HIGH CHURCH: Just Relax this Easter

March 30, 2021

I have a guilty secret to confess. Roughly three times a year I get a real urge to go to HIGH CHURCH!

I mean bring out the incense, the gold and silver candlesticks, the Russian Orthodox Bibles in silver inlaid covers, full choirs – and not just one, but two – a second choir in the balcony next to the trumpets and a full complement of brass instruments. Let’s not leave out the organ with its multifarious metal pipes reaching for the sky. Oh, and don’t forget the full detail of altar boys and girls dressed in white robes, followed by enough priests to make a complete football team.

“The Lord be with you.”

“And also with you.”

I remember my last HIGH CHURCH service in Tulsa before I came to Roanoke. Our Unity Christmas Eve Service was held at 5:00 pm. “You have to do it at 5:00 pm,” a principal board member told me. “Not at 7:00 pm because that is too late!”

Afterward, I then went out to dinner with my daughters and a friend. At Midnight, my friend and I drove back downtown to go to the midnight Christmas Eve Service at Trinity Episcopal Church in Tulsa. Trinity is a very wealthy congregation that has done so much good in Tulsa. For example, there are beautiful iron gates at this church. Trinity started handing out food, clothing, etc. to many people in need at these iron gates. Now Iron Gate Ministries has spearheaded many programs at other congregations to help their neighbors.

Trinity’s Sunrise Easter service is also very beautiful. Not only is it a feast for the eyes, but when the orchestra and chorus start playing Vivaldi‘s Gloria it is a fantastic feast for the ears.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want HIGH CHURCH every week. I also understand that a steady diet of HIGH CHURCH can create hardening of the spiritual arteries and metaphysical gout. But two or three times a year seems to be just fine by me.

Before I was married I seemed to be on a diet of HIGH CHURCH for Christmas, Easter, and the week of Thanksgiving. That is because I dated so many Catholic, or lapsed Catholic, women. We would be with her parents on Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving, and we would be at Mass. I actually enjoyed going to Mass with them even though back then I was an atheist on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On the other days of the week, I was an agnostic.

Woody Allen many years ago said that he had to break up with his girlfriend over religious differences. “She was an agnostic, and I am an atheist,” he noted.

I will always remember one Easter mass that I went to at a church near Georgetown University. When it came time for the homily, the priest started out by saying, “So this was going to be the Lent in which you really spent time with God. This was going to be the time where you read and studied that spiritual book that your friends have been talking about. You were really going to build a better relationship with God. You were going to listen to that ‘still small voice.’ You were going to grab what Jesus called ‘the pearl of great price.’”

The priest looked around at the congregation and then continued. “And here it is Easter, and most of your good intentions remain just that – good intentions. You don’t feel you have done it. You still feel so far off from God. You don’t think you have the ability to hear the Holy Spirit, much less follow the will of the Holy Spirit despite your best intentions.”

The priest paused again, and he once more looked around the church. Then he said, “Well, if that is you – or somebody you know – I have some advice for you … and it is this: On this Easter just relax. Just take a deep breath. Stop whipping yourself.”

Then he started talking about one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, a British priest who lived in the 1800s. Hopkins was famous for something known as “sprung rhythm.” His poetry is often compared to syncopated jazz, where words almost “bebop” on the page.

This priest quoted one of Hopkin’s most famous lines (from his poem The Wreck of the Deutschland): “Let him easter in us.” The full line is:

“Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.”

Or as the prophet Zachariah put it: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord.”

It reminds me of the famous story of the two sisters – Martha and Mary – who were entertaining Jesus in their home. Martha tried to make it into a big production number and was attempting to cook a five-course meal based on Julia Child’s recipes. Meanwhile, Mary was sitting by the rabbi, living in Eckhart Tolle’s ‘Now,’ and letting Him Easter in her.

This Easter, no matter if we are in a HIGH CHURCH, low church, somewhere in between church, or no church, let Him Easter in us. Let’s follow the “better path” taken by Mary.

“The mass has ended. Go in peace.”

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

Open Sesame, or Partially Open Sesame

March 23, 2021

Reading time was a magical experience in my childhood home. As a young boy I loved being read to by my father and mother. It was better than even television because the pictures inside of my head were so much richer than what I saw on the old black and white boob-tube.

I soon graduated beyond The Cat In The Hat and Scuffy the Tugboat. I remember the excitement of my father reading Robin Hood and Mark Twain’s Life on The Mississippi to me. In Twain’s classic he recreated life on the big river before the Civil War and what it was like learning to be a pilot of a paddle wheel steamer. After my father tucked me in, I would get up and pretend that my bed was the pilot house of a ship headed for New Orleans.

Then came a period where I lost interest in reading and became more interested in movies. This was the era when the silver screens seemed as big as Texas, and Lawrence of Arabia pressed on to Aqaba. We were able to go around the world in 80 days with a big bag of buttered and salted popcorn.

However, in eighth grade something happened: I started reading books again. Low and behold I had an epiphany! I concluded that the book is almost always better than either the movie or the tv show. I believe this observation is still true to this day – at least for me.

Back in the eighth grade one of the first books I read was a translation of Antoine Galland’s rendition of One Thousand and One Nights. Galland was a French archaeologist who is believed to be the first European translator of this Arabic classic.

