Life is truly a journey. If it makes you think and makes you laugh, then it's a trip well worth taking.
Thursday, December 01, 2005
REFLECTIONS OF A UU WORSHIP ASSOCIATE
Love is the spirit of
And Service is its
Since we’ve just finished saying that
together, my question is: How is “service” the prayer of this
I remember the first prayer I ever
learned, kneeling by my bed, with my elbows propped up and hands held in
supplication before me. My grandmother was on her knees right next to me
teaching me: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord by soul to
keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
At 5 years old I didn’t have a clue what
God was. (And truth be told I still don’t 60 years later.) Nor did I understand
about a soul or dying. But I felt the unshakable conviction of my
grandmother which told me that everything would be alright if I said this prayer
before getting into bed each night and I would be able to go to sleep safe and
I’m sure some of you are familiar with the
joke that Unitarian Universalists’ hymn singing can be somewhat disjointed
because we are always reading a few lines ahead to see whether we agree with
the words. And many of us do an inner translation when we get to the “G”
I remember distinctly the last time I ever
prayed. It was in December of 1969. 40 years ago, in fact.
And 40 years ago this coming February I began practicing Buddhism and learned
When I hear from the pulpit “Let us now
enter a time of prayer and meditation,” I too feel included and a part of our
Sheila has titled her homily “The Body as a Vehicle for Prayer” and, if it’s
alright, I’ll do my Unitarian Universalist mental substitution and try it as
“The Body as a Vehicle for Meditation.”
For nearly forty years, twice daily I have
done a sutra recitation and meditation practice. With every recitation, I am
reminded that all beings experience dissatisfaction and suffering in their
lives, some more than others, and also that all beings have the potential to
experience joy and realize enlightenment; that is, to free themselves from
their dissatisfactions and sufferings.
The Buddha taught that we all can be
Bodhisattvas. We can be those who work to help others be relieved of
their suffering and to achieve their enlightenment even when it means
postponing our own.
end every meditation practice period with the Bodhisattva Vow, one made by
Buddhists all over the world:
Sentient beings are inn umerable
I vow to save them all
My defilements are
I vow to quench them all
The Buddha’s teachings
I vow to learn them all
The Way of the Buddha is
I vow to attain the path
To me Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi,
Martin Luther King, all were Bodhisattvas. Certainly their service to
humanity was significant when they lived and worked to save human beings and
the ripples of their efforts move through time to this very day.
Most of us will never be great world
leaders, sitting on the forefront of society-changing movements. But I do
firmly believe that we all have the capacity to make a difference, in some
small way, in the lives of those around us who are suffering.
couple of other important things my grandmother taught me were that when I
leave this world, I have an obligation to have made a difference by having been
here. And she also showed me through her own life that it is better to
give than to receive. How very wise she was.
In 2003, I had the honor of accompanying
the Rev. Margot Campbell Gross, Nan Parks McCarthy and my friend Colette
Simmons to stay with Sister Sheila and the other nuns of the Thabong Community
outside Johannesburg, South Africa. I bore witness to the suffering and
privations caused by HIV/AIDS among the people of the surrounding
communities. I would like to believe that perhaps my being present made a
difference. But I do know that the love I received from so many wonderful
people made a huge difference in my life.
Trying to make a difference is an integral
part of who I am. And I have no doubt that it is an outgrowth of my
meditation practice. Wanting to help is as natural to me as breathing.
And I find great happiness is helping others.
When I greet passers-by on the way to work
in the morning, I smile and usually receive smiles in return. When I reach out
in kindness it always comes back 10-fold. When I can give of myself, joy
grows in my own heart. And I know that this is not unique to me.
We are currently living in difficult and
uncertain economic times. Many of us are apprehensive about the future,
as am I myself. But I can tell you that there is one sure fire remedy for
taking one’s mind off worrying and fretting about things over which we may not
have any control – a way to put our own lives in perspective.
We can free our inner Bodhisattvas by
reaching out to those around us who are hurting, physically, mentally,
financially, spiritually. We can be of service to life.
is what my meditation has taught me. Perhaps this can be our prayer.
Love is the spirit of
And Service …
be, Amen and Namaste …
Half Empty / Half Full
My mother used to say that my brother
tended to see the glass half empty while I tended to see the glass half
full. But by this past Thursday, I was only focusing on those four ounces
of empty air in that 8 ounce glass, vacillating between anger and despair.
After all, a little more than half of
those voting supported taking my rights away. The same rights that the Supreme
Court of the State of California said were my due, under the
California Constitution. A little more than half of those voting believe that I
am not worthy of the same rights, privileges and responsibilities that
heterosexual Californians have, simply by virtue of their being born
heterosexual. A little more than half of those voting have said quite clearly
that the love I may feel for someone of my own sex is not as real, not as
precious, and not as special as the love that exists between heterosexuals.
I had really thought that a heavy turnout
in support of Barack Obama would have helped to tip the balance to the side of
justice. It wasn’t to be. I’d like to blame the supporters of the candidate I
did not vote for but the passage of Proposition 8 really came down to all those
who voted both for our first African-American President and, simultaneously,
voted to take away my civil right to equal treatment under the laws of the
State of California. Yes, large numbers of California’s Democrats voted in
support of Proposition 8. They voted to enshrine discrimination into the
California Constitution. Have Californians forgotten that it was the tyranny of
the majority that made the love between people of different races illegal in
this State until 1962? Have we forgotten that it was the tyranny of the
majority that sent our Japanese-American brothers and sisters to relocation
camps for no other reason than the accident of their birth and their cultural
In my post election confusion, joy over
our new president and sadness over the passage of Prop 8, I wondered to myself,
what kind of a religion would teach homophobia and prejudice as the core of its
beliefs? The Mormons and Knights of Columbus alone donated more
that $25 million in support of Proposition 8.
As the No on 8 Campaign has said: “Never
before in California's history has a group, who currently enjoys a basic
right, been singled out and then had those rights ripped from them by a vote of
their fellow citizens.”
So - what you’ve just heard is what
happens when I see the glass half empty. However, I don’t want to drag the past
behind me because it will only impede my journey into the future. I am by
nature an optimist.
And when I reflect on the 4 ounces of
water in the glass, rather than the 4 ounces of empty space, I remember this.
The vast majority of my friends, from every possible ethnicity and heritage,
are straight. And to a person, they voted against Proposition 8. I remember
that many among my friends consider themselves Christians or people of faith
and they voted against Proposition 8. Faith can as easily cause one to rejoice
in the diversity of humanity as to cause one to be threatened by the differences
On election eve, the Young Adults group
here at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, put together
a candle-light vigil service that was incredibly moving. In order to take some
pressure off our City Hall, already swamped with couples wanting to marry,
from 8:00 PM on November 3rd, through the close of the polls on
November 4th, our ministers were available to marry any loving couples who
presented a marriage license and requested to be wed. Free of charge, I might
It’s important for me to remember the
encouragement of our senior minister, Rev. Greg Stewart, who pointed out that
in this great effort to defeat Proposition 8 we Unitarian Universalists “have
once again helped to bend the moral arc of the Universe toward justice.”
In his *Letter from a Birmingham Jail,
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote this: “More and more I feel that the people of
ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good
will. …. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes
through the tireless efforts of … [those] willing to be co
workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of
the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge
that the time is always ripe to do right.”
For me, having seen the reality of
prejudice as a child, the treatment that I am now subjected to feels no
differently to me than the pain, anger, humiliation and frustration that other
minority groups in this country must have felt as they realized that the land
in which they lived and were citizens, did not see them as worthy of equality
before the law. In the issue of GLBT persons, that equality, affirmed by our
Supreme Court, has been taken away and discrimination has been written into our
I celebrate all those of our heterosexual
allies who had no basic rights at stake, and yet you gave so much of your time
and money, in support of my rights.
