May 3, 2009
by Rev. Phil Schulman
Stirring, stirring, stirring from your stillness.
Rumbling, quivering, vibration forming new life.
Waxing season of sun.
We can't deny you
Though we continue our postmodern productivity,
pretending that one season is the same as another.
New Colors are painted on the horizon.
You quake and tap and push.
Agave, aloe, century plant
Burst forth your stem
Bring to us flowers.
Make promises of things to come.
Death make way as new life emerges.
Celebrate this season of change.
In the 60's there was a TV commercial for Mapo, a hot breakfast cereal. I am hoping that at least a few of you saw it and remember it. It featured adults screeching in childish voices “I WANT MY MAPO!” I thought of that Mapo ad when I began writing this sermon. You see Beltane, an ancient religious Springtime celebration is often celebrated with a May pole.
I wrote out "I want my Maypole," I was expressing that I want to celebrate this beautiful, innocent, ancient and wise Pagan tradition. The whining was there because it's not a given that we would have the right to do this. Even in Unitarian Universalist congregations, there remains significant prejudice against Pagans and Pagan traditions. Today I wish for us to examine some of the prejudices against Pagans and Paganism, so that we will have a greater ability to approach, participate or learn from Pagan wisdom freely and intelligently.
May Poles are a great place to start. How could anyone be against these? May Poles are decorated with flowers and streamers. One traditional Maypole dance has women holding streamers circling counterclockwise, while men with streamers go clockwise. Together they weave a braid that is symbolic of the union of male and female that creates life. After today's service, Beth Hammer will lead us in a couple of Maypole dances. They are completely child friendly.
Americans have maintained the Maypole tradition that comes from medieval English or Celtic celebrations of Beltaine. The origins of the rite probably go back to the ancient spring fertility festivals of India and Egypt. Reverence for life, and veneration for miracle of creation have emerged and reemerged throughout the history of religion and throughout the world.
Today did not have the dramatic rituals and chanting of a Pagan ceremony. We have drawn upon Pagan wisdom and richness while keeping within a more familiar UU Sunday morning format. There are some in the congregation who have participated in more elaborate Pagan ceremonies. And there may also be some here today who are completely unfamiliar with Paganism, and would appreciate an explanation of what is meant by the term Pagan.
Paganism, sometimes referred to as the “Old Religion”, actually pre-dates Christianity by thousands of years. Nearly all of our religious holidays have pagan roots. The root of the word Pagan is “country dwellers,” or people of the land. The inference is to indigenous beliefs & practices, the wisdom of the old ways.
For twenty years I have slowly come to understand and appreciate Pagan traditions. I have been encouraged and challenged by Pagan reverence for nature, its power of ritual, artistry, and story. Yet, despite my appreciation of Pagan wisdom, I have noticed that I have had a internal resistance and nervousness about participating in Pagan traditions. Experience tells me that I am far from the only one with fear and prejudice around this topic.
We have been conditioned to associate Paganism with devil worship. Some Pagans acknowledged an aspect of Divinity in the form of a male god named Pan. Pan’s lust for life and all things Earthy was seen by Christian leaders as evil, and his image was later co-opted into Christianity’s Satan. Church fathers called Pagans devil worshippers.
Those who assume paganism is evil, might look in the mirror. If we could take an unbiased look at the effect of the devil, eternal hell story we would see its horrifically harmful effects on people. Do we really believe that seeing Divinity in nature, or that being accepting of our true nature will bring about more suffering? I am sure its the oppostite.
It's not surprising then, that many UUs have taken to Nature religions like a duck to water. More recollection of this goes back to 1985. The adult RE curricula called “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” was meeting with a very positive response from many UU women. Some women were ecstatic to discover a theology that was not based in the patriarchy and Father God. Cakes for the Queen of Heaven presents the religion and spirituality of the Goddess, or ancient Mother.
Interest in Wicca, a particular form of Paganism, increased as a result of the popularity of dynamic writers and Priestesses such as Starhawk. Starhawk is the author of Spiral Dance, Dreaming the Dark, Webs of Power, and many other books. By the time I entered Starr King School for the Ministry in 1985, Starhawk had become a celebrity. She had been an adjunct Professor at Starr King School for the Ministry. In '85 she was no longer on staff, but frequently gave guest lectures at the Graduate Theological Union. She drew large audiences, and the majority were not GTU students.
Also at this same time, many men and women became interested in Native American spirituality, whose observances have also been considered to be Pagan. Since that time, interest in Earth-based religious traditions has grown steadily in our movement and in our country. The photograph of Earth from space is used by some congregations as a religious symbol. Despite this trend, many of us do not feel comfortable being associated with Paganism.
I have heard many derogatory statements made about Paganism even in UU circles. Even more common is an attitude that Paganism is just silly. With regard to participation in Native American ceremonies, I have often heard the derogatory term “wannabees,” There is an attitude that people who find inspiration from observing Native American practices are somehow doing something wrong.
Some have attributed their disapproval to a disdain for superstition and magical thinking. However, I suspect that most of us would be less likely to express such attitudes toward mainstream religions. Some attribute their disapproval to a disdain for superstition or “magical thinking.” However, I suspect that these frequently expressed attitudes reflect a conditioned response, a learned prejudice aimed at a socially designated target. Attitudes of superiority and disdain for Paganism are written into scripture and generally promoted by Western monotheistic cultures. Assertions within Hebrew Scripture of superiority to the surrounding pagan cultures reflect an attempt to forge a unified identity amongst the Ancient Israelites.
Christianity took this antagonism to a much greater level. Soon after Christianity went from being a persecuted group of cults and became the established religion of the Roman Empire, it began a repudiation and denouncement of Pagan religions and nature worship. Generation after generation of Christians have perpetrated great violence upon indigenous people. From wars to witch burnings to genocide of indigenous tribes, there is a long history of persecution of nature-based religions.
Christianity, Judaism and Islam have dominated by conquest, brute force, and by indoctrination and suppression of Paganism. Jewish and Christian scriptures have made the word Pagan to be synonymous with inferior savage and unethical heathens. Until I went to seminary, I thought the word Pagan literally meant an immoral person. TV and movies perpetuate prejudicial attitudes by continuing a false association of Paganism with storybook witches, satanic cults and ritual sacrifice. So it is not surprising if any of us get an uneasy feeling when we imagine ourselves associated with Pagan, Wiccan, or indigenous religions.
As UUs we do not require anyone to participate in any religious tradition if their conscience dictates otherwise. No one has to sing Native American chants or identify as Pagan. We value voluntary participation. Theological diversity means, it's okay for you to call yourself a Pagan UU, as long as I don't have to do the same.
Although none of us is required to participate in Pagan traditions, what if any, responsibilities do we have to the Pagans in our midst? Our principles beckon to us to examine or prejudices, to accept one another and encourage spiritual growth. If we are true to democratic process, to equitable and compassionate relations, we will acknowledge that there are a large number of us for whom Paganism plays an important role in our religious lives. We will celebrate this as part of who we are collectively.
Doing so may require us to push past our prejudices. That's good news. Our tradition doesn't insist what you must believe. It does, however, beckon to us to bring our humanity to life by overcoming forces of habit and conditioning. If we are to value this kind of growth, we must create space and support for people to work through their prejudices. Insistence on political correctness will not do it. We need to demonstrate our value of diversity by being willing to learn from it. In this instance it means, celebrating those among us who draw upon the rich sources of ancient nature religion. It means appreciating Pagan contribution to our free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
We UUs want to be free and unlimited in choosing sources of inspiration, but we may also have a desire to be accepted as normal. Sometimes we may be asking too much. I heard the story in San Antonio, that many years ago a member there led a Beltane service. To give honor to this celebration of nature, he dressed up as the mythological “green man” (closely related to Pan). The service included drumming, chanting, and toning. Since he had encouraged wildness and it's not surprising that several people howling like wolves.
I've heard that the only problem was that it turned out to be the week when there were several visitors- including a Presbyterian Sunday school class that was exploring other religions. The person relating this story said “if they came almost any week of the year they wouldn’t have seen anything terribly different than what they do in their church.” Oh well.
Beltane and other nature rites can be powerful tools to awaken us and keep us grounded in the mystery of life. In spring, life is emerging. It is good and wise to celebrate creatively, to rejoice in the abundance that Earth bestows upon us. It is also realistic and humble to acknowledge our vulnerability, our dependence upon nature to provide us with all that we need.
The agricultural societies that gave us Beltaine, were keenly tuned to nature’s providence. A drought or harsh winter might have meant death or hardship. By May 1st, spring’s presence is clear. Earth’s bursting forth with new life tends to give rise to an optimistic spirit in people. Beltaine is a celebration of the fertility and hope inherent in the physical activities of planting and agriculture associated with this time of year.
Now I don't know about you but I was taught to think of fertility rites as something primitive, immoral and superstitious. Then there are the rumors that some Beltaine celebrations permit and even encouraged sexual behavior. In this case, I have on reliable source that such rumors are true. So its understandable that UU Churches concerned with their reputation often prefer to emphasize Puritan roots, and wish to minimize ties to Paganism. But when I consider the effects of my childhood upbringing, I admire the liberated attitudes toward sex that many Pagans enjoy. You see my mother is Catholic and my father was Jewish. It was kind of like Portnoy's Complaint meets Sister Bertrill, the flying nun. I tasted two flavors of guilt. I ended up all tied up in knots. So I have some respect for Pagan embrace of sexuality.
Another attack on Pagan ritual is to call them superstitious rites by primitives who try to appease or win favor with capricious gods. This is reductionism. It misunderstands and denies the wisdom of nature rites. Such rites are vehicles to express and experience the mystery, the wonder, the divinity of nature. Pagan rituals help participants to become aware of being engaged in an intimate dance with the creative forces of life. The fertility rites of Beltane reflect and celebrate the fertilization that is occurring everywhere in Nature.
Beltaine is a time to make decisions about planting. How much corn? How many tomatoes? How many greens? You might question the relevance of such issues to our modern society, especially for those of us living in the city.
What can we translate, or use, from this ancient perspective ?
Figuratively, if not literally, we can look at our backyards to find areas that need digging up and replanting while others are doing fine already.
Beltaine is a time to reflect upon what we are growing on a psychic level. How can we prepare the soil of our lives in order to prepare for spiritual growth? What areas of our life are needing only a little appreciation and maintenance? What needs more tending? What needs to be dug up and replanted?
Beltaine is a time to reach down to our roots and bring life energy upward and outward. What do we want to harvest in the seasons ahead? Have we planted so that we will grow toward our dreams and goals? Have we seeded from the truth of our being? Are we allowing weeds of fear, greed, and distraction to dominate? What creation will we sustain and provide for our family and community?
What do we wish to bring to life by associating as the FUUNCO? What is our vision of harvest for this congregation? What hopes are we watering? What will we grow by our being together? What seeds shall we plant?
Theologian Tehard DeJardin suggested that we are the divine process of life becoming conscious of itself. Created in the image of God, we also have the power to create. Can we learn to cooperate in order to co-create from a consciousness of our shared humanity and our shared web? Can we awaken a consciousness that appreciates the web of life and considers seven generations forward? What would we create from that consciousness? What do we need to do in order to develop such a enlightened view? What do we need to do in order to develop our power to create consciously?
The ancient wisdom of Beltane can help us.
We can learn to trust and respect nature's life and death cycles and seasons. We can recognize this as a time to clear away the death from season's past, and celebrate new life emerging. It is time to revere the Great Mystery and the dynamic flow of life. It is time to stop the mad war against nature, to come home to our bodies and to Earth.
Maybe if we began to celebrate and honor the cycles of life, we could allow ourselves to be human. Maybe if we knew ourselves as being kin to all life, we could learn to live in peace and harmony. Maybe if we could approach life, the Great Mystery, ...God with humility we could then allow her fertility to sustain us. We could dance around a May Pole, and watch the cycle continue.
May it be so. Blessed be.
As Earth springs forth new life in leaves, shoots and flowers
May we awaken to majesty and mystery
May we reach down to our roots and allow life’s energy to flow upward, outward, and through us.
And together may we create a new world that reflects the truth and beauty of our humanity.