I loved the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and I thought it was one of the best stories that Scheherazade told to the Sultan. Remember that the forty thieves had hidden their treasure inside a cave. “Open sesame” were the magic words that would open the mouth of the cave. The phrase comes from the supposedly potent properties of the sesame plant and not from the children’s tv show.

I can’t tell you how many times I have wanted to say “Open Sesame!” to Unity of Roanoke Valley’s buildings, which have been closed because of the pandemic. When I first came to Unity of Roanoke Valley in June of 2020 I thought, “Well, things will be closed for a month or two.” As the end of the year approached I started to feel like Abraham Lincoln when he realized that the Civil War was going to be a long and hard slog.

But then I started to say to myself, “Rick, count your blessings. We have these new YouTube services, Zoom classes, an online Youth and Family Ministries program, and parking lot services.” There has been much to be grateful for. I was able to meet many of you through the Hi Teas, Christmas Open House, The Giving Room, pastoral counseling, and more. There were your many kind emails, text messages, and phone calls. But it was still not the same, and I think you know what I mean.

Many of you have expressed a real desire to get back together in our beautiful church. And many of you have also expressed the key desire that we be safe and not become COVID-19 spreaders. The URV Board created a wonderful Task Force on Reopening the Buildings. Pat Eby has done a great job chairing this Task Force. Both Pat and Jeremy Johnson have kept us up to date on the latest regulations and guidelines. The Task Force includes people with medical expertise and knowledge in many other areas needed for the safe reopening of the buildings.

The Task Force has now recommended – and the Board has approved – a first step which I think is both safe and wise. What better day than Easter, Sunday April 4th, to say a “Partial Open Sesame” and see the cave partly open! This Easter we will have a Sunrise Service at 7:00am on the patio, right next to the beautiful new fountain in the rose garden. There will be overflow seating for the Sunrise Service in the Fellowship Hall.

Next, Grace Wood will lead prayers and a guided Labyrinth walk at 10:00am to honor The Season for Nonviolence. Lastly, we will hold an Easter parking lot service at 11:00am. The Sessions Band will be there. To quote the great British poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Let Him Easter in us.”

On April 18th we start regular in-person Sunday services at 11:00am in the Sanctuary! Because of social distancing, seating is limited with overflow seating available in the Fellowship Hall and on the patio (weather permitting). Mask wearing and social distancing are required at all services. To attend an in-person service you must preregister by sending an email to: urvseats@yahoo.com with the following information:

Your name
Names of all people attending the service with you
Phone number(s)
Which service you plan to attend (Easter Sunrise Service/April 18th service, etc)

In the tale about Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, the words “Open Sesame“ entirely opened the mouth of the cave. In our case “Open Sesame” will only partially open the mouth of the cave. But I have faith that this partial opening will be fantastic, and that in God’s good season we will be back to two services on Sunday with fellowship!

We will continue doing YouTube services! So if you are not there in person, you can continue to enjoy Unity Of Roanoke Valley services. I look forward to meeting so many more of you. If you have any questions about this partial “Open Sesame,” please do not rub any magic lanterns. Instead, call or text me at 571-215-9481.

We will get to the magic carpets soon!

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

Fame: I’m Gonna Live Forever

March 16, 2021

You’ve probably never heard of him. But if things had been just a little different, then I am willing to bet that his recent death would have brought a tear to your eye, or at least a memory of where you were, and what you were doing, when you first heard one of his songs or saw him in a movie.

His name was George Gerdes. We were friends and grew up in the same town. You could tell even back in junior high school (and yes it wasn’t called middle school back then), that George was a man of many talents. He was a great singer/songwriter. One of the first songs of his that I ever heard was “Hey Packy,” a love letter to his dog. Many years later Loudon Wainwright III recorded a great cover of it. Back in high school, I remember thinking, “Someday, when George is famous, I’ll be able to say that way back when I actually knew Packy.”

Not only could George sing, but he was also funny and a very talented actor. At talent shows he would do comedy sketches that brought down the house. I still laugh when I remember his song entitled “I Took My Baby To The Switchblade Hop.”

After college George played in some of Greenwich Village’s leading coffee houses. I remember seeing him then, and the house was always filled with some very big names. Besides Loudon Wainwright III, Joni Mitchell said some very kind things about George and his music. When I saw George play he always made time to speak with me no matter who was in the house. He would tell me that famous line from Jimmy Durante: “Never snub people on your way up because you meet the same people on your way down.”

George landed a multi-record contract with a major label. His first record was called “Obituary,“ and his second album was entitled “Son of Obituary.” The records were quite good, and they got a lot of critical acclaims. But they did not sell and the record company dropped him.

George then went to Hollywood, and landed a major role in the Disney movie “Iron Will.” It takes place in Alaska and is about the Iditarod dog race. George played the mean and evil bad guy. When my daughter Rachel was a little girl, she saw the movie and asked me, “How could you be friends with that very bad man?” I explained to her that George was a very good actor, and in reality, he was a very kind and deeply spiritual person. He established himself as a prolific character actor. He was in episodes of Miami Vice, Seinfeld, and The X-Files. He was in movies such as Hidalgo and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Recently it seemed like he might have had a really big break. He played President Dwight Eisenhower in a film called “The 11th Green.” But then came the pandemic and the world of movie releases had the rug pulled out from under it. George died of an aneurysm this last New Year’s Day in Glendale, California. He was very talented and a good man.