I am so proud to be a Unitarian
Universalist, which denomination is “Standing on the Side of Love.” I’m honored
to be a member of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco,
where the loves and lives of same sex couples have been celebrated and
conjoined for more than 50 years.
In a sermon delivered by the Rev. Forrest
Church prior to the 1992 presidential election, he said: “Hate is not the
opposite of love, fear is. … We are good at fear. That’s why politicians
play on our fears. Fear gives power to others, and inspires us to try to take
power away from them.”
This time, my friends, we LGBT citizens
were the targets of the fear mongers.
Rev. Church went on to say that “Faith is
confidence, a basic trust in being. Faith should never be sacrificed to
belief. Faith says yes to mystery, wonder, possibility, change.”
But Rev. Church goes on to warn that the opposite of Faith is Belief and
“Belief is a set propositions that true-believers say make it possible for one
to have faith.”
I’ve been a gay activist since the early
1970’s, when the very idea of marriage equality was not even a dream.
This past Friday night I participated in the march up Market Street. Among
those thousands of marchers, I didn’t feel anger around me, but rather
energy. I didn’t sense depression, but rather determination. The Japanese
Buddhists have a term: “Zen San, Go Ichi.” “Three steps
forward, one step back.” Last Tuesday night was but a step back; a step
back in order to gather strength for the next steps forward towards justice.
My friends, we may have lost a battle, but
the Culture War is not over by a long shot. I have faith, whether I live
to see it or not, that we will have justice for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and
Transgender people, not just in California, but in these United States.
The very fact of the election of Barack
Obama gives me hope, and I have faith in our ability to touch and change the
hearts of those who are currently closed to us. I have faith that the day will
come when I will be judged not by my sexual orientation, but by the content of
I have faith that there will be justice,
and that, in the words of the Prophet Amos, that “justice will roll down like
waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
In the words of our next President: “Yes
How Prayer Made Me an
Did you know that the
word “pray” can be traced back to the Sanskrit: prasna meaning “to
you know that the word “precarious” comes from the Vulgate Latin meaning
“obtained by prayer?”
I asked Google, “What is Prayer?” It yielded the following definitions:
petition to a deity; the act of communicating with a deity (especially as a
petition or in adoration or contrition or thanksgiving);
act of attempting to verbally communicate with the supernatural; It is found in
almost all the religions of the world. It is sometimes communal, as during a
church service; it is sometimes done in private. Its purpose within
Christianity is to assess the will of God for one's life, to praise God, to
give thanks to God, to repent of sinful behavior, to ask forgiveness, to seek a
favor from God, and (occasionally) to ask God to curse an opponent. Prayer is
found in almost all religions.
of the Gov’t of Australia:
request at the end of a petition, usually that a certain course of action be
taken or not taken.
is talking with God. Click here to learn more.
suppose the quick and easy answer as to whether I pray or not is – No! Although
I clearly remember the first and the last time I prayed.
I was six I had the special treat one time of being able to stay the weekend
with my grandmother, my Nana, without the always noisy and demanding presence
of my 3-year old brother. He was too much of a handful for my grandmother.
to going to bed, my (to me) ancient grandmother, who was probably younger than
I am now, got down on her knees next to the daybed I was going to sleep on and
showed me how to pray.
Now I lay me down to
I pray the lord my soul
If I should die before I
I pray the lord my soul
every night I faithfully recited those words with complete assurance that
“God,” whatever that was, was watching over me and I had nothing to worry about
– so long as I was a good boy. I was also convinced that God tipped my mother
off when I was naughty. As soon as she’d look at me, I knew she had that “God
already told me” look and I’d confess straight-away!
remember coming back from church one time when I was 8 years old and my
grandmother asking me to stay in the car with her, after my mom brought us
home. I sensed a set-up.
is no Santa Clause. Nan broke the news to me gently, as only a
grandmother could and I had to admit that I’d had my suspicions. She explained
to me that, now that I was older, I could join my mom and dad and her and the
other grown ups and older kids, knowing that there wasn’t a Santa Clause, but
pretending so that little children, like my brother, could still believe
Clause was about the joy of giving and that was what was real.
that means the Easter Bunny is only pretend too?
pretty much stopped worrying about the tooth fairy since I didn’t have many
reasons left to look forward to her visits anyway.
the things that were sources of security and anticipation for me weren’t real.
They were all just part of the adult conspiracy to make children have happy
childhoods; to believe in magic. Since I’d been invited to join in the “Adult
Conspiracy,” it was time to put away “Now I lay me down to sleep” and I began
invoking the grown up: “Our father, who art in heaven …”
remember that first time I prayed and I remember the last time I prayed.
of 1969, I was 24 years old, living in Toronto. After five months, the
only job I could find was working in the toy department of Eaton’s Department
Store – at Christmas time.
had a 3rd floor walk-up rented room near the Maple Leaf Gardens.
I’d lost nearly 50 pound in five months, due to lack of food. My coworkers used
to give me the crackers they got with their tea. I was miserable – then I got
was so sick and weak that I had to crawl down the hall to the bathroom. I
remember, lying on the floor, crawling to the bed and propping myself up, and
just like my grandmother had taught me that first time – I put my hands
together in prayer. The room seemed dark, even though it was the middle of the
day. I cried, I despaired, I pleaded, I prayed... - all this while looking at
the wall, against which my bed was pushed.
seemed to almost step outside my self and observed that I was praying to some
dingy, dirty, faded and peeling wallpaper, crumpled over a crack in the bedroom
wall. I was praying to a crack in a wall. That was God. And I suddenly
realized; I’m an atheist.
that moment, my slate was wiped clean. In the next few days I returned
to Philadelphia, to my parents’ home, to the bedroom I’d left when I went
off to college. I’d lost everything – most importantly, I’d lost belief. There
was no God, no Easter Bunny, no Tooth Fairy and no Santa Clause – it was all
stuff for children. In the process of coming to those conclusions, I’d somehow
lost me as well – my sense of self.
than a month after returning from Canada, feeling totally defeated, I
began practicing Buddhism, purely out of curiosity, and it turned out to be
just the “Skillful Means” that I needed to find myself again.
tell people that I meditate. I sit silently, going within where all the answers
lie for me. I recite from Sutras, I chant a Mantra – the Sacred Title of the
Wonderful Dharma of the Lotus Flower Sutra. The “Focus of my Practice” is the
Unborn and Deathless Buddha-Dharma that was recounted at a phantasmagoric event
in the Lotus Sutra, where the Buddha revealed that his teaching and his life
and his Dharma were no different from my life and that it was timeless,
immanent and always manifesting as infinite potential.
years later, I can still say that I don’t pray. Or at least I don’t pray to
anything or any one, even though it may look like that to the casual observer.
When I sit before my shrine and recite from the Sutras, you might say I’m
continuing to program this biological computer that is my life.
recite passages that remind me of the infinite possibilities open to me and to
all living beings. I am reminded twice a day that all non-living and living
things, including human beings, are manifestations of the great life-force of
the universe, the Buddha-Dharma. Some people might call that God and pray to
it. For me it’s enough to know that I am simply a part of it.
rather like the idea that precarious means obtained by prayer. I look around at
all the beauty in the world and realize that it truly is precarious. All is
change, nothing is permanent.
a baby smile can bring tears unbidden to my eyes, just realizing how precious,
ephemeral and temporary both my tears and its smile really are. Yet, in that smile
is the infinite potential of the universe.
