting mistake
on your student loans, or had difficulty proving your eligibility for some type
of assistance, you know surreality. It
may seem there's nobody you can call who can actually fix the situation, and
the people on the phone seem entirely uncurious--just pushing papers, and
shuffling your issue off to somebody else, or saying “It seems fixed on this
end. If you get another bill next month,
just give us another call.” Meanwhile,
the reality is that this matter is getting dangerously close to going into
collections, but it's their mistake.
That doesn't seem to matter, however, as your soon-to-be-blemished
credit rating report will become the reality.
can't help thinking that I'm not alone in noticing all these incongruities
between that which I witness and what I hear I am witnessing. And I think to myself that “when we get them
out of office, and change the system, we'll be able to fix all this stuff.” Yet that reminds me of a good learning
experience I had while playing high school basketball. Our team would sometimes be down by 15-20
points at the half. And there was always
this expectation that we would play harder in the second half and catch
up. However, it was rare that the other
team didn't just continue to outscore us, and beat us by upwards of 30 points
by the final buzzer. Returning from the
analogy, maybe all these bad laws and bad budget decisions aren't going to be
fixed. What if they continue to get
worse? I'll be honest—I don't know. But that will be real until change
happens. And it will have real effects
on our lives and the lives of those we love.
How did we get to this
point? The postmodernism Paul Rasor was
talking about has opened the floodgates, for ill and for good. As he says, “Everything is relativized. What we used to think of as truth is now seen
as interpretation.” If everybody is
allowed their interpretation, then we are also open to allowing
fabrications. But if we're honest, not
all interpretations are equally valid.
And once discovered, whole-cloth fabrications are among the least valid.
There are falsehoods being
told to us on a fundamental level. And
when we are not skeptical, or we do not see the framework within which those
falsehoods occur, we incorporate those lies into our own stories. In the Jewish tradition, the Christian
tradition, and the Muslim tradition, there is a proscription to NOT bear false
witness, to NOT testify falsely. I see
two problems at work here. First, direct
fabrications in some forms of advertising and public relations and in
government, in which the listener is led to act or decide based on false
So if the first issue is
wholesale false witness, the second could perhaps be called “absent witness”
where that which we ought bear witness to is left unexamined or neglected. In leaving that portion of witness out of our
understanding, we allow a little damage into our beliefs—we may have the truth,
but not the whole truth. And what's
missing from the truth may just be the lion's share of the iceberg. And as the standard for truth fall, there's
an invitation to participate.
Blogger Greta Christina speaks to
this on her blog post “Do you care whether the things you believe are true?”:
If we believe things about reality that aren’t true, we’re going to make bad
decisions. If we believe that we failed our English test because our teacher
has it in for us, we’re not going to study harder for our next test. If we
believe that we keep getting stomach-aches because we hate our job, we’re not
going to quit having Doritos and Red Bull for breakfast. If we believe that we
can turn on the TV by hitting it with a rock, we’re going to miss “America’s
Best Dance Crew.” It’s like data processors say: Garbage in, garbage out.
does this apply to us here, now, in our lives?
The changes in us begin by and are maintained by working against,
playing against, dancing against those huge lies of bent reality and lies of
omission thrust upon us. We can work,
play, and dance against them by stepping out of a system where falsehoods are
commonplace. We can insist on getting
closer to the truth by developing a broader interpretation. How can we do this? By first recognizing that the personal truth
we understand is based on our personal framework, built up by a lifetime of
experiences, from living within our own social location. Some things that compose our social location
include gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender expression, socioeconomic
status, age, and educational level. Two
people with different social locations may experience the same event, but their
interpretations may diverge widely. I
know that as a male-appearing, white, Scandinavian-descended, heterosexual,
well-educated middle-class person, I am bound to have different expectations
and views on the world than somebody in a different social location.
second step toward a broader interpretation is to validate it by listening to
the stories of others. To really hear
their story, so that you may know them with depth. And treat it as their truth, which you may
allow to become a part of your own. This
is a spiritual practice. It requires
practice to understand each other and ourselves in detail.
