A Hot Date With Christ: Another Homily Ripped Off of Steve Antil

I know it’s kind of a throwback, but I want to ask…How many of you have seen the film “Freaky Friday?” If you haven’t seen it, it’s the story of a mother and daughter who don’t understand or get along with each other at all. And then, one evening while they are eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant, they open a magic fortune cookie that sets off an earthquake and causes them to switch bodies. For the rest of the film the mother and daughter have to live each other’s lives, with all of the hilarity and heartache that comes with this forced compassion.

Imagine what would happen if you had to trade places with one of your parents or guardians. Students, imagine what it would be like if you had to trade places with one of your teachers. Teachers, what would happen if you had to trade places with one of your students. Some teachers have actually done this recently, and they were horrified at how difficult the school day was! Of course, this wouldn’t shock any of you. You know what you have to go through on a daily basis.

This Freaky Friday experience helps me to understand the Christian story. Just as the mother and daughter needed to trade places in order to deepen their relationship, so does God have to trade places with us. Today we are celebrating the season of advent, which is the season of waiting for Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the person who Christians experience as the incarnation of God on earth. It is as if there was a magic fortune cookie that allowed God to switch bodies with one of us, so that God would know what we go through on a daily basis. The Christian story tells us that God came to us, became one of us. That is what the hymn we sang today is referring to. It is based on the words of the Jewish prophet Isaiah, who called Jesus “Emmanuel,” a Hebrew name which means “God with us.”

No matter what you have experienced in your life, I can almost guarantee there is a story of Jesus experiencing that same thing. The Bible tells stories of God becoming a baby, of God as a 12 year old who disobeys his parents because he thinks he knows better than they do, stories of God as a young adult who changes water into wine so that his friend’s wedding won’t be a disaster. There is a story of God anxiously waiting for a big decision to come in. One of my favorites is a story of God cooking breakfast for his friends. There are stories of God healing people, teaching people, fighting for social justice. There are stories of God suffering. Yes, the Christian story tells us, God suffers. The Christian Story, for me, is a story about how God makes the effort to reach out, to be with us, to be our ally, to suffer what we suffer and to enjoy what we enjoy. This God desperately wants to be in a relationship with us.

The story then puts the ball in our court. God has come to us, but how often do we go to God? If we’re going to have a relationship with God, it has to go both ways.

The philosopher Ken Wilber says we are stunted in our relationship with God. We have an idea of God as this being we can pray to when we need something and he will help us. Christian Smith called this the idea of God as a “divine butler.” Wilber calls this the toddler’s conception of God. Sigmund Freud saw this too: Our idea of God is like our vision of our parents when we were three years old: a parental figure who lays down the law and if we are good we will get rewarded and protected. Freud, like many atheists, rejected this conception of God. And if that is the idea of God that atheists are rejecting, then I am an atheist too. There has to be something more to God than this toddler’s idea.

How many of us have progressed past the books we read as a toddler? How many of us have progressed past the math we learned then? And the science? Is it because those books and that math and that science are wrong? No, not exactly. They’re not wrong, but they are incomplete. Thinking the sun rises and sets isn’t wrong—we see it happen every day—but we know there’s more. We see the sun rise but we also know the earth turns on its axis. The same with math. 1 +1 = 2 isn’t wrong, but there’s more. 2×2=4 isn’t wrong, but there’s more. “X equals negative-B plus-or-minus the square root of B-squared minus 4-a-c, all divided by 2a” isn’t wrong, but there’s more…

As a culture, we have progressed in our understanding of math and science and social studies and literature from our toddler days to our elementary school days to our lower and middle and upper school days, and beyond. But when it comes to God, many of us remain in that toddler stage. How are we to progress?

Fr. Thomas Keating says that we need to get past our ideas about God and have a relationship with God instead. And just like any relationship, we need to put the time in.

Many of us come to cathedral or chapel or church or synagogue or mosque every week and we say “Hi” to God. “Hi God.” The Next week: “Hi God.” And the next week: “Hi God.” But we all know what happens when we meet someone and we see them in the hall every day and we say, “Hi.” At first it’s nice. And then it becomes a little awkward. And then we just smile. And finally we stop saying “Hi” at all. This is what Keating calls an acquaintance. We need to move past the acquaintanceship stage and into a true friendship.

I have a teacher (and now friend) who used to tell me he would make a hot date with God. Think about that: When you have a hot date, you don’t miss it, for anything. And you look forward to it. You might even be a little bit nervous, but also excited. This is a relationship with God that I don’t think many of us can imagine, but it’s possible

So I would like us to use this Christmas to renew or deepen our relationship with God, or whatever is our ultimate concern. Whether your God is Jesus, or Adonai, or Allah, or Brahman, or the Bodhisattva of Compassion, or the Buddha within, or simply humanity itself, this can be a chance to connect more deeply with this person.

The question is, “How do we take this relationship with God to the next level? How do we become friends with God?” Well, the same way we become friends with anyone. We have to say “Hi,” but we also have to invite God over for dinner. To the gym. To jam with us on the drums. To go for a walk. We have to talk to God, more than just saying “Hi.” And we also have to listen. How do we do that? It’s really about making a hot date with your spiritual practice. Make a hot date with your prayer mat, your meditation cushion, your Shabbat table, your chanting beads, your community service, your chapel and cathedral services.