When I heard about George’s transition, what came to my mind was something John Sterling, the radio broadcaster for the New York Yankees, often says when the seeming home run falls just outside of the foul pole: “It’s a game of inches.” It could’ve easily gone very differently.

I thought about Bruce Springsteen. He was in a three-record deal with Columbia Records. The first two records were critical successes, but they weren’t big sellers. Springsteen knew that he only had one more shot, and he did not have a backup plan. If the third record was not a blockbuster, then he knew it would be “So long. It’s been good to know yuh.” Fortunately, the third album was Born To Run, and the rest is history. But the Boss could have been very easily tossed. It is a game of inches.

President Barack Obama, in his new autobiography, A Promised Land, also shows that life can be a game of inches. He had just lost his campaign to become a Congressman from Chicago. He got the notion – which he admits sounded crazy – to run for the U.S. Senate from Illinois.

His wife, Michelle, was at first against him running for the Senate. She asked her husband if he had magic beans that would make this far-fetched fantasy come true. Barack then promised Michelle that if he lost in this campaign to become a Senator, he would resign from politics for good. Michelle finally said to her husband that he could run for the Senate, but she added jokingly that he shouldn’t count on her vote. A game of inches: we might never have heard of Barack Obama if the Senate race had gone differently.

And even if you win fame, the old song is right: “Fame if you win it, comes and goes in a minute.” Recently, Rachel – the bright 17-year-old – and I were listening to a podcast that mentioned Jack Benny. “Who is Jack Benny?” my daughter asked.

A number of years ago, when my son Josh was 12, Bob Dylan came on the car radio. “Who is that?” my son asked. “Why son that is Bob Dylan the singer/songwriter and poet of my generation,” I responded. “Oh,” said Josh. We drove on for a few miles, and then Josh asked me, “Dad, what is wrong with Dylan’s voice?”

Barack Obama, again in his new autobiography, also shows the downside of fame. He tried to go to the zoo with his two little daughters, Malia and Sasha. Despite the baseball cap and sunglasses, he was recognized and mobbed. So much for trying to have a private and relaxing day with your daughters. Back home, the Obama girls suggested to their mom that their daddy needed a disguise. Michelle Obama responded by saying that the only disguise that would work for her husband would be if he had an operation that pinned back his ears.

Thinking about the above brings to mind the hit song Fame:

Fame
I’m gonna live forever…
I’m gonna make it to heaven
Light up the sky like a flame
Fame
I’m gonna live forever
Baby remember my name
Remember, remember, remember, remember
remember, remember, remember, remember

And yet I think that the “peace that passes all understanding” comes when we realize that we already have what we truly want at a very deep and fundamental level. It may not be fame at the ego level. But it is very much ours when we realize that we are one with the One, and it is right here and right now.

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO: An Example for Us All

March 9, 2021

I have a strange request to make of you. Pretend for a moment that you are Abraham Lincoln.

It is in the middle of the Civil War, and things are not going that well for the Union side. You thought it was going to be a relatively quick war and easy victory, but then came the humiliating defeat at First Bull Run. Then you had incompetent general after general leading the Northern side.

Finally you have a seemingly brave and victorious commander in Ulysses S. Grant. But one night in the White House, one of your key aides comes up to you and says, “You know Mr. President, General Grant gets stinking drunk every night.”

You respond by saying, “Well, find out what Grant is drinking, and send a case of it to all my other generals.”

But the war drags on, and there does not seem to be any end in sight. You are also concerned that you might not win the next presidential campaign and be re-elected. Your grief is not just for the possible personal humiliation, but you also believe that your opponents won’t fight on to victory. The Union cause will be lost if this happens.

On top of this your wife – on an emotional level – is far from being the sharpest knife in the drawer. People are even starting to make some comments questioning your wife’s sanity. Mary (you often call her ‘mother’) was never easy to live with. She came from a social rung of society that was way above you. But you knew you had ambitions. However, there were days when you doubted that you would make good on your dreams. Back in 1859 when some GOP big wigs first visited you to size you up for a possible presidential run, they asked you if you were a progressive? You responded by saying, “Look at me gentlemen. My life hasn’t progressed anywhere.”

So there is the agony of the war, and a family situation that often does not include marital bliss, and then there are your self-doubts and bouts of depression. But there is always your little son Willie – the light and joy of your life. There is Willie dressing up like a little soldier and trying to bring rocks, mud, and turtles into the White House. There is Willie getting into so much mischief, and he is so full of spunk and life. How could a father not love and be proud of such a boy?

But then Willie is laid low by some disease. The doctors can’t bring him around, and little Willie dies in the White House. Willie’s body is taken to a temporary crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, about five miles away from the White House. You may be the President of the United States with so many duties and responsibilities in a time of war. But you are overcome with grief. What do you do? What can you do?

It was reported (in several newspapers of the day) that Abraham Lincoln was so stricken with grief that on several occasions he left the White House and visited the cemetery. Lincoln opened the temporary crypt, and held the body of his dead son.

Writer and professor, George Saunders, uses these historical reports to construct a captivating novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. The book won the prestigious Golden Man Booker Prize, and I think it has lessons for us as we go through some difficult times.

