Tuesday, April 17, 2018

How Do You Want to Bloom Here?

This is the text of the reflection I offered to the congregation I serve on Sunday, April 25th, 2018.  (If you prefer, you can listen to it.

I want to thank those of you – both here and not here this morning – who have taken the step of formalizing your membership in this community.  The two things I like to say to new members are:  congratulations (because you’ve joined a wonderful congregation), and thank you (because by your joining, and by bringing the gifts and spirit only you have, you are making it more wonderful still).  So, congratulations and thank you.
I must say, though, that you’ve picked an … interesting … time to take this step.  There’s supposedly an ancient Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times,” said not as a blessing, but a curse.  “May you live in … interesting … times.”  It turns out that it isn’t a bit of ancient Chinese philosophy, yet we certainly can understand using the word “interesting” as an ironic euphemism for … well … for the kind of times we’re living in.  And while I could be talking about “the times we’re living in” in relation to this time in our nation, or this time in our city, this morning I’m most interested in the … interesting … times we find ourselves in here in our congregation.
This is a time when many people are questioning whether or not this is the right congregation for them, or who don’t know if they want to, or even if they can, go with it in the direction it seems to be going.  This is a time when people are even wondering about whether Unitarian Universalism, as a faith tradition, is what they’d thought it was, and whether they can honestly and with integrity continue to call themselves UUs.  As I said, this is very much an … interesting … time to be joining TJMC.  You’re joining just as a lot of people are wondering about, and fearing for, the future of the congregation.  There are those who are saying that we’re in a time of crisis.
Not me.  Not me.  I believe firmly that his disconcerting disquiet and disequilibrium we’re experiencing right now is not a problem.  I think it’s a good thing, something to lean into it. I see it as an opportunity. 
My Mother-in-Law, herself a retired Methodist minister (and well versed in the ways of congregational life), asked me just the other day if what has been happening at our church had “calmed down” at all.  I told her that I certainly hope things haven’t calmed down too much.  I reminded her of the Rev. Dr. King saying that there are some things to which we all should be “maladjusted.”
I want to be clear that I don’t think being uncomfortable just for the sake of feeling uncomfortable is a good thing.  Nor have I forgotten that while the famous description of religion’s purpose is about “afflicting the comfortable,” it also says that our work as a faith community is about “comforting the afflicted.”  I know that; I do.  Yet don’t we all know how easy it is to move from comfort to complacency?  And sometimes it can be hard to keep track of who, in our culture, needs comforting and who’s in need of some afflicting.  This isn’t another sermon about our racial justice work, or even about the current controversies surrounding us.  I’m really talking this morning about how our faith invites us to live our lives, you and me.
Unitarian Universalist unequivocally calls us to reject complacency in all its forms.  At its best, and perhaps more than any other of the organized religious responses to life we humans have developed, it calls on us to refuse to be too settled, too satisfied.  It calls on us to question … everything … and to keep on questioning.  As one of our hymns puts it, we believe that, “to question is the answer,” or as an old bumper stick said, “Unitarian Universalism – leaving no answer unquestioned.”  We are famously not bound by creed or dogma; we are charged with searching for truth and meaning – on our own and in community – and understand this to be a life-long search.
One of my favorite spiritual teachers is the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.  (If you’ve never seen the video of him giving a talk that’s usually described as “the greatest sermon ever,” it’s well worth Googling when you get home.)  He has said that for a real scientist is kind of disappointing if an experiment proves their hypothesis, because then it’s all over and done with.  The excitement comes when an experiment doesn’t prove your hypothesis and opens up a whole new host of questions.  According to Tyson, it’s the questions, not the answers, which drive the scientific enterprise; scientists are much more interested in exploring the currently-still-mysterious, rather than simply creating a catalogue of the known.
I love this so much because I think that it’s the purpose of our Unitarian Universalist faith as well.  When we’re at our best, it’s the enterprise our congregations exist to help each of us, and all of us, engage.  We are not supposed to be satisfied with the answers we found ten years ago, fifteen years ago, twenty years ago, or even, necessarily, last year.  We believe in evolution not just in biology, but in our understanding as well.
Years ago, while serving another congregation, I had a sign on the board in front of the church for several months.  It said: “If you can’t change your mind, how do you know you still have one?”  The Christian theologian, and Catholic Saint, Augustine of Hippo said way back in the 5th century, si comprehendis non est Deus.  (One of the few bits of Latin I remember.) That translates as, “If you understand it, it’s not God.”  And I’d say that whatever terms or images we use to describe Ultimate Reality, that Spirit of Life we sing about most Sundays, our faith calls us to have that same awareness and attitude:  if we understand it, it’s not … It.  That’s why we’re called to the search for truth and meaning, and not to the celebratory party for truth and meaning discovered.
But this is hard.  It is hard to keep questioning our answers.  It’s hard to keep looking for new ways of seeing, listening for new ways of hearing, finding new ways of being in the world – especially when the laundry’s been piling up, and the fridge is getting a little empty.  With so much … chaos … swirling around us it would be nice to have something solid to hold on to.  Yet just as comfort can change to complacency, something solid can easily become something stagnant.
This is why I think that this … interesting … time of disquiet and discomfort is not a crisis but an opportunity.  It is an opportunity, for us as individuals and as a congregation, to really wrestle with – or, as I prefer to say – to dance with our principles, our values, and our understandings of things.  It’s an opportunity to re-examine what we really believe, something our faith doesn’t dictate to us but, rather, invites us to discover for ourselves.  It is an opportunity to ask questions:  What does it mean to be truly welcoming if in welcoming some people we unavoidably exclude others?  What does it mean to be committed to being a truly safe place for people who have historically been, and are being still, marginalized if it means things we’re accustomed to have to change?  What does it mean to disagree with others, risky though that might feel, yet still be one community?  (Can we trust each other enough to do that?  What does it mean if we can’t?)  What does my “belonging” to this community mean?  What expectations can I reasonably have, and what can be expected of me?  Do my wants, my perceived needs, my desires, my preferences have to be met for me to say that things are “going well”?  (What is the measure of the “success,” if you will, of our mutual ministry?)  What are the limits – or are there limits – to my commitment to this place and these people?  Do I really belong here? 
These are the kinds of questions people say that they’re dancing with these days precisely because of the … interesting … times in which we find ourselves.  Yet the truth is, these are the kind of questions we ought to be dancing with all the time!
Mickey ScottBey Jones, an anti-racist organizer, has written about real, deep, transformative relationships with perhaps a surprising metaphor.  Deep, transformative relationships are the kind I hope we’d agree we ought to be striving to create here, and we might think of them as cool and comforting, soothing and supportive.  Yet Mickey ScottBey Jones wrote:
[R]elationship is the sandpaper that wears away our resistance to change. Relationship is the abrasion that agitates enough to make a way forward … it smooths the way for the sacred, even as it rubs us raw.
Relationship is the sandpaper of life.
We are being offered an opportunity – again, as individuals and as a community – to ask ourselves deep and fundamental questions about our faith tradition, our own faith, the purpose of this community (and others like it), and about the meaning of our membership in it.  At its best, a faith community offers us an opportunity to discover the way into our fullness, an opportunity to truly bloom.  In our faith tradition we are challenged to discover that way for ourselves, and to keep discovering new dimensions of that “way,” so that our blooming can become ever more beautiful and fragrant. 
For me, the most important question in all of this is whether we will make good use of this opportunity.  The question to that is something that only you, and all of us together, can answer.