And this is where I think the gospel is not only a story about how God came to us; it’s a story about how we can go to God.
We can meet God by doing any of the things Jesus did:
By praying, by meditating, by chanting scriptures,
By serving each other,
Healing each other,
Listening to each other,
By protesting in righteous anger together
By celebrating weddings and funerals together
By breaking bread with our friends
And with our enemies, together.
I am thankful we get to do that spiritual practice together here, today.



To My Dear Friends and Family Who Voted for Donald Trump:

I know you are not racists, bigots, sexists, misogynists, or homophobes. But I would like you to know why so many of your fellow Americans are upset with you. I don’t think most people can hear this message above the din of protest and anger, as righteous as they are, and so I am hoping you might hear it in a letter coming from a friend and family member who has always appreciated you and your views and who has spent a lot of time over the past year talking to people on both sides of the aisle.

Many of you have told me that you don’t like the president elect’s rhetoric, that you don’t approve of his sexist locker room talk, his culturally insensitive statements, or his potentially discriminatory policies. “But,” you said, “We can’t have four more years of Democrat rule. We can’t stand for Hillary’s dishonesty. We need to repeal Obamacare. We need to lower taxes. We need to dismantle business regulations.” These things are each valid in their own way. But what you need to recognize is the inherent message this line of reasoning contains for so many Americans. It may not be the message you intended, but it is the message they heard nonetheless. To women, blacks, Hispanics, gays, and their allies, this line of reasoning sounded like this: “Tax breaks, smaller government, and deregulation are more important than racism, bigotry, sexism, misogyny, and homophobia.” They heard, “Your right to be spoken to and spoken about with respect and dignity is subordinate to my economic and political preferences.” They heard, “Your human rights don’t matter as much as my political views.”

That is the message these Americans heard, and, if you were placed in such a threatened position by these issues as they were, I am certain that is the only sound you would have been able to hear, too. If I said to you, “Here is $500, you filthy pig,” I am sure you would take that $500 and shove it down my throat. You wouldn’t want it. Neither would anyone else.

So now, as you call for unity and for us to be one United States, please try to understand and be sympathetic to those Americans who had such a crushing message delivered to them by their fellow Americans. Hillary supporters are not upset because they won’t be getting Obamacare, or because they are going to miss their government handouts, or because of any of the things many of my Republican friends have attributed to them. They are upset because their human dignity was placed second.

Looking ahead, this is what you need to know if you truly want us to be one people and one nation. You need to understand what your fellow Americans heard, even if it was not what you intended. Racism, bigotry, sexism, misogyny, and homophobia are not options to be placed on a sliding scale of priorities. Human rights must be a non-negotiable underlying condition of all of the other work that we do. Can you prove to your fellow Americans that this is the condition of your hearts? That is the task our president elect’s rhetoric has set before you for the next four years.

Your Friend, Family Member, and Fellow American,
Justin Maaia

P.S. Please understand that I was not trying to represent your position as you meant it, but rather as it was heard by many minority and underprivileged persons. After all, I know you are not racists, bigots, sexists, misogynists, or homophobes…

Education Enlightenment Ethics History of Ideas Philosophy Religion Science Theology

A Letter To My Students:

When you go out into the world, especially the academic world, you will undoubtedly be confronted by something called “reductionism.” Reductionism is when we reduce something to some other thing. It is when we analyze a whole into its parts and then assert that the whole is equal to one of those parts.

For example, when you say you are in love, the reductionist says, “What you call love is actually the experience of endorphins and other biochemicals produced by your body in response to the physical—visual and/or auditory and/or pheromonal—presence of a possible mate.”

“But I’m in love,” you say. “I want to spend the rest of my life with this person!”

“Yes, but what you call ‘love’ is just the endorphin experience I just described, coupled with feelings of love and care that have evolved because of the evolutionary dividend of ensuring that your offspring will survive the harsh world due to the aid and protection of two parental figures.”

“I guess you’ve never been in love!” you reply, exasperated.

The problem is not that the reductionist’s accounts aren’t true, but that they are incomplete. The reductionist almost always become so excited about the fruitfulness of his reductionist theory that he forgets that it is just one aspect of the thing at hand. He becomes blind to the truth of the whole and becomes enraptured with his own little theory. This is easy to do in the case of intangible things like “love.” It is more difficult the more concrete and undeniable the thing in question is, such as when you see your reductionist friend outside after class, enjoying an apple.

“Wow, this apple is delicious!” your reductionist friend says. You decide to have some fun:

“You know, what you are calling a delicious apple is merely the mind’s integration of biochemical responses produced by the malic acid of the apple triggering taste receptors in the mouth, causing the evolutionarily developed habit of salivating, chewing, and swallowing in order to increase caloric intake proportionate to metabolism.”

“You’re a jerk,” your reductionist friend replies.

The reason for your reductionist friend’s anger is that he knows you have called him out on the pitfall of his worldview. You are exposing the fact that if we want to be reductionist in our view of the world, then we have to be reductionist in our view of the whole world. But reductionists tend to reduce only the things they want to reduce. If we saw this conversation continue, we would probably hear you say “What? Isn’t my reduction of your apple the same as your reduction of my being in love?” And we would probably here your friend reply that they are not the same, because the apple is somehow more real than love.