Saunders is not only an excellent writer, but he is also very interested in Buddhism. The bardo is a concept in several branches of Buddhism, and it arose soon after the death of Buddha. In essence, the bardo is a state of existence between two lifetimes. It is consciousness not connected with any physical body. In this framework after one dies, you are not immediately reincarnated into another body. Instead you may spend some time in the bardo.

The bardo is like a great metaphysical train station, airport, or cosmic bus depot. Also, the bardo has many platforms and gates, and in Saunder’s novel one of these ramps extends to the cemetery in “Civil War” Georgetown. Lincoln, Willie, and other souls/spirits learn much from their interactions in the bardo.

I admire Saunders for much more than his writing abilities. In real life he is known for his kindness – not only in helping up-and-coming writers, but in making this world a better place. Saunders reminds me of a quote from that great Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Herschel, who said, “When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I have learned to admire kind people.”

It is interesting in thinking about Lincoln who went through so much heartache as President, as well as a husband and a father. He didn’t become bitter, and he didn’t become pessimistic.

Following those grief-filled nights in the cemetery in Georgetown, Lincoln went on to talk about and advance “the better angels of our nature.” He envisioned a world where there was “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”

As a minister in both Tulsa and Roanoke I have had the honor and privilege to meet several courageous people who have had – like Lincoln (a la Saunders) – nights in the bardo. And like Lincoln they have emerged from these experiences as kinder souls, positive influences, and incredible examples of what is possible.

If we ourselves have never spent a night in the bardo (or don’t remember being in the bardo), perhaps we can learn much from those who have spent some time there – and remember these experiences.

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

Bridgerton or Shooting An Elephant

March 2, 2021

I love Jane Austin novels. That is why I was so looking forward to Bridgerton, a new Netflix streaming series.

Based on Julia Quinn’s novels, the story is set in the world of Regency London during the early 1800s. At center stage is the upper crust Bridgerton family who is trying to find a suitable husband for their oldest daughter, Daphne. It is “the season“ when debutantes are presented at court. Daphne is viewed as probably “the best catch” of the year. Who will be the lucky man to win Daphne’s heart?

There are balls, grand garden parties, promenades in the park, fireworks, gentlemen callers at fine country estates and grand town houses, fathers and brothers trying to arrange marriages, and an army of servants and trades people all making this social merry-go-round spin. All of this is depicted in this series with scrumptious acting, costumes, scenery, and cinematography.

Without giving away too much -and there are many twist and turns, subplots, and background stories -Daphne does very well for herself on this highly competitive marriage market. She is even courted by a Prince and a Duke.

Underneath all of this is Lady Whistledown. We never see her on the screen, but we hear her voice and see her widely-read printed gossip paper. (Julie Andrews is the voice of Lady Whistledown.) Lady Whistledown’s scandal sheet details who is up and who is down in the social pecking order. It also includes who has lost a ton of money gambling, who is near bankruptcy, and what woman is not as pure as new fallen snow.

Lady Whistledown is the first to tell the small world of upper class Britain who is not following the strict social mores, norms, and codes of conduct that befit a lady or a gentleman. It is a very rigid social system, and it is also a very unequal – and unfair – one. I believe this is a key takeaway from Bridgerton (and I think the series has hit the nail on the head): this social system is not just rigid and unfair for the those lower down in the social order, but it is horribly rigid, unfair, dehumanizing, and unforgiving for those on the top rungs of society.

A similar situation was also the case in the aristocratic and slaveholding South before the Civil War. Professor David Blight of Yale University recently won the National Book Award for his biography of Frederick Douglass who was born a slave and escaped to become a leading Abolitionist voice in the 1800s. Douglass showed how the system of slavery created harsh conditions for both slaves and slave owners. Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. depicted how the world of Jim Crow laws ate away at the humanity of both African Americans and whites.

George Orwell also was able to capture this irony of rigid and unfair systems. Although Orwell was famous for his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, he also wrote many wonderful essays. One of these essays was “Shooting An Elephant.” During the era of British imperialism, Orwell served in His Majesty’s Army in a wild outpost in Burma. The natives wanted him to shoot an elephant that they viewed as aggressive. Orwell didn’t want to do it, and he felt there was a better solution. He also believed that he was supposed to be in command of this area, and the natives should be obeying him. Because of various twists, turns, and social norms, there Orwell was out in the tall grass shooting an elephant.

In Bridgerton, there are duels that neither party wants to be in, broken engagements that neither side really wants to break, agreements that are only being done because nobody wants to offend a stupid code, and fights that are as silly as something out of Dr. Seuss.

It is easy to look at the worlds of Bridgerton or Orwell in Imperial Burma and laugh. But how many times are we out there shooting elephants we don’t really want to shoot? How many times are we mixed up in duels (verbal or otherwise) we really don’t want to have? How many times are we doing things we really don’t want to do and we know will not be good for us in the long run?

How many times are we just as much prisoners of our time period and society as the Bridgertons and Orwell were of their eras? How many times are we doing something just as silly as an incident out of a Dr. Seuss book?

