Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Lifelong Quest for Humble Competence and Competent Humility

I have been involved in anti-racism, anti-oppression, multi-cultural work for a while now.  In that time I have learned a lot about the history of our country that has been supressed and denied in the mainstream, both intentionally and unconsciously.  I have learned much about white privilege and the ways that it has created a pervasive system of racial oppression, which takes discussions of racism beyond the more observable acts of racial animous by mean-spirited people to a recognition of racism as "part of the air we breathe."  I have learned a lot about what it means to be a white person in a society that has made "white" synonymous with "human" so as to perpetually keep people of color in a state of otherness.  (This includes, but most certainly isn't limited to, learning about some of the ways I have benefited from these systems of oppression, and some of the ways that I continue to support them even as I, consciously, strive to dismantle them.)  

It is important to note that what I now claim to have learned are "learnings" only because of all that I didn't know before.  People of color have always known this stuff.  When I am shocked and surprised by some new revelation, it is "new" only to me -- whereas for me it is a revelation of a reality beyond my own lived experience, for people of color it is a daily lived experience.  (As the sign in the image above says, "It is a privilege to learn about racism instead of experiencing it your whole life!!!")  It is only because of the willingness, the courage, the compassion, the anger, the desperation, the hope, the need that has led people of color to share, to shout, their reality to people like me (e.g., White) that I can now say with the poet E. E. Cummings, "now the ears of my ears awake and / now the eyes of my eyes are opened."    And, of course, I still have a long way to go.  My eyes and ears close again, and I go back to sleep, so easily.

In all of this work there is a phrase that I have heard many times:  Cultural Competency.  It's often put forward as a goal, an ideal to strive for.  In a nutshell, the idea of cultural competency is that people in the dominant culture must to learn to be competent in their dealings with people from minority cultures.  This is because whites, or cis-males, or heterosexuals, or any other dominant identity swim in the water of our own culture so unconsciously that, like fish, we're not even aware of the water.  To us, in other words, our culture isn't a "culture" it's simply "the way things are."  If we want to deal sensitively and respectfully with people of other cultures, then, we need to be able to see them for who and how they are, rather than interacting with them as though our norms and assumptions are their norms and assumptions as well. 

This morning I was introduced to a new phrase that, as sometimes happens (if we're lucky), really deepend my understandings.  In 1998 two doctors in California coined the term "cultural humily" in their paper, "Cultural Humility versus Cultural Competence:  A Critical Distinction in Defining Physician Training Outcomes in Multicultural  Education."  In its article on cultural humility, Wikipedia summarizes the distinction that Drs. Melanie Tervalon and Jan Murray-Garciá in this way:
"Cultural humility was born out of the medical field for medical educators looking for a new way to frame multicultural understanding for new health care professionals.  It was introduced as an alternative to cultural competence, which has many negative connotations.  Competence assumes that one can learn or know enough, that cultures are monolithic, and that one can actually reach a full understanding of a culture to which they do not belong.  Cultural humility can also be associated with cultural sensitivity, which encourages individuals to be thoughtful when considering culture.  However, sensitivity does not touch on the necessity of learning, reflections, or growth.
The Wikipedia article continue (drawing on the work of Lisa Asbil):
Cultural humility incorprates a consistent commitement to learning and reflection, but also an understanding of power dynamics and one's own role in society.  It is based on the diea of mutually beneficial relationships rather than one person educating or aiding another in an attempt to minimize the power imbalances in client-professional relationships.  There are three main components to cultural humility:  lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique, fix power imbalances, and develop partnership with people and groups who advocate for others.
I am commited to such on-going learning and reflection, to keeping "the eyes of my eyes and the ears of my ears" (and most importantly, my heart) open.  I will no doubt make mistakes -- lots of them -- as I find myself tripping anew over that "invisible backpace."  This is why Drs. Tervalon and Murray-Garciá's concept of cultural humility appeals to me so much.  Once again, people of color have shown me a new way of understanding what is needed of me, as a white person, if I am really serious about dismantling racism.  I cannot express my gratitude.  But I can express my commitment to doing my part and encouraging others to do this hard yet oh so important work.  As the song has it, "We'll get there.  Heaven knows how we will get there.  But we know we will."

Pax tecum,


A Note About the Video:  Woyaya was written by Ghanian drummer Sol Amarifio, and is the title song of a 1971 album by Oisibisa, a musical group of Ghanian and Caribbean musicians.  It was frequently heard in work camps throughout central West Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.  "Woyaya," like many other African scat syllables, can have many meanings.  According to the song's composer, it means, "We Are Going."  (from the information provided about the songs in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Journey.)

Monday, February 08, 2016

We Are a People of Desire

This is the sermon I delievered on Sunday, February 7, 2016 at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.  As always, you can listen to the podcast.

This morning I want to talk about “nones.”  That’s right, “nones.”  If you think about it, “nones” have a lot to tell us about who we are as Unitarian Universalists.  In fact, “nones” might be the ones to help us see more clearly how it is that we are a “people of desire.”

If you’re here this morning without having first read the description of the service in our monthly Bulletin or online, you might think that I’ve been talking about “nuns,” when, actually, I’ve been talking about “nones.”  The first – n-u-n-s – refers to women who have taken monastic vows, Catholic or Buddhist, for instance.  I’m not talking about them.  The group I am talking about – n-o-n-e-s – are those who in surveys identify as atheists or agnostics or those who say that they are “spiritual but not religious.”  In other words, they’re the group that when pollsters ask what religious affiliation they have, answer “none.”  [NOTE:  this who section works better if you're hearing, rather than reading, the sermon!]

According to a recent Pew Research study these nones make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population.  The last time they did a similar study, in 2007, the nones came in at only 16%.  That means that in about 7 years the number of people who choose “none” among all of the religious choices out there has risen 7%.  (Interestingly, during that same period, the number of U.S. adults who identify themselves as “Christian” has fallen by just about 7%.)  Nones are by far the fastest growing religious identity in our country.

There are those among our own flock, Unitarian Universalists, who see in this “rise of the nones” an opportunity – after all, this growing number of unaffiliated folk share many of our values: 
  • ·    they are not particularly interested in creeds and dogma;
  • ·    they don’t believe that any one book or any one holy person has all the answers;
  • ·    they think that there may very well be some truth in each of humanity’s various religions;
  • ·    they like to think for themselves;
  • ·    they don’t think that there is only one path;
  • ·    they don’t think of themselves as “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” nor do they think that they are particularly in need of saving;
  • ·    and they’re not all that interested in organized religion. 
Sounds a lot like … well … us, doesn’t it?  (Don’t forget – Unitarian Universalism has sometimes been described as the religion for people who don’t like organized religion.)  And it’s because these nones are in so many ways free-thinkers like ourselves, there are some who see an opportunity for growing our congregations and our movement if only we could appeal to these folks and help them to see that we might be what they’re looking for.  After all, how many of us came to Unitarian Universalism at some point in our lives having had no idea that there was a faith like ours?  How many of us wished we’d heard about us sooner?

Many of our congregations are making a concerted effort to reach out to these nones. One of our congregations in Chicago, for instance, the Beverly Unitarian Church, has a page on their website with the heading, “Do you feel as if you've lost your faith but still yearn for a religious community where you will be accepted as you are....?”  Here’s what it says:
  • Do you feel as if you’ve lost your faith?
  • Can you no longer believe the religious doctrines you were taught to believe?
  • Have you rejected the notion of a wrathful God, a God whom you should fear, a God who would punish you for your sins, or for not believing in him?
  • Have you been taken to task for having “wrong” beliefs?
  • Are you possibly seeking a religious community that embraces and celebrates diversity of many kinds, and where you will be accepted for who you are?
  • Are you seeking a religious community in which you can follow the dictates of your own reason and conscience?
  • Are you seeking a place where you can open your mind and heart to whatever is inspiring, sustaining, transforming and redeeming in life, without dogma and orthodoxy?
  • Are you seeking a place where you can engage in a free and responsible search for religious truth, supported by others who are doing this as well?
  • Are you seeking a religious community that takes the problems and possibilities of this world seriously, and tries actively to help heal and sustain it?
  • If so, you may be one of us.

Sounds like a lot of us, doesn’t it?  And sounds like could describe a lot of these nones, doesn’t it?  Yet here’s an interesting thing.  When the folks at Pew asked, “Are you looking for a religion that would be right for you?”

2% of nones said that they didn’t know or simply refused to answer the question;
10% said that they are looking;
88% said that they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them.

And this is not because the nones are not “religious” or “spiritual” in one way or another.  According to the Pew Research findings, 

“two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.”

And yet, nearly 90% of these nones – these people who say they have no religious affiliation – also say that they are not looking for a religion that would fit with their values and their lives.  They are decidedly, determinedly uninterested in organized religion of any kind, even one as dis­-organized as ours.

And this is why I said that these folk have something to show us about who we are as “a people of desire.” Let’s go back to that webpage from the Beverly Unitarian Church:  “Do you feel as if you've lost your faith but still yearn for a religious community where you will be accepted as you are....?”  Did you hear that?  “Do you yearn for a religious community where you will be accepted as you are?”  “Do you … yearn …?”  More than half of the nine questions that follow begin with the phrase, “Are you seeking …?”  Yearning.  Seeking.  These are words about desire.  Do you, with all you believe and don’t believe about religion and religious institutions, desire something?

It was one of our Worship Weavers who proposed this topic as a way of addressing our month’s theme – “What does it mean to be a people of desire?”  He said, “Yes.  In a lot of ways we’re just like these nones … yet we are here.  It must be because we desire something that we think we can find here.”  And, I’d add based on so many conversations over the years, something we think we can find only here.

This week I got into a discussion with a number of colleagues across the country about just what it is that our movement is all about.  It was sparked by an encounter I’d had with a UU in California, I think, on their minister’s Facebook page.  The depth of this person’s anti-Christian bigotry was, to me, alarming, and so counter to what I take to be our core Unitarian Universalist stance of endless curiosity.  (And I've heard the same kind of religious bigotry -- I have no other words for it -- expressed toward atheists, and pagans, and other folks both within our community and in the wider world.) And such sentiments are so closed minded; so judgmental; so condemning.  And, honestly, it made me despair a little.

When I brought this despair to a wider circle of colleagues someone said, essentially, that there are so many people who have found our movement after being seriously wounded by some other religious traditions that we are, in many ways, a spiritual hospital for the healing of the spiritually wounded.  My response?  (And remember, I was at the time despairing of the future of our Grand Experiment.)  My response was to say that I feel like a lot of people come into our “spiritual hospitals” not for any kind of healing, but because they want to buy a newspaper in our gift shop, or get something to eat in the cafeteria, or just to get out of the rain.  A lot of people in a lot of our congregations have come to this movement as a way of avoiding religion rather than engaging in it.

And yet, they’ve come.  For whatever reason, you and I are here this morning.  Some may be trying to get out of the rain, some may be wanting their biases affirmed and left unchallenged, some may be wanting to salve the wounds that the religious experiences of their past have caused them so that they can see their spirits flourish, and some are here because they want to celebrate the beauty of life and there is nowhere else where they can do it so authentically.  And as Jeanine's reading reminds us,

"Ours is very definitely a different kind of church, which requires a different kind of definition. 

Yet, let there be no mistake about the fact that the Unitarian Universalist fellowship is a purposeful, positive, organized relations movement, dedicated to the spiritual, moral, and social fulfillment of the gift of life.”

We come together day in and day out, week after week, through the ongoing years, because we Unitarian Universalists desire what we can find only in communities like this – and for us here this morning, only in this particular and specific community.

So what of that Hoopoe bird, and his insistence that the flock travel that long and dangerous journey to discover what he could have told them at the beginning – that “each of them had something good and strong and special inside of them and that each [of them] had gifts to bring to the community,” that “they were all that was needed to keep the community strong,” and that the wisdom they needed,  the belief that each of them was important (no matter how big or small), the caring friendship they yearned for, and the safety they sought was all in their own hands?

He, like we, know that it is only community that can show us the power of community, and only community can guide us, and support us, and encourage us on that journey from where we are now to where we know we need (and sometimes even want!) to go.  This is what we, as a people of desire, desire:  that guidance, that support, that encouragement, and that companionship.

And so we are here.  Hallelujah, we are here.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Why can't we all just be ... like me?

I often listen to NPR as I drive in to work in the morning.  (I also listen to Rush Limbaugh if I'm in the car while his show's on, but that's another matter.)  This morning I heard a piece of a report on diversity in the workplace.  I missed the beginning, but it seemed to be focusing on the tech sector, and it might have been about Intell in specific.  At one point the reporter noted that at Intell, prospective employees not only have to demonstrate their coding ability, but also be assessed for their "cultural fit."  Someone else said that this means that teams are looking for "a unicorn."  She went on to say that in order to make the workplace more diverse they were looking for someone of a different racial, gender, or other under-represented identity who is also in every other way just like the folks who are already there.

I was immediately reminded of a moment in the movie The Color of Fear.  This 1994 film from director and anti-oppression activist Lee Mun Wah documents a weekend retreat during which eight men -- two African Americans, two Hispanic Americans, two Asian Americans, and two Euro Americans -- talk openly and frankly with each other about race and racism.  It's a pretty amazing movie, and if you haven't seen it you really should.  If you're interested, you can stream it from Lee Mun Wah's Stirfry Seminars' website.  (It's expensive, but I think it's worth it, especially if you get a group together to watch it.  Just make sure to create a space and time to talk about it afterward!)

As I said, I was reminded of a moment in which one of the African Americans, Loren Moye, says that he can't wait to get home after a day working in corporate America so that he can "be Black" again.  He talks movingly about how he knows that his Blackness is not really welcome in that environment so he has to "shuffle."  He says that it might be a 1990 kind of shuffle, but that it's still a shuffle.

So often when White people -- yes, I do mean well-intentioned White people and not just explicitly racist folk -- say thinks like, "I'm colorblind; I don't care about race," or, "Why can't we all just be people?"  I have to hold my breath a bit.  Yes, in articulating his dream the Rev. Dr. King did say "I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls as sisters and brothers."  (I don't know if this means anything, but in all of the websites of quotations by Rev. King this quote appears, but without the last four words.)  More recently, the rapper and activist known as Prince EA created a video titled, "I am NOT Black, You are NOT White" which is making the rounds on social media:

So yes ... it is true that there has long been, and is still, a vision of a "post-racial" society in which the "color of our skin" is not as important as "the content of our character."

And yet ...

I have learned in my relationships with people of color that the same words can mean very different things depending on who is saying them and in what context.  When an African American, for instance, talks about wanting a world where race doesn't matter, they may well be saying something quite different than when a Euro American says the same thing.  Why?  Because African Americans have for so long been treated as "other than," as "less than," that a world without an emphasis on race means an opportunity to live their lives without race getting in the way, being a hurdle, confronting them with injustices committed against them at virtually every turn.  People of color may well mean that they want a world in which they are not judged -- and judged negatively -- simply because of their race or ethnicity.

Our nation's history of systemic racism -- beginning with slavery and continuing through the Jim Crow era and up until the present state of what civil rights litigator and legal scholar Michelle Alexander calls, "the new Jim Crow" -- has made a demonstrable divide between the lived experience of White Americans and people of color.  To deny the inarguable fact of this is as indefensible as is denying the overwhelming evidence from climatologists about global warming.  (As an aside, Ms. Alexander's book The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness should be read by every American, followed almost immediately by Ta-Nehisi Coates's book Between the World and Me.)

So, yes, it is true that race is a social construct.  Genetic science has shown conclusively that there is more genetic variation among people of the same "race" than there is between the so-called "races."  Social historians and others can delineate the process of, and purpose for, creating the concept of "race."  In a sense, then, it is true that "race" shouldn't matter; that people should all be seen as "human beings" rather than as Black, White, or any of the other racial/ethnic divisions that permeate our society.  Yet that isn't the same thing as saying that thinking about, and talking about, these distinctions perpetuates the divisions (in other words, the idea that all of this anti-racism,  multicultural stuff just serves to keep racism alive).

When White people -- again, I'm talking about well-intentioned White people -- talk about wanting a "colorblind, post-racial" society they are, of course, in one sense right on the money.  And yet, the way many White people say this glosses over, denies, erases, the lived experiences of people of color.  That's because without acknowledging the very real and devastatingly detrimental affects of centuries of systemic racism on the lives of people of color what we (White people) are really saying is, "none of that really mattered."

If people of color think about "colorblindness" as no longer having to be identified and judged fundamentally by their race or ethnicity, when White people say it they often mean, even if unconsciously, "everybody should be like us."  And this makes a kind of sense, after all, because one of the pernicious aspects of racism is that White Americans have been led to believe that our experiences, our history, is the norm for what it means to be an American.  (And to be human, really.)

And that brings us back to the "unicorn" from this morning's radio report -- the person of a different race or ethnicity who is, none-the-less in every other way exactly the same as the White people who are looking to diversify.  That brings us back to Loren Moye and his experience that he needs to "act white" in order to have a place in the workplace.  Can anyone really suggest that it is these examples of "colorblindness" that are, in unarguable fact, perpetrating the racism they claim to be eradicating?

It's important for Euro Americans to come to grips with the fact that this is neither nothing new nor an outlier phenomenon.  To again use the climate change analogy, just as the truth of climate change becomes unassailable as scientist after scientist weighs in with the results of their observations, the truth of the effects of centuries of systemic racism on the lives and lived experiences of people of color is equally undeniable.  Person after person after person have "published their results," if you will.  No less than a climate-change denier, a reality-of-racism denier simply must be, at this point, willfully disregarding the testimony of experts.  In the case of the reality of racism it is people of color who are the experts, those who have experience it's brutal reality day in and day out for generations.

And what the overwhelming number of experts are saying is that as long as White people mean by the idea of "colorblindness" and "treating everyone the same" that they don't want to recognize the very real and on-going ways our society's racial history has created painfully different realities, then they want no part of it.  Until White folks are willing to step out of our experiences and try to see the world through another lens -- an other and tremendously disturbing and discomforting lens -- that we do need to keep thinking about and talking about these difference.  It really is the only way we can all make our way to the land of the Beloved Community so many of so longed for.

Pax tecum,


I leave you with a powerful and profound clip from The Color of Fear.  The testiony of Victor Lewis:

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Are, Were, and Yet Might Be

Robert Reich recently wrote in a blog his assessment of the main difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.  The passage that's gotten the most attention is that in the picture to the left.  His original post has a lot more to say than this, of course (and there is a lot more of his thinking -- about this and a lot more beside -- on his website).  Yet these two sentences raise a question that is applicable in a great many areas of life -- do you work with what is, working towards what could be, or do you "act as if" the change has occurred and work as if it had?

This kind of metaphysical question is not new.  It has been asked before.  In George Bernard Shaw's play Back to Methuselah: A Metabiological Pentateuch, a character says: 
"Some people see things that are and ask, Why? Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not?"  
This has been quoted and re-quoted  to often that a great many more people know the words than know where they came from.  It's often attributed to Robert F. Kennedy, for instance.  George Carlin put his own spin on it: "Some people see things that are and ask, Why? Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not?  Some people have to go to work and don't have time for all that."  Yet some of us get to blog about things like this and, so, the question again:  

Dyou work with what is, working towards what could be, or do you "act as if" the change has occurred and work as if it had??

We can see that the system, as it is, is not working.  (And we could be talking, here, about our political system, or our justice system, or the schools in the country, or ...)  It is abundantly clear that things have to change, and many would say that's it not just some things, but every thing that needs to change.  Something new is needed.  More of the same -- or, rather, less of the same -- just isn't going to cut it.

Let's use a popular buzz word and say that what we need is a paradigm shift.  A paradigm shift is more than just a change -- more, even, than a whole bunch of changes.  It's something new, something so different from what is that what is is no longer relevant or meaningful.  Albert Einstein famously said, "No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."  Similarly, it could be argued, that you can't solve the problems inherent in our current prison-industrial complex, as an example, with the same judicial and political systems that created the problems in the first place.  

But how do you get from here to there?  How do you make the jump from one paradigm to another?  

When I was in Divinity School I took a course on Zen Buddhism from a Japanese monk. In trying to explain to us the difference between pre-enlightenment and post-enlightenment perspectives he said that before one has an enlightenment experience, it's like the person is looking at a mirror.  It is, of course, a one-way mirror although the person doesn't realize that.  On the other side, the enlightenment side, this becomes apparent and it's as easy to look through as if it weren't there.

That made sense to a lot of us, but he continued.  All that he had just described was a per-enlightenment perspective. After one has had an enlightenment experience they realize that there never was any mirror in the first place.  The problem, he said, in trying to explain this to someone who hasn't had the experience is that the post-enlightenment perspective is nonsensical to the person who is still living in a pre-enlightenment consciousness.  And that's because the difference between the pre- and post- perspective is not simply that of seeing things differently.  It's a different way of seeing ... so different, in fact, that the things being seen are also transformed.  Seeing differently and seeing different things.

Staying with the Zen analogy for a moment -- and my apologies to those who know more about this than I and who can therefore see all of the ways I'm mangling this -- there is a strand of the Zen tradition that focuses on what I'll call a slow and steady progress toward enlightenment; there is another that emphasizes sudden enlightenment.  The first uses the "tools" and perspectives of the pre-enlightened mind to move, over time, to a state in which enlightenment can occur.  (That monk also said, "It takes a lot of ego to become ego-less.")  The second is, if you will, a sudden jump from one perspective to the other.

Which brings us back to Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders and the choice between them as described by Robert Reich.  We agree that the systems is broken and needs to be changed.  So do we use the system to subvert the system, or do we leave the old behind in order to create the new?\

I don't know.  But it's a question not only practical -- who has the best chances of winning -- but philosophic as well -- have things gotten to the point where incrimental change toward a far-off goal is not only untenable but also, realistically, impossible.  The current system, in other words, simply cannot be used to bring about the new.  This was an point of disagreement during the Civil Rights era -- is change within the system possible or do we need to tear everything down and start again.  It's a question in today's Black Lives Matter era.  (This is, at least in part, why there are those who are calling for prison abolition instead of just prison reform.)

It's also a question whenever a paradigm shift is desired (or needed).  Can you, for instance, change the institution of "the church" from within the church as it is?  When the Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has been asked why he hasn't just jumped ship and become a Unitarian Universalist or some such thing, he has said that he believe in staying within his faith tradition to work for the fundamental changes he sees as needed.  (His books Why Christianity Must Change or Die and A New Christianity for a New World are good examples of the changes he advocates.  Pretty radical changes to some of what have been seen as fundamental -- nothing short of, as he says, "a new Christianity.")

Others, seeing the same need, leave the denomination (or the entire faith tradition) that they have come to see as incapable of making suffient change.  Not that it would simply be difficult, but that it is just not possible.  And so they go out to create something new, an alternative.

So ... where does that leave us (whether talking about Presidential politics or any other place where such fundamental change is needed)?  Again, I don't know.  I do believe however, that it's important to recognize that this is the question that needs to be addressed, because simply asking whether or not one path or the other is "practical" or stands a chance of "success" is to already cede the choice to the current system, because those are questions of "the level of consciousness that caused the problem."

Pax tecum,

Rev Wik

PS -- in light of the results of the caucus in Iowa an observation:  some are reporting that there was a tie between Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton.  (There was, after all, a difference of less than 1% in the outcome.)  Others are saying the Secretary Clinton won, even as they admit that it was by "the narrowist of margins."  Aren't these two different ways of saying the same thing actually saying different things?

Monday, February 01, 2016

A Call to Higher Ground

Last evening I had the pleasure, privilege, and responsibility of offering the "Statement of Purpose" at Charlottesville's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.

It was an absolutely amazing event.  (I left saying that my soul had been nourished and my spirit strengthened.) One of the first speakers looked out at the assembled crowd -- a diverse group of people gathered in one place, as one people, for the purpose of furthering justice in our community and our country --and said, essentially, "this is what Dr. King had in mind."

For those who might be interested, here's what I said:

Statement of Purpose for the Martin Luther King, Jr. CelebrationJanuary 31, 2016 
I think it's wonderful that we're here tonight for this annual celebration of the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and that it is not the weekend of the Martin Luther King holiday.  Some people may, no doubt, think that that's a little odd.  After all, the Martin Luther King holiday weekend is the time that our nation collectively pauses to remember this prophet of peaceful, non-violent, resistance.  The holiday weekend is when the airwaves and the Internet are abuzz with powerful and pithy quotations -- especially from Dr. King's earlier writings (although they are, unfortunately, all too often taken out of their original context).  That holiday weekend is when we're awash in pictures from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and from inside the Birmingham jail.   There are retrospectives, reenactments, re-dedications, and re-commitments to the work of justice for which Dr. King is justly famous. 
Yet we know -- the people gathered here tonight not on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend know -- that celebrating the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. King should not be segregated to a single weekend ... can not be so simplified and sanitized as to fit into a single weekend and then set aside as our nation rouses itself from its pausing and goes on about business as usual.

Within my faith tradition there is a Universalist preacher, the Rev. Clinton Lee Scott, who once said:
Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the direction of their vision.  It is easier to blindly venerate the saints than to learn the human quality of their sainthood.  It is easier to glorify the heroes of the race than to give weight to their examples.  To worship the wise is much easier that to profit by their wisdom.  Great leaders are honored, not by adulation, but by sharing their insights and values. 
So tonight we gather to remember and honor the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the legacy he left that provides an ongoing challenge to us and to our country to do more than simply pay homage. 
Dr, King calls on us to refuse to be bogged down in the swamp of systemic racism but to find, to create, to inhabit higher ground, together, and this call resounds not just on the third Monday of January but on each and every day of the year.  There is much work to be done.  So let us remember Dr. King, and remember that he did not stand alone, but always in community, just as we gather together in Beloved Community tonight.  This is our purpose.

Pax tecum,


Resistance in the Home

This is the text of the reflection I offered to the community of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist on Sunday, January 31st, 2016.  As always, you can listen to the podcast.

There were a lot of folks from here who were at the Open House of the Islamic Society yesterday.  [How many of you were there?]  One of the things we were told was that if a Muslim lives her or his daily life with an awareness of Allah, then everything they do is a form of worship.  And maybe the place we can see this best is in the family.  When children honor their parents, parents care for and nurture their children, and spouses love and support one another, then the various ways they do these things become forms of worship.

Now ... I don't know about you, but my home doesn't always seem like a house of worship.  Maybe yours doesn't either -- the home you're in now or the home you grew up in.  Maybe it seems a little more like Moishe's from our story earlier:  too many things getting underfoot and not enough time or space to breathe.  [Here is a link to one version of that story.]

And maybe we're a little bit like Moishe, ourselves.  I know that I sometimes think -- more often than I'd care to admit, actually (although I guess I just did) -- I sometimes think the things that are getting in the way, the things that are resisting me on my path to a happy life, are "out there."  The biggest source of my greatest resistance can be found in the external realities of my life, and that if I could only get those things to change, I would be fine. 

I think a lot of us might have been feeling like that a couple of weeks ago when the PowerBall jackpot was so high -- think of how our lives could have been improved if we'd have won!  But on a pretty regular basis we think like this too -- if only my older (or younger) sister or brother wasn't being such a pain in the neck; if only my parents would let me play that video game that all of my friends are playing; or if only the kids would clean their rooms, or my spouse would remember to put dirty dishes in the sink, or my grown kids would stop treating me like I'm the child now ...  The list could go on and on. 

This kind of thinking makes sense, although it's absolutely, completely, and totally wrong.  This life ... right now ... exactly as it is in this moment ... is the only life we have, and the only life we can be happy in because right now ... this moment ... is the only thing that's real. That's what the Rabbi's little game was all about -- getting Moishe to realize that he didn't have to change anything about how his life was in order to be happy.  The life he returns to after getting all of those animals out of his house was exactly the same life he'd been complaining about as too stressful, but now he realized just how much peace there was in it.  Absolutely nothing about the external realities of his life had changed ... but he had.

He had changed, which means that the resistance to his living a happy life wasn't really "out there" the way he -- and we, all too often -- thought it was.  The resistance is "in here."  He -- we -- are the source of our own greatest resistance.

So what do we do about that?  If we are the source of the greatest resistance in our lives, what are we going to do about it?  Well ... I am going to ask for a volunteer.  Thanks.  I'd like you to put your arms straight down at your sides.  Now ... I'm going to hold them here where they are and you're going to push against me as hard as you can.  You're going to resist having your arms at your side by trying as hard as you can to raise them up.  Okay?  Ready?  Go.

Didn't get you too far, did it?  Okay, now we're going to do that again, only at a certain point I'm going to let go, and when I do I want you to stop trying to raise your arms.  Got it?  Okay.  Go.
What happened?  Your arms rose up on their own, right?  You didn't have to do anything, they just sort of floated up.  When we stop resisting, when we let go of our resistance, we just naturally rise up.  Things get lighter.  Easier. More spacious.

When I was younger one of my favorite books was by Richard Bach, the author of Johnathan Livingston Seagull(It still is one of my favorites, actually.). The book is called Illusions:  adventures of a reluctant messiah.  At the beginning of the book there is a parable.  [So as not to engage in copyright infringement, here is a link to the text.]

"The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go."  "The river delights to lift us free."  Love delights to lift us free ... Life delights to lift us free ... use whatever metaphor you like.  The point will be the same.  Our Unitarian Universalist faith affirms that Life -- this life, my life and your life, Life itself -- is not ultimately meaningless.  And our faith affirms also that there are mysteries and wonders that transcend what reason alone can explain away.  Our Universalist ancestors called these transcending mysteries and wonders, "Love."  We could call them "LIfe," or "the River," but whatever you decide to call it I am here this morning to remind us of what we all once knew -- that our true work is the voyage, the adventure, that we can only take when we let go of the rocks to which we cling, when we stop resisting the current of Life, of Love, and allow it to lift us free.

It's not always easy, of course, nor is it guaranteed to seem successful at first.  I think my favorite part of that parable is when the hero is "tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks" just as he had been warned he would be.  Yet he kept trying, kept believing, kept having faith, and so should we. 

Our lives with our families -- whichever of the myriad forms your family might take -- might be where we'll see most clearly how often we forget that we, ourselves, are the source of the greatest resistance in our lives because it is so easy to blame it on one of the others. Yet when we remember where the resistance really lies, then (with practice) we can remember to let go, to stop resisting, and we will find that our arms are not the only things that rise on their own.  "The river delights to lift us free ..."  Perhaps we should stop resisting and let it.

Pax tecum,


Friday, January 29, 2016

Riding Into The Sublime

It's been a while since I last posted about someone who had done something so delightfully odd that it gives me hope for humanity.
  • The guy who rode cross-country on his Torro mower;
  • The guy who tied enough helium balloons to his lawn chair that he was able to fly on it for nearly 200 miles;
  • The guy who only managed to fly ten miles on his lawn chair ... but at a height of three miles (an airline pilot spoted him and reported seeing a man on a flying lawn chair!);
  • The guy who made a lifesize statue of the crucifixion ... entirely out of chocolate.
These people inspire me because they've done something so outrageous that it puts my everyday life into an odd kind of perspective.  Sure, I may be caught up in the myriad of things that make up the day of a husband/father/clergyperson, but I inhavit the same world as people who are flying on lawnchairs!  In his book The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine wrote,
The sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related, that it is difficult to class them separately.  One step above the sublime, makes the ridiculous; and one step above the ridiculous, makes the sublime again.
My new hero of the ridiculously sublime is Heinz Stücke.  In 1962 Mr. Stücke was 22 years old and working in a factory, something he didn't particularly enjoy doing and most certainly didn't enjoy imagining himself doing for any length of time.  He'd always liked bicycling long distances, though, so he decided to get on his bicycle and ride it around the world.  (Who hasn't, right?)  He figured it would take him a few years, and that alone puts him in my pantheon of peculiar people who remind me how remarkable we humans can be.  But, in the words of reporter Ron Gluckman, "He simply forgot to stop."

Stücke continued riding until he'd ridden through 193 countries.  (The fall of the Soviet Union was apparently particularly exciting for him because of all the "new" countries he could now add to his list!)  He rode his bike for approximately 138,000 miles, which is something like ten times around the globe.  But all good things must come to an end, of course, and, so, Heinz Stücke finally stopped his ride ... three years ago!

Let that sink in.

Heinz Stücke rode his three-speed bicycle for 50 years!  He was 72 when he decided it was finally time to settle down!  Like I said, let that sink in for a moment.   I was born just two months before Stücke began his odyssey.  He has quite literally riding his bicycle for more entire life.

In Gluckman's article, "Bikeman's Amazing Adventure," there's this wonderful passage:
Stucke scoffs both at the critics who cannot see the purpose of his pedaling and the admirers who romanticize it. "I just do what I do. As to happiness, you can never just be happy. One moment you are, and the next you're not. There's happiness and sadness as you go. 
"Why?" he ponders. "Why not? Every human endeavor is irrelevant in some ways. It's up to each individual to achieve their own objectives. I got into this and don't want to stop."
Wire walker Philipe Pettit, when asked why he had walked between the World Trade Towers, is reorted to have said, "Why?  There is no why."  All those who worked with him to make that walk possible apparentl felt the same way.  Why?  Why not.  Why not do the improbable, the impossible, the inceonceivable?  Why not do what can't be done?

Heinze Stücke said, "I just do what I do."

And I am so glad he has.  So may we all.

Pax tecum,


Monday, January 18, 2016

Resisting Injustice

This is the sermon I preached at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia on January 17, 2016.  As always, you can listen to it if you prefer.

You’ve probably never heard the name Ephraim Nute.  (But it is a pretty cool name, isn’t it?)  You’ve also probably never heard about the 2011 book that Skinner House published about him:  The Incredible Story of Ephraim Nute: Scandal, Bloodshed, and Unitarianism on the American Frontier.  (And how’s that for a title?)  I was on the Editorial Board of Skinner House when the manuscript for The Incredible Story was nearly passed over, and I was one of the people who argued – somewhat passionately, as I remember – that we simply had to publish this book.

Ephraim Nute was a Boston-born Unitarian, ordained to the ministry in 1845 at the age of 26.  He served congregations in Massachusetts for about a decade before feeling the need for a new adventure.  He followed that urge by volunteering to go to Kansas to start a new church there.  The year was 1854, Kansas was still a territory, and it was the year that Congress passed the now infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act which said that as these territories were admitted as new states in the Union the settlers would decide for themselves whether or not to legalize slavery.  As you may remember from a U.S. History class, these disputed territories were one of the matches that ignited the Civil War.  In Kansas, in 1854, the struggle between anti-slavery activists and pro-slavery proponents was so fierce that this period is referred to as, “bleeding Kansas.”   Starting a congregation in that context is the “adventure” Ephraim Nute signed on for.  When he left, one of the gifts given to him to help with his new ministry was a revolver.

The story of “scandal, bloodshed, and Unitarianism on the American frontier” is a pretty exciting one.  If anyone knows a screenwriter looking for a project, I’ll happily loan them my copy.  It’s that amazing.  An example:  There’s a chapter in the book titled, “Bibles and Breechloaders.”  When Nute would go back East to visit family, and friends, and the office of the American Unitarian Association, he would return with his wagon loaded with cases of books for his community.  Only … the cases were actually filled with the Sharps breech loading rifles. 

These were the rifles some called, “Beecher’s Bibles,” because of something the famous New England clergyman Henry Ward Beecher was reported to have said (and I’m quoting here from an 1856 article in the New Your Tribune):

"He (Henry W. Beecher) believed that the Sharps Rifle was a truly moral agency, and that there was more moral power in one of those instruments, so far as the slaveholders of Kansas were concerned, than in a hundred Bibles. You might just as well. . . read the Bible to Buffaloes as to those fellows who [support slavery]; but they have a supreme respect for the logic that is embodied in Sharp's rifle."

The Incredible Story of Ephraim Nute recounts his harrowing journeys with those crates of “books” in his wagon, as well as all of the times he was beaten, shot at, arrested, imprisoned, nearly lynched …  All I can say is that the parish ministry has certainly changed some since then!  That, and that there’s no question that this was a preacher who put his faith into action.

And he wasn’t alone.  Among our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors are people who risked much in their support of the cause of abolition.  In fact, at least one historian of religion suggests that one of the reasons we see such slow growth in Unitarianism in and around this period is because of the number of radical Unitarian preachers who were so public in their opposition to slavery.   Not every one of our forebears would make us proud, of course – the President who   signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law, Millard Fillmore, was a Unitarian, for instance.  Yet in 1845, 170 Unitarian clergyman published an anti-slavery declaration in William Lloyd Garrison’s magazine The Liberator, and a list of some of the most active and well-known abolitionists would include quite a number of Unitarians and Universalists.  And our ancestors were involved in less public ways as well:

  • The belfry of our congregation in Olmsted, Ohio was a station on the Underground Railroad.
  • Our congregation in West Roxbury, Massachusetts gave sanctuary in their building to several escaped slaves and Freedmen.  Their Pastor, the Rev. Theodore Parker, kept a pistol in the pulpit, letting it be known that he would shoot anyone who tried to forcibly remove them.  He kept a sword by his writing desk as well, because his home was a sanctuary also.
  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an African American woman who drew huge crowds of New Englanders to her lectures on the anti-slavery circuit.  Some say she was the most popular of all the abolitionist speakers of her day.  She was also a Unitarian.
  • The Rev. Samuel Joseph May, who served our congregation in Syracuse, New York, was known to take up collections during the Sunday service explicitly for the purpose of aiding fugitive slaves.  (He also encouraged the Free Blacks in his congregation to sit up front rather than in the segregated back.  But that’s another story.)
  • In Pennsylvania, our congregations in Meadville and Philadelphia, along with a seminary the Unitarians established in Meadville, were all known stations on the Underground Railroad, as were the Universalist congregations in Indiana County and Girard.
I could keep going, of course, but this could easily turn into a history lesson.  (If it hasn’t already done so for some of you!)  In my research I did come across a history paper written in 2002 for a course at Starr King School for the Ministry.  It’s called, “Unitarian and Universalist Denominational and Individual Involvement in the Anti-Slavery Movement Prior to the U.S. Civil War.”  Not quite as catchy as Scandal, Bloodshed and Unitarianism on the American Frontier, but it’s quite an interesting paper nonetheless (even though the author doesn’t even mention our dear Ephraim Nute even once!). [For those who are interested I’ve printed out some copies that you can find in the Church Office, and I’ll make sure that there’s a link to it when this sermon is published online.]  As I said earlier, a list of those most active in the cause of abolition would include a number of Unitarians and Universalists.

This is true of the women’s suffrage movement as well.  Judith Sargent Murray?  One of ours.  Elizabeth Cady StantonSusan B. Anthony?  Yep.  Them too.  Jane Addams?  Lucy Stone? Olympia Brown?  Mary Rice Livermore?  Julia Ward Howe?  Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.  In fact if you look at both the leaders and the rank and file of pretty much all of the movements for justice in U.S. history you’ll find Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists well represented.  Resisting injustice is not something new for us; we’ve been at it for a long, long time.

That’s actually the reason I advocated for Skinner to publish Bobbie Groth’s book about her great-great-grandfather, Ephraim Nute.  I saw it as providing proof, if proof were needed, that our modern movement’s strong anti-racism, anti-oppression emphasis is not new but has roots that go deep.  I remember saying that the “incredible story of … scandal, bloodshed, and Unitarianism on the American frontier” offered an explanation of why we 21st century Unitarian Universalists see this work as so important.  Simply – it’s part of the makeup of who we are; it’s part of the truth of who we’ve been. 

Yet even though realizing that resisting injustice is part of our faith tradition’s genome may point toward an explanation of why we are engaged in such work today, I am not sure it says all that much about why we are, and have been, engaged in such resistance.  We’ve been there, we’ve been doing it, but why have we been there doing it?

This week I stumbled upon a pretty cool resource, a rather long page on the website of our congregation in Albion, NY that contains … well … I lost count of how many pithy quotes from Unitarian Universalists it has.  One that sprang out at me is by the Rev. Forrest Church,

“Unitarianism proclaims that we spring from a common source; Universalism, that we share a common destiny.”

This is part of the answer to that why.  From their beginnings, the theologies of the movements that merged into us emphasized the unity of our human family and the universality of human experience.  You know the saying, “until all of us are free, none of us is free”?  That sense of interconnectedness, of mutual responsibility, has been a part of our theological understanding since the beginning.

Fundamentally, Unitarian Universalism is, and always has been, a humanist faith.  By this I don’t mean that we are atheists at heart, although, of course, some of us are.  Humanism has taken many forms – from a religious Christian humanism to a secular transhumanism.  So, saying that a person, or a faith tradition, is “humanist” doesn’t really tell you all that much about their understanding of, “the sacred and the holy.”  Well, actually, that’s not completely true.  All forms of humanism stress that here – this place, this world, this universe, this “sphere of human experience,” if you will – is in-and-of-itself both sacred and holy, needing nothing out there to bless all that is right here.  There’s a great line in a litany about what our faith does, and doesn’t, affirm – “it is more important to get heaven into people now, than to get people into heaven later.”  Whatever may or may not come next, this world is where the action is.  That’s humanism, and that’s foundational to our movement.

And it’s because our faith tradition teaches that “this world is where the action is” that we, as a people, have always been drawn to the work of resisting injustice.  We look around us and see all the work there is to do.  To paraphrase the words of the poet Adrienne Rich (that you can find in the back of our hymnal at #463):
[Our hearts are] moved by all [we] cannot save:so much has been destroyed
[we] have to cast [our] lot with thosewho age after age, perversely,with no extraordinary power
reconstitute the world.
So much has been destroyed – so much is being destroyed – and looking around ourselves we and our forebears have seen this and are compelled to act.  And we are compelled to act because of one other aspect of our faith tradition’s teachings – that Love is our foundation, our “ground of being.”

So when we look around us at all that we cannot save, all that has been destroyed and is being destroyed, we do so through eyes of Love and we are compelled by Love to do something.  We are compelled to resist the injustices we see – it’s what we’ve always done and what we’re doing now, and what I fully expect Unitarian Universalists will keep doing as long as we last.

Now … there are those who say that every sermon should end on an uplifting note, or a charge to action, or, as Arthur likes to put it, a “so what?”.  I guess I’d have to say that this sermon is going to end on an “I thought you ought to know.”  I thought you ought to know that our Unitarian Universalist tradition has a long and storied history, an incredible story of a people who can inspire and make us proud.  I thought you ought to know that we are part of something, friends, that’s larger than any of us, larger even than TJMC.  This community is part of something larger than itself – a community that stretches far into the past and will extend far into the future.  And that community has always been on the frontlines, always been resisting injustice, always been striving to create a world of freedom and justice for everyone without exception.  We are a part of that.  We are a part of that.

Pax tecum,