Saturday, September 11, 2010

Ingathering: Opening Words

Here we have gathered,
Here at this seasonal crossroads, with the cool summer breeze at our backs.

Here we have gathered,
We of different bodies and beliefs, each prone to weakness and open to growth.

Here we have gathered,
Having journeyed from distant shores, each thirsting for love and justice.

Here we have gathered,
Gathered in memory and in hope, woven all into the sacred dance of life.

Here we have gathered.
So let us rejoice and join together in song.

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Monday, August 9, 2010

On leaving

Today, as my summer chaplaincy came to a close, I left a dear patient who has poured Spirit into my soul. Over the past two months, I have witnessed her open the dark recesses of human suffering to the light of God's love. In profound reverence and appreciation for the miracle of her life, I ask for your prayers - that she may find healing in a place of brokenness; that she may come to see the sacred work that she is already doing.

I offer the following haiku verse as a form of closure, commemorating my last memory with her and inviting her grace-filled presence into my future ministry:

Eyelids weak with fear –
snow-dusted puckered lips hold
close a holy peace.

Let all rejoice that God has gifted us with such a source of life.

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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Summer Hiatus

In light of my work as a hospital chaplain this summer, I will have to hibernate this blog for a couple months. Please check back in August! Blessings all.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

What's That?

I recently stumbled upon I. J. Singh's '30 second sales pitch' for the Sikh tradition. Drawing on the three pillars of a popular mantra (Kirat karo, Vand chhako, Naam japo), he offered the following gloss:

An honest life, shared with others, lived with an awareness of the Infinite within all.

A powerful sentiment. It reminds me of former UUA President Bill Sinkford's response to that infamously nagging question: Unitarian Universalism - What's that?. He once answered: One God, no one left behind.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Christian and Buddhist Moral Education

Much could be written about the continuities and disparities between Christian and Buddhist life-worlds. One fruitful point of entry into this religious labyrinth is that of moral development: what does it look like to educate oneself ethically into a mature practitioner of either tradition? In my brief remarks below, I will explore the biographical account of the Buddha, as recorded by first century CE Brahmanical convert Ashvaghosha, and that of Augustine, as documented in his own Confessions. It will be shown that despite overlapping diagnoses of the disease plaguing humanity, the two men prescribe divergent treatments with differing rates of recovery.

Written during his first three years as the Bishop of Hippo, Confessions exhibits Augustine at his most reverentially penitential. Reflecting on his intricate journey to faith, Augustine admits to repeatedly falling victim to the “disease of the flesh,” the deadly pleasures of which formed “a chain that I dragged along with me” (1961: 128). From his youth onward, corporeal desire and an unquenchable craving for material satisfaction “exuded mists which clouded over and obscured my heart, so that I could not distinguish the clear light of true love from the murk of lust” (Ibid: 43). He writes of how his soul repeatedly fell below its holy potential, rusting the imago Dei as he sought the illusive happiness of superficial pleasure and bodily comfort. Augustine, of course, does not consider his shortcoming especially unique. Though well intentioned, most humans direct their will in good faith toward the wrong object of desire and thereby generate their own misery. It is not that the material world itself poses a danger to human flourishing. Rather, we are seduced and distracted by it, neglectful of the One deserving of our attention and praise: “Whatever you feel through the senses of the flesh you only feel in part. It delights you, but it is only a part and you have no knowledge of the whole” (Ibid: 81). For Augustine, individuals will grow ever restless so long as they continue “clinging to a world which they can never hold” (Ibid: 106).

As a child, the Sakyamuni Buddha was exposed to the incredible wealth and luxury after which Augustine once so desperately thirsted. Born a prince, he grew up around “untold treasures,/ all sorts of wealth and gems” (2.2), as well as the “playful drunkenness and sweet laughter” of countless palace women (2.31). After venturing beyond the compound’s walls and witnessing the transience of life, however, the Buddha came to share Augustine’s suspicion of the sensual realm: “Learning the danger of sickness, my mind/ is repelled by pleasures/ and seems, as if, to recoil” (3.47). Like Augustine, the Buddha fears humanity’s investment in the proximate, i.e. that which is “subject/ to the ups and downs of fate” (11.16). Resembling “torches of straw in this world” (11.23), materialism may bring temporary enjoyment but will ultimately empty out into pain. The subsequent emotional and psychological agitation translates into the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. On this account, our frustration (dukkha) with life derives from the fact that a specter of fear and anxiety always lurks, even amidst happiness. The cause of this suffering, the Buddha goes on to surmise, is the yearning (tanha) we develop for those pleasures that “do not sate a man full of desires” (11.10). Celebrated as ambition and progress in the Western Euro-American ethos, this unflinching drive towards corporeal fulfillment pierces us “by the arrow of this samsaric life” (11.57).