In many ways religion plays a large part in the Bridgeton’s society. Yet it is hard to imagine Jesus supporting and condoning much of what is going on in this Regency era world. Before we judge others, we should remember that the great singer-songwriter, Woodie Guthrie, wrote the following lyrics not that long ago:

This song was written in New York City
Of rich man, preacher, and slave
If Jesus was to preach what He preached in Galilee,
They would lay poor Jesus in His grave.

Netflix has already promised viewers a second season of Bridgerton. Fortunately the Bridgerton family has many children. If they concentrate on one child per year, Bridgerton will be here for many more “social seasons.” Who knows? They may even outlive the Regency.

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

Sometimes Silence Can Be Golden

February 23, 2021

That great comedian and philosopher of life, Groucho Marx, once said, “If you speak when angry, you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”

Being silent is often worth its weight in gold. One of my favorite verses in all of the Bible is Proverbs 17:28: “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues”.

There is a famous story about Sir Oswald Mosley and Lord Bertrand Russell. Mosley was born in 1896 and was raised in the upper rungs of British society. Mosley had been a member of Parliament. During the 1930s he drifted to the extreme right wing on the political spectrum. Eventually he became the leader of the British Union of Fascists. His black-shirted, would-be stormtroopers modeled themselves after the followers of Hitler and Mussolini.

Russell was born in 1872 and also came from the upper crust of British society. He was an Earl. I remember reading that Russell once said that “table manners were invented to keep the middle class in line.” He was a polymath, philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate. During my undergraduate days, his wonderful books on philosophy saved my posterior on more than one occasion.

Russell believed very strongly in liberal democratic (small l and small d) values. He loved debates and often engaged in them. As the Nazis and the Fascist movements grew in power in Continental Europe, some British subjects started to view Mosley’s party as a godsend to the problems facing the United Kingdom during the Great Depression. Of course, what Mosley advocated was a radical departure from many key British values, norms, and culture.

Mosley decided to throw down the gauntlet by challenging Russell to a series of debates. What should Russell do? Should he debate Mosley? If he did, would he, in essence, be dignifying something that he thought was a cancer in Great Britain? If he did not debate Mosley, would he be acting like a coward?

Russell thought very deeply about the matter. His reply to Mosley has become famous, and it is viewed by many as a brilliant statement of reason, sanity, and discernment. Russell wrote the following to the British Fascist leader:

Dear Sir Oswald,

Thank you for your letter and for your enclosures. I have given some thought to our recent correspondence. It is always difficult to decide on how to respond to people whose ethos is so alien and, in fact, repellent to one’s own. It is not that I take exception to the general points made by you but that every ounce of my energy has been devoted to an active opposition to cruel bigotry, compulsive violence, and the sadistic persecution which has characterized the philosophy and practice of fascism.

I feel obliged to say that the emotional universes we inhabit are so distinct, and in deepest ways opposed, that nothing fruitful or sincere could ever emerge from association between us.

I should like you to understand the intensity of this conviction on my part. It is not out of any attempt to be rude that I say this but because of all that I value in human experience and human achievement.

Yours sincerely,

Bertrand Russell

Russell showed great wisdom in deciding not to waste his time by debating with Mosley. It would have been pointless.

One of the things that I deeply admire about Jesus is that he did not think it was necessary to defend himself every time he was attacked. Every time the bell rang, he did not feel obligated to get into the ring and start boxing. A very wise boss once said to me, “If you get into a contest with a skunk you can’t help but come out of it stinking.“ (What my boss actually said was expressed with much more earthy language – but you get the drift.)

One of the Twelve Powers within us all is Wisdom. As the old song puts it: “It is in every one of us to be wise.” We have that understanding and discernment to know how to pick our battles. We can know when it makes sense to enter the ring and when it makes sense to walk away.

To quote a wise friend’s reply to someone who had expressed nasty, unwarranted words: “Your comments are a critique on themselves and need no further comments or analysis from me.” How many times have I wasted hours in pointless debates and bickering that I knew were going nowhere fast?

The Book of Ecclesiastes says that there is a time and purpose for everything under heaven. There is a time and place for debates and there is a time to walk away. There is a saying in the 12-step fellowships: “Would you rather be right, or would you rather have your serenity?”

Even if we do not have to deal with a person like Mosley, the above can very much apply to us. At family gatherings, we can skip going into the ring with Uncle X or Aunt Y. We can put boundaries around their monologues in terms of how much we will listen. We can give up the notion that if we just play Socrates and ask them a few questions, then we will straighten them out.

We can silently remind ourselves of some words from Bob Dylan:

“You’re right from your side
I’m right from mine
We’re both just one too many mornings
And a thousand miles behind.”

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

Stranger in a Strange Land

February 16, 2021

Back when I was a teenager, or BD (Before Dystopian novels), the most popular work of science fiction was Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.

Heinlein, an aeronautical engineer and naval officer, was called “the dean of American science fiction writers” by many people. He was one of the first sci-fi writers to stress scientific accuracy. He would take science and then stretch it to where he felt it might go in the future. Heinlein used science fiction to explore delicate social, spiritual, political, and sexual ideas. While stressing individual liberty and self-reliance, he often wrote about situations in which governments and organized religions repress nonconformists.

Stranger in a Strange Land is about Valentine Michael Smith, a young man born on Mars and raised by Martians. Smith has “gone native,” and exposes Earth to a bigger “game changer” than a biological virus. He exposes Earth to Martian culture, philosophy, and forms of spirituality. In the process, Smith kicks off the start of a major counter-culture movement on earth.

