Monday, December 10, 2012
"The Peaceful Heart" - Sermon
Courageous love will transform the world. That’s what we believe as Unitarian Universalists. We believe that the thing, the only thing that will bring real and lasting change to our world is the compassionate hearts of brave women and men. As we heard in our reading earlier, to have peace between the nations, we must cultivate peace in our relationships, peace in our families, and peace in our own hearts.
It’s not a small endeavor. That’s the “courageous” part of what we believe. Courageous love will transform the world. And that transformation begins within.
How many of you are familiar with the name Utah Phillips? I was sure our senior rabble-rousers would know who he was. Phillips was a major activist and folk singer. He died in 2008. I want to tell you one of the stories he tells about becoming so convicted about his stance on non-violence.
He says that one time he was on the road as a folk singer and took his teenage son along with him. During one of the long drives, his son asked, “How did you get like that.” I love this question from a teenager to a parent. “How did you get like that?” In the case of Utah Phillips, the question was a little more obvious. He was asking, how did you get so invested in a counter cultural identity.
So Phillips thought for a few hours and realized that it started, he started to “be like that” when he was serving in the Korean war. He remembers serving there next to the Imjin River. He knew that 75,000 Chinese were on the other side of that river and they didn’t want him there. Most of the Koreans didn’t want him there, and he wasn’t so sure he should be there himself. There next to the river, the clothes began to literally rot off of his body, and every exotic mold you could think of was growing on him or in his clothes. His army boots had holes in them from the rot.
He noticed that the Chinese soldiers would often swim and bathe in that river that they were stationed by. He wanted nothing more than to clean up in the river, to get the feel of rot and death off of him. But the American troops were restricted from going in. He didn’t know why that was, until a young Korean man who knew enough English could explain it.
You see in Korean culture, when a young couple gets married, the move in with their elders. But now with the war in Korea, with the waste and devastation, there is nothing growing and no food to eat. So, after when the first baby is born into one of these families, the eldest goes with a blanket and a jug of water to sit on the banks of the river and wait to die. They role down into the river and get carried out to the sea. He said “We don’t want you swimming in it because our elders are flouting out to sea.”
Phillips says, that’s when it began to crumble and he began to run away. He wasn’t just running away from the war, he was “running away from the blueprint for self destruction he had been handed as a man.”
He also ran away from the war to hide in Seoul, at a place called the Korea House. There, Korean citizens would take in GIs to teach them about the real Korean culture. While he was hiding out with them, he went one rainy stormy night to a concert at the Korean Student’s Association. There was a giant auditorium with big holes in the roof where it had been hit with mortar shells. And the light on the stage were powered by car batteries. The performer that night was the great Black operatic soprano, Marian Anderson. She had been touring in Japan and came over to Korea to sing. As Phillips watcher her sing “Oh Freedom” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” through the rain, he remembered having encountered her years before as a child.
In Salt Lake City, his father had owned a small theater. They brought Marian Anderson to town to sing in 1948. Phillips was with his father as the picked her up at the train station and took her to the best hotel in town. Because she was black, she was rejected from staying at that hotel. As a child he watched her humiliation and his father’s humiliation.
He remembered this childhood experience as he watched the same woman singing in a bombed out auditorium for the Korean Student Association. And he says, “Right then I realized that it was all wrong, that it ALL had to change and that change had to start with me.”
Have you had a moment like that, when you knew deep down that the world needs to change? I think many of us in this room have had moments of realizing that our lives are intertwined with a system of political, economic and racial violence. Utah Phillips tells the story of when that truth opened up to him and how he had to respond. He knew then that it ALL had to change and that the change had to start from the inside.
Phillips knew, and I think we all know, that violence spreads like a virus. It’s not an isolated act, word, or feeling. It’s a something that by its very nature is contagious.
In seminary I learned a great deal about the violence of colonialism. Between the 1500s and 1900s, great European countries, and later the United States, built their economies by overtaking less powerful nations around the world. It’s the story of wealth and empire. The piece of that story that doesn’t get told is that that violence and oppression comes home to roost. The academic term for it is isomorphic oppression. It basically means that, in the process of dominating another society, the dominator changes itself, becomes more controlling and narrow in focus. Of course it imposes that control abroad, as it subjugates another nation. But it also imposes those same values of dominance and control at home. The quick and easy example that comes to mind is Victorian England. As the country amassed great wealth by exploiting native peoples around the globe, at home it put children to work in factories, and fiercely controlled its women while poverty and prostitution rose to unthinkable heights.
When a country inflicts violence abroad, it will increase the oppression and control that exist within it’s own boarders. The examples of this are endless. We know that violence, like love, is infectious. It lives and dies through relationships between countries and people. And one piece of violence, unless it is stopped, will result in other pieces of violence somewhere else.
