Memorial Day, May 28, 2017 – “Paradox and the Spiritual Journey”

~By Art McDonald

OPENING: 1918 Poem – Moina Michael wrote:

“We cherish too, the poppy red

That grows on fields that valor led

It seems to signal to the skies

That blood of heroes never dies”

In response to the poem “In Flander’s Field,” Moina Michael wrote a poem entitled: “Sharing the Faith,” from which the words above were taken. With these words she began the tradition of handing out poppies in remembrance of those who have died in war. This tradition has been carried on by veterans who every Memorial Day sell artificial poppy flowers, like the two I have on my sweater, to raise funds for needy veterans. The custom of bringing flowers to the graves of the war dead began in 1868, shortly after the end of the bloody Civil war – post-civil war. Memorial Day commemoration became official in 1971 by act of Congress. As a child every Memorial Day I went to the cemetery with my dad to plant flowers to all the ancestors – we had no big military heroes, so for us it was simply a day to remember those who helped make us who we were. I somehow loved the ritual and it meant so much to dad.

Last week Laurel brought me a poppy flower to add to the poppy flower Julie brought me last year. I am grateful. But, not only is this Memorial Day weekend, it’s also the beginning of Ramadan – in a difficult time  of conflict in our world, where there is so much misunderstanding about Islam, and as the courts continue to block our President from banning refugees and immigrants from 7 primarily Muslim countries, and with all the rhetoric about Islam being a violent religion, I want to read a poem from our hymn book written by a 20th century Muslim author:

(610 – Grey Hymnal – “The Journey of Love,” Mohammed Iqbal)

Where in our hearts is that burning of desire?

It is true that we are made of dust, and the world is also made of dust, but the dust has motes rising

Whence comes that drive in us? We look to the starry sky and love storms in our hearts

Whence comes this storm? The journey of love is a very long journey

But sometimes with a sigh you can cross that vast desert, search and search again without losing hope

You may find sometime a treasure on your way.

My heart and my eyes are all devoted to that vision.

I read that because we all need to know that for most Muslims, Islam is a religion that promotes justice, peace and love.

Also, recently a former Globe sport’s writer, Leigh Montville, just wrote about Muhammed Ali’s anti-war battle to stay out of Vietnam War: “Sting Like a Bee: Muhammed Ali vs. the USA, 1966-71.” As you might remember, Ali converted to Islam in 1964, specifically the Nation of Islam, a Black nationalist form of Islam, and Cassius Clay became Muhammed Ali; later he left the Nation and became a Sunni Muslim, much like Malcom X, in 1971. Ali had a long court battle, lost his boxing title, and faced lots of criticism, yet, according to a famous black leader, Stokely Carmichael, “Of all the people opposed to the war in Vietnam, I think that Ali risked the most. Lots of people refused to go. Some went to jail. But no one risked as much from their decision not to go to war in Vietnam as much as Ali – and his real greatness can be seen in the fact that, despite all that was done to him, he became even greater and more humane.”

Ali himself described his opposition in religious terms as a “Muslim minister.” He said: “I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality (meaning Vietnamese). If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d go tomorrow…I have nothing to lose (as a black man) by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.” And besides: “  Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”

In 1969, Ali gave the commencement speech at Clark            University in Worcester; a friend told me it was brilliant.

In these days, as you all can imagine, I’m looking back I’m reflecting on my own faith journey and call to ministry, some 45 years ago!

Despite a deep, pious religious upbringing, my adult spiritual journey, paradoxically, began in military in 1969, at age 22.

Unlike Ali, whose conscience and faith led him to resist as a conscientious objector, even though I was in college with lots of anti-war folks, I sat on sidelines, not sure what I thought. So I went into Army after an abbreviated  one month stint in the Peace Corps.

I spent 6 months active duty learning to be a good soldier; became an expert on the firing range with an M-16, yet, in an ultimate paradox, as I was training to be a warrior, the experience helped sow the seeds of my becoming dedicated to peacemaking.

Simulating hand to hand combat with my M-16 and a bayonet, screaming “kill” as we thrust our weapon into the chest of an imaginary Vietcong, sent me off to the bas elibrary where I discovered that great Dorothy Day, first a committed Communist, then after a conversion a pacifist Catholic. No one ever told me about Dorothy day growing up.

Then there was Sgt. Patterson, my drill sergeant. Not a screamer like most drill sergeants, he had a quiet, confident, dignified way of being in charge. He worried about some of the young soldiers and, one day, asked me to help counsel and support them. I judged he had a deep spiritual core and he thought the Vietnam War was all wrong.

I tried to support the struggling soldiers. One, nicknamed “Bo,” used to come to talk. Bo called me “shortstuff,” and “stuff” for short. “Stuff,” Bo said one day,” “ I’m trying so hard to be a soldier, but I’m not making it.” Bo smoked pot to cope with his dilemma. I don’t know where he got it but it was a daily practice.

Then there was Bobby; 17 years-old. After about a week Bobby came to me, tears in his eyes, and said his parents were so proud of him when he left home and would love his uniform, but now, he realized, being in the Army in a time of war, was not what he imagined. As he sobbed, he called me “Father.” Was I a father-figure, a priest, maybe both? Bobby was still a child; he belonged home with his family, not trying to grow up in the Army. I wondered about Bo and Bobby; did they go to Vietnam? Did they survive or were they just two more “dead young soldiers?”

After finishing my active duty, a few years later, I followed a call to ministry and entered a seminary; I’ve  never looked back. I learned so much in Seminary, worked in hospitals, prisons, soup kitchens, went to Peru and experienced unimaginable poverty, then went to devastated urban ghetto of South Bronx. (Art Buchwald suggested, satirically, of course, that the South Bronx declare itself a communist state, and opposed to US gov. and it would be invaded by the military, thus receiving a huge influx of funds to rebuild).