Perhaps at the core of Heinlein’s Martian culture/philosophy/spirituality is the concept of grokking. To grok means to be at one – on both the heart and head levels – with another person, place, or thing. “I grok you” means “I feel a real unity with you. I have experienced things from your point of view. I have walked a thousand miles in your shoes, and I feel real compassion because of this experience.”

Of course, the Earth’s “powers that be” can’t allow all this grokking to continue. If the Earth is overcome by this wave of grokking, then there is no telling what might happen!

The phrase “stranger in a strange land” comes from the Bible (Exodus 2:22). It is striking how many times God reminds the Israelites in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) that they were slaves in Egypt, treated harshly by the Egyptians, and on the very bottom rung of society. God also repeatedly tells the Israelites that when they come into the Promised Land and flourish, they are to treat the strangers – people different from them, the refugees, etc. – kindly and with full compassion. They are to do this and remember that they were “strangers in a strange land.”

Did the Israelites follow this advice from Spirit? All you have to do is read any one of the Old Testament prophets to see what happened after the Israelites entered the Promised Land. The compassion for the stranger often went out the window. There was no grokking. When Jesus spoke about the Golden Rule, a Pharisee asked him, “Who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. To say that the Jews looked down on the Samaritans would be putting a positive spin on the situation.

All of the above is not just about long ago and far away. It is not just about science fiction and a story concerning a young man from Mars. It is about right here and right now. Recently, many leading analysts and commentators have been talking about the large flows of refugees and immigrants around the world. Let me stick my two cents in. Well, maybe I will let Al Jolson, the great jazz singer, speak for me: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Given reasonable projections of climate change and rising sea levels, it is expected that much of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, will be underwater. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world. It is reasonable to expect that in a post-pandemic world refugee levels will significantly rise. If problems with the distribution of resources escalate, it is reasonable to expect that economic, political, and military tensions will also contribute to a significant rise in human migration levels from current totals, which are already high.

You don’t have to go outside of the United States to see this. Recently my two daughters and I visited New York City. This was the first time that Rachel and Therese were in the Big Apple, and I thought a good way to show them the city would be to take the Circle Line cruise around Manhattan Island. When we got to the Harlem River, our boat had to turn around because the water was too high for us to get under the bridges. On many days water level has risen too high for some boats to circle Manhattan. Reasonable projections show that large portions of New York City could be underwater.

You don’t have to go outside of Virginia to see what is happening. Friends in Norfolk, Virginia, tell me that during the course of the year it often looks like they live in Holland and a dyke has broken.

It is very easy for us to not really grok all of this. We live in, or near, the mountains. It would be foolish to think that we who live in this beautiful and privileged part of Mother Earth will escape untouched.

Remembering Jesus’ expansive definition of ‘who is our neighbor,’ I look forward to working with many of you in forming a new group at Unity of Roanoke Valley. As I understand it, in the past such groups at URV have been called a “social justice” group. I do hope this new group will be concerned about social justice, but I hope it will be very much interested in “neighbor helping neighbor” and “community building.” I hope it will help expand a sense of grokking the stranger, for we all were – and could be – strangers in a strange land.

I view URV’s Giving Room as a very good start in this process. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could apply Al Jolson’s words (“You ain’t seen nothing yet”) to URV’s grokking?

I am really interested in your comments and suggestions about all of the above. You can text or phone me at 571-215-9481; or you can email me at rbelous5@gmail.com.

If you think all of the above is extraneous and irrelevant to spirituality, remember what the apostle James said concerning “the heart of true religion” in James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” – New International Version

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

Mazes vs. Labyrinths: A Metaphor For Our Lives

February 9, 2021

I have had interesting experiences with both mazes and labyrinths, and I think that they really represent two divergent paradigms that I have followed during different periods of my life.

A maze, by definition, is a collection of paths. Some paths lead nowhere, while other paths lead to a goal. The English are well known for their garden mazes. Usually they are created by high green hedge rows which are much taller than even an NBA professional basketball player.

I remember being on a business trip to England a few years back. On an afternoon off I visited a wonderful maze at a large estate in the British countryside. I had to return to the local train station on time to take the 4:17pm train back to London. If I missed this train, I would miss a play in London’s East End that evening, and I was fortunate to have a ticket to see this hit.

I meandered in the maze, got totally lost, and never reached the “goal.” I decided to circle back to get out of the maze and be at the train station on time. I could not find my way out of the maze. It was 6:18pm when I reached the train station, and I missed attending the play in London. This experience is a good metaphor for a large portion of my life.

A labyrinth, as constructed inside of cathedrals or in gardens, allows you to always see the “goal”. There are no tall hedgerows which block your vision. There is a path in which the walker can have faith because it will always lead to the “goal”. Yes, there may be times where you feel the path is almost at the goal, but then the path (like life) makes a big twist taking you to the outer walls with the circle. However if you trust the path and keep walking, you know you will reach the goal.

Reaching the “goal” inside of the circle is not the end of the story, because a labyrinth is like Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey.” We pray inside the “goal” and take in the “gift” or “pearl of great price.” Then we return to the entrance of the labyrinth with the purpose of sharing this “gift” with the world.

