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The hotel I stayed at last weekend has a sign assuring customers that they conserve water by drawing on their lake and their “private well” for their landscaping needs. I estimate that given its surface area and the hot, dry location (Sacramento), the lake loses a couple thousand gallons of water to evaporation each day, helped along by the fountain in the middle, so that is not a point in their favor. The ownership of the well doesn’t seem relevant.

I wondered whether the hotel had taken any steps that are actually effective in reducing water use in a drought-stricken region of our drought-prone state. The shower head was not remotely low-flow. There was no card offering me the option to save water by signaling that I didn’t want my sheets and towels laundered every day. (I was only staying one night, so it was moot, but whenever I stay more than one night I take the conserving option.) The sprinklers were going in the pouring rain.

Other Pacific Central District Assembly attendees, if you stayed at the conference hotel, Red Lion will e-mail you asking about your stay. If you care about water conservation, you could make some suggestions. Or if you don’t have the email, there’s this form.

 

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I posted this on the “Sermons, etc.” page, but have received a gratifying number of “Where do I comment?” queries. Comments are the most fun aspect of blogging, and although there is a comments form at the bottom of that page, it’s cumbersome. So here is a re-post.

“How Gods Are Created”
Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014
Given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA

Centering Words

With our centering words each week, we draw on one of the sources of our living tradition. Today’s words come from a late member of this congregation, John Beverley Butcher, a Unitarian Universalist, writer, activist, and Episcopal priest:

Whatever absorbs most of our mental energies reveals our greatest concerns and values. What do we think about most? Is this really our greatest treasure? Might there be something more valuable on which to focus our thinking? (Telling the Untold Stories, 41)

Story                                The Story of Easter (link coming soon)                 Dan Harper

Readings

Our first reading is from How Jesus Became God, by the historian of religion Bart D. Ehrman:

Jesus was a lower-class Jewish preacher from the backwaters of rural Galilee who was condemned for illegal activities and crucified for crimes against the state. Yet not long after his death, his followers were claiming that he was a divine being. Eventually they went further, declaring that he was none other than God, Lord of heaven and earth. And so the question: how did a crucified peasant come to be thought of as the Lord who created all things? How did Jesus become God? (1)

Our second reading is from the novel Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett:

Where do gods come from? Where do they go? . . . . Koomi’s theory was that gods come into being and grow and flourish because they are believed in. Belief itself is the food of the gods. Initially, when mankind lived in small primitive tribes, there were probably millions of gods. Now there tended to be only a few very important ones . . . But any god could join. Any god could start small. Any god could grow in stature as its believers increased. And dwindle as they decreased. (104-5) [Gods] also needed a shape. [They] became what people believed they ought to be. You gave a god its shape, like jelly fills a mold.(223)            

         

Sermon                        How Gods Are Created           

So Bart Ehrman has just published this book, How Jesus Became God, because he wants to know how, and why, a peasant teacher from Galilee—the cultural equivalent is “from Kentucky”—began to be regarded as God Himself.

Ehrman irritates religious conservatives so much that even before his book was published, they had prepared their rebuttal, How God Became Jesus. But his project isn’t new. Not 20 years ago, Richard Rubinstein wrote When Jesus Became God (my emphasis), which is particularly fascinating for Unitarian Universalists because it’s all about the Arian heresy, the belief of Arius and his followers in the early centuries after Jesus’s death that Jesus was just a man and a follower of the Jewish God, not God Himself. We Unitarians have believed that ever since.

Well, I think the project of these two scholars, and others like Paula Fredriksen, who wrote From Jesus to Christ, is very interesting, but none of them can quite answer the question. See, I think they’ve missed something because they don’t believe Jesus is God.

But Jesus is God.

Jesus is God!

Before you decide you must have come to a different church than you meant to, I’ll prove it to you.

Because of Jesus, people are willing to die. They go off to war and kill other people. They devote their entire lives to the service of the very poorest, without any hope of compensation. They take on impossible tasks of overthrowing oppression. People do terrible things to each other in Jesus’s name, and amazing, noble things. Anyone or anything that has that kind of power in people’s lives has become a god. Jesus isn’t the only one, but he is one.

And it’s very simple, how he got to be a god. You don’t have to write a whole long scholarly book about it. Terry Pratchett explains it perfectly in his wonderful satirical novel: the way someone becomes a god is that people believe he is (or she is, or it is). Gods grow in power as we believe in them and allow them to shape our lives. Their own shape is whatever form we need them to take: like jello in a mold, as Pratchett says (except he says “jelly,” because he’s British). And then this form affects us in turn.