[The Parting Words were the well-known quotation about question by Rainer Maria Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet.  They are well worth remembering in just about any times, be they ... interesting ... or not.]

Pax tecum,

Monday, March 19, 2018

Living Dayenu

This is the text of the reflection I offered on Sunday, March 28, 2018 at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, VA.

The poet, peace activist, and Buddhist monk, the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, makes quite a bit of “smiling” as a spiritual practice.  “Breathing in, I relax body and mind,” one of his breath prayers goes, “Breathing out, I smile.”  “Smile, breathe, and go slowly,” is his advice on how to live.
A woman came up to him during a retreat to ask him how she was supposed to do all of this smiling when she had some real grief and pain she was going through.  He told her, essentially, that she was being like a television set that thought it was NBC29 just because that was the station playing at the moment.  She thought that she was grief and pain because that’s what was “playing” in her life at that time.  But a TV isn’t just one thing, isn’t just whatever channel happens to be on, even if that channel is on most of the time, making up the background of our lives.  All the other channels are always broadcasting, too.  Yes, there was a lot of grief and pain in this woman’s life, but it wasn’t the only thing, and he told her that she could choose to tune into the Smile Channel, if you will.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that when you find this Smile Channel the Grief-and-Pain Channel has gone off the air.  This isn’t the all-too blithe assertion we should just think “happy thoughts” when things are bad, and all the bad things will go away.  Whenever I hear someone say that I think, “Oh yeah.  I'm just supposed to pretend to be happy.; I'm just supposed to act like everything’s great.  But when I'm done, all my very real problems are still going to really be here, so what’s the point?”  What Tich Nhat Hanh’s television metaphor reminds me is that all too often I pretend, I act like everything’s going wrong, focusing only on my problems and my pain.  I forget that my very real joy is also very much really here.
What makes Tich Nhat Han’s “smiling” a spiritual practice, a spiritual discipline, is that it’s both really simple, and nowhere near as easy as it seems.  It takes work to “change the channel.”  Not like today.  When I was a kid, if you wanted to change the channel you had to actually get up out of your chair, walk across the room, bend down, and turn that clicky little dial.  Now you don’t even have to exert yourself to pick up the remote, you can just say into the air, “Alexa, please change the channel and put on Grey’s Anatomy.”  Changing channels used to be a bit of work; changing “spiritual channels” still is.
But why do it?  And why do it even in times like these?  Cypress asked some really good questions in her Opening Words:  “Is it appropriate to sing “Dayenu!” [she said] when it seems that so much is going wrong in the world?
Our Chalice Lighting, from the American Jewish World Service’s “Global Justice Haggadah” explicitly reminds us that sometimes is simply is not enough.
And a couple of weeks ago, and a month or so before that, we said together a litany which its author, Viola Abbit, titled, “The Promise That Binds.”  Repeatedly we lamented that, “the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.”
Sometimes, apparently, and perhaps obviously, it is simply not enough to smile and say “Things as they are are enough.  Things as they are, the way the world is, the way my life is, is enough.”  Not at all.  Sometimes, as Dr. King said, we need to be “maladjusted” to the way things are.
And yet … (And there’s that “and yet” I love so much.)
And yet it can be so easy to get caught up in those things, to get lost in them, to forget that the world is not just ugly, and brutal, and mean (in both the sense of nasty and base).  Said another way, it's so easy to think that the world is FOX News, forgetting that Rachel Maddow and John Oliver are both broadcasting, too. 
The  problem here is that when we get so caught up in what is wrong with the world, when we forget that it’s also beautiful and good, we can easily drown in the pain, and become cynical, overwhelmed, and, eventually, numb to it all.  When we see only what is not “enough,” pay attention only to what isn’t okay, we too easy to crawl into a false comfort, pretending that everything is okay.
If we want to really be alive to the full experience of Life, then we need we need to be able to see both Life’s pain and its promise, its beauty as well as its brutality, its grotesqueries and its glory, both.
Which brings us back to smiling, and brings us back to dayenu.  The spiritual practice of living dayenu is not at all about pretending that everything’s okay even when it’s not.  It is about realizing, recognizing, remembering that even when everything’s not okay, something is.  Recognizing that “something,” realizing that there is always something to smile about, remembering that some things are “enough,” grounds us when the maelstroms of malevolence which makes up so much of life threatens to render us mute and impotent.  Living dayenu can give us strength when otherwise our strength might be sapped; can give us hope “when hope is hard to find;” can give us a reason, and a means, to “keep on singing.”
Many of us today have no doubt come here in some sort of pain, worried by some kind of problem that seems pervade every corner of our lives.  Our congregation is right now in the midst of the kind of turmoil it hasn’t seen in a long time, a disorienting dis-ease that some are calling a crisis.  And our country?  Well, I don’t think I need to say too much about that.
But there is so much that is good, and beautiful, and inspiring in the United States – just look at the youth who are taking to the streets and the hall of power.  And there is so much that is well worth celebrating in this congregation – just think about all the loving ways we have reached out and touched one another’s lives, been touched ourselvesand the community around us.  And no matter how it might look to you in this moment, you have had, there are now, and there always will be things in your life to bring a real smile to your face.
I want to end these reflections with a way of practicing dayenu, a tool, if you will, to assist in the changing of our channel when our channel needs to change.  I’m going to teach those of us who don’t already know it the song “Dayenu.”  Not all 15 verses, but even if the chorus is all you know … well … dayenu.  It will be enough.

Pax tecum,

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Can Love Have Limits?

This is the text of the reflection I offered to the congregation I serve here in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, March 4, 2018.  It is a continuation of my response to a blatantly racist note delivered anonymously to our Director of Administration and Finance, Christina Rivera.  Here is a link to the immediate response of senior congregational leadership (which includes a photo of the note), as well as a link to my sermon from the special evening service we held two days later.

Opening Readings

From Jack Mendelson.  Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age:  Why I am a Unitarian Universalist
“I made my fundamental choice long ago.  I wanted freedom.  Freedom to think, express, question, examine, grow, and change.  But freedom without a firm foundation of faith in action and a sense of history is fragile….I knew from the beginning that I did not want to go it alone.”

Forrest Church quoted in the UU Pocket Guide.
“We Unitarian Universalists have inherited a magnificent theological legacy.  In a sweeping answer to creeds that divide the human family, Unitarianism proclaims that we spring from one source; Universalism, that we share a common destiny.  Unitarian Universalists are neither a chosen people nor a people whose choices are made for them by theological authorities—ancient or otherwise.  We are people who choose.”

I love that hymn.  I would sing it, for what often seemed like hours, as I rocked one or the other of my children to sleep.  I wanted them to hear that message, from before they could even understand the words.
It seems to align so well with particularly the Universalist side of our Unitarian Universalist faith.  After all, the theological assertion embedded in the name “Universalism” is that God’s love knows no bounds, that no one will be condemned to eternal damnation, that “Mother, Father God,” as some of our prayers at that time said, loves each and every one of their children, from the most angelic to the most  … not-so-angelic.  God’s love is universal.  So universal, in fact, that our Universalist ancestors said that God is Love.
And while for many of us that particularly theistic language doesn’t work, the underlying assertion still does.  That’s no doubt why some people were, and are, both confused and upset that I would stand here and say something like, “the person who wrote the blatant, despicable, anonymous racist attack on Christina Rivera, a member of our staff and of our community, is not welcome here.”  I said that during the special service on Wednesday night, right here – I was clear and unambiguous:  if you wrote that note you are not welcome here.  What I didn’t say then, but will say now, is that if you agree with the racist sentiments expressed in that note, you really don’t belong here either. 
We all agree, I hope, that such behavior has no place in the loving community we strive to be (and so often are).  This is a community comprised of extremely lovely and loving people.  I also believe that we all agree that we can – and that we ought to — say that such behavior will not be tolerated.  But what, exactly, do we mean when we say that?  The word “tolerate” means, “allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of something (that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.”  Saying, then, that we will not tolerate the kind of racist, hateful attack – and it was an attack – means that we will not “allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of” things like this.
But what does that mean if we say to the person who did this, “you’re still welcome here”?  What does it mean to say, “you’re still a part of this community”?  What does it mean to say that we won’t tolerate such behavior and then, in effect, demonstrate that we will tolerate it.  I don’t understand that.  I simply don’t understand that. 
Whoever did this is way outside of our covenant, perhaps particularly because because it was done under the cloud of anonymity, extending the damage as suspicion spreads, with people wondering, “could it have been them?  How about them?” (I’ve had several people tell me that they’re convinced they know who did it, and others have said that they feel like they can’t trust anybody right now because they just don’t know.)  This content of the note, as well as the way it was delivered, is antithetical to our Unitarian Universalist principles and values, and is, I think we’d agree, is in stark contrast to the expectations of human decency.  Please make no mistake, please do not minimize or deflect – this was not just some “unfortunate” thing that happened.  Although there was no overtly threatening language in the note, can’t you see that there was a threat there?  That note was intended to intimidate, intended to hurt, and it certainly seems to me that there was an implied “… or else” in it  
And the note was not just directed toward Chris.  Whoever wrote it brought her kids and her husband into it.  The person not only dismissed Christina’s humanity, denied her “inherent worth and dignity,” but also attacked her kids, her husband, and the sanctity of their family.  If someone had spray painted this on her car, or thrown a rock through the window with the note tied to it, or had come into her office while she was working here at night, come into her office with a robe and hood on and said this to her face … would any of that really make a difference in terms of the severity of this offense?  I have heard so many people this week say, “Oh, that was awful, but …”  “… but we shouldn’t make too big of a deal out of it,” “… but we should have still gotten together to eat cake and have the party we’d planned to celebrate the congregation’s 75th anniversary,” “… but this was an isolated incident and doesn’t say anything about who we are as a community.”
Immediately after the service on Wednesday, and certainly since then, I’ve heard from people who, as I said, are either confused about how an ordained UU minister – or any UU, for that matter – could say the things I’ve been saying, or are really angry that I have.  I have heard from many people who disagree with me — well-meaning people, good-hearted people, people who are really trying to apply our liberal values.  “Aren’t we supposed to welcome everyone?” people have asked. “It’s likely that whoever wrote that note has some kind of mental illness,” some have said, “and aren’t we supposed to be compassionate toward people with mental illnesses?”  “What about our affirmation of ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every person’?  Doesn’t even the person who wrote that note have worth and dignity?”  “Should we judge someone – and in judging, reject someone – because of what might be the worst of their actions?”  ”Shouldn’t we reach out to them and try to, as we promise to do in our covenant, ‘lovingly bring [them] back into covenant?”  I’ve heard all of these things this week, and I don’t for a moment doubt the sincerity, or the heart, of the people who are asking these questions.  I just disagree.  I just strongly disagree.
Over the years I’ve heard repeated nearly word for word the same question from people who want to better understand our commitment to welcoming everyone:  “What about Hitler?,” they ask.  “Did Hitler have ‘inherent worth and dignity’?   If you really do ‘welcome everyone,’ shouldn’t Hitler have a place in your community?”  I’ve been asked this not only from non-UUs; I’ve been asked this by a whole lot of UUs over the years.
So what about this Universalist thing?  What about our commitment to “welcome all?”  Well … I don’t think we really ought to be welcoming to all people.  God’s love, as our Universalist ancestors would have put it, may be unending and unconditional, but our human love needs to be.  Yes, I’m saying that human love needs some kind of limits, some kind of boundaries, if we are to be healthy and whole.
Consider a woman in an abusive relationship.  She loves her husband, and when he’s not beating her he is contrite and demonstrative.  Yet who here would seriously suggest that she stay in that relationship because, after all, there shouldn’t be any limit to our love?  Is that really what we’d say, or would we tell her that she should get out of that relationship as fast as possible and never look back?  Wouldn’t we tell her — or him, since men are also abused — that their safety takes precedence over any commitment to compassion? 
I don’t mean that we can’t be — should’t be — compassionate. We can understand that the abuser was very likely abused themselves as a child and is, then, also a victim. We can hope that they get the treatment that they need.   And that doesn’t preclude our saying that for their own safety they need to sever those ties, break those bonds, and end that relationship.  And we’d no doubt tell them that any time, every time, their abuser came back to them bearing roses and remorse, they ought to say, “I may still love you.  I may still care about you.  But you are no longer welcome in my life.”  Isn’t that what most of us would do?
And what about that prescription for health and happiness we’ve all heard, which says that we shouldn’t surround ourselves with people who disrespect us, put us down, do what they can to crush our spirits and our sense of self-worth?  Such people are “toxic,” we’re told – or, in my favorite description, “psychic vampires.”  For our own well-being (and, really, safety), this philosophy council’s that we should disassociate ourselves from such people.  Once again, we can understand the psychological conditions that have probably affected the way they act in the world.  We can have all sorts of compassion for them.  But would we invited them over to hang out and sleep in our guest room?  I don’t think so, and I don’t think it’s a betrayal of our Unitarian Universalist values for us not to.