Two recent experiences with Unity of Roanoke Valley’s labyrinth really demonstrated the above for me. The first experience was praying and walking with others in the labyrinth during the recent Inauguration Day. You could feel the prayers for peace, healing, and unity.

The second experience was at the start of the Season For Nonviolence. Started by Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, the Season For Nonviolence celebrates the philosophies and lives of Gandhi and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many Unity churches participate in this celebration which runs from January 30 (the anniversary of Gandhi‘s assassination) to April 4 (the anniversary of King’s assassination).

April 4th is also Easter this year. A labyrinth walk is a key part of URV’s Easter celebration this year. There are labyrinth walks each month for the Season For Nonviolence. URV is so blessed not only with a beautiful labyrinth, but also with a person like Grace Wood who champions this jewel.

A minister friend in Texas recently told me a story that demonstrates the difference between a maze and a labyrinth. My friend was eating pancakes, and some drops of the ersatz maple syrup fell to the floor. One drop landed in the middle of a large floor tile. Several ants went to the middle of the tile, but after they ate they could not find a path to freedom and the great outdoors. A second drop landed in the grout between two of the large tiles. Other ants feasted on this drop. They were able to follow the de facto path made by the grout lines/indentations between the tiles. This path led them to freedom and the great outdoors. Labyrinths are like that. Recently another good friend gave me a great acronym for GOD (GOD = Get OutDoors).

I think it is insightful to ask: How am I viewing my life and the world? Do I see it as essentially a very frustrating maze? Do I think I will never reach the “goal?” Or do I see my life and the world as fundamentally like an enriching labyrinth? Do I trust the path despite the twists and turns?

My first Unity minister, Rev. Helice Green, often ended our services by saying: “We are on the upward, forward, and progressive path of Spirit. The mark of success is upon us.” Does that sound like a maze or a labyrinth?

Think about the Prayer For Protection:

The light of God surrounds us.
The love of God enfolds us.
The power of God protects us.
And the presence of God watches over us.
Wherever we are God is.
And because God is,
All is well.

Now does that sound like a maze or a labyrinth?

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

Linked with the One: More Than Our ‘Ace in the Hole’

February 2, 2021

When I was an undergraduate at Columbia University, getting up before noon on Sunday mornings was not my strong point. In retrospect I wish it had been, because I could have taken an easy subway ride down to Lincoln Center on Sunday mornings.
This is not because I wished I had gone to Lincoln Center to hear performances by the New York Philharmonic or Metropolitan Opera. I liked seeing concerts and operas by these great cultural institutions, but student discount tickets were much cheaper on weekdays than for weekend performances.

No, I wish I had gotten up before noon on Sundays so I could have heard Eric Butterworth preach. This great Unity teacher’s congregation had grown so large that they rented a Lincoln Center hall for their Sunday services. Back then I could not have cared less about God and spirituality. I would have dismissed what Eric was saying. Yes, sometimes youth seems to be wasted on the young. I was going through what I needed to go through to get me to where I am today.

During World War II, Winston Churchill said, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried all of the other alternatives and failed.” As an American, I guess this applies to me on an individual level.

As I became interested in Unity in the mid-1980s, it was Eric Butterworth who really spoke to me. Charles Fillmore, the co-founder of the Unity movement, said and wrote many wonderful things. However, I found his language and style often to be very difficult. On the other hand, Eric’s writing style hit me like Earnest Hemingway’s writing: crisp, clear, bold, and to the point!

Two books by Eric made a deep impact on me back then: Spiritual Economics, and Discover the Power Within You. By then I was a working economist, and Spiritual Economics struck me as one of the best books I had ever read on the so-called “dismal science.” Eric’s book really showed me the link between the stuff I learned about economics in grad school and the spiritual principles I was learning as a Unity newbie.

It was Discover the Power Within You that opened so many important doors for me. At Unity of Roanoke Valley we are currently in the middle of an online class on this insightful book. I am thrilled by the wonderful discussions that take place in this class.

In Discover the Power Within You, Eric dramatically and effectively presents Unity’s first two principles: There is one presence and power in the universe, a good and loving God; and second, there is a Divine Spark inside of us all which is our real essence. Not only does Eric cogently explain these key principles, but he helps us draw out the remarkable implications of these spiritual truths as they relate to our day-to-day lives in the real world. Oprah Winfrey said that this book changed her life.

One topic that keeps coming up in our class is the role of the ego in all of this. A number of people come to Unity after they have experienced recovery from an addiction through a 12-Step fellowship. The first of the 12 Steps says that the addict is powerless over their addiction. Unity’s basic principles – and Eric’s book – tell us that we have infinite power inside of us. This seems like an insoluble paradox. What are we to make of it?

The way that I solve this seeming conundrum is to draw near to two verses in the Bible. The first verse is John 5:30. In this verse Jesus says, “In and of myself I can do nothing.” The second verse is Philippians 4:13. In this verse the apostle Paul writes, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

These verses at first glance seem in contradiction. I think what Jesus is saying in effect is that at the ego level we can’t accomplish many things; while Paul is pointing out that when we know that we are one with the One – and live through our link and our unity with the Christ within – then we can do things beyond our wildest dreams. In realty, we have discovered the power within!