It’s a very old idea, this idea that people create gods and that gods get their power from having people who believe in them. Heretics like Unitarians and Universalists have said it for centuries. Modern novelists like Terry Pratchett, and Neil Gaiman in his marvelous book American Gods, ran with it and looked at what that would actually mean for the people, how it would affect our lives. How the gods we create, and give form and power, shape us in turn.

Now, this god people call Jesus might not be much like the man Jesus. The peasant, radical rabbi and teacher, who overturned the authority of the religious leadership and political leadership, who challenged the wealthy and powerful, who taught love—if that’s what the actual man was like who lived briefly in what we now call Palestine and Israel two thousand years ago, he’s been changed. We change whatever we believe in and give power to with the food of our belief. We see it through the eyes of our own needs, or what we think we need.

So my question for you on this Easter morning is: What gods do you create? This is how to spot them: look for what rules you.

It’s a tender and difficult question, so I’ll go first. I would like to be ruled by love; a passion for justice; the search for truth; harmony with the earth and all that is . . . I want those to be my gods. But I have other gods too. Why else would I feel too busy to play with my daughter because I need to spend just one more hour on a report for work that I’ve already pretty much written? I think I worship a god of Perfection—and I have made it so powerful, it rules me. It overrules some of the gods I wish I worshiped instead.

That’s one of mine. What are some of yours?

Maybe Influence—the desire to have power, oh, power for good, to do good things, sure, but still, a drive for power, to make things go the way you think they should.

For many people, Alcohol and other Drugs are gods—or maybe the real god is something that the drug gives them, a temporary feeling of Well-being or Confidence or Peace.

I look around my culture and see a fervent worship of the god Financial Security. That god started small, I think. It’s easy to get people to worship you when their situation is so insecure that if anything goes wrong this month, they will be evicted from their homes and living on the street. They are bound to pay you a lot of attention, Security, when they are constantly having to choose between taking their children to the doctor or providing them with enough meals for the day. But this god has become so powerful, feeding on our belief, that even those of us who have a virtual lifetime guarantee of plenty to eat, a college education, the health care we need, and a safe place to live, plus luxuries like the choice of exactly what town to live in and a new car now and then, worry constantly that we don’t have enough.

There are gods of Knowledge, Success, Busyness, Popularity, Distraction, Expertise . . . oh, they’re all over the place. When we give them power and form, they shape our lives in turn.

If you want to know what gods you worship, which ones you give power by your belief in them, watch the pattern of your days for what you give your time, your attention, your concern. Those are your gods.

These gods we worship can serve us and the spirit of life well, or they can be destructive. Look at Jesus. Jesus had power in the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero, causing him to lay down his life for the poor of El Salvador and around the world, and Jesus also had power in the life of Fred Phelps, causing him to devote his life to trying to make people miserable on account of their being gay.

So it is for all of our gods. Alcohol may be a god for one person, a pleasant drink for another, a nasty taste for a third. Money may be a simple means to useful ends for one person and, for another, an all-powerful god who is tyrannical and ever-demanding. It’s not the thing itself, but the worship of it that makes it a god: the shaping our lives around it, the fervent belief that it can give us what we long for.

In honor of the man Jesus, who became a god without asking to or wanting to, but who tried to teach people to love each other and love the source of life, may we celebrate Easter in this way: by trying to become aware of what gods we worship. May we give the power of our belief only to those things that we truly wish to rule us, because when we believe in them, they will have power over us. May we make gods only of the things that are worthy of the sacrifices of our time, our abilities, our attention, and our love. May we choose to revere only what is truly holy and receive its blessings with joy.

So may it be.

 (c) 2014 Amy Zucker Morgenstern

An instant classic by William Haefeli in The New Yorker, 2011

The attempt at re-envisioning Mothers’ (or Mother’s or Mothers) Day by calling it Mama’s (or Mamas or Mamas’) Day, by the organization Strong Families and now by the Unitarian Universalist Association, just goes to illustrate how one person’s broadening is another’s narrowing. A good question about any proposal for change is “What problem is this trying to solve?” I get the problems they are trying to address, and agree that they are problems: the exclusion of queer, immigrant, disabled, poor, step-, foster, adoptive, single, and many other mothers from our implicit concept of motherhood. I’m glad we are being urged to celebrate all kind of mothers. What I don’t see is how the term “Mother’s Day” contributes to these problems nor how the term “Mama’s Day” mitigates them. More to the point, like many queer families, we’re actually better served by the term “mother.”

In our family, there are two mothers, although neither of us is called “Mother” (though one day, the munchkin may haul it out to use in a moment of pique–“MOtherrrr!”–give her time).  One of us is called “Mama”–that’s me–and the other is called “Mommy”–that’s my wife.  If you suggested to the munchkin that she has two mamas, she would correct you. She has one. If you suggested that May 11 was going to be Mama’s Day, she’d probably want to know when Mommy’s Day was going to be. While “Mother’s Day” is inclusive in our family, “Mama’s Day” is exclusive.

No big deal, so far; we call it what we call it. But if people made a serious push for renaming the day, I’d push back on the grounds of its excluding every two-mother family in which one, and only one, person is called Mama, which is a lot of us. Right now, my religious tradition is saying “May 11 is Mama’s Day!” and I want them to know: if you’re trying to be inclusive, you are accomplishing the opposite for this Unitarian Universalist household, where the term “Mama’s Day” would be insulting to Mommy and confusing to Mommy’s daughter.

My morning of drawing this week. I was enjoying the newsprint so much that I never moved on to charcoal paper. I like the smoothness and may try out some smooth white paper, like Bristol.

A few of the two-minute gestures:

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Three seven-minute:

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Two ten-minute–the second looks like watercolor to me, a nice effect I now want to try to recreate deliberately:

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Twenty:

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And 45, still not enough time this time:
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A brief prayer from The Left Hand of Darkness comes to me often. On the planet Gethen, in the book, it’s from the Handdara; here on Earth, it sounds like something from process theology. I was moved to say it by today’s photo on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day:

“Praise Creation unfinished!”

 

 

I keep wanting to write about the work of Ursula K. LeGuin, and am intimidated by the number and variety of things I want to say, and frankly by the depth of emotion involved. So I’m just going to write a little chunk at a time.

LeGuin wrote the only Taoist novel I know of, The Lathe of Heaven. (I hope if you know others, you’ll name them in the comments.) Taoism arises in The Left Hand of Darkness, also–most explicitly in the scene from which the title is taken, when Genly draws a yin/yang for Estraven, and Estraven shares a poem from the Handdara tradition, a paradox-drenched religion she creates for the novel:

Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.

More broadly, the complex balance, the dance of dualities, that is of such concern to the Taoist sages is clearly one of LeGuin’s abiding concerns as well; we see it in work from Earthsea to Searoad. Still, The Lathe of Heaven engages the question most directly, not because it quotes liberally from Taoist sources (though it does, including in the title), but because it looks at it ethically: when should we act and when should we refrain from action? If you could change the world with a wave of a wand, or in her protagonist’s case, with a few minutes of dreaming, would you? Or would it depend–and in that case, on what? Are we really supposed to live by Lao-Tzu’s teaching, “The Sage occupies himself with inaction”–is that the height of moral responsibility or the abdication of it?

George Orr has dreams that change reality, retroactively and invisibly to anyone except him. He dreams that his aunt dies in a car crash and when he wakes, she has died in a car crash. The awesome power and, to his mind, responsibility, of his dreaming self are tormenting him, so he seeks the help of Dr. Haber, a psychiatrist who specializes in dreams. Once Haber begins to believe George’s claims, he starts suggesting improvements to the world that George then makes, unwillingly, while asleep.

PBS made a movie of the novel, a rather low-budget affair, as PBS movies generally are. Given the spending constraints they were under, they did an admirable job, and there’s excellent acting, but one thing the adapters got badly wrong, in my view, was the character of Dr. Haber. They turned him into an evil scientist, but he’s not. He’s a humanitarian; he wants to use George’s power to end hunger, poverty, and racism. His noble motives are all mixed up with base ones–he gets himself promoted in dream after dream, until he has risen from unknown Portland shrink to special advisor to the world government–but that’s not the main reason he goes wrong. He goes wrong because he utterly lacks awareness of himself and, most of all,  a sense of connection to anyone or anything outside himself. To him, dreams are just a tool to manipulate reality, whereas to George they’re a seamless part of the whole, as are (in some fashion) the ills he’s redressing, and as is George himself. Haber is about as far from the ideal of the Taoist master as you can get:  at one point George privately observes that the psychiatrist seems not to know the uses of silence, and it’s just as clear that he doesn’t know the uses of inaction.

Making him a bad guy misses a very deep point of the novel, about how our best intentions go awry if we live in the illusory belief that we are separable from the interdependent web of all things. It’s easy to fall into that illusion. I can even see myself, potentially, in Haber: the do-gooder gone off the rails. What’s the solution? Not to refrain from doing good, certainly. That would be nihilistic. Nor to use every tool at our disposal to fix the world. We need a certain kind of harmony that “Mr. Either Or,” the somewhat passive, somewhat uncertain and indefinite, hero has, and that his dynamic doctor lacks.  How to find that harmony seems to be the key. I can’t state the key in one sentence, or even sum it up to myself, but when I read Chuang-Tzu, or Lao-Tzu, or The Lathe of Heaven, I start to feel as if it really exists.

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