January 16–Justice: Democracy

Tending to our American democracy is more difficult than any of us imagine. At its core, democracy as we practice it is founded on inalienable rights–life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as the Declaration of Independence affirms, but the first amendment to the Constitution also insists that this democracy requires some basic freedoms: of religion, speech, the press and the right to assemble and to call on the government to address grievances.

There is an inherent tension in those two claims.  The claim to an inherent right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness affirms individual freedom, but the first amendment binds us to a work community work which no individual can be free to ignore–if democracy lives.  Freedom of religion means not only assuring that my religion is protected but your religion or your choice of no religion is protected as well.  The right to speak, to assemble, and to publish–especially grievances that the government must address require us to engage with one another.

When Republicans and Democrats speak as if the other must be repressed or as if they are the only two political stances, we damage democracy.  When Christians or any other religious or anti-religious group work to ensconce their religious views in law, democracy is damaged.  When a President or anyone else seeks to use his/her power against a group of people because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their country of origin, their religious affiliation or their ability to publish freely, democracy is in danger of failing.

When a people choose democracy as their way of being together, they bestow a bounty into the proper place–the hands, hearts and minds of the people. To have a democracy requires the constant work of justice.

Bob Patrick

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January 15–Justice: MLK National Holiday

Forty years ago, I was a senior in high school.  What I “knew” about Martin Luther King, Jr was that he was a “trouble-maker” and “a communist.”  Mostly, I didn’t have many thoughts about him at all, but when his name came up in my community near Birmingham, AL at that time, those were the two phrases.  And, those phrases mattered.

I now know that “trouble-maker” was white racist code for a black human being who was presuming to speak up and speak out.  I knew even then that “a communist” was one of the scariest words around.  I was born during the end of the Korean conflict, was a child when the Bay of Pigs took place in Cuba, grew up during the Cold War, had dinner every night with the Vietnam War on television.  No word inspired fear in Americans back then like “communist.”

In the fall of that year, forty years ago, I went to college, and in that year was required to watch some documentaries that included many of MLK’s speeches.  I remember sitting one night, alone in a media viewing room, watching King and listening to his speeches.  I was overwhelmed with emotion.  The emotions were many things.  My heart and mind swelled with the truth that I knew he was speaking about the human condition, the arc of justice, the inherent dignity that belonged to every human being.  Even as a child, I had questioned what I heard and saw going on around me between white and black people, with few voices who would respond to me, and this man gave voice to it all.  I was also filled with anger that at 19 years old what I knew of this man was a lie and that the movement he led had not until then penetrated my small, safe, white world.

There are so many things that my 19 year old self would not have imagined.  Like a national holiday honoring this “trouble-maker and communist.”  Like electing twice our first President of Color.  And, sadly, following that first President of Color a President who is a racist, a misogynist and a perpetual liar.

I need the reminder of this MLK National Holiday this year more than I ever have, perhaps, in forty years.  Our nation needs this holiday. Damage is being done to the dignity of the nation’s soul and to us as individuals every time we sit in silence and say nothing about what is currently being perpetrated in the name of the American people. Martin Luther King, Jr has shown us what to do, how to be, and he has told us why we must rise up, speak up and show up.

Bob Patrick

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January 11–Justice: Kindness

Kindness is more important than wisdom, 
and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom.
Theodore Rubin

Often, we think of wisdom as taking whatever knowledge we have gained and turning it into some sort of life practice.  I think that is fair.  Too often, though, we think of that knowledge as coming from books or the internet or some other form of academic publication. This bias toward a particular kind of knowledge (one of my own biases) is probably common among Unitarian Universalists.  It’s an easy bias: why would you not want good information? Reading, research and study provide a pathway to finding good information. And, if we cultivate practices based on good information, that may lead to wisdom.  It may also lead to arrogance, if we are honest.

If the way to knowledge, however, is limited to this pathway of the intellect, we will always arrive at knowledge (good information) by circumventing the human heart.

Enter kindness.  The practice of kindness is something anyone can engage (even people who love books), any time, anywhere.  No books required.  No wifi needed.  No device required in the hand. The practice of kindness puts us into relationships, service, listening, observing and the possibility of reflecting, immediately.

And really, aren’t these the true building blocks of wisdom?  To be in relationship with other beings around us, to serve, to listen, to observe, to notice, and to reflect on what we find in doing so?