The problem with this reductionist view is that what are allowed to count as “real” are only those things that have objective reality. Love is not real because it is highly subjective and so we call it an epiphenomenon that can be reduced to endorphins and pheromones etc. Apples, on the other hand, are real because we can all see them and feel them and touch them and eat them. While we may all disagree on the merits of the taste of an apple, none of us can disagree that the apple exists.

This view of what counts as real and what does not is the product of what John Clayton called the “Enlightenment Project,” that collective endeavor that took place beginning in the 16th century in Europe in which intellectuals decided that what counts as knowledge is only that which can be established by a combination of firsthand experience and reason, without recourse to any kind of tradition, authority, subjectivity, or emotion. It is this narrow prescription of knowledge that presumably allowed us to break free from the intellectually repressive and human rights-oppressive bonds of religion and allowed us to study the world in such a way that has yielded us all the wonders of modern science and technology.

Unfortunately, the Enlightenment worldview reduced religion to only one aspect of itself (morality) and undermined any claim it may have had to other truths. I speak in the past tense, but this is still the position of religion in much of academia and other public intellectual spheres. I am thankful that after seeking out places to study religion in graduate school, I discovered that there are an increasing number of schools and departments who contain both reductionist and nonreductionist thinkers. These institutions, too, are largely the product of the Enlightenment, and so I don’t want to beat up on the Enlightenment too much. As Clayton once said to me, “The fact that we are able to be here critiquing the Enlightenment Project in a safe, legally protected space is due to the Enlightenment Project!”

Many post-Enlightenment thinkers critiqued religion. They saw that there were many religions with many diverse and conflicting belief and practices. This meant that religion must be subjective and therefore relative, and so not worthy as a source of knowledge or wisdom. These thinkers looked past the subjective aspects of religion and studied only what they had in common, what was objective. Initially this meant the golden rule, which is present in all the major religions. Later, theorists focused on religions’ institutionalized means of social control, and so reduced religion to that. Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are the examples par excellence.

In this reductive view, religion was seen as the enemy of scientific knowledge and of human rights. But we have forgotten—or we never knew—that religion also made space for these same developments. Medieval Islam, for example, saw the world as the “Cosmic Qur’an” or revelation of God, and so studying it was seen as a sacred duty revealing to us aspects of God. This is why so many scientific and mathematical discoveries were made in the Islamic world during that time. On the human rights side of things, we could look back even further within Islam to Muhammad’s revolutionary elevation of the status of women and orphans in the extremely oppressive culture out of which he sprang in the sixth century CE. Or we could note the Buddha’s rejection of caste and gender differences in India way back in the sixth century BCE. Or, more recently, the inspiration toward economic and political revolution that Christianity provided in Central and South America in the twentieth century.

For all of the insights reductionists have given us into religion (for they have – their insights are not false, but only incomplete), they have mostly been unable to see religions in all their aspects. Scientifically, we have a duty to study those aspects as well. Even when someone like Jonathan Haidt studies one of the common positive outcomes of religion as he does in his illuminating book The Righteous Mind, the problem is that is it still remains a reductionist account. Religion becomes a useful adaptation that creates social cohesion and so has the evolutionary payoff of helping us to work together and survive the harsh world. Can that really be it?

You might be wondering if there is a piece of religion that resists reductionism. If scholars have studied the negative and now the positive and have found reductionist theories in both areas, then is there anything left? The answer can be found in an important book of which too many people are ignorant. It is The Two Sources of Morality and Religion by Henri Bergson. Bergson acknowledges the social-control and cohesion aspects of religion and the legitimacy of the critiques of those aspects. But he points out that there is another source of religion and morality, the individual, subjective experiences of individuals. Sure there is the Moses who hands down the 613 laws to the people. But there is also the Moses who stands dumbfounded and in awe of God’s presence at the burning bush. There is the Muhammad who provides Muslims with guidance for almost every major and minor social interaction one can think of, but there is also the Muhammad that was comforted by God’s words to him, that “wherever you experience hardship, this will be followed by ease.” And who could possibly ignore the Buddha’s tremendous introspective insights into the nature of consciousness and reduce him to merely a social reformer?

In academia, there are some who felt there was wisdom and value to be found by reaching back into religious traditions. People like Mircea Eliade and Huston Smith, while respected in academic and in popular circles, were sometimes labeled “traditionalist” or “conservative,” with all of the pejorative connotations that those terms held for those who saw progress as possible only within the confines of the secular trajectory of the Enlightenment Project. However, I would argue that these thinkers were the true progressives, the ones who first rediscovered value in beliefs, practices, and narratives other than their own, who insisted on the value of pluralism, and who saw that diversity is a prerequisite of intellectual, emotional, psychological, and spiritual growth. I use past tense here because it is my (slightly overly optimistic) view that we are beyond the narrow Enlightenment Project view of the world and of religion. I see a re-appreciation of religions and the religious in academia, in spite of the fact that our world is still plagued by the negative as well as positive experiences of this phenomenon.

