Chalice Flames and Bonfires

Chalice Flame and Bonfires

One of my fondest memories of growing up in a Unitarian Universalist church involves lighting the chalice as a part of our youth group and youth conference gatherings.

But we didn’t just light the chalice. We lit.The.Chalice.

We would gather together burnt, used leftover matches and pile them carefully into the center of the candle to create a magnificent, brilliant light. While we discussed the topic of the day, one or two of us would tend to our chalice flame, keeping it contained yet bright as possible. When we ran out of used-up match fuel for our fire, we would find a use for our broken crayon stubs and melt them in the flame, letting the colorful wax drip down the side of the candle. We thought it was more pretty this way.

Over time we learned that the bigger the flame, the quicker the candle would burn. Our beautiful fire would suffocate when the pool of wax grew too deep or when the wick simply met it’s end. We weren’t too concerned then with making the candle last through our whole gathering, though. This was more about experimentation, pushing our limits (and, as it turns out, the limits of our advisors), and the instant gratification of making that chalice REALLY shine.

Occasionally, but not often, this ritual might have gotten a little out hand; an especially overzealous youth might add a few scraps of paper in an attempt to add a little more height to our fire and discover that the now bonfire was too hard to control, or we would create a waxy mess trying to clean out the candle. Those were the times when we found we had pushed our limits a little too far and our advisors would step in to dole out the logical consequences, and sometimes we could expect to lose our fire privileges for a while.

But that seemed to be part of the role of our advisors once we reached high school- to watch us tend to our own flame (hopefully not in panic-stricken horror) and step in when it became too much for us to handle on our own. Since then, I have learned that the line between a manageable brilliant light and an out-of-control blaze is very thin, and it takes a unique individual to help youth walk that line.

Sometimes I wish I still had an advisor to help me find that line in my day-to-day life. I might wake up in the morning, feeling calm, peaceful, yet determined and focused. But I might find that by dinnertime, after encountering a day full of frustrating news– stories of children taught to recite hate, thoughtless violence, and fear-mongering politics– I have crossed the line and transformed myself into a fuming, sarcastic, out-of-control blaze.

When I have crossed that line, I respond to antagonistic articles, Facebook posts, and conversations with not an ounce of understanding; I find myself seeking out news stories filled with mudslinging and hate, just to keep that fire fueled. Then I spend hours reading the comments and adding pointless lectures that won’t be read by anyone other than the people who were trying to create a bonfire in the first place.

And I know that I am not the only one– I think that UUs in general can be pretty susceptible to crossing that line. We are a passionate people and we care a whole awful lot. But sometimes our flammability lands us exactly where we don’t want to be and we react in exactly the wrong way. We turn into blazing, out of control bonfires.

We need our congregations and fellow congregants to be our advisors; to help us discover that line and to help us sustain our calm, brilliant lights. We need to help each other remember to respond in love, and not in-kind, when someone tries to fan the flame. Most importantly, we need to hold each other accountable so that we are compelled to react responsibly, especially when the temptation not to is great.


Arguing With Pundits

One of my favorite pastimes is to yell at my television and radio. Of course, the TV and radio aren’t really the subjects of my frustration; my issue generally lies with the personalities who use these poor, defenseless inanimate objects to deliver their misguided messages to the public.

For the most part, this tradition has always been quite an excellent arrangement for me; I get to sit on the couch in my pajamas, remote in hand, devouring the junk food of my choice, all while energetically poking holes in said cable news personality’s horrible excuse for an argument.

Surprisingly, this whole ritual is never as satisfying as one would think (junk food aside, of course). You would think that winning an argument completely unchallenged would be a huge ego boost, and since this generally all takes place when there no one else in the room to do anything else but roll their eyes at me (enter my spouse), I always win. But somehow, I still tend to leave the argument even more enraged than I was before; frustrated that I really haven’t done anything to change the fact that there is someone out there who holds a worldview that is, in my opinion, illogical, baseless, and probably even destructive. And, astonishingly, my arguments, no matter how loudly delivered, never seem to reach the ears of the pundit who so unapologetically espouses his or her views.

I have always passionately argued that this practice helps me better understand different points of view so that I can defend against them in an “actual” debate. I have even gone so far as to say that my Unitarian Universalist Principles demand that I occasionally immerse myself in alternative opinions so that I may challenge my own beliefs and explore other truths. Also, I figure that if I expose myself to some of these sometimes shocking ideas then when I hear them repeated by someone who is, I don’t know, cutting my hair, I will be able to keep myself from saying something I might later regret every time I look in the mirror.

On the other hand, there is a distinct possibility that this whole custom might really be contributing to the problem. If I tune in once a week to a cable news channel, what kind of money am I responsible for feeding into the whole operation? Am I just egging on these people? Perhaps my energy would be better spent writing letters and having an actual conversation with somebody.

So, with our cable service cancelled and the local talk radio channel erased from my presets, I have decided that it is time to have real conversations with people while engaging in a new spiritual practice: listening. Really listening.

I have discovered that the most disastrous result of my cable news and talk radio habit isn’t that I am giving the networks money. The worst part is that that every time I surround myself with the kind of hyperbolic rhetoric that comes from someone who can say whatever they want from the safety of a studio surrounded only by people who are making money from his or her wild assertions, then I forget that none of it is real. It only becomes real when we all start emulating the tactics of these pundits and stop having conversations outside of the safety of our living room couches.

Our pundit culture has completely changed the way we think about politics and debate. It taught us to view debate not as a way to expand our minds and understandings, but instead as a contest to be won; and what could be more interesting than to watch in a time of reality TV than two people engaged in duel? The winner has successfully and stubbornly stood her ground and the loser walks away with his tail between his legs, dragging his credibility behind him.