I pray? No! I tell people that I meditate.
now is my prayer:
your eyes for a moment, while we experience silence; go inside yourself and
breath, don’t be afraid of the silence. Hear the breathing of your neighbors,
realizing that there isn’t a molecule of air in this sanctuary that hasn’t been
in the lungs of everyone else in here. We are breathing each other, we are that
connected to each other.
we have just done with our silence is the true miracle of this holy place. And
what a precarious miracle it is.
A year ago I had the
pleasure of being up here to support Rev. Gibson’s service entitled “Beyond
Tepid Tolerance,” in which I derided okra and expressed my intolerance for it.
- More about that in a moment.
I’ve been looking
forward to Rev. Gibson and Judy coming back again this year, and when I saw his
Sunday’s sermon topic, “Spirituality con carné,” this long-time
vegetarian couldn’t resist.
Really, Gordon … con
carné? With flesh? I would have gone with “Spirituality con
Chutzpah” or even “Spirituality con okra”, but “with
So the issue for today,
as I understand it, is being able to wrap something substantive around one’s
personal spirituality, so that it has a life that goes out into the world.
I began suffering
from “SPS” that’s Serious Person Syndrome quite
early in my life. I was always the smallest and youngest looking among my
peers. My mom even took me to the doctor to find out why I was so far behind
all the others boys my age. The doctor just said I was a late bloomer. What it
meant for me was that I was always the last one chosen to play on a team and
was never a part of the kids in my own age group. My brother, three years
younger than I, was always at least even with me in height. It was no fun being
me and I spent a lot of time alone, serious time alone,
reading and trying to figure out the “Why Me” of it all.
I remember a driving
trip with my family from Philadelphia to Indianapolis when I was seven, when I
saw a cat run over by an oncoming car. It was terribly traumatic for me and
despite my parents’ assurances that the cat had died instantly and its writhing
was simply the nerves continuing to fire, their telling me that even a chicken
keeps running around after its head has been cut off somehow didn’t make me
feel better. Seriously folks, is there any wonder why I’m a
My dad was Roman
Catholic and my mother Presbyterian. My brother and I were raised protestant.
When I was 15, my paternal grandmother, who up to that point hadn’t even
recognized my brother and me as legitimate children, asked my parents if she
could take me to a movie. Both my parents were happy about this and gladly
drove me to the next town over to spend the afternoon with grandmom.
However, after taking me
to a movie, she then took me to her Catholic church and then told me to not
tell my parents, which, of course, I did – simply because I had found it really
fascinating. Later that night, after I was already supposed to be asleep, I
came down the stairs and overheard my parents having, what for me was the first
and only disagreement I had ever heard them have. And the subject of that serious conversation
was about my brother and I being raised Presbyterian instead of Catholic.
Again, my SPS(Serious
Person Syndrome) took over and the next day I went to my high school
library and got out the “Life Magazine Book of World Religions,” which I then
read cover to cover. I wanted to understand, since my parents were both
Christians, why it divided our family rather than uniting it? I now know that
what I really wanted to understand was: What is the underlying message that
unites us all? In other words, what really is the elephant whose extremities
we, the visually impaired, are all clinging to, believing that our chosen
extremity is the true elephant?
In 1970, the Vietnam War
was fully engaged, the economy was in the toilet, unemployment was up and I,
with my Master’s Degree in Slavic Linguistics, found myself just out of
college, unemployed, and once again living with my parents, and feeling seriously sorry
By chance I saw an
article in the January 1970 issue of Life Magazine about a new Buddhist sect that
was rapidly growing out in southern California and which coincidentally had
some members in the Philadelphia area. Out of sheer curiosity, I went to one of
their discussion meetings and began to try the practice, not because I expected
anything out of doing it, but simply because I wanted to learn Chinese, which
is what the recitations were done in. What fun! A new language to learn!
What I didn’t realize
was that I was embarking on a journey towards that source that unites us all,
when we’re open to it.
beginning my Buddhist practice I became involved in the Gay Rights Movement. I
never thought of it in terms of “social justice” but simply as the right thing
to do. And I involved myself with grim, serious determination.
Truman Capote was
purported to have said that there are two kinds of people: the Gays and the
Grims. Well I was a grim gay, or a gay grim – depending on your perspective. I
took myself and what I was doing as an activist very seriously.
Don’t forget, I was severely suffering from SPS (Serious
But somewhere along the
way, my practice taught me to not get attached to outcomes, to not get attached
to my own rightness. And in that letting go, the journey itself has become far
more important than destination.
My friends, I
actually do stop to smell the roses, and the jasmine and the
lilies and, especially, the honeysuckle.
My problem with SPS
(Serious Person Syndrome) has been inversely proportional to my
“practiced” engagement in the world. And my engagement in the world has been a
requital for the advice I was given as a child; that it was my responsibility
to leave the world a better place for my having been in it. Thus, my Buddhist
practice has taught me to listen and to laugh and also that shared laughter is
the music of the gods, besides being the best medicine.
Emma Goldman, an early
20th century anarchist and political activist was enjoying herself at a dance
once, when an earnest young man, no doubt suffering from SPS (Serious
Person Syndrome), scolded her by saying that it did not behoove an agitator
to dance. She was furious at his impudent interference and her response to him
has been distilled down to this: “If I can’t dance, it’s not my
My friends please take
out your bibles. Our New Testament reading for today is from the Gospel
of Luke 18:15-17, “15 People were bringing even infants to him that
he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them
not to do it. 16 But Jesus called for them and said, ‘Let the little children
come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom
of God belongs. 17 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of
God as a little child will never enter it.’”
I would like to invite
you all to look up to your right. “The Kingdom of God is within You.” Keeping
in mind that I am an atheist, I believe that the underlying meaning of that
phrase is the real elephant.
The older I get, the
more I believe that I understand what Jesus, the Buddha, Rumi and all the other
great Sages were talking about. You see, my personal spirituality is one of
underlying joy; joy, humor and fun. That is the meat on the bones of my
spirituality. Or may I say the bark on the tree of my spirit.
Thanks to our Small
Group Ministry program, which I cannot recommend highly enough, I have many,
many friends in this congregation. And among them are those who have allowed me
to play. I play Dungeons and Dragons, and my half-elf Sorcerer, Aramek, would
like me to introduce you to his familiar: Snoop. Snoop is a North American
ferret. Say “hello” Snoop.
And I enjoy going to the
Golden Gate Renaissance Faire each summer. Please come with me next year.
Truly, the longer I’m a Unitarian Universalist, the younger I get!
In closing, I would like
to make a public confession. During the past year, Gordon and Judy have sent me
a newspaper clipping about a famous “Okra Festival” and even some recipes.
Well, Gordon, please pass on to your niece, Erica, that I have tried her
recipe, “Indian Okra with Yogurt,” and it was delicious!
Yes, I will say it here
in front of you all: “Okra is now welcome in my kitchen.” But now, speaking as
someone who is in recovery from SPS (Serious Person Syndrome), I
must also leave you all with a serious question: “What, in
heaven’s name, is Rhubarb all about?”
Hope Is Fleeting
Greg’s lead-in to this
sermon topic, that “Hope is Fleeting,” states that “many of us embrace faith to
increase a sense of hope.” I became Unitarian Universalist because I was
“hopeful,” - hoping to find an inclusive community with a vision of a better
world where each individual had worth. And guess what? I found it here, among
you, and it is here that I maintain my sense of hope.
In that well-known class
called: Buddhism 101, one of the basics is that any authentic teaching must
conform to three criteria, which I will render here in Unitarian Universalist
Non-self – reflects our Interconnected Web of Life,
of which we are all a part; Nirvana – is about replacing Anger
with Compassion, Greed with Generosity and Ignorance with Knowledge so that
there can be room for Freedom and the Ability to perceive and understand
reality as it is, not as we would like it to be and, lastly, Impermanence –
which is the recognition of the fleeting nature of everything.