Do scholars ever transcend the reductive tendency? There are many who have. There are those like Paul Tillich, who are scholars who happen to also be religious, and so they use scholarship to further their religious efforts. There are those like Carl Jung, who saw scholarship as a way of opening up deeper understandings of the spiritual truths of the universe, finding in the common themes and structures of religion a human path that transcends any one particular religion. There are natural scientists like Andrew Newberg who, while using fMRI scans to illuminate the neurological aspect of human experience, know that this is just one aspect of that experience and that we must guard against reducing any of life to this one measureable picture of it. And there are those like Ninian Smart, who emphasize the value of all studies in trying to grasp something that is too huge to ever be fully comprehended even by all lenses, let alone by any one.

And, more generally, there are the writers and poets and artists and musicians who daily do justice and reverence to the particular, the subjective, the mystical. These genres of creativity are more naturally inclined to this (someone once defined the artist as one who makes us notice the universal in the particular), but I find also that it is especially the voices of minority and underprivileged persons who have aided all of us in resisting the tyranny of reductionism (for we are all influenced by it, as it is the dominant narrative). People like Alice Walker and Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman—it is their very underprivileged positions that give them a privileged view from which to break free of the dominant trends of the mainstream. To them we are thankful, as well as to the voices of any worldview different from our own, for they can all help us to see outside of our own boxes. That is, so long as we translate and interpret them with integrity, and not just with an eye to what we want to find confirmed in them.

I should also point out that we are all reductionists in a sense. Any time we analyze a phenomenon and attempt to explain it in terms of something else—a model, or an image, or a series of concepts—we are reducing things. Basically, we are reductionists whenever we open our mouths! Whenever we say that something “is” something else. I think this reductionism is okay and even necessary. Or perhaps it is not necessary, but it is not necessarily destructive. A music scholar might analyze a John Coltrane recording to find the scales and modes and chord substitutions Trane used in his saxophone solo, but this does not mean she loses the power and magic of the experience of the music, or thinks that she can just reduce it to those notes. But so much of our discourse is reductive and analytical that we must be on guard about what the Buddhist Lankavatara Sutra describes as “mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.” The only way to avoid this is through using language in an apophatic (“speaking away”) way, insisting that your listener must experience the thing for him or herself, with no delusions that what is being said is saying something in itself or captures the experience of something else.

And so, all of you mystics—and we are all mystics according to the reductionist. At least any of you who have seen God, or felt the oneness of all things, or who have been in love, or who have enjoyed an apple—consider yourselves forewarned of the reductionist voices you will encounter in your future endeavors to make sense of the world. Recognize that they have important perspectives to offer. Finally, know that their reign has ended, and that their voice can exist only as one among many ways of seeing and being in the world.


The Dangers of Mixing Politics and Religion

I keep seeing this bumper sticker that says, “The last time we mixed politics with religion, people got burned at the stake.” But I am pretty sure the last time we mixed politics with religion was when Gandhi freed India from the British with his satyagraha movement. Of course, there was also the time Reverend Martin Luther King, jr., Rosa Parks, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel mixed politics with religion to fight for civil rights in the United States. But then I remember more recently Father Gustavo Gutierrez and Bishop Oscar Romero mixing politics with religion in their service to the oppressed masses in the resistance of corrupt totalitarian regimes in Central and South America. So the bumper sticker is partially right: People did get burned at the stake; the problem is that it was the time before the time before the time before the last time we mixed politics with religion.


A quick thought on high school curriculum

Two of the United States’ most enduring and influential cultural products, known and respected worldwide, and yet in my experience scarcely known by our students upon graduation are:
1. The philosophical tradition know as Pragmatism
2. Jazz
The latter’s omission is especially remiss given that it was and is created largely by minority groups and their allies. We must better represent these two traditions in our high school curricula.

Contemplative Living Education Ethics Philosophy Politics Religion Self-Help Theology Uncategorized

Terror and Abundance: An Advent Reflection

(So much of this is stolen from or inspired by Steve Antil, Peg Downing, the general energy of all the St. Joseph Central High School community, and my family and friends. If you like it, thank them for the message. If not, you can blame me for the packaging!)

We are gathered here together during the season of Advent, in which Christians prepare for the coming of Jesus on the holiday known as Christmas. There is a philosophy in Christianity called “Neoplatonism” (actually, it is a philosophy found in Judaism and Islam as well) that may be helpful for understanding Christmas. I won’t get into all the details, but basically Neoplatonism holds that God is superabundant, so full of love and goodness and beauty that God overflowed God’s self and that is how the universe came to be. Some Christian thinkers used this as a way to understand the significance of Jesus, that God was so overflowing with love for the world that God spilled over into the world, becoming a person like you and me. This might be a helpful image of the Christmas story, a story of the overflowing abundance of God’s love and goodness and beauty.

I want to talk today about abundance. Not because I live this way all the time, but because I struggle to live this way. Abundance might seem like a strange thing to talk about in light of all the tragedy we are experiencing in our world. But for me, the big tragedies in the world are not special. I am not going to minimize them, but I am going to recast them in this way: The major tragedies are reminders to us of all the suffering that is going on in the world all the time. The suffering of even one starving child is unconscionable to me. Irreconcilable with my sense of what the world should be or could be. But the problem of suffering is more than that, more, even, than all the starving children of the world. What about the toddler out front of Jettie’s ice cream shop, who licked her ice cream cone and it toppled over onto the ground? She is sitting out there, wailing and screaming because her ice cream is on the side walk. This is a major tragedy, at least to that little girl. We may be tempted to compare her suffering to life’s “real” problems and then to laugh it off, but who are we to diminish the suffering of another human being? Viktor Frankl said that suffering is like a gas; it expands to fill whatever container it is in.