The ideal of “welcoming all” is laudable, it comes from a good place.  Yet the reality of our lives is that we often we find that our ideals can be in conflict with one another.  The conviction that we be welcoming to everyone, for instance, can be in direct opposition to our conviction that we create a safe place for the most vulnerable in our society.  Take a look at the Words of Welcome we say each week.  We say:
Whoever you are, whomever you love, however you express your identity, whatever your situation in life, whatever your experience of the holy, you presence here is a gift.
That is a welcome particularly to people who do not find themselves welcome much of the time.  It all boils down to this:  if you have been marginalized in any way, if your identity has been diminished or denied, in this place you are seen as a gift.  If the dominant culture is unsafe for you, we strive to be a community in which you will be safe. 
That’s why, for the past several years I have not been saying in the greeting, “ours is a congregation that welcomes all.”  I’ve been saying that “ours is a congregation that welcomes all who want this be a world in which all are welcome.”  I say that now, because I’ve learned that the warm and enthusiastic welcome and embrace of everyone — including the victimizers, the oppressors of our society — makes this an unsafe place for those whom the wider society has oppressed and victimized.  To say that we should welcome absolutely everybody is to directly contradict and undermine our saying that here we are striving to be a place where those who have been historically marginalized can find safe haven.  As much as our ideals may think that there should be a “both/and” here – and you know how I have always preached the theology “both/and” – there is just no practical way, no way on this earth, for this to be anything but an “either/or.”  As South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”  This is hard for us well-meaning, good-hearted liberal folks to hear – especially us well-meaning, good-hearted liberal folks who identify or are identified as white. 
I can hear people still saying, nonetheless, that it goes against our Unitarian Universalist values to tell someone that they’re not welcome.  Our bylaws have no provision for the removal of someone from membership, only for a person withdrawing on their own.  So let me rephrase what I’ve been saying about the author of that letter, and those who agree with its sentiments not being welcome here.  Let me try saying that a different way:
To the person who wrote that note:  you have, by your actions, effectively and clearly demonstrated that you do not ascribe to our covenant, and don’t agree with our vision and our values. And as Unitarian Universalists our communities are not bound together by creeds, but by covenant, and shared vision and values.  So by your own behavior you have shown yourself to be someone for whom this community and all that it stands for is not the kind of place you want to belong.   Because of what we say about ourselves, because of who we are and have committed ourselves to being, the kind of behavior you have demonstrated is intolerable, and by thinking that what you did should be tolerated, should be accepted, you have effectively demonstrated that this is not the community for you.  You have, effectively, withdrawn yourself from membership in this community.  I’m not asking you to leave, I’m just making it clear that you already have.
Yet even with that framing, I feel certain there will still be resistance.  I know, I am certain, that there are people who are hanging on to their hope, their faith, that we can “all just get along.”  I have no doubt that there are people who think this because they truly and deeply believe in that ideal of all-embracing love and the power of both forgiveness and redemption, and I ams sure that there are people who simply resist any kind of limit to their freedom, chafe at any assertion that some things are beyond the pale, rebel against there being any expectations or demands put on them, perhaps especially in a UU setting.  Yet whatever reasons, whatever motivation, I know that there are people who staunchly believe that this ought to be a place in which everyone – absolutely everyone – is welcome without exception.  That no one should be left out of our circle.
As a person who identifies as white, one of the things I’ve learned — and will not doubt keep learning — is that I have grown up unquestioningly in a society that is steeped in racism.  It’s in the very foundations of the dominant culture.  It’s seeped into the beams, the flooring, the walls.  It is in the air I breathe.  It is, and always has been, all around me, and it’s there in so many ways, part of the systems and structures that make up our culture, and I so often simply don’t see it.  Can’t see it, really, because it is all around me and it just seems like “the way things are.”  Even after years of trying to unlearn what the dominant culture of white supremacy — the culture in which white people, and all things connected to “whiteness” are kept in a “supreme” position — even after years of trying to unlearn what the dominant culture of white supremacy has taught me, I continue to be amazed at what I don’t see.
 A month or so ago one of our Sunday services was designed entirely around the words — the stories, the experiences — of people of color.  And many of us were amazed at what a different experience UUs of color have had, and continue to have, from the ones those of us who identify as white have had.  That service provided us an experience of what we white folks who want to see the end of racism have to learn how to do — listen to people of color.  Really listen to what they’re saying about how the world looks to them.  Really listen — and really hear — what they need in this struggle for our mutual liberation, and not keep imposing our ideas of how things are supposed to be.  Because whether we know it or not, whether we want it to be or not, many of our ideas of how things are supposed to be keep things they way they are.
I saw this post on Facebook the other day, written by DiDi Delgado.  It’s an expression of how our (white) commitment to embracing absolutely everyone is experienced by people of color.  (With apologies, I’ve edited it a bit.)
Can 'allies' please stop trying to "get through" to racists and change their minds.  […] That's not why we confront white supremacy.  When we debate and argue with racists with the intent of saving them from themselves and/or changing their minds, we're centering the oppressors and not the oppressed. [,,,] The reason you're arguing with racists, confronting Nazis, challenging your xenophobic grandma, and ruining Thanksgiving dinner is to uplift and center the voices of the marginalized and situationally make being a racist as uncomfortable as being a person of color. […] The goal should be advocating for and defending the oppressed.  Anti-racism work isn't about changing the minds of racists. It's about changing the environments that allow them to practice their racism freely.  It's about speaking up for the voiceless.  If prioritizing the mental and emotional growth of oppressors is your reason for intervening, you've already lost.
If we’re going to change the culture from a paradigm of white supremacy — a paradigm which privileges people with white skin in hundreds and thousands of ways and penalizes people of color to at least the same extent — if the dominant, racist culture we say we want to undue is ever going to be transformed, then those of us who identify as white are going to have to give up some of our privileges.  I’ve been saying it here for years — we are going have to become uncomfortable. We may even have to come to see that some of our benevolent, compassionate, well-meaning values, are not as wonderful as we think, and actually cause people harm.
This attack on Christina was not just an attack on her.  The perpetrator also did real harm to every person of color, and every multi-racial family, who have called this place their spiritual home, and those who might.  To me it’s no question whether to align myself with those who have been harmed or those whose actions caused it.
You all called me here and loaned me this pulpit, asking me to speak the truth as I understand it, and I believe that our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to choose, as Forrest Church said, to be a people who choose — choose to ally ourselves with those who have been historically cast off, even if that means I must let go of my conviction that the lion should lie down with the lamb.  If I care to listen, the lambs will tell me that that’s never really worked out too well for them.  I believe that our Unitarian Universalist faith calls on us to choose to not accept the unacceptable, to nor tolerate the intolerable.  I believe that our Unitarian Universalist faith demands that we sometimes choose not to do the thing we’re conditioned to do, perhaps even convinced we must do, instead doing the thing that brings us into the Beloved Community we say we we’re working toward.  It’s nothing less than a new world we’re trying to build, and that’s never easy.  Our Unitarian Universalist faith is not easy.  But if our 75 year history here, and the thousand year history of our Unitarian and Universalist faith, tell us anything, it’s that we UUs are strong enough, committed enough, and loving enough, to take the harder road, which is the only way to get where we know we need to go.