From a purely
philosophical perspective, the idea that everything is changeable and
transient, including Hope, might be seen as a: “DUH!!!” but the reality of that
principle is quite another thing.
I thought the misery I
called high school would never end. And I thought my nana would always be there
at Christmas. It’s just a reality of life, from the microcosm to the macrocosm,
that things are always changing, whether I accept the changes or not. Things
When I was a child,
every day was filled with hope. Every day brought me memorable experiences.
Every new food, every movie, every book, every trip to the shore (that’s
the New Jersey seashore for the west coast natives among us) - all
was filled with the hope and anticipation of new experiences. In other words, I
lived with a sense of wonder and every new day began with hope for what was to
The dictionary defines
the word Habit as an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has
become almost involuntary. Life, for me, is constantly in danger of becoming a
habit. Of course, I’m not quite ready to break that particular habit. But there
are days when I feel as if I wake up, simply because I’m in the habit of doing
so, but what gets me out of bed is hope. Hope that something unpleasant will
change for the better, or that something pleasant will continue, maybe for just
one more day. If my Life were a loaf of bread, Hope would be the gluten that
holds it together.
My mom used to say that
I always seemed to see the glass half full and, perhaps that’s really the best
way for me to view the place of hope in my life. If it’s a “given” that no
matter what, everything changes – then – how I choose to view my life is truly
up to me. Revel in the good times while I have them and keep in mind that the
bad times won’t last forever and most importantly, remember that I won’t have
to go through those bad times alone.
Consider our Small Group
Ministry program. As I look around this sanctuary, I see so many of you here whom
I consider my friends and it’s either because I met you directly through small
group ministry or because you were a friend of one of my Small Group Ministry
Lest I ever be accused
of being a Pollyanna or, for that matter, a cock-eyed optimist – I need only
look at our world today if I truly want to develop not only a sense of
hopelessness but the habit of feeling hopeless. Global
warming, bio-diversity in decline, a dwindling middle class, profit trumping
the welfare of the people, a government that seems based on anger, greed and
ignorance, with my tax dollars being used to kill children
in Iraq rather than to educate children in America. I need say
In a few moments, Greg
is going to talk about how to cope with hope when life feels hopeless.
Well, here’s what I do.
I remind myself that
nothing is forever. But what I do have in my life, I will cherish while I have
it. I don’t just try to see the wonders around me, I seek them out. After all,
a stranger is just a friend I haven’t met and a friend is a book of miracles,
just waiting to be opened. And I do stop to smell the roses,
the honeysuckle and the jasmine.
When my friends, whom
I’d met through our Small Group Ministry program, asked me whether or not I
would be interested in playing Dungeons and Dragons with them, I jumped at the
chance. I’ve wanted to learn that since my college days. Thanks to their
friendship, wonderful new friends have come into my life and a whole new area
of fun and community has been opened to me.
I’ve often said: If I am
destined to have a second childhood, I’ll decide when, where and how!
I believe that if there
really is any habit worth cultivating, it’s hope. And when I look around this
sanctuary, I see a room filled with reasons for hope.
And I thank you all for
Blessed be …
Wishin’ & Hopin’
I wonder, how many folks
here remember the name Stephanie McIntosh? While you may not recognize her
name, you will probably recognize her lyrics:
and hoping and thinking and praying
and dreaming, each night, of his charms.
won’t get you into his arms …. Ah Ooooo
The subject of our most
recent service, during the season of Advent, has been hope. And in considering
the issues facing us today, I have to admit that this has been one of the most
difficult Credo’s for me to put together.
In my opinion, Stephanie
got the order right, first comes the wishin’ and then comes the hopin’. We have
lots of sayings about wishes: “A goal without a plan is just a wish. (Larry
Elder)” “Wishes won’t wash dishes.” And a cute one from my Scottish ancestors,
“If wishes were horses, even beggars would ride.”
When I was growing up I
spent a lot of time alone, because I lived in a neighborhood where all the
other kids were either 3-4 years younger or more than 5 years older than I. I
had wished so much to have friends my own age to play with. And because I was
always the smallest in my class and always looked 3 or 4 years younger than my
chronological age, I used to wish I were bigger and looked older. My mom used
to tell me that someday I wouldn’t see that as a curse. When I graduated high
school, I was actually the second shortest boy in the class – what a thrill.
I’ve found that
throughout my life wishing is what I do when the realities of life needn’t
intrude. How many times have I wished that I hadn’t said something, or done
something, or eaten something for which I later felt regret? And, oh, how I
wish my dad hadn’t died at 59 and mom at 64.
And as for the future, I
have wishes aplenty: I wish I weighed 160 lbs again; I wish I could win the
lottery; I wish there were no such thing as AIDS or Cancer, poverty or war … I
Now hope, on the other
hand, hope springs eternal. And we have plenty of quotations and proverbs about
hope as well. “Hope is patience with the lamp lit.” (Tertullian) “Where there’s
life, there’s hope.” And, from my Irish ancestors: “Hope is the physician of
My mother used to say
that my brother always seemed to see the glass half empty and I that always saw
it half full. Every summer during my childhood and before the days of super
highways, my family would drive the 70 miles from Philadelphia, PA to Ocean
City, NJ, down the three-lane, Black Horse pike. And every time my dad got into
the center passing lane, known as the suicide lane, my brother would start
screaming from the back seat that we were all going to be killed and never make
it to the shore. Meanwhile, my head was out the window, already “smelling” the
ocean, even though it was still 50 miles away.
I suppose I’ve always
been a basically optimistic person and I believe the foundation of my optimism
is hope. In the dictionary, words used in defining hope include: possibility,
expectation, trust, confidence, faith.
Today I’m not the
shortest kid in the class; I have lots of friends to play with; and my mother
was right – I don’t mind looking a little younger than my chronological age.
As for hope – well – I’m
not counting on the lottery but I am hoping that the Zone Diet my doctor
recommended will work for me. I’m hoping that I still have some good years
ahead of me, because there’s still a lot left to do, and I want to be able to
do my small part.
And in the “grander
scheme of things,” I believe I have real reason to hope that the daily advances
in science and technology will bring treatments and cures for Cancer and AIDS
and all the other scourges that beset humanity.
And finally, moving from
hope to belief, I believe that the salvific message of Unitarian Universalism
will move beyond the walls of our fellowships, societies and churches and bring
new hope to people who’ve given it up in the face of the daunting challenges
before us today.
If we are to confront
poverty, war and human misery, I believe we must begin in our own hearts and
instill hope there, where it will do the most good.
I’ve been knocked down a
lot of times in my life and it’s been hope and trust in the future that has
always enabled me to stand back up again. Celene Dion sings that “love can move
mountains” and Nat King Cole sang “faith can move mountains.” But I believe
it’s hope that gives us the strength to even try.
If I were to choose a
theme song that bespeaks what hope is for me, and maybe Unitarian Universalism
in general, it would probably be the opening lyrics of “Tubthumper”, by that
well known group Chumbawamba.
get knocked down, but I get up again
never gonna keep me down.
get knocked down, but I get up again
never gonna keep me down.
all the people say: AMEN
Beyond Tepid Tolerance
Let me ask for a show of
hands. How many people here like okra?
Now, just to clarify,
I’m talking about the vegetable – oKra, not the TV celebrity, Oprah.
As a Buddhist, I’m
convinced that okra is the hell-realm reincarnation for garden slugs that have
done something truly evil during their all-too-brief lives. They come back as
okra - all the slime but none of the mobility.