Having similarly condemned the human inclination to fasten one’s life to external gratification, Augustine and the Buddha both advocate self-disciplinary measures intended to rein in such uncontrollable longing. Augustine maintains that individuals must activate their dormant memory of God, thereby recalibrating the focus of human activity. Since God, on his view, resembles the neo-Platonist Supreme Good, a perfection beyond words, God alone embodies the proper object of devotion: “For wherever the soul of man may turn, unless it turns to [God], it clasps sorrow to itself” (Augustine, 1961: 80). Literally turning from a life of folly, marked by the ignorance of egotism, to exultation in Truth, the Christian follows Christ’s example of realizing her love of God. Often, this transformation necessitates significant self-restraint. It manifests in a charitable asceticism that does not require devotees to wholly reject the world but rather “abandon my worldly hopes and give myself up entirely to the search for God and the life of true happiness” (Ibid: 127). Imagining the perfected state, Augustine writes: “When at last I cling to you with all my being, for me there will be no more sorrow, no more toil. Then at last I shall be alive with true life, for my life will be wholly filled by you” (Ibid: 232). For Augustine, however, fallen humanity’s desperate attempts to chart the way back to God do not guarantee success. In fact, full perfectibility may not be possible: “And sometimes you allow me to experience a feeling quite unlike my normal state, an inward sense of delight which, if it were to reach perfection in me, would be something not encountered in this life, though what it is I cannot tell. But my heavy burden of distress drags me down again to earth” (Ibid: 249). Nevertheless, if humanity awakens through memory to its ultimate interest in God, it may hope for enough self-perfection to be fully loved by God again.

Though different in kind, the Buddha also sought an awakening. Unlike Augustine, he is also reported to have achieved it (hence the honorific title). Sitting under the Bodhi tree, having resisted the charming machinations of Mara’s materialism one last time, the Buddha reaches enlightenment (nirvana). Compared to the extinguishing of a flame, this experience of liberation does not entail an eternal life in blissful union with the Divine, however. Whereas Augustine redirects his reverential appreciation towards God for having created the ‘house’ of his existence, the Buddha shatters the ‘house’ altogether. For Buddhist ethics, this nirvanic demolition serves as the teleological destination of the good life. It depends on a practice of self-discipline outlined in the Noble Eightfold Path, which includes the cultivation of wisdom, bodily comportment and mental exercise. In contradistinction to Augustine, for whom self-restraint takes on a more rigorous (although far from self-negating) form, the Buddha clears a middle way between mind-numbing hedonism and extreme asceticism. As demonstrated by his encounter with renouncers in an ascetic grove, the Buddha would likely affirm Augustine’s commitment but reject his intention, fearing that it perpetuates the cycle of re-death: “Not that this effort is totally vile,/ which seeks the noble, forsaking the base;/ But wise people with the same kind of toil/ ought to attain that state in which/ nothing needs to be done again” (7.25). While Augustine prioritizes a reorientation of the will, the Buddha would likely argue that “because the body acts and ceases from action/ under the control of the mind,/ It is the mind, therefore, that requires to be tamed” (7.27). Turning to Augustine, he would possibly remark: “your dharma aims at attaining heaven,/ and my desire is to be free from rebirth” (7.48). For the Buddha, complete ethical maturation is possible through the dharma of cessation.

Although both men strive to release themselves and, by extension, their respective religious worlds from “the snares of its own delusion” (1.75), they travel different paths. Augustine climbs the mountain of moderate asceticism toward the peak of union with God, while the Buddha burrows down into the underlying impermanence of the phenomenal world. Either way, the first step of the journey must take humanity away from the forest of sensuous desire.


Ashvaghosha. (2008). Life of the Buddha. trans. Patrick Olivelle. New York, NY: NYU Press.