Something strange happened to me on the way to work today. I was driving my usual route to work and I came to a four way stop. And, in typical fashion, a person who came to the intersection after me neglected to stop and then took his turn ahead of me. I am sure all of you have witnessed something like this. That’s when something snapped in me. I was so fed up with the discourteous habits of DC drivers that I let him have it.

When I say “I let him have it,” I mean that I let him have the turn. Of course, he was going to take it anyway! But something shifted in me, and I realized that if I let him have it, then he can’t take it from me. If I stop thinking of it as “MY turn,” then it becomes impossible for him to steal it. So I said to him, in my mind, “Yes, here, you go first.”

How was this small miracle able to happen in my life? I think it was in response to a story that came out of France two weeks ago. As you know, terrorists in France killed one hundred and thirty people, injured hundreds more, and left huge holes in the lives of countless friends and relatives. A 35 year-old man named Antione Leiris lost his wife, leaving him to be a single dad to his one year old son. This is an excerpt from what he posted to Facebook, which has since gone viral:

“Friday night you took away the life of an exceptional human being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred.”

“I saw her and I felt I had to force myself to write what I wrote — I didn’t have a choice if I wanted my son to grow up as a human being who is open to the world around him, like his mother, to grow up as a person who will love what she loved: literature, culture, music, cinema, pictures.

“If I had given in to hatred, he might grow up to do the same, and then I would have brought up a person who was just like the terrorists.

“If we stand free, if we stand here with a zest for life, with happiness … then [the terrorists] don’t win.”

Another terror survivor named Viktor Frankl exhibited this attitude as well. Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. What he found there surprised both him and the other prisoners of the camp. They were emaciated, starving, trudging through the snow to do manual labor all day with no food. They had lost everything, including their family and friends. And yet, to their surprise, they would sometimes look up and see the sun shining through the trees or sparkling on the early morning snow, and they would stand there, dumbstruck, in awe of the beauty and goodness of the earth.

Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

These two people were able to separate the horror that was being done to them from the ultimate goodness and abundance of life. This is what I want us to think about today: Living out of an attitude of abundance rather than scarcity.

How are people able to make this choice, even in the worst circumstances? What makes the difference?

I believe we can see something similar in the stories we heard a moment ago. In the Book of Samuel, the ancient Hebrews were facing an unstoppable giant named Goliath. All the great Hebrew warriors said “Look at how big Goliath is! We could never hit him!” Then Little David came along and said “Look at how big he is – how could I miss?”

The same thing happened to Jesus in the Gospel. Crowds of people were hungry and tired and irritable, and the disciples wanted to turn away with their few loaves and fish. But Jesus said, “Give them to me!” and started passing them around. Before you knew it, everyone had eaten their fill and there was more to spare.

There are many miracles described here today: defeating the giant, feeding the multitudes, conquering terrorism, surviving the Nazis. And yes, maintaining sanity in rush hour traffic. We are good at telling stories about miracles. But we don’t spend so much time on how they happen. Are they just a mystery? Or can we perform them ourselves, or at least be open to them. I think we can, and I believe it has something to do with a shift in attitude, what I am calling an attitude of abundance.

This abundance has been called the power of positive thinking. But some people call it faith. I don’t think they are very different. I know people who have mastered the miracle of positive thinking without a belief in God. But I also know that it can be helpful to have that belief. It might be easier to be positive if you have this belief in a God who will ensure a positive outcome.

We are so often confronted with images and messages of the scarcity of our existence. That there isn’t enough money, food, energy, or clean water. But this is false. There is always more money, more than enough food, energy, and water. We have the potential to grow enough food to feed everyone on this earth, several times over. It has been often proven that hunger is not a problem of resources, it is a problem of will power. The same goes for water, and energy, and money. I hear a lot of talk about the growing world population. But very few people point out that that number will top off at a certain point, and then it will begin to recede.

This attitude of scarcity, of only telling half the story, affects our daily lives. When we see our friend get an “A”, we think “She took my A!” We forget that there are an abundance of A’s, and that our friend just proved to us that they can, indeed, be earned. And when our friend gets into a college, we think “She took my spot!” But we forget that sometimes a school accepts a whole cohort of students from one school, as a prestigious school did a couple of years ago here at NCS. Those five students got into their school as a team, not as individuals. The university didn’t say “We can only take one of these girls; they said “Look at how awesome these five girls are! We don’t just want to pluck the best one out of the group. We want that whole group to come here and continue their collaborative success.

I had a principal named Peg Downing who used a basketball analogy with me once, to point out our interconnectedness. She told me, “You know, it isn’t the team with the best starting five who wins the championship.” “How is that?” I said? She replied, “It is the team with the best five players on the bench.” “The benchwarmers?” I asked, “What do they have to do with the championship?” She replied, “The team with the best five players on the bench will always win, because it is against those bench warmers that the starting five play against day-in and day-out in practice. So the starting five is only as good as those they practice with.”

That is why when a team wins a championship, it is the whole team who gets to celebrate. It’s not just the Most Valuable Player, or the starting five. Even the players who never play one minute of a game are a part of that championship.