I bring up okra for a
reason. Please note: I’m a stellar conversationalist and I hate to cook for
myself. So, should you ever invite me to dinner and serve okra, I’ll smile and
eat it with appreciation for the kindness you’ve shown me in inviting me to
share a meal with you. However, on a more personal note, I won’t tolerate okra
in my own kitchen. It has the big “ick” factor for me.
Toleration is an interesting
concept. We hear the word bandied about more and more these days. We must be a
tolerant society; we must show tolerance, the Museum of Tolerance - &c,
The first time I walked
into a Unitarian Universalist church to attend a service, I did so at the
invitation of a member who, knowing that I practiced Buddhism, thought I might
be interested in hearing Rev. Beaudreault’s sermon on Buddhism.
I was, in fact, very
interested and found his sermon accurate, for the most part, though skewed to
an understanding of silent meditation as the quintessential Buddhist practice,
a mistake often made, to this day, by many of my fellow Unitarian
I specifically remember
at the beginning of the service, the “official” greeter welcoming us guests by
telling us that the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento was a place of
tolerance regarding peoples’ differences. That statement left me with a
lingering question. But as I continued to attend the services I found that, as
one of the few gay members, I was more than tolerated. My partner and I were
“accepted” as just another couple who came to services and participated in the
life of the congregation.
It was this sense of
being accepted that lead to my “signing the book” in 1990. And when it came my
time to stand up front, I did a bit of editing and welcomed our guests by
telling them that our church was not a place where they would find tolerance in
spite of their differences but rather a place where they would find acceptance
because of their differences and because of what they could bring to our
ongoing dialogue and encouragement to mutual growth and understanding.
My minister in
Sacramento, Rev. John Young, once told me that the job of ministry, whether
professional or lay, is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
It is through working and learning to accept each other that we challenge each
other and grow together. It is through finding our commonalities rather than in
highlighting our differences that true dialogue and mutual understanding can
I tend to view tolerance
and acceptance as two components on a larger continuum. At one end is the
emotion of hate and the violence that ensues from it and at the other end of
the continuum I see love and its ensuing compassionate action. In between, I
place intolerance, tolerance and acceptance. Somehow I find life easier when I
can neatly categorize things.
I won’t dwell on Hate
and Violence or Intolerance because they speak loudly and clearly for
themselves. One only needs to watch the television news or TV programming, read
a newspaper, or even do a Google search.
Did you know that there
are 2,280,000 pages on “How to become a Nazi”, and 332,000 pages on “How to
start a White Supremacist Group?” To my mind, even one such page is one page
Let’s move up the
continuum to Tolerance, Acceptance and, to what I see as the ideal for society,
Love and Compassionate Action.
For those of us who have
been raised around intolerance, to be tolerant takes some effort. It takes work.
It means that despite our individual comfort levels, we are willing to put up
with a particular behavior, belief or person, all for the sake of public or, in
our case, congregational harmony.
Did you know, there are
Unitarian Universalists who don’t feel completely comfortable with our
denomination’s outspokenness on the issue of same-sex Marriage Equality? After
all, many places now permit “domestic partnerships.” That’s good, isn’t it?
And why is our
denomination suddenly speaking out for the passage of the Employment
Non-Discrimination Act with transgender inclusion and protection?
It is my belief that
many of these same people may consider themselves very “tolerant,” while for
the sake of congregational peace, they will keep their opinions to themselves
Speaking as a recovered
Presbyterian, I didn’t find tolerance in the church in which I grew up. Because
of that I have come to realize that if toleration is the best that one can
manage, then I’m willing accept that. I will accept the tolerance of those
around me, but I accept it only as long as I can also issue a challenge; a
challenge borne of my Unitarian Universalist beliefs. That challenge is our
shared 7 Principles.
We are here to help each
other in our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We are here to
challenge each other to acceptance of one another and to encourage ourselves to
support the spiritual growth of this, our congregation. If we truly do covenant
among ourselves to affirm the worth and dignity of every person, then for us,
“tolerance” must become the place from which we start; not the place where we
Tolerance in the easy
part; learning to be “accepting” of others because they are different is the
part that takes real effort. It means that we must actually break through
stereotypes and learn about and get to know our neighbors, whether they are in
the house next door or in the pew sitting next to us.
In my world, wanting to
create a society, or even a congregation, based on love and compassionate
action is “thinking globally,” while getting to know and accept my neighbors is
very much “acting locally.”
In our world today, I
don’t believe that tolerance is enough anymore, especially among those of us
who share a progressive, liberal and liberating faith like Unitarian
Universalism. While some of us might feel that being tolerant does take some
effort, I believe that we Unitarian Universalists need to be taking the lead in
acting on our principles, which principles are really about acceptance, not just
And finally, may I say
that I’m always open to trying something new? So, if you have what you consider
to be an outstanding recipe for okra, I’m ready to give it a try.
When Brian (Ferguson)
asked me to reflect on the topic of “Finding Meaning in the Mundane, my mind,
as it is wont to do, went off in several different directions.
Of course, the first
thing I did was look up the meaning of the word “mundane:“ secular (as opposed
to spiritual or heavenly), worldly, pedestrian, commonplace, trite, or
The word comes from
Middle English, which got it from the French mondain, the descendant of the
Latin mundanus, meaning a citizen of the world.
Perhaps we might
consider substituting the word “mundane” for the ubiquitous “blah.” One would
at least sound intelligent in one’s negativity.
In the TV series
“Babylon 5” the telepaths had great disdain for the “Mundanes,” those with no
telepathic ability. I suppose it was less charitable an opinion than Harry
Potter’s world, filled with Muggles.
Being a language purist,
I’ve just considered the word as simply meaning “pertaining to the world.” So I
find it interesting that we have tended to cast negative connotations on the
meaning of “mundane.”
The first verse and
chorus of Mac Davis’ song, “Stop And Smell The Roses,” speaks to another
approach to the mundane:
you going in such a hurry
you think it's time you realized
a whole lot more to life than work and worry
sweetest things in life are free
there right before your eyes
got to Stop and Smell the roses
got to count your many blessings everyday
gonna find your way to heaven is a rough and rocky road
you don't Stop and Smell the roses along the way
The Zen Buddhist
practice of “mindfulness” is, I suppose, another way to find “meaning in the
When I get up in the
morning, while I’m waiting for my coffee to brew, I “mindfully” wash the
dishes. I’m no where other than in my kitchen, in my bathrobe, focused on one
dish, one spoon, one plate. Each in its turn. I’m not worrying about what faces
me at the office, nor am I replaying what I “should have said” when so-and-so
said such-and-such to me. I’m just washing dishes.
And when I walk down the
hill to the Castro MUNI station, I always stop at a 15’ long stretch of
jasmine, hanging over a retaining wall at the sidewalk. I just put my face into
the flowers and take in the incredible aroma. Then, 20’ on, I run my fingers
through a wondrous rosemary plant that cascades over another retaining wall,
hanging over the sidewalk. I can walk the last little way to the Metro with the
essence of rosemary on my fingers, held up to my nose.
Were someone to follow
me, they would see this little ceremony of mine every morning.
Of course, even
mindfulness practice can be perverted. Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen
Buddhist School, shook the dust from his sandals and went into the mountains
when he saw the Japanese military government, the Shogunate, perverting
mindfulness practice into the simplicity of:
When you sit, just sit.
When you eat, just eat.
When you kill, just kill.
Is it any wonder that
Zen practice became the school of choice among the Samurai?
I think, when it comes
down to it, I’m not really interested in finding any meaning in the mundane.
The mundane simply is the way the world is. Mundanity is the water in which we
fishes swim. So how, really, can we find meaning in it?
I’d rather pose the
question as: How does one create meaning in the mundane?