When I was in college, in my
free time, I used to listen to a lot of music.
Whether it was Jane's Addiction, Public Enemy, Tracy Chapman, Throwing
Muses, or the Clash, I would listen to the music and take it in for the
wondrous beauty in the melodies, the rhythms, and the lyrics. However, in hindsight, I didn't take it in as
the artist's actual truth about their lived location. It was just beautiful and interesting.
I didn't quite get it as real when the Clash sang:
This is a
public service announcement,
Know your rights, all three of them
Number 1: You have the right not to be killed
Murder is a CRIME!
Unless it was done by a
Policeman or aristocrat
And Number 2: You have the right to food money
Providing of course you
Don't mind a little
And if you cross your fingers
You have the right to free
Speech as long as you're not
Dumb enough to actually try it.
At the time, I just thought this
song was great art, maybe an English thing, or something that happened to
outspoken punks who threw molatov cocktails.
Actually, in hindsight, it seems
they had somehow experienced this. And
now I know that police do murder unarmed people at US train stations (and other
places) and get away with it. And the
poorest among us who apply for food aid and welfare are harassed to the point
of having to pay in advance to take their own drug tests—a policy which
actually lost money for the state of Florida, and is being adopted in other
states. And Occupy Wall Street
protesters who try to simply stand up to speak freely against injustice find
themselves pepper sprayed, beaten and bound.
The Clash were right. And being
witness to these present horrifying injustices wouldn't now seem so surreal if
I could have listened to their words with my heart way back when.
All that I just mentioned though, is
on the political level. What about the
spiritual level? I think that's where
this listening really matters.
[lighting tea-light candles next to pulpit] I will light this first candle to
represent my own internal light. It
symbolizes the “me” as a subject, as a sentient being, capable of understanding
the world I live in by using my own reasoning, and making my own
decisions. Now here is the second
candle, as yet unlit, which represents the “you”, as other than me. Symbolically for me to light the second
candle using the first candle would mean that your light, your awareness,
depends on me somehow to come into being, in which I tell your story. Instead, I will light the second candle
separately, to indicate that you also are a subject, that you also are sentient
and aware, capable of making decisions and telling your own stories. Were it possible, I may have used the same
match to light both of our candles, which has a symbolism of its own regarding
a common origin to our light. But these
matches don't last long enough to do all that while I'm talking, and I'm afraid
I would have burned my fingers.
These two candles represent an
equitable relationship reflected by the Indian phrase “Namaste.” Namaste can be translated as “the divine
spirit within me honors the divine spirit within you.”
Were I to have lit the second candle
from the first, it may have instead symbolized the divine spirit within me
honoring the sparse partial image I imagine you to be. That's not exactly the connection I'm hoping
we find in one another.
Martin Buber explains this as the difference between having an I/it
relationship and an I/thou relationship.
In the I/it relationship we are using or
experiencing an object in our life as an extension of our own. In the I/thou relationship, we move into a
connected immersed existence in a relationship without bounds. Buber tells us that we find our meaning in
I/thou spirit, or the Namaste spirit asks of us to check our assumptions about
the others with whom we are in relationship, so we treat them according to
their intrinsic value, not their instrumental value.
will be the first to admit (well perhaps second or third to admit, actually)
that sometimes I am guilty of this as well.
People are difficult, some more than others, and it takes so much
time. Time that I don't think I
have. When I was younger, I used to
think I could see you and know you pretty well at a glance. In retrospect, I thought of myself to be like
Sherlock Holmes, or the protagonist from that TV show “Lie to Me.” These fictional characters have such powers
of perception that they can know the truth about a situation without having to
ask anyone verbally. Maybe when I was
younger, I did have these amazing powers.