While I was working at United Way’s central office, a new president was hired by the United Way Board. Before it was officially and publicly announced who was going to be the new president, a secretary accidentally sent an email out to a few of us that had the new president’s name on it. I was overjoyed when I read who was going to be the new president because I had worked with this man on several projects and I knew that he really liked me and supported my work. I also really believed in what this man wanted to do to, and for, United Way. It felt like a dear friend was going to be president of our organization.

I think when we really get on a heart and head level with what Eric Butterworth is saying about God, then it is very much like the experience I had opening that email about the new president. The cosmic “corner office” is occupied by somebody who is on our side, loves us, and can be our “ace in the hole” when we face the challenges of life. In fact, the cosmic “corner office” is right inside of us. We are always intimately linked with the One.

So I slept away my chances to hear Eric Butterworth speak during my undergraduate years. There are many different ways one can hear Eric speak now. You can listen to many of his wonderful talks by going to TruthUnity.net or YouTube. The Unity Village archive also has great “nuggets” from Eric, and of course there are his books – which I believe have stood the test of time.
Discovering this power within is much more than our “ace in the hole.” It fills a very big hole that has been inside of so many of us. As St. Augustine put it, “There is no rest until we rest in You.”

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

Voting and I Behold the Christ in You

January 26, 2021

I promise that this blog will not be a venture into partisan politics. Its real message is spiritual in nature.

Back on election day in November, my daughter Therese returned from kindergarten telling me that her teacher taught the class about elections and voting. The class voted on their favorite type of pet. Therese voted for cats, which got only one vote. Therese told me that monkeys got nine votes, and dogs got eleven votes. Then she told me that monkeys won the election. I thought: “The teacher must have been teaching them about the Electoral College.”

I hope all members of Unity of Roanoke Valley will vote at our annual congregational meeting this year. We will elect two URV Board members. Since URV does not have an Electoral College system, it will be pure majority rule. The meeting is scheduled for Sunday, January 31, at 1:30pm. If you haven’t received the Zoom meeting information, contact the church office 540-562-2200. Your vote matters and your input on all topics discussed is important!

On the political front, I was raised in a liberal Democratic household, and I have remained a liberal Democrat as an adult. I remember back in 1960 when Hubert Humphrey lost key presidential primaries to John Kennedy, and my parents considered draping our house in black crape. In fact, my parents almost burnt incense for Eleanor Roosevelt.

Going to graduate school in economics gave me a strong sense that Adam Smith and Joseph Schumpeter had many important things to say about the positive benefits of markets, entrepreneurialism, and enlightened forms of capitalism. Studying John Maynard Keynes, Paul Samuelson, and Paul Krugman also showed me that sometimes markets can skid off the road, or become highly concentrated monopolies and oligopolies, and we can still suffer from the excesses of a new Gilded Age.

Despite all that has happened recently, I am proud that our democracy, our Constitution, and our values have held. To be quite honest with you, these thoughts started coming to me: “Think about those who tried to undermine our democracy, Constitution, and values. If it weren’t for a few key people who stood firm, resisted bullying and intimidation, and rose to protect and defend our liberty, it could have all gone down the tubes. Often these people stood firm despite death threats. To borrow a phrase from President Kennedy, we owe our continued freedom to these profiles in courage.”

Then a second thought came to me (and it seemed like a thought from my Higher Power or higher self): Write down a list of the people who you think were profiles in courage and show them some gratitude. So I did exactly that.

On my list were people like the Governors and election officials in Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. Also on this list were all of the judges who dismissed cases when no evidence of election fraud was produced in courts of law. Included on the list were Michigan state legislative leaders who refused to send a second list of electors in, and instead said they would follow the will of the voters in their state. I also listed the former Attorney General and many Justice Department officials who said that there was no evidence of voter fraud that would overturn the election. Lastly, I put down on the list a Vice President who stood up for what his real constitutional duty was in terms of counting Electoral College votes. There were some others on that list as well.

Then I looked at my list and I was struck! I saw how many people on my profiles in courage list are Republicans. Many of the judges – including Supreme Court Justices – who were nominated by former President Trump remained true to their oaths to defend and protect the Constitution. Can you imagine what might have happened if, say, the Supreme Court (or even one of the lower courts) had gone along with this – shall we say – bovine scatology (to borrow a phrase from General Schwarzkopf)?

It is very easy to demonize the other side. It is very easy to feel superior to the other side. I certainly was moving in that direction before my Higher Power, or higher self, suggested that I write this profiles in courage list. Jesus asks us why we complain about the sawdust in our neighbor’s eye when we have a log sticking in our own eye.

I am so struck by what Gandhi did after he was shot. He was able to look at his assassin and say, “Ram.” Of course, Ram is one of highest avatars of divinity in the Hindu religion. In effect, Gandhi was saying that the Divine Spark in him recognized the Divine Spark in even his assassin.

May none of us ever face the situation that Gandhi faced. Nevertheless, all of us in our own humble ways can recognize the Christ in others. We may think the Christ is asleep in others, but the Christ is there nonetheless. In Unity we say that we recognize all paths that lead to spiritual enlightenment. Ours is not the only path, nor do we claim a monopoly on truth.

In recent weeks I have really remembered this verse from the Good Book: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God.” (Romans 8:28)

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick