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Thursday, March 28, 2019

A Year of Civil Conversations Religious Leader Reflections: "Ode to the Body: Making Life Sacred" | by Rabbi David Straus

An interview and discussion with Sharon Olds was the focus of Krista Tippett’s  On Being, aired in Philadelphia on WHYY on Sunday morning, March 17. Sharon Olds is one of contemporary poetry’s leading voices. Winner of several prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, Olds is known for writing intensely personal, emotionally scathing poetry which graphically depicts family life as well as global political events. Her work is often built out of intimate details concerning her children, her fraught relationship with her parents and, most controversially, her sex life. “The politeness and prudity of the world I grew up in meant that there were things that were important and interesting to me, [but] I had never read a poem about them,” she once said. Now, her interview was on public radio, and none of it was bleeped out according to the FCC rules; still, many of her poems are probably not the kind of readings that find their way into the liturgy of most congregations, or a sermon. Perhaps an adult learning class, but not usually on the pulpit. And yes, while I don’t blush easily, I do blush, and cannot imagine explaining to my board why I choose to read “Ode to the Tampon” or “Ode to the Clitoris” at last week’s family service.

And yet, I do believe that the topics of her poetry are exactly the kinds of themes and issues that should and need to be addressed, both from the pulpit and in the classrooms of churches and synagogues, and our religious institutions.



Now, I cannot speak for other religious traditions, but for me, Judaism is a spiritual practice and discipline that is all about sanctifying—making holy—our words and deeds and actions. I often ask my students to define the word “holy” or “kadosh” in Hebrew. The smart alecks reply, “not holy”. After a more serious conversation, we come to learn that in my tradition, holy means special, unique, different, set apart, extraordinary. The opposite is common or usual. Now, in truth, life would be pretty okay if each moment were ordinary, like the last. But Jewish spiritual tradition, through prayer, meditation, language, ritual and acts, allows us to take the ordinary and make it special, even extraordinary. By saying a blessing before we eat, we take time to acknowledge the action we are about to do, that we have food, that people prepared it, etc. By saying a blessing over Shabbat candles,we help make this day different from the other days of the week. And the list goes on. Even (maybe especially) sex can be holy, and our bodies, created in the image of God, are surely vessels for holy acts.
I think that is what Sharon Olds is trying to get us to think about in her poetry, and in her conversation with Tippett.  Rabbi Kuk, the first chief rabbi of Palestine wrote: “our task is to take the old, and make it new, and the new and make it holy”.

Monday, March 18, 2019

A Year of Civil Conversations Religious Leader Reflections: "The Tender Gravity of Kindness" | by Rev. Cynthia Jarvis

The first poem I ever read by Naomi Shihab Nye is a poem that Nye reads in the middle of an incredible conversation with Krista Tippet. She says to Krista that the poem was given to her: “I was simply the secretary for the poem, I wrote it down, but I honestly felt as if it were a female voice speaking in the air across a plaza in Popayan, Columbia.” The circumstance that prompted the voice and the poem is chilling. At the end of the first week of her honeymoon, traveling on a bus through South America, Nye and her husband were robbed of everything. An Indian traveling on the same bus, the Indian in her poem, was murdered.

As Nye and her husband were wandering around Popayan in shock, a man came up to them on the street “and was simply kind and just looked at us...and just asked us in Spanish, ‘What happened to you?’” After listening to their story, he looked so sad and said, “‘I’m very sorry. I’m very, very sorry that happened, in Spanish, and went on. And then we went to this little plaza, and I sat down, and all I had was the notebook in my back pocket, and a pencil.” It was then that “a voice came across the plaza and spoke this poem to me—spoke it. And I wrote it down. I was just the scribe.”


If you go to https://onbeing.org/programs/naomi-shihab-nye-your-life-is-a-poem-mar2018/ you can hear her read these words: “Before you know what kindness really is / you must lose things, / feel the future dissolve in a moment / like salt in a weakened broth. / What you held in your hand, / what you counted and carefully saved, / all this must go so you know / how desolate the landscape can be / between the regions of kindness. / How you ride and ride / thinking the bus will never stop, / the passengers eating maize and chicken / will stare out the window forever. // Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, / you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho / lies dead by the side of the road. / You must see how this could be you, / how he too was someone / who journeyed through the night with plans / and the simple breath that kept him alive. // Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, / you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. / You must wake up with sorrow. / You must speak to it till your voice / catches the thread of all sorrows / and you see the size of the cloth. / Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, / only kindness that ties your shoes / and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread, / only kindness that raises its head / from the crowd of the world to say / It is I you have been looking for, / and then goes with you everywhere / like a shadow or a friend.”

Later in the conversation, Krista observes that “gravity is important” to Nye and it is what she says in response that both interprets her own poem and offers us an incredible insight as we engage in a season of civil conversation:

“A real conversation with someone, just a simple, simple exchange of words, can give you a sense of gravity. I’ve always loved the definition for contemplation: ‘a long, loving look.’ And when you take a long, loving look anywhere, you feel more bonded with whatever you’ve looked at. You feel as if you recognize it, you see it; maybe it sees you back. And you’re participating in a world where it exists. And so feeling that sense of gravity and belonging everywhere is very important to me.”