Take something as
mundane as a knife lying in the gutter. A thief could use it to threaten and
hurt an unwary stranger, while a doctor could use it to perform an emergency
tracheotomy and save a life.
Everything about being a
Unitarian Universalist is about action, creating value, giving meaning,
informing that which is to be more than it was and we do this with our own,
mundane lives and the lives of those around us.
The general consensus on
the Internet is summed up by Truth4Life.tripod.com: “Prayer is talking with
God. Click here to learn more.”
Do I pray? No! I tell
people that I meditate.
I sit silently, going
within where all the answers lie for me. I recite from Sutras; I chant a
Mantra. The “Focus of my Practice” is the Timeless and Immanent Buddha-Dharma
that was recounted in the Lotus Sutra, when the Buddha revealed that his life,
his Dharma and all of us, were timeless, immanent and always manifesting as
After 36 years of practice,
I can still say that I don’t pray. Or at least I don’t pray to anything or any
one, even though it may look like that to the casual observer. When I sit
before my shrine and recite from the Sutras, you might say I’m continuing to
program this biological computer that is my life.
The Sutra passages that
I recite remind me of the infinite possibilities open to me and to all living
beings. I am reminded twice a day that all non-living and living things,
including human beings, are manifestations of the great life-energy of the
universe, the Buddha-Dharma. Some people might call that God and pray to it.
For me it’s enough to know that I am simply a part of it.
I look around at all the
beauty in the world and realize that it truly is all so miraculous, and so
precarious. All is change, all is transient, and nothing is permanent.
Seeing a baby smile can
bring tears unbidden to my eyes, just realizing how precious, ephemeral and
temporary both my tears and its smile really are. Yet, in that smile is the infinite
potential of the universe.
Did you know that the
word “precarious” comes from the Vulgate Latin meaning “obtained by prayer?”
Here now is my prayer:
Close your eyes for a
moment, while we experience silence; go inside yourself and breath, don’t be
afraid of the silence. Hear the breathing of your neighbors, realizing that
there isn’t a molecule of air in this sanctuary that hasn’t been in the lungs
of everyone else in here. We are breathing each other, we are that connected to
What we have just done
with our silence is the true miracle of this holy place. And what a precarious
miracle it is.
I love living in this
country. True, I’m not happy about the current administration in Washington,
but I celebrate the fact that I can work in a democratic society to change that
I love living in a
potato washer! Now, hold that thought.
When I go to work in the
morning, the first person to great me is Atanasy, one of the guards at the
front desk in my building. He’s from Rumania, having escaped to America during
the time of Caucescu. He has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of
Bucharest. Worthless here, but we talk philosophy and he teaches me to say
“Bună dimineaça. Ce mai fac’? Good morning. How are you?
Once I’ve settled in, I
come downstairs for my coffee and stop at “City Kinetics” for my favorite
breakfast burrito. The best in the city! Stella cooks it up and Elena puts it
together. They’re sisters-in-law and both from Mexico.
The deli is owned by Sam
and Waffa, both Palestinian Muslims. I always enter with the greeting, “As
salaam aleikam” and Waffa always answers, “Aleikam wa salaam.” Sam is disgusted
with Yassar Arrafat. Angry that he won’t step down and let people make peace.
Waffa just prays that the fighting will stop and that our country will be
protected from the craziness.
Next door to the deli is
the cleaner, owned by a family from Hong Kong and around the corner is “Working
Girl’s” Deli, owned by an Israeli couple. They’re disgusted with Sharon and
want him voted out so the people can make peace. They pray that our country
will be protected from the craziness.
On my way home from
work, I might stop to pick up coffee at the “Castro Cheeserie,” owned by
Palestinian Christians and then take the 33 bus. My driver might be Al, a white
guy, or Danny, who’s Philipino, or Manuel from Mexico, or Jerry, an African
American. Every single one of them knows my name and would pick me up in the
middle of the block if they should see me running for the bus.
In rural Japan they had
a very interesting way of cleaning batches of potatoes. A bunch would be put
into a special barrel, filled with water and then the barrel was manually spun
with a hand crank. As the potatoes inside spun and turned, falling over each
other and bumping and rubbing against each other, after a while all the skins
were brushed off them and out came clean potatoes, ready for cooking.
This metaphor is often
used to describe how we develop as people, continually bumping into one
another, rubbing against each other, learning how to be with each other,
learning from each other and learning to respect each other.
I suppose one could say,
we learn from this, our Great American Potato Washer, how to clean up our
individual acts through interacting with each other.
This is what I love
about America. So, for today at least, you can just call me “Spud.”
My grandmother used to
say that violence, like profanity, was a small mind expressing itself. I was
taught that I should walk away from a fight and only raise my fists in
In 1969, when I was out
of graduate school I was drafted. I had been a language major and that meant my
future would be to go to the Army's Monterrey Language School to learn
Vietnamese. I had no desire to shoot at or kill anyone. My own father had
joined the Merchant Marines during the Second World War because he was more
willing to brave the gauntlet of axis submarines than to carry a weapon and
kill or be killed.
Being raised a
Presbyterian, I didn't have available the “Quaker” option of declaring myself a
conscientious objector. I suppose Presbyterians don't conscientiously object.
So, the night before I was to go for my induction physical my mother called me
downstairs and said that she had heard on television that if I told the
military that I was a homosexual, they would give me a 1-Y deferment, which
meant I could only be called up if war were declared.
My first reaction to her
words was fear: “Oh, my God! She knows,” which was followed immediately by a
sense of relief that finally I could talk about my personal anguish and
confusion, my sense of living a lie, and how deep was the spiritual and
emotional pain, which had led to my attempted suicide, unbeknownst to my
parents, while at university.
No doubt because of the
look on my face, she immediately followed up with, "Of course, we know
you're not." And on that note I went to my induction physical the next
morning, prepared to tell a truth to the military but also with the burden of
knowing that I would have to continue living a lie for my family.
Thus, at the end of the
induction physical when filling out the paperwork, I "checked the
box" conveniently provided by the military that asked whether I was
currently or had ever engaged in homosexual activities. I was promptly pulled
out of line and sent to a military shrink who told me I was “no more queer than
the man in the moon” but that if I insisted on lying then the military didn't
want me or my kind, unless of course we declared war, in which case I could get
killed just like everybody else.
I've never really come
to terms with the fact that while the world's major religions teach an
injunction against killing, those same traditions, based on dualistic thinking,
then go on to include rationalizations and circumstances where killing is
In "Buddhism and
War," Ken and Visakha Kawasaki explain that, "According to Buddha's
teaching, there is no such thing as righteous anger, let alone a just war. The
three defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion are the reasons the world goes
round and round. Wars begin because the people of one country--or, at least,
their rulers--have unfulfilled desires. They are greedy for advantages,
benefits, wealth, or power; they are angry, jealous, or filled with rage.
Either their desires have been thwarted, or their pride and their sense of self
have been offended. Often conflicts involve racial or national arrogance.
Leaders wrongly feel that the solution to problems, which are essentially
within their own minds, can be found externally, through the use of force.
Those in power are deluded into thinking that the violence of war will bring
real and lasting benefit to themselves and to their group."
The Buddha said:
"There is no greater happiness than peace." It's very easy for me to
both practice Buddhism and hold our 7 Principles as my rudder on a troubled
sea. I find such a wonderful convergence between the Three Treasures of
Buddhism and our 7 Principles:
The Treasure of the
Timeless & Immanent Buddha-nature is for me that inherent worth and dignity of every person
while living my life with respect for the interdependent web of all existence,
of which we are all a part.
