Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The barriers to love

I am proud of Unitarianism/Unitarian Universalism.  The faith to which I have committed myself has been an activist, justice seeking movement. It has been at the forefront of the struggle for GLBT rights. We have seen our male-dominated ministry turn into a majority female one. We continue to struggle mightily to combat the causes of racism and are prepared to do the hardest work of all - to look within for the persistent seeds of that poisonous tree.

But, as the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President Peter Morales describes as reported in the UUA World, the growing diversity of the leadership of even this remarkably open and accepting faith masks a deeper barrier to true diversity
When we look more closely at the change in our professional ministry, we see that the vast majority of women, gays, and lesbians admitted were middle class, well-educated people of European descent.
The barriers of race and sexual orientation, while challenging, are as nothing compared to the fortress-like walls presented by interconnected differences of culture, education, and social class.

The UUA can be justifiably proud that its two most recent leaders are not from white Anglo backgrounds. Morales is of Mexican descent. His predecessor, Bill Sinkford, is black. But these steps forward hide the fact that class and culture barriers remain intact. Morales again:
We have seen this in our nation with the election of Barack Obama and in our UU movement with the election of the Rev. William G. Sinkford and myself to the presidency. Each of us is less threatening to the dominant culture because we are the products of elite educations and have spent our lives in the dominant culture. If Barack Obama sounded like a poor urban African American he could not have been elected. If I sounded like San Antonio’s West Side barrio, I would not [be] president of our Association.
The barriers of race, gender, and sexual orientation are challenging - make no mistake about it. These differences activate strong hard-wired fears of difference. Those who look or love differently from us make us fearful and wary. But, with honest and courageous effort, we can enter into open dialogue. We begin to understand that they are like us - we have so much in common beneath the superficial differences.

But this moment of conversion happens because more basic, more essential, facilitators of dialogue are present - they are based on other similarities. If class and culture match, we have the tools we need to cut through other differences. Yet we have not connected simply on the basis of being human. We have connected because we share similar struggles, like similar writing, speak in similar vernacular, and have similar goals. We have a common 'language' to allow us to see beyond our differences.

It is when cultural and educational differences between people directly frustrates attempts and deep communication - when  common ground can not be found because we approach life with different stories, with deeply different perspectives based on educational background, and deeply different interests - that we fail to connect.

This is the continuing problem of our world. The divide between rich and poor grows larger in Britain and elsewhere and the divides are not necessarily around skin color, gender, or sexual orientation. The divides are based on class and culture which translate into the presence or absence of opportunity. This is a justice issue - perhaps the single greatest justice issue of the developed nations. As long as class and cultural differences continue to define who we can understand and who has a chance to get ahead, there will not be true equality.

But as Peter Morales adds, this is not so much a practical or political issue, but rather a deeper question of who we choose to be as human beings and to what vision we are dedicated:
This great challenge of culture and class is ultimately a religious, moral, and spiritual issue rather than a social justice issue. Perhaps the great challenge for us [...] is whether we can learn to understand, accept, include, and ultimately love our neighbors who are different from us.
The work is enormous and may never be completed. That is no reason not to begin it. The first step - as always - is the vision. Can we imagine a society where class advantages disappear? Can we imagine a society where our cultural background does not define our opportunities? I hope that we can commit to that kind of a future and begin the work today of trying to understand across the great barriers that would divide the human family.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Spirituality is simple

Someone asked me recently what spirituality is all about.

This is the life I am blessed to lead in vital north London: I am surrounded by people who don't bring a load of biases and preconceptions when it comes to their interest in religion and spirituality. I certainly came to it with those biases from traditional religion! [I apologize yet again to all of you who were appalled and distanced by my fearful response to a proposal to use that S word some 15 years ago.]

Many, many people come to religion with wounds an burdens.  My ministry is rather different. It is so freeing not to have to begin such a discussion with "no, I don't mean that", where that is something that was taught to them early on and presented in an inflexibly doctrinaire manner.

So, I considered this fresh, unbiased question from a young adult who has grown up in a surprisingly secular western Europe.  Every time someone asks something like that I think of it anew – partly because my memory is so bad that I can't possibly remember what I answered last time, but also partly because my perspectives continually change as I grow and (hopefully) mature.

I don't know what I said last time, but this time I suggested that spirituality is about two simple ways of being: awareness and appreciation. Maybe they're not quite so simple though. In fact, I want to use both of those words in their most expansive forms.

Awareness is not simply the state of being 'not blind' to everything around us, but rather a condition where our senses are almost tingling and reaching out to take in everything – to catch the smells and sights and sounds around us - everything – good and bad - and especially to take in our fellow beings.

And by appreciation I want to go much farther than the positive but superficial sense of “I really appreciated the card you sent” but rather the sense of that word as a full understanding of the meaning and importance. Appreciation is joy at seeing a flower. It is a feeling of awe at taking in a view of the clear night sky. It is sharing a sense of another person’s sadness to the extent that you feel it in your own guts.

Spirituality as awareness and appreciation connects us to each other. It connects us to everything around us. It brings us joy and sadness and allows us to live deeply and fully.

And that's the goal. That's the way of being that we're after in the spiritual pursuit.

What is the path to approach this goal?  Ha!  Trick question... I'm a Unitarian. There are many valid paths.  These two qualities - awareness and appreciation - have been the goals of many spiritual teachings. Meditation is an obvious tool for increasing awareness. Prayer a well-known approach to increasing our appreciation. Praying five times daily as Muslims do or uttering a blessing for almost every act of the day as do Orthodox Jews - the potential to grow in a awareness and appreciation is enormous.

Some will disagree. The goal of spirituality, they may say, is to know God.  Well, then, we must ask what it is to know this God? What is the effect of knowing God. Hafiz - the 14th century Persian Sufi mystic - tells us that the true vision of God can be identified as one that makes you "more human, more kind to every creature and plant that you know."*  

Do you have a better definition of spirituality? I'd love to hear about it.

*Translated by Daniel Ladinsky

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Growing old gratefully

I have been a bad blogger!  It's been ages since my last post. The summer slowness combined with a steadily growing to-do list has been the cause. Hopefully, I'll be a bit more regular at this now... [I wish Unitarians had confession so I could be absolved of my sin of lazy blogging!]

I see a big part of my job as a minister to be naming and combating the evils of modern western culture. Of course, I understand those evils rather differently that other religionists who might use similar words. To me, gay rights is a good, not an evil. Increasing power for people to make decisions about the nature of their deaths is another good that too many religious people will call an evil.

Make no mistake about it, our culture is full of its own evils. Materialism, fierce individualism, lack of compassion, tolerance for injustice and poverty - these are all evils that we must oppose.

Another evil is tied up with our attitude toward aging.  Aging is bad. Aging is shameful. Aging makes you less of a person since physical attractiveness is one of the key ways we - and especially women - are measured.

And so, I was delighted when a woman in my congregation asked me to help her think about how she would celebrate her 60th birthday. She decided to bring together her many friends and relations and we began the evening with a ritual - a ritual of transition - a rite of passage.

Now, if she had been recently born, I would know what to do. If she were just reaching adulthood, there would be a more-or-less standard ceremony to perform. Marriage or death - same idea.  And yet, this important life transition - from adult to elder - is rarely marked in our culture. (Yes, I am aware of 'croning' rituals derived from Wiccan traditions. I drew on these, although I could find only limited resources.)

The intentions for this ceremony were to mark an important transition, to strengthen connections, and to help bring an appropriate dignity to the aging process.

The only laugh of the evening came when I said "we have come not to console but to celebrate this transition." It was a laugh of unease and discomfort. Everyone - whether under or over that 60 year mark - knew full well that aging is not to be celebrated in our culture.

But that night, we did celebrate. Everyone had an opportunity to offer their love, their wishes, recollections, and blessings to the new elder. They sang together, they embraced and kissed. And finally, to demonstrate the transition in a physical way, I asked the group to divide themselves at the two ends of the room by age - under 60 at one end and 60+ at the other. This was another moment of discomfort. The under 60s were quick to get to their positions...  Not surprisingly perhaps, the others perhaps a bit less ready to be recognized for their ages.

And the new elder was then ushered from one end of the room to the other, a guide and example to the 'youngers' she left behind and to be welcomed by the group of her own elders who promised to guide her.

The evening's events left me with an ever-stronger understanding that our elders are truly treated as second-class citizens. They are no longer considered attractive for the all-important mating game. They become legitimate targets for a type of ridicule and derision as would be completely unacceptable for almost any group.

Maybe honouring and dignifying transitions would be a good step in helping to change this awful cultural bias.  I hope so.

OK, who else wants a 60th (or 65th? 70th?) birthday ceremony?  I'm ready when you are!