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Year of Civil Conversations Religious Leader Reflections: "One Eternal Family" | by Elder Milan Kunz

Interfaith Philadelphia is sponsoring a year of civil conversations in association with Krista Tippett’s radio show called On Being. I have experienced five years of civil conversations, let me explain. Interfaith Philadelphia sponsors the Religious Leaders Council of Great Philadelphia (RLC) which consists of over 30 senior leaders or representatives from various faith traditions. As the senior ecclesiastical leader for the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Philadelphia area, I have been a member of the RLC for the past five years. We meet three times a year and have enjoyed many civil conversations. We bring our unique beliefs from our faith traditions and work effectively on common ground concerns and issues in our communities and congregations.  

Krista Tippett interviewed Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in an episode of On Being that aired on Nov. 11, 2011. Sacks was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth for 22 years. The title of the broadcast was ‘The Dignity of Difference.’ Sacks said, “And one of the ways God surprises us is by letting a Jew or a Christian discover the trace of God’s presence in a Buddhist monk or a Sikh tradition of hospitality or the graciousness of Hindu life.”

I experienced this one day during a RLC meeting. We don’t normally talk about our different religious doctrines but on occasion we do. I remember one meeting, we divided into small groups to discuss the way we pray and how we worship God. And although each of us had our unique way of worshiping and communicating with God, I learned something profound from each person that helped me improve my personal worship.


Sacks further stated, “We are enlarged by the people who are different from us – we are not threatened by them – that needs cultivating, can be cultivated, and would lead us to see the 21st century as full of blessing, not full of fear.”

In my faith tradition, we believe that we all lived in a pre-earth existence as spirit children of heavenly parents so we are literally all spiritual brothers and sisters, part of God’s eternal family. So, God created diversity for our benefit, learning, and growth.

Sacks concluded the interview with this statement, “I think God is setting us a big challenge, a really big challenge. We are living so close to difference with such powers of destruction that He’s really giving us very little choice. To quote from W.H. Auden, ‘We must love one another or die.’ And that is where we’re at, at the beginning of the 21st century. And since we can love one another, I have a great deal of hope.”

As we live with God given diversity, we need to view each other as literal brothers and sisters, part of one great family. We need to understand one another, so we can learn and grow from each other. Taking part in civil conversations has the power to not only help us understand our differences, but to make us better people, and ultimately, learn to love all of our brothers and sisters.

Friday, March 1, 2019

A Year of Civil Conversations Religious Leader Reflections: "Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart" and Humble Spirit | by The Very Rev. Judith A. Sullivan

How can we fulfill our biologically hardwired desire for belonging and restore our intrinsic human connection at a time when we are so deeply polarized by political differences? In her latest book, Braving the Wilderness, social scientist Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW, explores the pain and fear that has driven so many to the “ideological bunkers” that are centered around a common hatred of the same people. While these groups are tribal in nature, Brown asserts that they do not meet our shared human need to be part of something greater than ourselves and have only contributed to a deepening spiritual crisis of loneliness and isolation.  

A little more than a year ago, in a conversation interestingly entitled “Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart,” Brene Brown and Krista Tippett discussed how we might, with integrity and authenticity, move beyond divisive antipathy and recover a sense of true belonging.  Brown asserts that this movement to satisfy our deep longing for genuine connection “doesn’t require us to change who we are. It requires us to be who we are.” She identifies true belonging as a “spiritual practice of believing in ourselves and belonging to ourselves so fully” that we can appreciate the “sacredness” of being part of a meaningful group.  At the same time, we can also possess the strength and courage to risk standing alone, apart from the group, when it becomes necessary to speak important truth. 


What is required, in Brown’s assessment is a “soft front” to overcome our fear of being vulnerable with someone with whom we disagree. “People are hard to hate close up,” she says, so be curious and move closer.  Ask questions, she advises, especially this one, “How am I connected to you in a way that is bigger and more primal than our politics?” The “strong back” is needed to speak our own truth without dehumanizing or degrading truth understood by others.  The” wild heart” is requisite for the courage to hold the tensions inherent in these conversations with the loving determination to listen with the same respect that we would seek for ourselves.  And finally, Brown advises that we “Hold Hands. With Strangers” by finding opportunities for the sharing of common joys and sorrows because while our intrinsic connections may be forgotten, they can never be severed. 

It is often said in my tradition that we cannot be Episcopalians alone.  We understand that the human desire for belonging is far deeper than biology.  We hold that the human family is made in the image of the Creator and is inextricably bound together in God’s intention for the world.  In our shared heritage, we all receive glimmers of God’s truth, capacity to love and be loved, and ability to think and reflect upon our experience. Because we are human, however, and our perceptions are limited and shadowed by self-interest, we can only know and see imperfectly.  We humbly need the insights of one another to discern truth more fully and to come to know God and who we are.  As we consider Brene Brown’s deeply compassionate recommendations for repairing the breaches that exist among us, I would add just this: May we adopt a posture of deep humility about the truths that we claim and assert as our own, and a healthy reverence for each holy encounter with each fellow child of God who challenges and expands both our evolving sense of belonging and our hope of God’s dream for a world of mutual respect, justice, and mercy.  May it be so.