The Treasure of the
Timeless & Immanent Dharma, for me is expressed through justice, equity, and compassion in
human relations, thus facilitating a free and responsible search for truth and
The Treasure of the
Timeless & Immanent Sangha (or Community of Faith) enables me to manifest the goal of
world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all through our acceptance
of one another and through our mutual encouragement to individual spiritual growth
and to our right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in society
In the Dhammapada,
stanza 165, the Buddha is quoted as saying:
I had spent such a
lovely evening with my friends. I'd always considered myself so lucky to be
always surrounded by friends, even though some might have considered my
politics and spirituality a bit out of the mainstream. Yet, little did I
realize on that pleasant April evening that I would be enjoying my last supper
before my life would be changed forever.
After leaving my
friends, I found myself on the road, when I heard the screams, "Let's get
him!" and was seized from behind. I screamed for help but there was no
escape for me, I fell under their weight several times, struggling as I might;
calling for help. They scourged me, beat and punched me, screamed names at me
and said I deserved it.
To this very moment,
standing here before you, I vividly remember it all as if in a slow-motion
replay; the fist coming at my face; my head jerking back as the blood gushed
from my nose, flying slowly off to the left; the sound as my septum cracked;
the roundhouse blow to my left temple that literally left me seeing stars while
they dragged me across the road. Then I was thrown on my back, spread-eagle
across the hood of a car to better facilitate the further punishment, they were
yelling, that Anita Bryant had apparently said this is what I deserved. And as
I landed on the car's antenna, I heard my ribs snap.
While two of the
teenaged boys held my arms, a lucky kick temporarily disabled the one standing
in front of me, and this enabled me to escape onto a nearby, lighted porch,
while they went to his aid. I banged on the door, begging for help and, like
Pontius Pilot washing his hands; the man who looked out from the doorway closed
the curtains, turned off the porch light and left me to the mob. Not one person
in that neighborhood called the police that evening to notify them about the
attack against me or the attacks against anyone else.
Luckily for me, two
people who were leaving a local gay disco came to my aid and carried me back to
the club. When I was carried into the club's front office, someone yelled,
"Here comes another one."
Even before the police
arrived, 45 minutes later, another man was brought into the club, having been
severely beaten with a tree branch. I might add that when the police finally
arrived, they were responding to a call made an hour before my attack, when
another club patron had been beaten with a baseball bat and a pipe. He
consequently ended up in a coma.
The police, with seeming
disinterest, took down my name, asked me if I'd gotten the names of my
attackers or could identify them and then suggested I find someone to get me to
a hospital, which I did, thanks to my friend, Dexter, who rushed over to the
club in his car to pick me up.
The three, white, middle
class youths who attacked me on that Sunday evening in Houston, 1978, did not
consider me to be a human being. According to the sermon they had heard that
morning, God did not suffer homosexuals to live! Thus, to them I was a thing;
in their words, a faggot. And they were out that night to have fun bashing fags
while doing their God's work. You see, the disco was in a predominantly gay
area of the city, and my very presence in that neighborhood automatically meant
that I must be a queer, and therefore deserving of punishment.
I will never be allowed
to forget what happened to me on that pleasant April evening because the dull
ache under my left arm when it gets cold and the consequential loss of hearing
that I suffered as a result of that beating are an ever present reminder that
violence is naught but hate made manifest, and, to me, that hate is born of
fear and ignorance.
As a result of that
attack, it took me years to overcome my discomfort at being around anyone who
self-identified as a Christian – but I have. Most importantly, I have had to
learn to look past the self-imposed labels people give themselves and to see
their actions as the truth of their lives. As a result of that attack, it has
spurred me on to deep self-examination as well as spiritual and social
My firsthand experience
with such violence has only served to strengthen my resolve to do what ever I
can to counter ignorance with information, fear with compassion, and most importantly,
to counter hate with the truth of my own life. I deeply believe that the truth
of who I am can serve to free those who hold onto false stereotypes out of fear
I'd like to ask you all
to close your eyes for a moment and allow me to take you on a voyage of the
imagination. It will become clear where I'm taking you.
Imagine living in a
country whose President will not even admit that the AIDS epidemic exists. The
word "AIDS" won't even come out of his mouth! He and his cronies
don't have anything to worry about. Besides, the people getting sick are not
the kind of people he associates with. And he's found all the right doctors who
confirm that there is no connection between the HIV virus and AIDS.
Imagine taking a stroll
along the north side of Golden GatePark on a sunny Saturday morning.
There in what used to be
a beautiful meadow, last night the backhoes came in to dig the graves that will
be necessary to bury the 1350 to 2250 people who will have died of aids this
week – just this week! And next Friday evening, the backhoes will come in again
to dig more graves. And the next Friday after that and the next …and the next.
Can you even imagine, of
the 8700 births in San Francisco last year, that 70% of the babies could have
been born HIV+? That's 6,100 babies. Can you imagine a population of orphan
children under the age of 18 numbering 800,000? The population of San
Francisco, as of October 2003 was only 791,000. These children — half of them
between the ages of 10 and 14 — are left without critical guidance, protection
and support. They are also at risk of malnutrition, physical and sexual abuse,
and exposure to HIV infection.
When I started speaking,
you may have thought I was talking about Ronald Reagan and the early days of
the AIDS pandemic. By now you must know that I'm talking about … Thailand?
Russia? Actually I'm talking about one country - South Africa.
Is October of 2003,
thanks to the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, I was able
to accompany one of our ministers, the Rev. Margot Campbell-Gross, to stay at
the Thabong Community of Dominican Nuns for 2 ½ weeks, in a little town,
Geluksdal, 50 kilometers outside of Johannesburg. Geluksdal, an Afrikaaner word
meaning "Happy Dale" is anything but. With a population of 7,000,
they bury between 12 and 20 people every Saturday. Cause of death - AIDS. Each
Saturday morning, when we drove past the cemetery, there were buses lined up,
waiting their turn.
Kofi Annan thinks many political leaders still simply do not care enough to
fight the disease, which has killed 28 million people since it was first reported
among gay men in the United States in 1981. In an interview he said: "I
feel angry, I feel distressed, I feel helpless...to live in a world where we
have the means...to be able to help all these patients, what is lacking is the
The township of Soweto,
outside Johannesburg, has a population of 4.2 million. I was there. I saw the
square where, in 1976, 15,000 school children had gathered peacefully to
protest a law mandating that they must study in the Afrikaans language. The white
police opened fire and in 15 minutes 600 children between the ages of 7 and 18
lay dead. Today, South Africa's children are dying again. And again, it's
preventable. 17% of the children under 18 are living with HIV.
I saw Soweto's
"Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital," the largest hospital in the world.
70% of the babies born there are HIV+. Often the mothers simply leave without
ever even looking at their newborns.
November 17, 2003 will
go down in history as the day the South African Cabinet at last announced its
firm decision to add an antiretroviral treatment program to the country's
response to HIV/Aids. Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa finally buckled
under the huge domestic and international pressure to roll out anti-retroviral
drugs, despite his previous backing for scientists who have questioned the link
between AIDS and HIV.
Additionally, during my
visit there in October, a landmark announcement was made by the Clinton
Presidential Foundation indicating that the developing countries, so devastated
by AIDS, will see the cost of Aids drugs drastically reduced from a per-patient
cost of $11,000 a year to $140 a year. That's an incredible reduction in price!
In all my years of
traveling, this is the first time that I have ever felt ashamed to say that I
was an American. When one sees a cost reduction of that magnitude, is it any
wonder that the people who are dying themselves or have buried their loved ones
might feel that the West, America, and western businesses and pharmaceutical
interests have been more interested in making money than in saving lives.
I can only hope that my
presence there, at least, showed some people that not all Americans are willing
to sacrifice the lives of children for the sake of the "almighty"
dollar. But I'm only one person, and this scandal, this shame is one my country
must ultimately answer for.