Yet another way of choosing to bestow bounty in its proper place.

Bob Patrick

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January 10–Justice: Where to start

This past Sunday, Rev. Jan shared a spiritual practice with us that she learned to do at the beginning of any and every other spiritual practice.  It reminded me immediately of one that I learned years ago.  At the very beginning of meditation, prayer, journaling or other spiritual practice:

Looking into a full length mirror, and into your own eyes say:  I accept myself in this moment just the way that I am.

Here is what Rev. Jan’s practice adds:  I accept myself in this moment just the way that I am, and I extend that acceptance to every being I will encounter today.

This sort of practice is grounded in Hindu and Buddhist practices that recognize what our 7th Unitarian Universalist principle affirms–there is an interdependent web of all existence between and among all beings.  This principle along with this kind of spiritual practice makes clear that justice begins with me. There is another saying from the Scholastic Christian tradition:  You cannot give what you do not have.

For too long in Puritan and post-Victorian mindset (one that is a part of our own UU history!) we have tried to deny ourselves and offer goodness and justice to others.  That is an exhausting and ultimately empty practice even for the bravest of souls.

If I can really accept myself in this moment just the way that I am (don’t be misled, this ain’t easy–that’s why it’s a practice), then I really do have something to extend to others.  Without question, whatever stands in the way of self-acceptance will become the very thing by which we judge and blame another.

Accept myself just the way I am.  Extend that to all beings I encounter today.  Isn’t that bestowing bounty where it is most proper?

Bob Patrick

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January 9–Justice: Anger and Fear

“Where there is anger, there is always fear.”  This was the theme of an episode of the PBS long running series Call the Midwife. It is an observation about human life echoed by other observers.  Ekhart Tolle says: “Where there is anger there is always pain underneath.” Clinical psychologist, Dr. Deborah Koshaba notes that there is a strong connection between anger and fear, so these observations of a spiritual sort seem well grounded in the clinical findings of modern psychology.

My own reaction when I was younger, to angry people (and to be honest, even now often enough) was to move away, to recoil, to stay away, to run! Those reactions might be followed with some personal judgments about the angry person: that one is bad; unfair; a problem; unfriendly.

When I have had encounters with people who are afraid, my reactions have been to move toward them. I find myself wanting to comfort, to embrace, to reassure, to listen, to empathize.

The challenge now of course is this:  when I encounter an angry fellow human being, can I breathe into the experience, and recall that where there is anger, there is always fear? Caution:  probably best not to try and hug an angry person–at least not right away! And, sometimes people are too angry to remain present with them. Giving them space and coming back later might be the best thing.  But, what if we replace the ordinary response to anger with the ordinary responses to fear?

Don’t run away.

Don’t judge.

Listen.

Empathize.

Reassure.

If I can bring myself to this sort of response when confronted with an angry person, it strikes me that this would be a personal example of Rumi’s sort of justice:  bestowing bounty in its proper place.

Bob Patrick

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January 5–Justice: Bestowing Bounty

Rumi calls justice “bestowing bounty in its proper place.”  I find that a powerful phrase to hold in mind and heart as I consider any sort of justice work that I give myself to.  In some real sense, those who engage in social justice work are finding ways to bestow bounty in its proper places.

The bounty could be money, of course, in the way of accessing food, shelter, clothing, medical care, transportation, job training and education for those who are most vulnerable.  It might also be working to insure that human rights and the freedom and responsibility that go with those rights are in place and unhindered for any person or group so hindered.

Today, if you had such power to bestow bounty in its proper places, I wonder.  Where would those places be?  For whom would you bestow what kind of bounty?  And then, for me, perhaps what is a much more important question:  why would you do it?  What moves you to bestow bounty in its proper place in those places where you do have such power?

Why do you do it?

Bob Patrick

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January 4–Justice: Conditions

As I ponder justice, I keep encountering all of the conditions that seem to be in place whenever human beings speak of justice, injustice and social justice.

There are the conditions that the suffering person is in. When we can see those conditions, most human beings are moved to help alleviate them.  We often only see the surface conditions, though.  We see that someone is hungry, so we do a canned food drive.  We don’t see that the hungry individuals have been, for example, gut-punched by abusive conditions for generations.  Then, we begin to pull back:  what did YOU do, we ask of the abused, about their abuse.