In the pundit world, ratings have replaced enlightenment as the ultimate coveted prize, and there is no line networks aren’t willing to cross to win them. Cable television and talk radio have become a modern-day Roman Colosseum, and our politicians and pundits are gladiators, pitting ideas against one another and hanging on to ill-begotten ideas as if their lives depended on it. Thanks to pundits, we have all adopted the opinion that to change your position on an issue “wishy-washy”, and that as long as you never show a single sign of humility or an ability to expand your mind, you will never have to answer to the person yelling into her TV screen a thousand miles away.

It is so easy to forget that opinions are much more likely to change when two people are in a position to actually listen to one another. Not just because they happen to be physically in the same location, but because they really want to hear what the other person has to say and (gasp!) are even amenable to learning something that they didn’t already know. We need these conversations to get back in touch with our humility and remember that we do not die when we change our opinions. Sometimes we actually grow.

So we, on both side of the aisle, can continue down the path of the pundits; we can continue to engage in destructive debates that focus only on destroying the character of another who disagrees with us. Or we can choose the higher road. This is a path that requires us to leave our couches and our studios and to listen in love every time; no matter how hard it may be.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Beyond the Rhetoric

Pointing fingers

It is hard to think that there might be anything left to share that hasn’t already been said following the events in Tucson last week.

To call this an unthinkable act simply does not give this justice.

In a just a few seconds, the lives of so many have been forever altered, and I fear our democracy may be as well; not just because our representatives may become even more inaccessible to their constituents than they ever were before, but because a country cannot thrive when it is ruled by fear.

Almost immediately following the horrific events on Saturday, Twitter and the blogosphere came alive; first with questions of, “Why?” and “Who?” and very quickly followed with far-fetched assumptions and finger-pointing. As we were all dizzy with a heavy mix of sadness, fear, and confusion, we reached to the only place we knew to go: those people.

So quick were we to wonder about the religious background and reading list of the killer; because surely these would identify the “responsible party.” So quick were we to search every Palin speech and every Beck and Limbaugh broadcast, looking for the one thing that MUST have set-off this would-be assassin. So quick were we then to respond by spending all of our waking hours rummaging for stones to cast back across the isle; because we could not bear to think that any one of us was more responsible than those people. I am ashamed that too much of my time over the past few days has been dedicated to tuning into programs I would not ordinarily support, knowing that my emotions would reach an all-time high.

Maybe I just needed to be angry; or perhaps this is our reaction because deep down we feel that it must be impossible for just one person to create such a large ripple in our pond; especially when this single individual has made this wave by doing something so horrendous.

Over the past days I have been restless as I struggled with my own internal debate about our language, our power of influence, and the responsibilities that come along with those. I was disheartened at the haste with which we assigned blame to others instead of combining our efforts to rise up and lead forward in solidarity. How are we to defeat the violent rhetoric if we give it so much power?

At the same time I was angry at those who have chosen to use their power to spread messages that are disingenuous at best and intentional fear-mongering at worst. But, through all of this I keep coming back to the same question:

How can we use our voices to reveal injustices and, at the same time, not allow our collective voices to give rise to hate and fear, giving those who perpetuate violence more power than they deserve?

Much of the debate that has been raging on in the media reminds me so much of the arguments that happened over ten years ago, as those of us who occupied high school classrooms attempted to wrap our minds around the Columbine Massacre.

Ironically, it was conservatives at that time who were ready to ban Marilyn Manson from stages across our country and who were ready to protest stores that sold his albums. “These musicians influence our feeble-minded children,” the argument went, “so those people are responsible for teaching our kids this violent behavior.”

I don’t remember where I was when I heard about the shooting and I don’t remember much about the news coverage in the days immediately thereafter; however, I do remember feeling sad and confused about what had happened and, above all, I felt anxiety about how our lives were to move forward.  While the media and politicians were busy debating censorship I, WE, had to go back to school. Life did not stop.

For a few days after Columbine, the high school I attended excused students who were not yet ready to return. My brother and I were never really ones for school, but nothing could keep us from going back as soon as the doors had opened. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of pride as we walked to our classes alongside my dad and the few other students, teachers, and parents who stood together with us on those few uncertain days.

Eventually, our lives seemed to get back to normal; although the new “normal” involved school lock-downs and make-up days at the end of the year; not because of weather closings, but because of the incredible amount of bomb threats our schools started to endure. All of these years, and countless debates later, and we still have not discovered the magic formula that lead to that fateful day.

This is not to say that these debates are not important at all; in fact, we need to consider that by focusing our energy on these debates in the midst of a crisis diminishes not only the suffering of those who are mourning, but also lessens the value of the issues at hand. I am not suggesting that we light-heartedly “drop it” until a better time, but that we take a moment to introduce a little bit of level-headedness back into the equation. It is important to deeply consider the consequences of our words and the power of our influence on others, so let’s consider it; deeply and sincerely. We have all said things that do not reflect our peaceful ideals and we ought to afford others the same opportunity to learn and do better.

I am ready for the moment where we walk through those figurative high school doors, proud to stand together in honor of those who suffered the most.

I want us to recognize that we all have a part to play, and that assigning blame is not the same as shining a light on injustice so that we may do better.

I do not want us to slowly, angrily sink back into life as we knew it before this tragedy; I want to intentionally move forward, better, because of it. This can’t happen as long as we are focused on lifting up hate and violence, even if we do so because we think we are speaking out against it. The more time we spend assigning and deflecting blame, the less time is spent tilting the scales back toward love, justice, and healing.

I, for one, am ready to walk through those doors; a new “normal” of our own creation awaits us on the other side. I am ready. Are you?

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” –Gandhi