We know about the web of violence. But somehow, we manage to not see ourselves as a part of it. It’s those people doing this that and the other that makes those other people perpetrate more violence. There are several versions of the blaming game. The classic example that comes to my mind is the idea that the violent video games that teenagers sometime play are what have caused the increase in school shootings over the past couple of decades. This simple equation is stated as if the companies making these games didn’t make tremendous profit, or as if the teenagers buying them weren’t watching these exact same types of violence on the nightly news.
And as we play the blame game with violence, I also hear that there is too much violence in the media. Both entertainment and news media are replete with graphic images and stories of death. But, media is a consumer industry; it is a business. Newspapers will print the stories that will make their readers buy their papers, and television programs will show the kind of stories that increase their ratings. Neither the entertainment industry nor the news industry creates violence. Rather they offer up language and images that their customers are hungry for.
If we take violence seriously, it becomes clear that the nature of it is not a simple action that some people take, or a simple cause and affect scenario. It is in fact a whole interconnected web of cause and effect. It is the whole social environment that WE live and breathe in. Like Utah Phillips came to realize, it ALL has to change, and that change has to start with the self.
We may not be able to dictate which video games thirteen year olds play, or how many images of dead bodies show up on the news. But we can control the words that come out of our mouth, and eventually, with enough practice we can begin to control our internal orientation toward violence or compassion.
The key to that concept is, “with practice.” Addressing the violence that pervades our daily lives is a tremendous, life-long endeavor. Utah Phillips likens it to ridding yourself of booze. To start the project, you have to stop blaming other people, sit in a circle with some others who are committed like you, and say, “I have a problem. I am addicted to violence.” And then, slowly, day-by-day, we can begin to be aware of how violence exists in our daily lives.
I’m sure you have heard of having a basket-ball practice, or a choir practice. Some artists call their working time a practice, and yoga folks call their collected yoga work outs, their practice. Just like training our physical bodies or our artistic abilities, we can also practice a peaceful orientation in the world. At first practice means doing something that is challenging and new. But eventually through repetition and mindfulness, those things that were once new and challenging become habit. And that is part of the religious journey. It’s actually the part of the religious journey that counts, cultivating habits and a lifestyle that embrace compassion rather than violence.
It sounds very abstract, this practicing for peace. But there are some very specific practices worth mentioning. Actually there are a huge number of them, but I’ll describe a few.
The first practice is more about what we let into our consciousness than what we put out into the world. As I was getting at earlier with the media, our lives are steeped in images of physical violence. From the films we see to the news media we watch, even the stories in the newspaper are filled with stories of aggression. And American humor often revolves around making fun of another person. My suggestion isn’t to attempt to unplug from all of that, not yet. Rather simply try to be aware of how much violence you are presented with in your daily life. Be aware that hearing and seeing it affects you. And hold onto an awareness that there are other stories and other ways of being in the world. Practice being aware of what you are exposed to.
Another great practice to cultivate a quiet heart is simple meditation. I know that word sounds very heavy, but it doesn’t need to. Meditation really just means taking a moment to intentionally focus your mind. The type of meditation that I practice is about clearing your mind. The goal of this meditation is to slow down your busy brain, to let it come to a quiet stillness. It’s harder than it sounds actually. But once your mind is quiet, you can become more aware of the thoughts and feelings in a deeper way. You can become aware when and if your reaction to something is negative or compassionate. You can become aware of what situations make you feel aggressive. And through this awareness you can better regulate the way your emotionally respond to your environment. And you begin to control the choice of responding with compassion or with aggression.
I know a handful of our members find the Buddhist meditation practice called Metta to be helpful. It also is a practice to steer our hearts toward compassion. We did a version of it in our sung meditation just a minute ago. You start by feeling your own experiences of suffering in the world. Knowing they are unpleasant, you feel compassion for yourself. Then reaching out, you see the suffering of those you love. Knowing that their suffering is unpleasant and not a choice, you feel compassion for them. Then more broadly, reaching out with your heart, perhaps to strangers, or to people you particularly have problems with. Recognizing that they too have suffering in their lives, you offer compassion, knowing that no one chooses to suffer. It’s a tremendously helpful spiritual discipline in life.
Like I said, there are a great many different practices you can take on, to tune your heart and mind away from violence and toward compassion. But practice only works if you do it. I’m not talking about thinking about the theory behind it, or reading about it. There is enough reading on non-violence to make you blind. But theory doesn’t get you anywhere if you don’t practice.
I started and I want to end with our Unitarian Universalist conviction that courageous love will transform the world. Mind you, courage is not, not being afraid. Courage is doing your best to confront a challenge. Courage is doing what needs to be done, even if it means letting go of some of your power, letting go of assumption and fears that you have depended on for security. Courage is opening yourself to the possibility of change. As we courageously endeavor to change our own hears, may we take on the great task of changing the world that is so in need of our love.