It’s the same thing here. For those of you who don’t know it yet, at the end of the year here at NCS, we take the flag off the flag pole and we award it to the student with the highest grade point average. But this flag really belongs to all of us. This is not to take away from all the hard work the flag winner did. She earned her distinction. But she also became so good within the environment of teamwork and competition here at NCS, sparring and scrimmaging with all of you who surround her.

Living out of a sense of abundance doesn’t mean we live in denial. We still acknowledge when things are sad, tragic, lousy. We need to see the sad stuff, because that is the occasion for turning it around.

Living out of a sense of abundance doesn’t mean you don’t admit when you’re beat. I know a 92 year old woman who just started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Most people would say, “Why bother?” This woman has a different idea. She knows she is at the end of her life, but she wants to live out that end in a dignified way, free of her addiction. Positive thinking isn’t about denial of suffering or death. It’s about how we approach suffering and death. “The last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I would like us to be defiant in our sense of abundance. We should provoke each other with our positive thinking.

So when you get a “C” in Math and your friend gets a “B,” don’t despair. Well, you can despair for one minute, but then you should smile. Smile because you know now who to go and ask for help. Ask your fellow student if you can study with her. You might even make a friend.

And teammates: when your teammate scores a goal, don’t be jealous, as if there were only so many goals to go around. Even if the enemy scores a goal, be happy for them. And then go and score two goals. There are always more goals to be scored.

I am very serious when I place these small daily moments on the same level as huge, life-changing experiences. Viktor Frankl also noted the relativity of suffering. It is all the same. He said that before the Holocaust, a toothache was the worst tragedy in his life. Then the Holocaust happened, and toothaches were the least of his problems. But then, after the holocaust, a toothache was the worst tragedy in his life again. When we triumph over any suffering, big or small, catastrophic or miniscule, it is a victory of the same magnitude.

Mel brooks said it just as well: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” It’s all about perspective.

I want to leave you with an image of abundance. Let’s close our eyes and picture ourselves at the age of three or four. You wake up before anyone else in the house. You creep downstairs to watch cartoons, and a minute later you get hungry. You run to the kitchen, your feet slapping against the floor the way little kids’ feet do. You spy the cookie jar on the counter, so you grab a chair from the table, push it all the way to the counter, climb up, pull the jar toward you, lift the lid, and then…

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” comes the booming voice from your mother, who has just come down the stairs. “You can’t have cookies for breakfast!”

Now rewind the video a minute. You wake up, you go downstairs. You spy the cookie jar, and so you drag a chair across the kitchen. You climb up, pull the jar toward you, lift the lid, and then you hear a whispering voice. It’s grandma…

“Hey kid! Grab one for me while you’re in there, will you?

Like that grandmother, let’s live our lives out of a deep abiding sense of abundance. Let’s keep our eyes peeled for ways in which we can make this shift in attitude, whether it is in school, on the playing field, in traffic, or in any part of our lives. I think the season of Advent, of preparation for an outpouring of abundance, is a perfect time to practice just that.



A Word on the Koran

Nowhere in the Koran does it say that girls should not be educated;

Nowhere in the Koran does it say that a man should throw a bucket of acid on the face of his daughter if she disrespects her family’s reputation;

Nowhere in the Koran does it say that we should shoot a girl who stands up for the rights of her fellow women;

Nowhere does it say in the Koran that if you spill the blood of innocent people that you will be rewarded in heaven with forty virgins.

Yes, there are some leftover vestiges of the patriarchal society out of which the Koran came. For example, Muhammad (P.B.U.H) had more than one wife. But even facts like these can be reinterpreted by both more and less modern Muslims, as is being done so the world over.

(c.f., referenced in the Wikipedia entry on “ISIL,” Hasan, Mehdi (10 March 2015), “Mehdi Hasan: How Islamic is Islamic State?”, New Statesman, retrieved 7 July 2015, Consider the various statements of Muslim groups such as the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, representing 57 countries (Isis has “nothing to do with Islam”); the Islamic Society of North America (Isis’s actions are “in no way representative of what Islam actually teaches”); al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most prestigious seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world (Isis is acting “under the guise of this holy religion . . . in an attempt to export their false Islam”); and even Saudi Arabia’s Salafist Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz al ash-Sheikh (Isis is “the number-one enemy of Islam”).

Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife, is considered the first convert to Islam. She encouraged Muhammad (P.B.U.H.) to trust his spiritual experiences. Aisha, his last wife, helped to preach Muhammad’s message and was respected in her own right as a scholar, intellect, and leader. So while Islam did not wholeheartedly break free of the patriarchy of its environment, it was certainly not misogynistic. It may have been sexist in its primary voice of men speaking to other men. But the role of women, if anything, was sexist mostly for its holding of women on a pedestal. People who hold there is an essential evil within Islam simply have no ground on which to stand, as has been demonstrated countless times.

Wherever it is Christians who form the bulk of the disenfranchised masses, it is Christians who become terrorists (e.g. the KKK in the U.S., the Nazi’s in Germany);

Wherever it is Hindus who form the bulk of the disenfranchised masses, it is Hindus who become terrorists (e.g. the assassination of M. K. Gandhi in 1948);

Wherever it is atheists who form the bulk of the disenfranchised masses, it is atheists who become terrorists (e.g. Stalin’s Russia);

Wherever it is Muslims who form the bulk of the disenfranchised masses, it is Muslims who become terrorists (e.g. ISIL and the Al Queda).