While there, I went through the  next phase of my spiritual journey, gaining new insights. I read a book by a Catholic theologian, John Dunne’s,  “The Way of All the Earth.” The hero today, Dunne imagines, was not the founder of a religion like Moses, or Jesus, or Mohammed but rather Gandhi, one who passes over to other religions and comes back to his own, changed, transformed! Looking back, I would say this was the beginning of UU journey for me, a religion that espouses passing over to many perspectives; along the way our faith keeps evolving and changing and deepening as we gain new insights. The journey, like that of love for the Muslim poet, never ends.

Eventually, in 1991, I began UU ministry in Pgh and now here; 26 years on this spiritual journey with UU.

The roots of UU are the bible, especially the Prophets of the Older Testament. From that base we pass over to other religions, expanding our vision, and keep coming back to those roots, transformed.

From the Prophets, with the help of a great Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel, I learned a key distinction, that there is a God of Faith and a God of the Nation, and we must decide which God we will follow. It’s great when these two Gods preach a similar message, but when they don’t, we are called to follow the God of faith, as Jews, as Christians, as UUs, i.e., The God of the Hebrew prophets.

For Heschel: “The prophets had disdain for those to whom God was comfort and security; to them, God was a challenge, an incessant demand. God is compassion, but not compromise … tranquility is unknown to the soul of the prophet. The miseries of the world give him/her no rest…their intense sensitivity to right and wrong is due to their intense sensitivity to God’s concern for right and wrong. They feel fiercely because they hear deeply.”

Jesus, as a faithful Jew, saw himself in the prophetic tradition. When an adult, he one day stood up in the temple and declared (reading from the prophet Isaiah):

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me; he has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the lord’s favor.” (Luke, 4, 18-19)

In 1971, after several years of opposition to the Vietnam war, Rabbi Heschel, reflecting upon the Mei Li murder of civilians, asked: “What steps must be taken by our leaders to prevent the possibility of our people committing war crimes in the future?”

In 1790, under great influence from the prophetic tradition and their understanding of the Universalist God of Faith, our religious ancestors at a conference in Philadelphia, tated: “Although a defensive war may be considered lawful, we believe there is a time coming, when the light and universal love of the gospel, shall put an end to all wars. We recommend, therefore, to all churches in our communion, to cultivate the spirit of peace and brotherly love, which shall lead them to consider all mankind as brethren.”  Universalists updated that in 1917 at Worcester when they stated: “ War is brutalizing, wasteful, and ineffective. We therefore pledge ourselves to work for the organization and federation of the world, that peace may be secured at the earliest possible date consistent with justice for all.” And, at a recent UUA General Assembly there was a major discussion as to whether UU should declare itself a Peace Church; many said yes. We are called to follow the God of Faith not the God of Nation.

Reflecting on the state of the nation leading up to last year’s election, wrote theologian Cornel West, we are in the midst of a “Spiritual Blackout” in the USA. Who will speak to this? None of the candidates, he surmised. “Instead we need a democratic soulcraft of wisdom, justice, and peace – the dreams of courageous freedom fighters like Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Joshua Heschel, Edward Said, and Dorothy day. These dreams now lie dormant at this bleak moment, but spiritual and democratic awakenings are afoot among the ripe ones, especially those in the younger generation.” (editorial, Boston Globe, Nov. 4, 2016)

For me one of the worst moments of the President’s trip abroad was when it was announced that a deal was made to sell over $100 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia. The god of the Nation in the USA is into spreading wars, flooding the world with weapons of mass destruction. And in a very strange juxtaposition in yesterday’s newspaper while the tragedy of the Manchester suicide bombing and the loss of 22 lives in England was reported on the front page, all civilians and some children, hidden on page 6 was report that a U.S. led bombing raid in Syria killed 35 civilians, many women and children; hardly news; A spiritual blackout, West would say.

On this Memorial Day, 2017, I suggest recommitting through our Universalist and Unitarian faith to the God of faith, not nation. I believe our UU Principles and our tradition is committed to very serious values and, if lived out seriously, are a very challenging faith perspective. We respect individual faith journeys but we are part of a community committed to deep values of justice, love and peace. These, it seems to me, are non-negotiable.

On PBS the other night, a veteran who served 3 tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, dismantling bombs, landmines, thus, consoling himself that he was actually a peacemaker, said he couldn’t go back again, but feels he’s left friends behind. When will this end, he aksed?

I am a proud member of Veterans for Peace – while walking in Gloucester at the Horribles’ Parade with peace symbols several years ago, a spectator yelled out, not in harsh tones, but more in curious or confused tones, why don’t you folks go to Canada, as if he were saying, we would be better understood and accepted there, but not here in the USA. It may come to that someday, as two grandparents emigrated from Canada, and my own father was born there, but I still want to be in the USA and I want to be proud that my Canadian and Irish ancestors were accepted into this great land. As VFP I want to call us to our best selves and convince the followers of the god of the nation that we must overcome our “spiritual blackout” and have a spiritual revival, to follow the God of Faith. Maybe this will only happen when our soldiers refuse to go to the next war and take a stand against our leaders as they promote the god of the nation, a false god for sure.

God Bless America (North, Central and South) and God Bless the rest of the world too. God Bless Jews, Christians, Muslims and all other people of Faith. And, as our Muslim sisters and brothers practice their faith in this time of Ramadan, I thank God for men of conscience like Muhammed Ali.