Is there hope in all
this? Yes, I believe there is. I can't live without believing there's hope.
As a Unitarian
Universalist, I refer back to the words of one of our ministers, Forrest
Church, who wrote in his book "A Chosen Faith:"
"Though far from
exclusive to Unitarian Universalists, the principal sin besetting many of us
today is the sin of sophisticated resignation. This sin is particularly
insidious because it comes with its own veil. That is, it appears respectable.
It allows us to feel strongly about injustices without prompting us to do
anything about them. This sin is tailor-made for many of us because it is fed
by knowledge. We know so much about the world's problems, and their enormity,
that however much we want to do about them, we feel impotent. What could we do
to affect hunger, homelessness, AIDS, or the threat of nuclear annihilation?
How much easier it is to watch our diets and tone our bodies. For many of us,
self-improvement (both physical and spiritual) has displaced the transformation
of society as our principal moral concern."
Our heritage reminds us
that we are a faith of deeds not creeds. According to the second of our
faith's… [six] sources, "words and deeds of prophetic women and men which
challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice,
compassion, and the transforming power of love."
I am continually
challenged in this religious institution that is my spiritual home. That
challenge is the reason I went to South Africa. I believe we can all do
something, what we need, quite simply, is the will to do it.
Sister Irene, a German
nun who has lived in South Africa for 40 years, took us to St. Francis Care
Centre in Fonteinriet, outside Johannesburg. This place is a hospice, orphanage
and final stop for too many.
The first place we
visited was the children's recreation and activity area, which was a large
room, 20' by 40,' with one side all glass, overlooking the grounds and an
adjacent play area.
All the children at St.
Francis are either abandoned or orphaned and all have AIDS. On that weekday the
older children were off-site at school and the younger ones were at the Crèche,
a sort of on-site day-care facility.
Even so there were some
toddlers and Sister Irene starter playing kickball with 5 year old bundle of
energy named Sipho when she noticed that a pile of clothing on the pillows
against the wall was actually a little girl, curled up in a fetal position.
The little girl didn't
want to join in but sweet Irene prevailed and, holding her up by the elbows,
got her to kick at the ball a couple of times. Cynthia Mahlangu is 8 years old,
scarred on her face and match stick arms and legs from AIDS-related lesions.
She was not in school that day because she wasn't feeling well.Collette
Simmons, the artist in our group, brought out her colored pencils and blank
paper, and suddenly the kids were drawing. I can't even do a good stick figure
but Collette got me sitting with Cynthia, who wouldn't pick up any pencils so I
did and tried to draw the shape of a girl. When I began to color the figure's
top red, like Cynthia's sweater, she stopped me, saying, "No me, no
So I said that she
should pick the colors she wanted me to use. The final result was a white man
with multicolored clothing and, coincidentally, trousers with zippers across
the knees that let them become shorts. Just like what I was wearing!
Cynthia then immediately
turned the paper over and said, "Now draw girl." So I drew a female
figure with long-sleeved blouse and skirt. She asked me to give the person
black curly hair, with a brown face and hands and legs. I drew designs on the
skirt – a horse, a couple of flowers, and Cynthia asked me specially to draw
the shape of a heart.
We were then called away
for a tour of the grounds and her disappointment was such that I asked her to
continue coloring in the picture and I promised I would come back to see it.
After an hour I returned
to an empty room. I was disappointed and called out for Cynthia, believing she had
left when she suddenly leapt up from the pillows where she had been resting and
ran to show me her beautiful completed picture. Well, naturally this called for
a "Picture Taking Ceremony!" So we took pictures with my digital
camera of Cynthia and her artwork; Cynthia and me and her artwork; Cynthia and
some of the staff and other children and her artwork. She was absolutely
enchanted by actually seeing the pictures on the LED screen.
Then I had an idea and
picked her up in my arms, supporting her under her chest and stomach, and as I
done countless times with my nephews and niece when they were little, I
starting trotting around the room saying that this was like flying.
Cynthia had never done
anything like that before but she seemed to enjoy it. As soon as I put Cynthia
down 6 year old Brendan Radebe came running over: Me fly! Me fly!" he
How could I resist? So,
off we went, with Brendan flapping his arms like a chicken pursued by a fox,
shrieking with joy. At that, Cynthia asked to go again.
I picked her up, this
weightless little girl and we started off along the length of the wall. All I
said was, "Fly Cynthia; flap your arms like a bird." And fly she did.
She began to move her arms like the wings of a swan. There was such a delicacy
and beauty in the smooth, rhythmic movement of her arms that any prima
ballerina would have envied.
And as we rounded the
room and were moving along the window I said "Look, Cynthia. You're
flying!" And she looked at her reflection and she glowed with joy. And I
understood the words of the sage, Nichiren, who said: "To live even one
day as a human being is worth all the galactic treasures of the universe."
As we finished her
flight the children were called to lunch, which was probably for the best, since
the 6,500' altitude was severely taxing my flying abilities. I told the kids
I'd say goodbye after their lunch.
When we came back down
stairs, the kids had already been taken to the room where they had their naps.
There was Cynthia, sound asleep, curled up in a crib. I couldn't bring myself
to wake her, so I just offered her a little prayer and a promise that I would
tell people that there once lived a little girl in Africa, named Cynthia, who
was an artist and who could fly like a swan.
“Breathe in the Life” of
all those who share this space with you … then “Breathe out Forgiveness” …
There are so many things
I’ve said and done, for which I feel guilt, embarrassment and shame. I forgive
myself for those things are long gone. I was a different person then and the
person I am now forgives the one that I was. Forgiveness fills me and envelopes
me with a sense of warmth and ease.
How many times have I
blamed who I am on the things my parents said and did? They too are different
now. Let the forgiveness that is filling me also surround them, as they exist
in my mind and my heart. What a wonderful way for us to be together.
Isn’t it strange how the
people I feel closest to sometimes hurt my feelings the most? Right now, I
forgive them for anything that I feel they have done wrong or are doing wrong.
I fill them with my forgiveness just as I accept them for who they are. In this
way I express my love.
It’s amazing how much
some of the habits and idiosyncrasies of my friends can get on my nerves. I
forgive them for the silly things that I have disliked about them. I let my
forgiveness reach out to them, so that they can be filled with it and embraced
When I think of all the
many people I know, I also know that I must forgive them all for whatever it is
that I have blamed them for, that I have judged them for, that I have used as
an excuse to look down on them. I let my forgiveness fill their hearts, surrounding
and enveloping them. This is the expression of my love for them.
Now I remind myself of
that one particular person I really need to forgive. I still, even now, feel
resentment for this person. I still want to reject them. I just don’t like
them. I forgive this person completely, because I know that neither one of us
is free from illusions, attachments and vexations. I send this forgiveness from
deep in my heart as I reach out to this person.
condescension and the blame game come too easily to me. Especially when I think
of certain people or groups or the terrible situations that I believe they
create. I must forgive them, completely. Only this can fully express
unconditional love. I recognize that they may not be doing what I believe to be
the right things, but I also recognize that we are all human and prone to
attachments, especially to being “right.” My heart is just as needful of
forgiveness as theirs; in order to have the purity of love.
Let me look again to see
whether there's still anyone or anything, any where in the world, that has been
on the receiving end of my blame or condemnation. I send my forgiveness so that
my heart can heal and be whole.
And now I come back to
myself. I’m a basically a good person; it’s just that sometimes I forget that.
I need to cut myself a break and recognize that right now I am making a
conscious effort to forgive. And as always, I begin and end in my own heart –
where even now I feel the warmth and ease that comes from forgiveness.