Augustine. (1961). Confessions. trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin. New York, NY: Penguin.

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Say What?

As a seminarian, I am frequently asked about the faith tradition in which I hope to some day minister. Yet, as soon as the words 'Unitarian Universalism' jump off my tongue, my questioner's face grows wrinkled with confusion.

Unitarian Universalism...say what?

Below are a handful of pithy responses I commonly offer (my 'elevator speeches'):

Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal faith. We not only search for God in different places, but also describe those encounters in different ways. That way, when we gather in community, we have stories of transformation to share.

Unitarian Universalism teaches me how to live a full life. It keeps me anchored in the Holy and committed to Humanity in the here and now.

Unitarian Universalists have different religious beliefs but share a common faith. We know that life is holy, that each person is worthy, and that when we join together to plant the seeds of love, the world blossoms.

Unitarian Universalists chart different religious paths. Many journey to distant shores and find traces of God in a variety of sources. By gathering together on a regular basis, we not only share our respective stories of discovery, but also hold one another accountable for the choices we have made along the way.

Unitarian Universalism is like a patient teacher who shows me how to paint my life. She encourages me to select my supplies from a variety of religious sources. When it comes to painting, though, she insists that my brush strokes be wide with respect, tolerance and love.


I quite admire the clarity of this UCC self-promotion:

Steeples Ad from United Church of Christ on Vimeo.

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

All Will Be Well

Despite vocal protests from the religious right (see, for example, Rep. Steve King's (R-Iowa) characterization of the timing as an "affront to God"), I cannot think of a more fitting day than the (Christian) Sabbath for a vote on healthcare reform. In the Epistle of James, we read:

“If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” (James 2: 15-16)

In the coffeehouse sermon this morning at First Parish in Lincoln, my friend and colleague Ally performed Meg Barnhouse's stirring tribute to Julian of Norwich, which features the refrain: "All will be well." Sitting in the historic meetinghouse, my mind wandered to the half-truths of that repeating mantra. All will be well - for some. Today's vote in Washington moves us one step closer to actually giving the voiceless and suffering 'things which are needed for the body.' It widens the circle of those individuals who can, with some degree of certainty, rest assured that "All manner of things will be well."

That said, so much work remains. The right to a full and healthy life should not have to be (materially) earned - and until a robust universal, single-payer system is implemented, our brothers and sisters will continue to fall through the cracks into destitution.

Following the morning service, I slipped into the Gurdwara for an hour of kirtan and langar. Overflowing with brilliant shades of majestic purples and cooling greens, the sanctuary echoed devotee Kabir's simple truism:

ਸਾਚਾ ਨਾਵਣੁ ਗੁਰ ਕੀ ਸੇਵਾ
The true cleansing bath is service to the Guru.

No government program can replace the salvific work of inter-subjective relations - of sitting with God at the bedside of those who stare into the deep abyss of human finitude.

All will be well - together.

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Saturday, February 27, 2010

On Faith Development

Nineteenth century Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing once brazenly remarked that “the great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own." Extending this tradition, notable liberal religious educators like Sophia Lyon Fahs and Angus MacLean have insisted on the latent spiritual potentialities of children and their innate capacity for moral development. Importantly, faith development does not derive, on this view, from the mere absorption or ingestion of pre-packaged doctrinal truths, but rather from an embodied and experiential engagement with life in all of its fullness.

The danger with this approach lies in its tendency towards an empty subjectivism. Without effective structures and support, the child flounders helplessly and gains but a paper-thin understanding of her own religious heritage.

Might there be a middle way? In the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, we read: "In the temple of the mind is the Ambrosial Nectar of the Lord; through the Guru's Teachings, we drink it in" (175). I want to suggest that this scriptural fragment adroitly balances the competing claims of freedom and responsibility. It affirms the ripe sacred vitality inherent in all, which robust religious guidance allows us to pick and cherish.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010


Recently, I have been immersed in a groundswell of decision-making. Through prayer and introspection, I have attempted to discern God's voice, wooing me in one direction or another. Such deep listening is hard and tiring work.