We must stop this shadow-boxing. If we want to solve this problem, we must first identify it: The economic and spiritual disenfranchisement of the masses. This cause was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be the source of our woe. Three causes, actually: the disenfranchisement, the inability to correctly identify the problem, and the failure to address it.

In word and in deed, let us always address our brothers and sisters from the heart. Let us see what we can do for them. Let us cease our countlessly tried-and-failed policies of weaponization, deposement, divide-and-conquer, colonization of the mind and market, and, above all, our daily increase of ill-will toward each other through inciteful images and words throughout the media. We forget that free speech means also freedom to not speak, or to choose to speak out of love. Let see if we can choose not to repeat history yet again. As Goethe said,
He whose vision cannot cover
History’s three thousand years,
Must in outer darkness hover,
Live within the day’s frontiers
(quoted in Ken Wilbur’s Up From Eden)



Let’s stop talking about unemployment and underemployed for a moment, and let’s talk about an inversely related thing: the overemployed. Let’s talk about the CEO’s and shareholders who make 30 or 50 or 300 times their employee’s salaries. No, I am not a Marxist. I’m not a communist. I’m not even a socialist. But I think we need capitalism with a conscience. If you don’t like Marx, then stop proving him right. He said capitalism would lead to near-monolopolies and conglomerates and the consolidation of wealth into the hands of the few. He said it would lead to a steady decrease in wages to the lowest possible level to sustain the life of the workers. If you don’t like that analysis, then stop proving it correct. Start valuing your workers. Start seeing labor as valuable, no matter what kind it is. The guy who cleans the toilet and the woman who manages the teller line and the CEO are all valuable. If you’ve ever fallen victim to food poisoning, then you know firsthand the value and responsibility residing even in the so-called “lowest” jobs, like the dishwasher and the prep-cook. There may be slight differences in wages based on the time the job takes and on the level of responsibility, but that difference should fall within the range of 10 times, not 50 or 100 times, and and certainly not 300 times another’s salary. We need to use our freedom to create a truly free market, a market characterized by profound decisions about how to treat our customers, our colleagues, our employees, our shareholders and yes, even our bosses. Right now, we don’t have a free market. We have a deterministic market, a market run by the whims and fears of our lowest selves. We need to find our highest selves. And if you don’t believe you have something as mystical-sounding as a “highest self,” then use your imagination to envision one, and live your life according to what you think it might do.


“Don’t strive for world peace; strive for individual peace.”
Eric Voegelin


An Easter Homily

Easter Homily on John 20:11-18
April 7, 2015

I was wondering if we could try a little call-and-response for a minute:

Alleluia! The Lord is risen! And you say: The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Alleluia! The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Alleluia! The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

(“We’re not really that kind of a congregation, and that’s okay,” or “I didn’t think we were that kind of a congregation, but maybe we are!”)

I’m not that kind of a preacher, and that’s okay too. But I wanted to try this proclamation today, because I think it’s one of the most joyous things ever said by a human being. And nobody knows what it means. And that’s okay too. In the Roman Catholic Church, the resurrection of Jesus is called one of the glorious mysteries. So maybe it’s okay that we don’t know what it means.

The only thing I can think to say is this:

A wise person once said:

It will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, then it’s not the end.
It will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, then it’s not the end.

But that’s not enough, is it? Could I leave you with that? What is this story about? I was stumped, but I figured there are really only six questions that can ever be asked or answered: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. If I can just answer those six questions right now, then I will have done a decent job up here today. So here it goes:

First of all, Who? Well, you and me of course. Who else is there?

What? It’s a story about death and resurrection, so I’m guessing this is about living and dying and something else that follows that. (You know, a lot of people who have a problem with religion—their problem stems from stories like this one. “This here is what really gets me,” they say, “it’s all this unbelievable stuff. Jesus, rising from the dead. Adam and Eve, standing in a garden talking to a snake. Water turning into wine.” People think these stories are a problem for us because we live in the scientific age. Well, I’ve got news for you: These stories were a problem for people 2000 years ago, too. Nobody could believe it back then, either. Just read the story! Now, back to our questions.)

Where? Here.

When? Now. NOW!

Why? Because. Just kidding. Love, of course. It’s always love.

How? Now this is where I get stumped again. How? How are you and me supposed to live and die and do that other thing that happens in the story. How? And then I read the story again, and what sticks out to me is this: an empty tomb.

God has come to earth. God has died. God has resurrected. What’s that supposed to be like? There should be fireworks! There should be storms and earthquakes and hail and blazing sun and angels on clouds and heaven on earth. But no. What do we get? An empty tomb.

It will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, then it’s not the end.

We’re confronted with an emptiness, but I think that’s a beautiful message. An empty tomb, to me, means pure potential. Freedom. No-thing. Nothing. The potential for anything.

There is another symbol for this potential: An Easter Egg. An egg is a symbol of creation, of birth, of rebirth, renewal.

In the Christian tradition, you often hear a lot of “born-again” language. “Are you born again?” a girl once asked me in college. “Isn’t once enough?” I replied, much to her disdain. Luckily she laughed.
My problem with “born again” language is that most of the people I know who use that language haven’t died enough to be born again. None of us have. Or we have died and been reborn, but we’ve stopped there, as if it’s a one-time thing. We’ve stopped dying and being reborn.

I don’t know about “capital-D Death” of course. But I’m talking about the little deaths we die every day. All the time we are dying, and we are being reborn. The question is, what are we going to be reborn into? Will I die to my fun-loving self and be reborn as a curmudgeonly old man? Or will I die to my curmudgeonly self and be reborn as a fun-loving one? Will I die to my gossipy self, and be reborn into someone with more integrity? Or vice versa? Will I die to my opportunistic self and be reborn as a selfless one?

If you’re like me, and I think you are, once you’ve found your identity, before you know it, you outgrow it. You outgrow it and you let it go and you find a new one. And another one. And another one.
Seniors: You are about to say goodbye to your upper school selves. Upper-Schoolers, you’ve said good bye to your middle school selves. Lower-schoolers: you’ve said goodbye to your young childhood selves. Faculty and Staff, you’ve said good bye to all of these and more: You’ve said good bye to student-selves and father selves and mother selves, grandmother and grandfather selves, mentee selves and mentor-selves, mentally healthy selves, physically healthy selves. Luckily we get to say “hello again” to some of those as well.

Luckily, the thing about dying and being reborn is that your old selves never go away completely. They are always there, it’s just that you don’t identify with them anymore. Your old selves still reside somewhere inside you. Just the other day, my toddler-self came out when I tried to use my keycard to get into the gym for the third day in a row and it didn’t work. I threw a two-year-old tantrum right there in the parking lot. My toddler-self came out, but because I don’t identify with it any more, I could end my tantrum pretty quickly. Luckily, I also got to experience my child-self the other day, when I slid down a bunch of water slides at Great Wolf Lodge. Those old selves are there whenever we want them, (and sometimes when we don’t). But the bottom line is that they are not us. We are MORE than those selves.

Like you, I’ve been a lot of things. As a kid, I was a shy introspective artist, but then I found myself in these art classes with all of these “old” people. I wanted to be with kids my age. So then I tried to be an outgoing jock. That didn’t work for a number of reasons, but one of them was that I got very sick as a teenager. But that’s when I discovered the saxophone. And then I got a collapsed lung. And so you see, one of the scary things about identities is that they can dissolve in a split-second. I can tell you that none of them last. None of them are satisfactory. So while we can and should have identities, we should also remember that we are more than any of those identities.

But it’s even more complicated than that.

Every time I die, I think to myself: If I can only get it right this time. If I can only die and then choose the right new self, then maybe I won’t have to die again.

For example, one of my identities was this junior executive who thought he might like some success in the corporate world. But just as I was about to accept that job, I realized that what I really wanted to do was to be a teacher, the thing I had always dreamed about. And so I didn’t take that job and instead I joined a community of resistance, a group of poor teachers at a Catholic school in Massachusetts.

You might think, as I did, that I got it right that time. I died to success, and I found a new identity as this counter-cultural poor person by choice. Wasn’t that the right choice? Sure, it sounds better than the corporate dude who’s after money and success. And it might be better in a way. But it’s not substantially better. It’s just another identity, another self. And soon you outgrow it. I thought I was doing God’s work in that job, but God made me go a different way. God said to me, “You’ve got to pay your bills, Justin!” And then another set of options presented themselves—another corporate job, and this job at wonderful NCS.

The trouble is that every time I let an old self die, when the smoke—and tears—clear, there is always a new self waiting there! I crack open the egg, I break through the restrictions and then, before I know it, I realize I’ve created a new shell! What is the point of that? Why would I crack open an egg and then surround it with a new shell?

And this brings us back to the empty tomb. The point is not to get it right. It’s not that if we die right and are reborn right that we won’t have to do it all again. The point is to give up all the identifying, to give up all the attachment to identity, to give up all the ego-centeredness. The point is to not let any one identity be you.
At some point you just want to give up your old self and identify with…nothing. Sometimes you want to…

Just be, as you are, right here, right now, in this very moment. Just be.

Boy, girl, man, woman, transgender, homosexual, heterosexual, pansexual, Lower, middle, upper class, black, white, European, North American, South American, Central American, Central Asian, East Asian Pacific Rim, Pacific Islander, Mediterranean, Middle Easterner, North African, West African, Subsaharan African, South African, Latino-Latina-Mestizo-Mestiza, Lakota, Pueblo, Navajo, Cherokee, Jock, Punk, Nerd, Hipster, Emo, Prog, Dandy, Zombie, Vampire, Wizard, Witch, Muggle…

Right now you are, as we all are, having fun and working hard discovering all of these identifiers. But we shouldn’t make them into our WHOLE identity. We shouldn’t have to carry the burden of these identities with us at all times. We forget that, in the end, we are all of these things and we are none of these things. We are more than our identities. You, you are more than any of that. In the end, you are you. Nothing more need be said.

So, Who? You and me.

What? Just be.

Where? Here.

When? NOW!

Why? Because.

And How? Any way you want. It’s an empty tomb. Pure potential. Just be. And remember:

It will be alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, then it’s not the end.