“This I Believe”

Among the things that I do is attend a UU church. Last week, the ministerial intern asked if anyone would be interested in volunteering to give a little speech on the topic of “This I Believe”, based on NPR’s ‘This I believe’ series, and I said I would be.

This is the thing I did.


It has always sort of seemed to me that things fall apart in the summer. All of the ideas and energies of spring encounter the blistering heat and fade away into nothing. Perhaps when I was younger I felt crises didn’t have enough space to fit into my schedule during the school year, so they would wait until there was time to properly consume me.

Some years ago, I started work with a spiritual mentor, and one of the first things she asked was “What is your year like? When do you tend to get ideas? When do you tend to fall in love? When are your good times? When are your bad times?” And, dutifully, I went and wrote it down, and said, “Oh. No wonder,” because there were these gaps in the summer and the winter where I just had a hard time doing anything. It was impossible to build up any momentum.

Then I learned that I have an autoimmune disease. That the pain in my joints was not a normal thing that everyone has to deal with. That the mental fog isn’t universal. That a whole bunch of things.

That I am abnormally and particularly sensitive to extremes in temperature.

**

It was like being reborn. Like a sudden cool drink in the desert. Not that it made everything better, but it made everything make more sense. This was something I could get a handle on. And I started rebuilding my year, with these two tools – my mentor’s questions, my understanding of the failings of my body – using my own religious background as a tool.

So, yes. Things fall apart in the summer.

And then come the waters, and they wash it all away, everything that’s come apart, and in that clean new place, things grow again. And eventually – inevitably – it will work its way around to summer once more, and sure, it will all go to pieces.

But the waters, eventually, will come, and they will destroy everything that is there to be destroyed, but also, they will bring relief. They will bring a fresh start.

**

Happy new year!

I know it’s probably not any of yours, but it’s mine.

To be precise, Thursday was my liturgical new year. I celebrated yesterday with a number of people, and it wasn’t their new year either, but that doesn’t matter. Community is what matters, that thing that makes people flow together like water, that makes them find each other and support each other and develop that interdependence that means that when our worlds fall apart, someone is there to bring the flood again, to wash away the debris, and to say “We will make something grow.”

I’ve told any number of people this over the summer, so I will say it again: I was here five years ago or so, when my family lived in Billerica, when my oldest child was a toddler, and I kept telling people every time I came to Bedford, I knew that the sermon would be about a particular form of justice that is about relationship with and among people, about community, about the values in the particular affirmationt we recite. I don’t expect anyone to think of it in the terms of my specific religious background, but it kept calling me back; and when my family moved, I would say, occasionally, “I really mean to get back to Bedford”, but never managed it, not before that oldest child started asking me all these questions. And I said, “I know where to go for questions.” And so we’ve been back.

Last week, Joshua read a bit of the Book of Amos, saying, “Let justice roll down like the waters.” And it has been quite a summer, looking at the world, things falling apart in so many ways, but we can look for the waters to come. We can look, and we can dig the channels to get it flowing to our fields and grow good things, and we can do the work to find them and help them flow.

Because this I believe: that the world is made good. That every summer’s falling apart, that every plunge into darkness, has in it the chance to find the waters, to clear away the debris, and to be reborn. That dawn will come again, and so will the chance for things to grow. And that it is our responsibility, as human beings, as a community of people, to make space for the waters to flow, to drink deep, and to make certain that nobody goes thirsty.

Happy new year. May the promise of the waters coming sustain you through the summers in your life, and the certainty of dawn carry you through the dark nights of the soul. Drink deep.

Put it all on Trial

Maybe I have the words I didn’t have when I pulled this quote. Maybe. Because maybe it’s enough to blame Set for a natural death, to put the devil on trial there, but there are times this is not adequate, there must be co-defendants. (And I am pondering my thoughts here in relation to this post on blaming the devil.)

On a cosmic level: put the ur-murderer on trial. Sure. Rage and scream and tell Him we hate this and that He has done something we cannot forgive. Let us do our rituals to cast this out onto Someone who can take it, and who can take it away, the holy scapegoat of our tradition.

But we do not live on the cosmic level. And if we listen to Him, we can be certain that He will agree with another chaos force and say, “OH. WELL, THEN STOP.

Put it on trial.