Then, the other evening, while ensconced in the rhythms of Gurbani at the Gurdwara, I suddenly realized that my focus had been largely misplaced. God was in the outcome, more than in the decision itself. It was my responsibility to choose, knowing that God would accompany me either way. As we read in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib: "That bride, who is absorbed into the True Guru, shall never become a widow" (53).

God will be there, always, blessing the unworthy with virtue.

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Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Prayer of Returning

[Written for the new Board transition service of the HDS UU Ministry for Students]

Let us pray:

O Holy One: ever known, yet unknowable –
You who give voice to our words,
And reconciliation to our fragile shortcomings;
You who move our hands to action,
And move our action to what is right and good;
You who provide the thoughts we think,
The sensations we feel,
The compassion we share with one another.
All is Yours; We are Yours; and You are in and with all.

Over the past two months,
We have lost and gained,
We have departed and returned,
We have forgotten and remembered,
We have mourned and rejoiced,
We have scattered and reunited,
And we have come together, on this day, in Your witness, O Wondrous One.
We have gathered to recommit, to reconfide and to reordain ourselves, in Your name,
To the holy work of tearing down walls of estrangement
And building up a fellowship of mutual care and respect.

Gathering as a people of trust,
As a community of deep faith in the bold marvel of life,
We offer up this space as an altar to the gentle thrashing of transformation.

May we grow out of self-absorption and self-importance,
May we sprout into service of this ministry and its audacious purpose,
May we listen more attentively to Your small, still whisper,
As we fall into the future –
May You carry us,
So that we may carry You.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Christian Theology: Wickedness

The saga continues...

Having worked with victims of sexual and domestic abuse, Mary Engel has witnessed suffering in its rawest forms. It is from this wounded community that she is "sourced" (D. Williams). Engel proposes a posture towards questions of theodicy that addresses "wickedness," which serves as the catchall term for both corporate evil and individual sinfulness. She initially considers three possible constructive theodical solutions:

1) Sin as distortion of feeling: self-denial, self-blame, moral callousness
2) Sin as betrayal of trust: breaking the sacred bond of trust
3) Sin as lack of care: avoiding responsibility and distorting the self's boundaries

Returning to the crucifixion as the violent slaughter of the God-Made-Vulnerable, Engel arrives at the following working definition: wickedness derives from the "distortion of the dynamic tension between freedom and dependence, or the lack of consent to the dependence and fragility of our lives."

In many ways, I quite like this provisional theological suggestion, as it incorporates both autonomous and systemic factors. I suspect, however, that post-colonial theorists might wrestle with the very concept of consent, which privileges a seemingly Western notion of empowered individual agency.

Either way, Engel is clearly on to something. I was particularly moved and disturbed by the poetic verses that opened her piece. One excerpt reads:

I have been raped
cause I have been wrong.

To me, this points to the most convincing answer to theodical inquiry: we cannot solve the problem of evil unless we learn to live with God in solidarity.

Wickedness is real and belies any totalizing explanation. The most we can hope for is concursus Dei. Or, as Bonhoeffer intuits, "only a suffering God can help."

Amidst suffering, all of creation walks with God in a constant "movement toward metamorphosis" (Song). Between the act of violence ("I have been raped") and the transition to meaning-making ("cause I have been wrong" - admittedly distorted, I might add), God clears space for us just to "be-" - with the smallest (Gutierrez), with the Great Companion (Duraisingh) and with all-else.

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Christian Theology: The Cross

I continue this series of posts on Christian theological reflection with an entry on the meaning of the cross. Admittedly, these gestures reflect an inchoate effort at translating traditional Christian symbolics into a language more familiar to my Unitarian Universalist parlance. This dialogical engagement is of utmost importance, I believe. Not only does Christian rhetoric claim significant currency in our culture, but the Living Tradition traces its rich heritage in and through Christianity's winding legacy.

As for the cross:

1) The Cross as Exposure: despite the darkness that covered Golgotha (Matthew 27:45), the crucifixion-event served as a form of illumination. In this way, it was God dwelling in the dark clouds (1 Kings 8:12). The cross cast a spotlight back on the world of violence that nailed Jesus to those beams. It exposed the raw hatred, power-fetishes and brutality simmering below the facade of empire. It pierced the Real and, in so doing, demonstrated the contingency of the Symbolic (Zizek) - the radical possibility of egalitarian re-configuration. Rosemary Reuther refers to this process as the unmasking of idols and proclamation of the good news of "abundant life in loving mutuality."