But at this phase of my life, I know I need to ask questions in order to
affirm, clarify, or dispel what I think I know about others, or I am doing
myself and them a disservice. I may
think I'm saving time, but the person who's being shortchanged and
misunderstood has every right to step up to me, or step away, and, as American
Idol winner Kelly Clarkson sings, “Baby you don't know a thing about me.”
But if I'm not using my time
to build relationships.... Honestly, is there a much better thing in the world
one could spend their time on?
of building our relationships based on the things we imagine may be true for
others, I invite you to ask them for their truths, in order to help clarify
them for you and possibly for them as well.
Or at the very least, just know that you don't know. As this practice of asking deeply becomes a
habit, you may come to notice more clearly when people's selves are
disregarded, or truths are painted over them.
A clear example of this was
last week's kerfuffle on Meet the Press between Rachel Maddow and Alex
Castellanos, in which he continually interrupted her as she attempted to point
out the present pay discrepancy between men and women, until finally she had to
interrupt his interruptions to name them as such, and call his language condescending,
and clarify that she is presenting irrefutable facts, contrasted with his
The good side of this
postmodernism is that each of us as subjects have truths within. In authentic relationships, instead of
disregarding individual truths for a universal truth as a modern view may
choose to do, we bring all truths to the surface. As more and more truths come to the surface,
it creates a culture. Where modernism
would have us all participate in a monoculture, postmodernism provides a larger
umbrella of a multi-culture. A
multi-culture that makes space for the voices drown out by injustice, and a
multi-culture that makes space to celebrate all kinds of love.
May it be so. Blessed be, and amen.
PRAYER: As we prepare for a time of
prayer and meditation, I ask that we hold member _____ _____ and his family
in our hearts and prayers, while he is doing the uphill work of recovering from
a stroke at _____ Hospital. Also, I want
lift up our Methodist siblings in the LGBT community. After 40 years of ongoing struggle, many
walked away from their general convention in Tampa with wounded hearts from the
recent vote maintaining a stance against equal rights and inclusion. May their hearts know and feel our support….
Spirit of Mystery, Spirit of Love, I offer
a prayer today for our connections. May
we prepare ourselves energetically to do the work of knowing one another and
our world more deeply. May we not be
satisfied with the stories we’ve been told, or that we’ve told ourselves. May we be curious to discover the depths that
lie within each other, of the people we already believe we know, or of the
stranger--the possible friend--in our midst.
May we be prepared for what we find there, understanding that we are not
responsible for fixing each other’s brokenness, nor even need we be responsible
to celebrate every success. Our true
presence, and our knowing, and the knowledge of being known can be enough.
May our wisdom also guide us to recognize
when we do understand well enough, so
we may conserve our energy, to be ready to put it into action when called upon,
or to reserve it to adequately care for our own selves. In this soft balance, may our connection to
what Emerson called the Oversoul help us know each other as like manifestations
of the divine in the world. Amen.
For the benediction today, I
would like to share an adaptation of some popular lyrics from Chuck D, of the music group Public Enemy
. He is a musician,
lecturer, author, vegetarian, and is also known as Carlton Douglas Ridenhour. My hope is that these words will be
understood in terms of a struggle for racial justice. A struggle each of us experience
differently. A struggle none of us can
know fully, but that each of us can come to know more clearly by hearing each
So many of us in limbo
How to get it on, it's quite simple
3 stones… from the sun
We need a piece of this rock
Our goal -- indestructible soul
Answers to this quizzin'
To the Brothers in the street, Schools and the prisons
History shouldn't be a mystery
Our stories – REAL history
Not HIS story
We’re gonna work it one day
Till we all get paid
The right way in full, no bull
Talkin', no walkin'. Drivin', arrivin' in style.
Soon you'll see what I'm talkin' about
'Cause one day
The brothers are gonna work it out
The brothers are gonna work it out
Let us all--brothers, sisters, and
siblings--go forward from this place motivated to work it out. May we prepare to respect each other by
negotiating our understandings, and respect ourselves by expecting authentic
It’s a good day to go in peace. Amen.