Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Communal Thanksgiving Prayer

O, mutevoluble impassively listening Universe, System in which every point in spacetime has infinite inputs and causes, where every movement releases innumerable and incalculable outputs, we lift our voices to You, for we are part of You and we are You. O, Totality, receive our gratitude, receive our ingratitude.

 We are not grateful that we have privilege while others are oppressed in a myriad of ways. We are grateful, instead, that we have the ability and the power to resist oppression and together, gradually, to dismantle the systems of injustice in our societies.

 We are not grateful that we have a sufficiency or an abundance while others are in need. Rather, we are grateful that we have the capacity for compassion, the ability to redistribute from where there is more than enough to those who experience lack. And we are grateful for the intelligence that makes possible the understanding of systems, allowing us to work together to shape society so that excess and want are ever rarer.

 We are not grateful for gluttony in the name of feasting, unbalanced diet in the name of sustenance, minds dulled by excess and technology and entertainment that take us away from those who have gathered together. But we are grateful for those who have prepared good food, for those who raised the crops and humanely tended the animals, for those who drove the trucks and worked in the markets, for all the infinite number of hands that had a part in making our festive meal possible and enjoyable.

We are not grateful for joy and pleasure that excludes others. No! We are grateful for the human capacity to draw the circle larger and larger again and again, to become increasingly inclusive, to model the Divine, the Holy Universe which encompasses us all.

 O, G!d, may we enjoy our food and drink in the gladness of good company. May we share what we have with others. And may we never lose track of our highest values in a world that needs them more than ever.

 Ameyn. Blessed Be. Om Shantí Shantí Shantí.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

© 2014 by Paul Kent Oakley

Friday, May 9, 2014


"Meditation on Schrödinger's Cat"

In a box and not in a box.
Not in a box and not not in a box.
Not not in a box and not in a not box.
In a box and in a not box.
Not to be and not not to be.
To be and not to be.

Human. Divine.
Divine transdivinity.
God within. God beyond.
All that is ain't and ain't is.

Divided. United.
Whole and broken.

Indivisible system.

by Paul Oakley ©2014

Monday, February 10, 2014

To Kill a Giraffe

By now you may know that yesterday a healthy giraffe was killed and publicly dissected at a zoo in Denmark. There is outrage in some quarters - at the killing of any animal, at the killing of a named zoo animal, at the dissection, at the public forum for the dissection, that the audience included children, etc. In other quarters there is scoffing at those outraged - pointing out their hypocrisy if they think it's okay to feed the flesh of some beasts to carnivorous zoo animals or that giraffes are not endangered or that this is perfectly natural culling.

I don't like the idea of the public "autopsy," as the zoo calls it, but everyone who was present had been informed what they would see and still chose to be there. One might question the parenting skills of the parents of the children present, but parents make choices, and some are better than others. More than that though, an autopsy? Didn't they already know what killed it? Another site though used the term "dissection." Sounds like a more accurate description. The body was used as a science project. And a poorly designed one.

The zoo's reason for killing the giraffe? Trying to prevent future inbreeding? Last I heard, that could be accomplished by pharmaceutical or surgical sterilization. Or a separate enclosure. Controlling the giraffe population in a given zoo or in the collective of world zoos could likewise be achieved by simple sterilization.

The real issue is not the killing of a helpless captive animal or the desecration of a corpse or the insensitivity of slicing it up for an audience or the insanity of killing it when the world had reached out with multiple alternatives. Rather the issue is a system of raising wild animals out of nature in a pattern that requires humans to kill some of them not for our own protection or sustenance but to maintain the system in a way that satisfies our need for sciencetainment that sometimes coincides with our need for warmfuzzy feelings as we look at decontextualized critters in a setting that emphasizes their existing only to serve and satisfy us.

And that is my take on it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Naso - Redemption

Numbers 5:11-31

take crystal clear water
sweet from a desert spring
dissolve gods name
written in bitter ink
and drink deeply

in blood and bone
and flesh and pores
and hair
the bitterness of god
seeps and surges

in sweat and tears
in urine and feces
gods bitterness
the odor of distrust
that acrid poison
is washed away
on waves and eddies
of crystal streams

now god knows what god doubted
now god trusts what god distrusted
the soul god gave is pure
the soul god gave

grind to powder
a stick of india ink
mix with water
crystal clear
drawn from a
write gods name anew

this time force god to remember
what was finally clear
coursing through your veins
and seeping through your pores
and shitting into the desert latrine

this time wrestle the doubting god
to the ground
if you have to
and bless god with your pure soul

elohai neshama shenatata bi t'hora hi

© 2014 by Paul Kent Oakley


It has been quite awhile since I've written a poem rather than just composing some poetic turn of phrase for use in a sermon, but today in response to an ongoing discussion on a Unitarian Universalist friend's Facebook timeline over what on earth these twenty-one verses from the book of Numbers were all about, I wrote this poem. After discussions that included some fundamentalist Christians declaring their certitude about unknowable things, some Christians venturing some fairly conservative explanations, some liberals vainly challenging the fundamentalists to greater complexity of interpretation, a couple of modern poems from other sources inspired by these verses, and reference to Reform, Conservative, Chasidic, and Orthodox Jewish commentaries that drew on philology and millennia of multiple traditions and interpretive techniques, this effort of my own issued forth. It does not literally depict the ritual in question but draws in various ways on the Jewish commentaries referenced and is my own way of making "sense" of it.

If you read the Torah passage, you will find an unusual ritual that purports to be a method for determining guilt or innocence if a husband suspects his wife was unfaithful but has no witnesses or other legally valid evidence. It is a ritual that was officially discontinued - if, indeed, it was ever used at all - during the days of the Second Temple. And it is seen variously as intensely misogynistic or primarily as a means of getting a jealous husband to shut up and accept his wife's innocence. It is seen as a mystical representation of God and Israel being reconciled. And much more. It is a richly commented-upon passage. And quite weird.