2) The Cross as Verdict: rejecting Jesus' invitation to conversion into solidarity with the downtrodden, the political and religious authorities cast their verdict. The antagonists in this violent drama should not be overlooked. In this way, the oppositional "verdict of the Father" (Barth), as signified by the resurrection, calls those who encounter the living Christ to similarly oppose the politics of empire and dehumanizing orthodoxy of calcified institutional religion in our time. "The cross means human beings rejecting human beings," C.S. Song writes. This is true. But we, as religious enthusiasts with an eye on current events, must not forget that the perpetrators were those alleging political treason and religious blasphemy.

3) The Cross as Mystery: the most haunting scene of the crucifixion narrative undoubtedly centers on Jesus' desperate cry for God's presence amidst isolation and estrangement. This scene tempers the well-intentioned tendency to view the Calvary story as a triumphalist cosmic victory over evil. As Rosemary Reuther intuits, the horizontal evils plaguing human history are often cast aside amidst enthusiastic fervor surrounding the vertical action of the "god-man" satisfying God's supposed wrath. We cannot succumb to this interpretive temptation. Rather, the disturbing absence of God during periods of the crucifixion-event testifies to God's mysterious and unknowable nature. On the one hand, "God means to put an end to all the crosses of history" (Boff). On the other, we must neither romanticize suffering nor arrogantly claim secret insight into God's will. At the end of the day, "God cannot be owned" (Countryman).

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Christian Theology: The Human

I offer some cursory reflections that bubbled up from the Christian theology course I am currently taking at EDS:

Lactantius once wrote: “since humanity is the image of God…the strongest bond which unites us is humanity.” This perspective tempers, I believe, the misreading of stewardship in terms of exploitation. Rather, redemption involves bringing the image of God to its fulfillment despite the reality of sin - and doing so together.

On questions of theodicy, I am inclined to preference the analogy of sin as a power which holds us captive (much like evil in Greek tragic theater) over and against viewing sin as a hereditary disease or guilt passed down from generation to generation. In this way, I am skeptical of Pelagius’ overly generous faith in humanity’s good works, while similarly cautious not to allow the human mind to crumble under the weight of Augustinian pessimism. Here, I appreciate Delores Williams’ characterization of sin as estrangement from the source of one’s Being, which in the womanist context maps onto a loss of identity and, by extension, connection. Tying the notions of imago Dei and sin together, I arrive at Migliore’s stopgap: “Being created in the image of God is not a state or condition but a movement with a goal.”

It is through grace, then, that we hold fast to, and walk with God (concursus Dei) towards, the promise of pleroma – sharing in the fullness of God’s life in community, in restored and faithful relationship, with oneself, with others, with nature and God. Or, as C.S. Song puts it, “Our world expands!”

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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Faith in the Play of Life

I have long since wrestled with the Hindu notion of "lila" (play) as a description of divine action in the world. The idea of Shiva sporadically indwelling in human-like form to playfully and teasingly court a devotee, before unexpectedly disappearing back into the divine realm, both intrigues and troubles me. In some ways, the description seems apt. Despite our rigorous attempts at taming and controlling the natural world, humanity remains a helpless bystander of raging hurricanes and shifting teutonic plates. The awe-fulness of the Holy never fails to stunt our feeble efforts at domesticating nature's raw force - Kali, the Dark Mother, always slips through our clasped fists. At the same time, I want to believe that we as humans participate in, from time to time even co-direct, this game. Much as Radha's love for Krishna sustains the deity's existence, so too we are the hands of God. Is there not a certain reciprocity, a mutual dependence, an intimate relationality?

One of my favorite verses in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib reads: "Naked we come, and naked we go; in between, we put on a show" (1238). Life exhibits a playful quality - if you watch humanity long enough, you have to laugh at our bizarre eccentricities, our foolishnesses, our absurdities. And yet, life also contains a sense of spectacle. Moments of grace that take our breath away. Moments of disgust at the violence and hatred and bigotry.

In today's shabad, we are exhorted to witness and praise the "wondrous play of the Lord" (SGGS 407). I am inclined to suggest that faith, that audacious act of fides, rests precisely on our trusting in such divine lila.

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