Put on trial a culture, religiously influenced in this regard but not religious, which considers it acceptable to treat LGBT people are subhuman, as less than. A culture where the hospitalised survivors of the Pulse are at risk for losing their jobs because they were outed by their choice in club. A culture that means that there are people who have to find places where they’ll not be treated as zoo animals, places where they are safe to be themselves for a little while, because the rest of their lives cannot provide that. A culture where the sight of a loving couple kissing can be blamed for a mass murder, and where that reason is not a shock. A culture that has forgotten the Upstairs Lounge, besides.

Put on trial those religious cultures that condemn. Put on trial the world where a man can be shocked that homophobia fed his son’s mass murder and protest “only God can punish homosexuality”. Put on trial the churches and leaders who last week were crying out for something to be done about “the gays” and this week cry their crocodile tears now that someone did. Put on trial the beliefs that might make a person twist around his own theorised desires enough to drive him to commit bloody slaughter on those whose pains from the world do not prevent them from seeking an honest joy.

Put on trial the waves of racially directed hatred that might feed into targeting Latinx Night at the Pulse, that made the victims primarily Puerto Rican. Put on trial and acknowledge how hard it is for many Latinx people to come out, how important it was to be able to be there and queer and brown and among their people. Put on trial the “they’re bringing drugs and crime and are rapists” thought, and put on trial the wall.

Put on trial the cultural acceptability of transphobia, that might feed into targeting a night a trans performer was headlining the Pulse. Put on trial the bathroom bills and TERFs, the gatekeepers and those who demand perfect passing, the assumption that a trans death is barely worth noting, especially if it is a trans woman, especially if it is a trans woman of colour.

Put on trial everything that degraded those precious, irreplaceable lives, that meant someone could do the math that traded them for a bucket of bullets.

Put on trial every single impulse to wipe those away, to say “This was an attack on the American way of life” or “This was an attack on Orlando” or “this was an attack on” something other than it was – these communities, these intersecting communities. The only “American way of life” that was under attack was the one that lets marginalised people scrape out a little space where they can be, for a little while, the important ones.

Put on trial a culture that doesn’t recognise the problems of a history of domestic violence. Put on trial a culture where over half of shootings with more than four victims are domestic violence, for that matter.

Put on trial a culture that pretends that military weaponry is useful for hunting or self-defense. Put on trial a culture that excuses the deaths of LGBT people at a club, that excuses the deaths of children in a school, because those precious and irreplaceable lives are somehow a reasonable price to pay for access to weaponry that a Marine veteran of tours in Afghanistan recognised immediately when it fired – recognised and started getting people out, out, out because that is no accident, that is war.

Put on trial a culture that only recognises war when it is perpetrated by someone who says “Daesh”, even when the tools are the same. Even when the effects are the same.

(And put on trial all the things I have forgotten to include from this, or did not know, of which I know there must be many. Put on trial that which means I can’t see all the patterns, all the intersections, of how my siblings must navigate the world.)

Put on trial the thing that says nothing happens now. That all the above is an unchangeable law of nature, part of the Natural Order, that there is nothing to be done. It may not be maat, but it is hopeless.

But no. No it is not.

Let us put Set on trial, let us cast all these things out, let us put them on his back as Wesir’s bier is carried to the place of mooring, let us convict him, let us convict ourselves of our places of complicity, the places we did not see, the places we may have helped arm the evil to do its worst.

And then let us call on Set, Great of Strength, who takes these things and transmutes them, who becomes strong from the weight of the evil He carries, who becomes the force that can be brought to bear against all such evils, who stands foremost in the prow of the Night Boat, who in the dark night of the pain of loss and of recognition can raise His spear and say, “NO” and turn the annihilatory aside.

We must be both.

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” – Mother Jones

Not a Quote of the Week

Today, I am listening to this sermon and thinking about the night battle against the Uncreated One.

That’s the thing about it, you see, that there is no escaping this struggle, its inevitability; there is so much to do, and the great serpent is overwhelming. If its jaws are capable of unhinging wide enough to swallow the sun, what can we do? If it has the capacity to drink the river of heaven, what can we do?

But like I quoted last week, the ancients saw that there was no moment that could not be improved, could not be brought into better alignment with the first moment, nothing that could not be made purer and better. They did not say “I had no part in making that serpent,” but made their wax images and trampled them underfoot, and measured their time, in part, in widows and orphans fed, clothing given, boatless emboatened.

It is not about putting down the serpent once and for all; there is no space in this cosmology for final cataclysmic battles of that sort, after which there is only the celebration of triumph for all eternity. There is putting down the serpent in his time, so that there will be tomorrow – knowing, again, that the battle will be rejoined tomorrow as well, so there can be the day after. It is a long-term commitment, not to attaining some perfection and laying our burdens down afterwards, but to acknowledging the burden – the responsibility – the glory that is our reciprocal duty to creation.

We are building the world, we and the Powers; what are we building, right now, by our choices?

Give the sermon a listen. It’s a bit more of a commitment than the quote of the week, but hey. I like going to church every so often, to listen to other people talking about ma’at.

And it’s this brave honesty that gives us at least a chance. It reminds us that part of how we face the enormity of the work is together; we help each other to see the truth, and to bear the pain of really feeling it. We help each other to speak the truth. We protect each other when we are punished for it. We feed each other’s hopes.

– Elena Rose Vera, preaching at The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples on 15 November, 2015

(There’s your quote, if you must have one.)

The Restoration

(I’ma make an actual substantive post, look at me!)

So something I read in my new Hornung book has me thinking about ma’at, as one does. And this is me partially speculating – I really need to knuckle down and read Karenga but frankly I find the prose even more impenetrable than Assmann so it’s heavy going for me.

I’m developing a suspicion that ma’at is found more readily in becoming pure than in being it, in healing injuries rather than remaining unhurt, in finding the truths that allow union rather than simply speaking truth.

And perhaps it’s obvious from the third one, with the “ma’at is that force which gathers people into communities” thing, but maybe not – maybe people think of speaking ma’at as simply saying true things. (But there are so many true things I do not say because they are not productive, not supportive of community to say. And most people whose feet stink are already aware of that, anyway.)

But I’ve been chewing on things. Like the restored Eye of Heru being one of the archetypical offerings, not the uninjured Eye. Like the cycle of the sun being one that encompasses age and decrepitude and injury and restores to health. Like the successionary nature of ancestors: I establish the dead in their place, so that they may establish me in my own. The use of spells and confessions to attempt to make one free of one’s greatest failings before judgement before the tribunal. All these things.

Yes, it is in keeping with ma’at to remain whole and uninjured, but perhaps the greater part of it comes in bringing that which has been damaged in some way back to a greater unity.

This thought brought to you also by the notion I am toying with, that the great heresy of the Amarna period was not its sharp trend towards a monotheism it did not really manage to entirely achieve – but its vigorous denial of the mysteries of the night and its fear of the dark. (And Akhenaten feared death so much that he could not build something that could survive him.)

Justice and Peace

There is a chant that goes “No Justice, No Peace”.

We offer ma’at; we establish ma’at; we allow Ma’at to ascend to her shrine. Ma’at is the fundamental offering to the gods, the law under which we establish our societies.

Ma’at is justice. Ma’at is order, is law.

Ma’at is truth.

And the truth is there in the chant, in the slogan. Without justice – without ma’at – there is not order, there is not law, there is not truth, because these are the same thing. Without ma’at there is no balance, no reciprocality, no connection between people.

(And my favorite quote on the subject remains “Ma’at is that force which gathers people together into communities.”)

Substitute in words: Justice is that which gathers people together. Truth is that which gathers people together. Play with these concepts a little. Explore.

According to Sylvie Cauville’s Offerings to the Gods in Egyptian Temples, there is a gift back from the gods when ma’at is properly offered.

I ensure for you that the palace remains stable thanks to your perfect conduct….(p 198)

When we give justice….

…. there is peace.

Thanks to Fred Clark of Slacktivist for the seed for this thought.

This Year for Opet

Opet, as before noted, is fiddly.

However, this year some folks (primarily at eCauldron) have gotten organised about it, and we’ve formed a Kiva lending team, called The Emboatening Crew. We have thus far emboatened one person, have nearly finished emboatening a second, and have a third loan queued up.

If you’re not on Kiva already and join using that link, you (and I) will get a free loan token worth $25 – I believe both our current targets for emboatening can be helped with that money. If you are on Kiva, we’d be happy to have more folks helping us with our Opet charitable work.

This is what communities are for.

Bone Stories

Teo Bishop is leaving ADF, which is likely not a matter of great importance to the primarily-Kemetic audience of my work.

And yet.

He writes:

The things that cut deeply for me, that are real and sometimes really difficult for me — things like compassion, despair, forgiveness, hope, kindness, patience, honesty — I don’t feel like we spend any time talking about these things. I think we experience these things, but they always feel secondary to “right relationship.”

It was some years ago that I was at a gathering at PantheaCon. I don’t remember what the explicit topic of the conversation was, but we wound up talking about the response of the pagan community to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia on 11 September, 2001.

Or rather, the complete lack of any such response. The fact that, when pagans wanted to find community and support in response to tragedy, they went to ecumenical gatherings, interfaith gatherings, churches, and other places that were not pagan because there were no pagan groups able to support them, help them find context within something akin to their religious context.

Dozens of times I have seen people asking for help designing their perfect pagan wedding, but I have never seen someone ask for help designing their perfect pagan funeral.

Oh, there’s talking a good line at times about accepting that the world is not divided up into good and evil, about accepting the necessity and place of death, and so on, but in the end, we have, as the Biblical phrase goes, whited sepulchres.

A while back I developed the habit of offering a Kemetic prayer for the dead to deaths I saw mentioned in community. Sometimes I posted it: A thousand of bread, a thousand of beer, a thousand of every good thing. May they ascend!

Now I see other people – not Kemetic – doing the same thing, the same words, the same ritual offering to the mourning and the departed. Because having a prayer for the dead to offer matters in the end, and it matters in a deep and human way. To offer proper mourning is an obligation and a gift of the living, and it is a way that we become human, in community, that we acknowledge each other’s wounds and in that acknowledgement act to heal them.

Teo writes:

I can try to do well and I often fall short, but — amazingly enough — when that happens I experience a deep, profound, spiritual understanding that, in spite of what any ancient person said…

I am not at the center of the cosmos.

I cannot will things into happening exactly as I would like. My life, at times, feels really broken, and I don’t know how to proceed, and I need to own up to that.

Religion must answer grief. Religion must answer the broken places. Religion must answer pain, must answer failure, must answer inadequacy, must answer insufficiency, because even in a world so abundant and glorious as this one, these things will come, and in the end they will go.

When our religions do not hold this space for us, they will fail us in the end, and no amount of feeling obligated to them will hold that place. We may not, as polytheists, have the Problem Of Evil, in which a supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent power still allows for great and horrible suffering, but we still have suffering, and we allow for the likelihood that the gods do not have the power, the knowledge, or the desire to prevent it.

It was under a full moon in August of 2005 that I threw furious prayers out, I cried “Wesir, Wesir, I feel I have been pulled to pieces, I do not know how to survive this, but you do.” And I did the devotional work, and I survived this.

It was in a February in 2007 that I stood before the seidhkona with tears streaming down my cheeks and asked my grandfather, twenty years gone to the West, for his blessing, and asked him how to honor him; I got the answer that I must live well and strong, with courage. And the devotional work is in the living, not in the candles lit in shrines.

Sometimes I know that candles lit in shrines are cowardice, for me, and do not give him enough honor: because this is a world of doing, and I am still one with hands to do. I can say “Oh, grandfather, I love you, I pour water, I light incense”, but if I have not built anything I am hollow, all pretty words and no doing. There are reasons I make a point of doing charitable donations for Opet, of putting up a sample of bread for the domovoi when I bake which requires that sometimes I bake, of all the things that require action that moves in the world. I make a prayer, I write a poem, and these are all fine things to do, but I am not at the center of the cosmos and if I have not done more than make a devotional tie between myself and the Powers then I have done nothing.

I am not good at grand gestures and displays, at running for office or indeed anything that requires that I talk to a lot of people and encourage them to like me, at Causes and Activisms and all these things. But I will pray for your dead. I will offer people resources they need to fix their boat, or their roof, or buy lunch, or some other things, as I can, because if ma’at is the force that gathers people into communities, it is at least as present at a barn-raising as it is in solitary prayer.

There has to be an answer to the questions posed by humanness, and if that answer is not that we are all human together, each wrestling with questions of pain and reaching for glory, then the answer is not good enough to satisfy me. We are good at the glory, sometimes, but we are so very bad at pain.