(And yes, it will be quite awhile before Naso, the Torah portion in which these verses fall, is the scheduled parsha. May 31, in fact.)

And, finally, "sotah" means "deviant," used to refer to an unfaithful wife; and "elohai neshama shenatata bi t'hora hi are words from the morning prayers of observant Jews, meaning, "My God, the soul you have given me is pure."

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Retreating Impressions

Dream, Night 1
I am taking a child or two in my care to a temple or ashram that is led by some guru.It is very full of people, variously dressed, and fascinating and colorful religious objects. Children and adults are learning to pray with simple, unobsequious piety. Day after day, I bring the children and love the atmosphere there. Then one day the assistant to the guru comes to me and says that the guru wants to talk to me. I follow her to the guru, who says to me, "I've seen your blog, and I don't want to see you here again," and turns away. I am dumbfounded and start to ask which blog and which content was offensive, but the scene starts to shift, and I wake up. 5:45 AM. Through my open window I hear the waters of Lake Michigan lapping against the shore, and I am transported to Monemvasia and again to Mt. Athos, sleeping near sonorous sea in Byzantine villa or ancient Orthodox monastery dormitory. I return to the sound of the water and roll onto my side, waiting for my alarm. It vibrates. I turn it off and doze until the first light of dawn awakes me. It is Walter's birthday. Happy Birthday, my beloved!

Meditation, Evening 2
A collegial conversation on "cabaret church" concludes. I get up and go to the retreat center's bookshop. In this establishment run by Roman Catholic Dominican nuns, the bookshelves are eclectic - Eckhart Tolle to Rebecca Parker alongside other heretics and saints. I select William Cleary's Prayers to an Evolutionary God. Cleary is a former Jesuit now married to a Unitarian Universalist minister. I cringe at the obsequious address in some of the prayers to "Holy God" and wonder why any addressee is necessary. Or at least why couldn't he leave off the adjectival boot licking and just talk to unadorned divinity. But even with my cringing, I see the beauty in the prayers before me.

In the dark I make my way, one step at a time, cautiously, down the invisible path to the edge of Lake Michigan. How many times have Walter and I stood together at water's edge, alone in the dark, communing with the power and the mystery? The Nile at Aswan, the Agean at Kavalla, Mikawa Bay at Gamagori, the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio, the Atlantic at Cadiz... The sea is history, so Derek Walcott, and tonight all water is one. Here I stand at the shores of every sea and river in every time. Small waves beat against the shore.

I stand close enough to get wet, lean slightly against a boulder, assume asanas and mudras of my creation, and start to pray with the mantra, the "Litany Against Fear" of the Bene Gesserit: "I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." Only I shorten it: "I will not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. I will let it pass through me. I will not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. I will let it pass through me. I will not fear..." Why this mantra, here, now? I've been comfortable in this gathering even despite my earlier misgivings about having a presenter who had been on my committee in Boston. I continue the mantra, extending my arms and turning my hands in grand gesture, and add to it: "We are not waves, we are water. We are not water, we are matter. We are not matter, we are energy. We are not energy, we ARE. I will not fear..." Asana, mantra, mudra, litany. Repeat, repeat, repeat...

I fall silent and hear the variable pattern not simply of water but of being. Fear is the mind-killer. The Milky Way has been spilt across the floor of the sky. I will let it pass through me. Through my trousers I feel the cold stone against my buttocks, shift, and exult, then make my way in the dark up the invisible path to the center.

I linger a few moments with a friend, sipping a shot of brandy from a coffee cup. Some people are practicing a song for tomorrow; others are having a beer and playing cards.

Session, Morning 2
The topic of this programmed retreat has been "Becoming a Sexually Healthy Religious Professional." The workshop has ranged from definitions and struggle to personal relationships to ethics and professionalism. This morning session comes to its conclusion with a "fishbowl" of individuals willing to share a brief version of their story of surviving sexual abuse. I know this is going to be intense for me and expect tears. I do not expect that Debra Hafner, after briefly introducing the "fishbowl," will ask us to respond to each person's narrative with the words, "We honor your courageous witness."

Whompp!! My stomach hits the floor, and I can't breathe. Even before anyone's story is told, I feel tears welling. First story told, I am overpowered. I try to speak the response but find a lump in my throat that prevents response. Same for each story. Then Debra asks each one who shared to comment on the impact of the experience. The session ends, the group holding hands in a circle, singing "Spirit of Life." I cannot utter a sound.

As we head to lunch, I know want to be alone and choose an empty table, knowing I will be joined. I let my table mates know I will be silent. Later after the afternoon session I pass by some seminary colleagues. One asks about my experience of the day. I tell her I found the fishbowl difficult but was completely devastated by the response. "We honor your courageous witness." I say that I couldn't speak from the moment of hearing those words. My colleague asks if I can say more about that. I start to say no but then say, "There is something I can say about it."

I give my three sentence version of my own survival story and then continue, telling how I managed to deal with that history over time, but what is more difficult is not having received support, never having my courageous witness honored as I lived through the time after my experience. I tell how I had to face the negative response of school administration and teachers and classmates I'd thought of as friends without the support of any person or institution I ought to have been able to count on for support. Family, friends, church, school... No one had honored my courageous witness. My colleague listens supportively and offers a warm hug and honors now my witness that was not honored then.

I go down to Lake Michigan, walk for an hour along the shore, letting the lapping waves obliterate all but that moment. I pick up a couple of rocks. I make my way back and walk the basement labyrinth under the chapel where the last sounds of the organ, leading the sisters in evening prayer, leak through the ceiling.