I am also aware of the conditions that I and others bring as the ones who are empowered by our culture to decide, in the first place, who may receive justice and who may not.  Recently, someone told me that a tax system which fell heavier on the rich than the poor was immoral.  He told me that if the poor were taxed more, they would feel like they were part of the system and had something to contribute.  What belies this position is a condition of affluence that the speaker has always known in his life.  He cannot imagine another condition in which everything in the world around you is set against you.

If we want to talk about an authentic justice that sets all beings free to their fullest potential, we have to look at conditions.  And, I think, we have to look through those conditions to a compassion that can embrace every condition–until the conditions loose themselves from us as a death grip and begin to be a kind of window into truth.

Bob Patrick

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January 3–Justice: Bestowing Bounty

What is justice? Giving water to trees. What is injustice? To give water to thorns. Justice consists in bestowing bounty in its proper place, not on every root that will absorb water.

– Rumi

Poetry invites, incites, and implicates.  At the very least.

I am a fan of the Persian mystic poet we call Rumi who wrote in Urdu 700 years ago.  I read these short lines of Rumi’s about justice.

Invitation
Rumi sees justice as bestowing bounty in the right place.  Do I see justice that way?  I know people right this minute whose family member is  in a crucial healthcare scare, and their health insurance is resisting cooperation.  Certainly it would be just to bestow a bounty of funds on them and all people like them who need care, desperately, who are being hindered from it.  What a proper place to bestow bounty!

Incitement
But, who decides what is the proper place to bestow bounty? We have a President who has said that he wants to gather up all undocumented immigrants and “send them back home.”  Today’s news reports that Israel has decided to force African migrants out of the country.  I encounter people who think that social safety net programs are all being scammed or more bluntly that poor people are lazy and unworthy of bounty.

Implication
Who in this world is a tree?  Who in this world is a thorn? And, by the way, don’t thorns have some proper place in the scheme of things? (roses and blackberries come to mind!). When I decide who the trees are and who the thorns are, what does that decision imply about my place in the world?

If we were the bestowers of bounty in all the proper places . . .
. . . what would your form of justice look like?

Bob Patrick

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January 2–Justice: Our Interactions

Justice.  The roots of this word are ancient.  They appear all over the Latin language, but Latin was a late arrival.  The Sanskrit word “yu” is the root, which means to join.

To join. Justice is a joining.

The Latin adds to that a binding, an obliging, a right, a law, justice.

Justice is something that binds us, obliges us, gives us rights, and establishes laws.

We get so many words from this ancient root, yu.  Justice, jurisprudence, jury, judge, judicial, judiciary,  judgment, judgmental, injury, injurious, conjugal, conjugate,  injunction, injustice, prejudice.

Just in these few words look at what the ancient root word touches on in our society: law, trials, decisions, power, social separation, social satisfaction, health, marriage, language, complaint, oppression and human intelligence.

Justice seems to touch every area of our lives.  Justice, it seems, just from a literary standpoint, is about how we interact with one another.

And yet, it’s not just about cool observation, is it?  Justice is how we interact with one another guided by something else.  What might that be?

Bob Patrick

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December 31–Hope: The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

  • Howard Thurman
    “The Work of Christmas” in The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (1985)

The UUCG choir sang this song during the 7:00 service on the 24th and I could hardly get through it. The first time we practiced it I welled up with tears as I read through the words and their meaning which struck me like a truck. And it was like that every time we practiced the music. I had to remove myself from the lyrics so I could lay down the melody in my head and my memory. And then, a bit at time, allowed the meaning of the lines back into my head.

The stories and traditions we celebrate during this time of cold and dark are as varied and unique as the way we take our coffee. I have learned to open my eyes and ears and heart and take in more than my childhood traditions during this time of hope and celebration.

These words bring everything full circle for me. As my children continue to grow up and start their own traditions and celebrations I find myself revisiting my own and figuring out what to keep and what to purge. As I repack  the hand made ornaments and precious photo ornaments safely away for next year – I will say goodbye to the random filler pieces bought to fill empty spaces on the tree and the mantle and let them bring joy to someone else. I will let go of old habits to make room for more meaning and purpose.

My work begins now. My intent to live the principals of my life carries on. To find the lost, to heal the broken, to release the prisoner, the rebuild the nations. To bring peace and to make music. Here in my own circle of family and friends – the work of Christmas begins.

Lydia Patrick

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