Parting Words
In his letter he wrote while incarcerated in the Birmingham jail, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had this to say:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice […]  Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Pax tecum,


Thursday, March 01, 2018

The Mirror Has Been Held Up. Are We Brave Enough To Look?

This is the text of the entire service held Wednesday evening, February 28, 2018.  It was to have been a service celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Founding of the Congregation -- there was to have been a time for families together, a community dinner, a service of celebration, and ... cake!  A racist event which took place earlier in the week demanded a change of plans.  Simply, how could we sit around together, eating cake, when something like this happened within, and from within, the very community we were to be celebrating?  The celebration has not been canceled, but it has been postponed, because congregational leadership recognized that what we really needed at this time was an honest look at what happened, and what it says about our community.  [I will be reflecting on these themes further in my sermon this coming Sunday.]

Good evening.  This was to be a celebration of the anniversary of the founding of this congregation.  But then, just three days ago, on Monday morning, our Director of Administration and Finance, Christina Rivera, was doing her job, going through the mail that had accumulated over the weekend.  Along with the bills and the solicitations there was a plain piece of paper which said,
“quit your whining.  it’s always about racism with you.  you have a job to do do it.  we went into debt for your full time and now you complain?  your kids must be so proud at least they are just half and maybe they are learning from their dad.  you should be thankful and get to working.”
Someone had had those thoughts about a member of our staff, a fellow Unitarian Universalist, about another human being, and that person apparently thought that it was okay to type those thoughts up, print them out, and place them, anonymously, into the mailbox on Chris’ door.  It seems virtually certain that whoever did this is a member of the congregation, and it appears likely that they committed this undeniably and inexcusably racist act on Sunday.  With the knowledge of this hateful incident swirling around us, this just doesn’t seem like the time to be celebrating.
Yet our history is not irrelevant to what’s happening now.  75 years ago today 15 women and men declared that they wanted to be – that they were – a church.  The woman who started it all by placing a classified ad in The Daily Progress had been told that it was unlikely a town as small as Charlottesville was then would be able to create and nurture a Unitarian congregation.  She was, in fact, discouraged from trying to do this.  Yet, as she said at the time in a letter to a friend, “I am not easily discouraged and we can see what we can do.” 
Carrie Baker was not easily discouraged, and throughout the 75 years of our existence this congregation has shown time and time again that we are not “easily discouraged” either.  It hasn’t always been smooth sailing – there have been times when events in the wider world or right here in the congregation have caused real uneasiness and distress; times when the ordained minister or the lay leadership were taking the congregation in a direction not everyone wanted to go; times when support (financial and otherwise) dropped off precipitously; times when even beloved members felt the need to break off their connection to this place and these people; times when we have disappointed one another, hurt one another, damaged one another and it seemed that the fabric of the community was being damaged, too … perhaps damaged beyond repair.  Yet in looking back over the history of this congregation it is clear that while we have no doubt been discouraged more than a few times, we have yet to be so discouraged as to truly give up on one another.


Adam Slate, the President of our Board of Trustees, likes to say that he looks at this church as a family.  What we witnessed this week is not how families – is not how healthy families – behave.  It’s not who we say we are, or want to be.
Each Sunday morning we say with one another Words of Welcome that are intended to describe the kind of community we wish to be, a community that, as I often say, “welcomes all who would work to make this a world in which all are welcome.”  So I’d invite us to say those words together now:
Whoever you are, Whomever you love,
However you express your identity;
Whatever your situation in life,
Whatever your experience of the holy,
Your presence here is a gift.
Whether you are filled with sadness,
Overflowing with joy,
Needing to be alone with yourself,
Or eager to engage with others,
You have a place here.
We all have a place here.
We all are welcome here.                                      


We kindle a flame of power, illuminating the Holy in each of our faces.
We recognize in the flame a passionate commitment to our shared faith.
We are held and carried from day to day, week to week, in the shining of the light.
This flame is mine, as well as yours.
We are brought together on this day, called to growth, to expansion, within its glow.
What does your heart know while beholding this holy fire?
Adrian L.H. Graham
I invite you to think about that question as James plays our Prelude, to think about what your heart knows while you behold this holy fire here tonight.


In the first sermon delivered here, in the then brand-new building, the Rev. Malcolm Sutherland said this:
You are invited to draw your attention to the fact that in all its simplicity and its beauty, this building is not a church.  It was designed to serve a church.  It was designed to make more effective a church.  It was designed to inspire a church.  But it is not a church.
You are the church .  […]
So we are not opening a church this morning.. We are opening a home for our church.  This physical home is fully worthy of our highest aspirations.  The question is simply – can we prove ourselves worthy of our new home?
If it is to be a beautiful church – as beautiful as its home – it will be because you are living beautiful lives.  And how we need beauty today:  there is ugliness and distortion enough. 
How we need beauty today:  there is ugliness and distortion enough.
He said in that first sermon that to be a church worthy of this beautiful home we would need to be strong, significant, courageous, fearless, and devoted.  In his last sermon here he said that the congregation needed to ask itself (as each of us individually needs to ask ourselves, he was quick to point out):  Why is it so damned hard to live up to and out from our values?  Again and again he returned to the question, “Why don’t we?”   Why don’t we do the things we know we should do?  Why aren’t we being the kind of people we know we want to be?  Why don’t we take the kind of risks we know our faith calls us to?  Why don’t we really, deeply trust each other more than we do?  Why don’t we recognize how much we, ourselves, have to change, instead of focusing so much of our attention on the ways other folks are falling short? 
I’m not even necessarily talking about the “big things” here.  The obvious things.  The things we can justifiably say we are doing, or which we can honestly say simply aren’t possible for us to do.  I’m really talking about all of the little ways we betray ourselves, betray our values, don’t do the something that we could have done.  Why don’t we do those things?  But all of these questions really boil down to one: Why don’t we live our faith?
I don’t know how any of you would respond to that question, but I know that I am chastened, humbled.  And I know that it really gets real when I stop myself from asking these questions of the vague “we” and, instead, force myself to ask them only of myself.  Why don’t I?  Because it’s easier not to.  Why don’t I?  Because I already feel overstretched, and my life can be hard enough as it is.  Why don’t I?  Because I figure someone else is going to do it, and it’s not really my problem.  Why don’t I?  Because I’m not so bad, right?  I mean, other people are a lot worse than me – look at those guys over there!  Why don’t I?  Because I’m afraid that I’ll be rejected somehow if I do.  Why don’t I?  Because I’m comfortable the way things are, and I know – I know – that if I do I’ll be less comfortable.  Why don’t I?  That’s a question worth pondering. 
The last words of Malcolm’s last sermon to this congregation were the question:  “Why don’t we?”.
The person who anonymously wrote and then delivered that hateful (and hate-filled) message to Chris has done something reprehensible – and they dragged Christina’s two incredible boys and her lovely husband into it.  What this person did is inexcusable, and I cannot say clearly or forcefully enough that such behavior will not be tolerated – can not be tolerated if we’re who we say we are.  The person who sent that message has placed themselves so far outside the boundaries of our covenant that I can’t imagine how they can say the words “Beloved Community,” or “inherent worth and dignity,” without bursting into flame because of the blaspheme of their hypocrisy.
Yet I need to say with equal clarity and conviction that the rest of us are not without responsibility for what happened this week.  Each of us, all of us – and I do mean “us,” myself no less than anyone else, maybe even more so because of my role here – we all have to recognize our complicity, because some how we have allowed a climate, an atmosphere, an environment to exist in which something like this can happen.  A climate in which one of us could believe this violent racist act was okay.
What happened this week is the most egregious, yet it’s not the only example of what we have allowed to grow in our community.  I talked several weeks ago at some length in my sermon about how upset some members of the congregation were about my January report to the Board. I shared that several of the people who were upset had contacted the Board and/or the Committee on the Ministry to share their feelings, as well they should have. You may or may not know, however, that someone else created an anonymous email account, and then sent an anonymous email, seemingly for the express purpose of directing a select group of congregants to check out that report, and then, after sending that email, immediately closed the account.  Let me be clear – the anonymous nature of this act was not okay.  Sharing my Board report and encouraging others to read it – fine.  Essential to the honest life of our community, actually.  It’s doing so anonymously, having no accountability and taking no responsibility – that is what’s out of covenant.
People expressed their dismay over this person’s behavior, of course, yet it really shouldn’t have been too surprising.  We think it unfortunate, yet accept, that there are groups of congregants who get together informally to talk with each other about their concerns and complaints.  They do this outside of any committee or leadership structure – which is why these have often been called “parking lot conversations.” And because they do this “offline,” as it were, there is no accountability to the larger congregation.  None of this is secret, yet no one calls them back into covenant – and they are out of covenant because they rarely, if ever, actually try to reach out to the people they’re concerned or complaining about.  Please make no mistake, we give this behavior our tacit approval each time one of us says that we really wish this kind of thing wasn’t happening but we engage in it ourselves, or see others doing it, and do not say directly and forthrightly that such behavior is out of covenant, that it’s not constructive, that it’s destructive and has no place in our Unitarian Universalist community.
Please hear that I am not saying any of this to divide us, to make this about any kind of “us” and “them.”   My goal, instead, is quite the opposite – I’m saying what I’m saying because I want to help us be more unified, with a clearer and deeper understanding of just what it means, and just what it takes, to be who we say we are and want to be.  That’s my job here.  So I’m going to take this a little further, knowing that I’ll upset some people.  (Knowing that I already have.)  We show our tacit approval of anonymous notes in people’s mailboxes every time we insist that members of the congregation must have the option of giving feedback anonymously in surveys, questionnaires, and communications with the Committee on the Ministry.  I’ve heard the argument that some people are afraid to attach their name to their opinions, that they won’t feel comfortable or safe if they have to sign their name.  But if that’s really the case, our community has much greater problems than whatever it is the person’s complaining about. 
If we have not created a community in which people know that it’s safe to express themselves, no matter who they disagree with; a congregation in which we hold one another – and want to be held, ourselves – accountable for our behavior; in which we can be clear that there are things antithetical to our values and our visions, that not everything is welcome – then we have created a community in which someone can feel okay about leaving an anonymous note that a Klansman would be proud to have written in the mailbox of one of our staff members.
Back in Divinity School I learned that the Biblical word Christians translate into English as “sin” is actually seven or eight words, each with its own meaning.  One is, “sitting down when I should have stood up,” and I know that I am guilty of that.  And I’ll say without hesitation or apology, that I know everyone else in here is, too.  Can anyone honestly say that they have never let pass a racist joke, or some behind-their-back gossip, or some subtle or not-so-subtle bullying behavior, or someone shutting someone else down, or any other kind of behavior that you knew was not what we’d be doing as a community if we were at our best?  If we’re really honest with ourselves, how can we not recognize that we all share culpability?
I am sure that some of you may be feeling castigated, attacked, reprimanded and chastised.  I understand because, remember, I’ve also been talking to and about myself this whole time.  I haven’t laid anything on any of you that I haven’t also laid on myself.  And even as I’m saying this I’m feeling uneasy and a little bit defensive.  But I have learned that sometimes – maybe even often – the umbrage we feel when someone points out our flaws and failings is an incredibly effective deflection device.  I get angry at you for saying harsh things about me rather than taking the opportunity to listen with an open mind and heart, and then to ask myself, deeply and sincerely, if there might be any truth in what you’ve said. 
Oh that’s hard.  That’s really, really hard.  It is so much easier to just write you off.  But we can’t write this off, friends.  Our covenant doesn’t call on us to be so kind to one another that people believe – even unconsciously – that they can get away with saying or doing just about anything.  Our covenant calls us, as Malcolm Sutherland said that first morning in this space, to be “strong, significant, courageous, fearless, and devoted” to the values and visions of our faith.  A mirror has been held up for us to look at ourselves.  My questions is whether we are brave enough to look at what it shows us.


There is no question – the work of building Beloved Community is hard.  It’s dirty.  It’s bruising.  We’ll hunger and thirst.  Yet it is the work we have committed ourselves to doing; it’s the work we have been called on to do.  But it’s not work we can do in the head alone, and there have been a lot of words tonight (and there are still a few more to come).  So why don’t we now, as we do each Sunday, take a time for silence, a time for letting go of the words, letting go of the thoughts, and getting down into the feelings.  After a time I will invite the chime to sound, and some of us may feel the urge to come forward to light Candles of Hope and Remembrance, or write in the Sands of Forgiveness and Atonement.  Others may choose to stay right where you are now, continuing to hold the silence and the stillness in your body as well as your heart.  Through all of this, James will play, and when this time is done, we will move directly into singing together the hymn so many feel as a prayer, “#123, “Spirit of Life.”

HYMN:  #123, “Spirit of Life”


About a month ago we joined with Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country in designing our worship experience so that the voices of black Unitarian Universalists were centered, so that the experiences of black Unitarian Universalists could be heard, without comment or qualifiers, without interpretation, within the discomfort which that caused for many of us – us UUs who identify as white who’d never experienced our faith in those ways.  Who’d never imagined that it could be experienced in those ways.  Many of us left that service stunned, saddened, and unable to un-see or un-hear what we’d heard and seen that morning.

One of the elements of that service was a litany written by Viola Abbitt which she calls “The Promise That Binds.”  I would note that there are three different responses in your Order of Service.  Each is subtly different, and those differences are important.  (We’ll say the first response several times, and I’ll give you a visual clue when it’s time to change to the second, and then to the third.)

Loving inclusion has been an elusive goal within our congregations.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.
 Many hearts have been, and often continue to be, broken, time and again.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.
The names of many of those of us who helped to make this denomination great were erased, their existence forgotten.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.
The pulpits and pews which should have been warm and welcoming, were instead sometimes cold and unforgiving.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.
People who were considered pillars in their communities, were sometimes considered pariahs within the walls of our congregations.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.
Many of us straddle two worlds: one of filiation and one of faith.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should be enough to bind us together in love.
Our beauty is that we are all different, and yet not different from one another.  None of us should be considered exceptions, nor should we be subjected to baseless assumptions.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should be enough to bind us together in love.
The future of this faith is reliant on and belongs to all who embrace religious liberalism. Let us never forget that…
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, is enough to bind us together in love.


If we really want to make a difference, if we really want to see real change so that we can become who we know we need to be – as individuals, as congregations, and as a movement – then we need to not only appreciate those who have for far too long been marginalized members of our communities, we have to actively support them.  Our offering tonight – and again this Sunday, as well – will be dedicated to helping a newly formed organization within our Unitarian Universalist Association: the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism Organizing Collective.  As a national ministry for and by black-identified Unitarian Universalists, BLUU embodies a liberating community of all ages. A community that lifts up the lives, and stories and the leadership of those who have been marginalized and silenced. A community that brings hope, when hope is hard to find. And a community that calls us to wrestle with the gap between our theology and our practice in the world.
In October of 2016, the UUA Board of Trustees made a bold $5.3 million commitment to fund black leaders in Unitarian Universalism, and to support ministry to black-identified Unitarian Universalists. In the late 1960s, our Association was asked to take steps to address the silencing and marginalization of Black Unitarian Universalists. Though there was an initial affirmation of this commitment, it ultimately went unfulfilled and the promise was broken.  This commitment of the UUA Board is, in part, an attempt to fulfill that promise.
Tonight, I am asking you to help fulfill this promise. This effort needs your help.  Please be as generous as you can.

We accept these gifts with gratitude.
May we use them wisely, and for the highest good.

HYMN:  #1, “May Nothing Evil Cross This Door”

Each Sunday our Benediction begins, "Go out into the world in peace."  But I can't say that tonight.  Dr. King said that there are some things to which we all should be maladjusted.  So ... Go out into the world maladjusted.   Have courage.  Hold on to what is good.  Return to no person evil for evil, strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak, help the suffering, and be who you know you should be, and help us be who we know we should be.  There is so much ugliness and distortion in the world.  Blessed Be.


This came to one of us, from one of us.  We MUST do better!

Pax tecum,


Monday, February 05, 2018

The Promise & The Practice of Our Faith

Yesterday, Sunday February 4th, the congregation I serve engaged in an Association-wide project titled, "The Promise & The Practice of Our Faith."  It was designed to give our overwhelmingly white congregations an unfortunately rare -- if not entirely unique -- experience of centering the voices of People of Color.  A packet of resources was created from which congregations could craft their service.  Undoubtedly no two services were entirely alike, and yet the experience of white Unitarian Universalists hearing, unfiltered, the experiences of UUs of color was shared by all the congregations that participated.  The members of the congregation I serve spoke to me about how powerfully painfully -- and painfully powerful -- it was.

I want to express my deepest gratitude to the black UU religious professionals who contributed their time and talent in creating the materials which made this service possible.  I especially appreciate their willingness to share their stories in such honest, direct, and vulnerable ways, and to give those who create and facilitate worship in our congregations permission to share them.   So ... thank you:
Viola Abbitt, Rev. Carol Thomas Cissel, DeReau Farrar, Adrian Graham, Rev. Kimberly Quinn Johnson, Rayla Mattson, Rev. Rebekah Montgomery, Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout, Jae Pema-la Scott, Erica Shadowsong, Connie Simon, and Thomas.  (Thanks, too, to Rev. Erika Hewitt, the Minister of Worship Arts at the UUA, who does a fabulous job of curating the creative contributions which enrich our movement's worship.)
Even more so than usual this service embodied my belief that when we do this thing called "worship" correctly, the sermon consists of the entire service, and not just the words of the preacher.  With that in mind, these are all of the words that were heard in our sanctuary yesterday morning.

Good morning, and welcome to this convivial community.  This is a Unitarian Universalist congregation that strives to welcome all who would see this be a world in which all are welcome.  That welcome is not just generic, but personal – you, specifically and particularly, are welcome, whether you have been coming for decades or just walked through the door this morning.  It takes all of us, and each of us, to create this community, so thank you for being part of this moment.
That welcome includes inviting you to do what it is that you need to do to feel authentically present – close your eyes, take notes, knit.  Yet do be mindful that the people around you have their own needs which might differ from yours.  One thing we all need is to make sure that ours is not the cell phone that goes off during the service, so please take yours out and make sure that it is set to “silent.”  You don’t need to turn it off – some people need to be able to text or tweet to really be here – but do check that it is set to “silent.”
This is a lively congregation, and what happens here in the sanctuary, and next door in Children’s Worship and in our Religious Education programs, are just one part of what we’re about.  I encourage you to peruse the insert in your Order of Service to see what else is happening that you might want to be a part of.  (You can also go to our website – www.uucharlottesville.org – to find out even more.)  There are a few things I would like to lift up for added attention:
<various announcements>
One last thing – some words about this morning’s service.  Congregations across the country are engaging in worship services this morning which draw on the resources created by a number of UU Religious Professionals of Color.  The effort is being called “The Promise & The Practice of our Faith, and asks the question, “What would it be like if our congregations – which are all predominantly white – were to experience worship through the voices and the perspectives of UUs of Color?  What would those of us who identify as white hear that we hadn’t before?  What would those of us who identify as People of Color hear lifted up that had never been lifted up in our usual white culture centric worship?”  The creators of the packet of resources we are using this morning described it this way:
“Our worship service this morning is uniquely prophetic: it calls to us who identify as white to listen, humbly and perhaps with some discomfort, to the lived reality of black Unitarian Universalists in our midst. This discomfort is both a gesture of hospitality to voices that have not been heard enough, and a sign that we’re growing in the right direction.
If you’re joining us today as a guest, know that you are witnessing this Unitarian Universalist congregation doing sacred work: collectively, we will wrestle with what it means to be a majority-white faith whose anti-racist intentions have not always been borne out. We invite you to witness this moment of transparency and vision, and to join us on future Sundays for a more traditional worship service.
When we are at our best, we who are Unitarian Universalists choose to make ourselves uncomfortable in the service of our meaning-making. We recognize our discomfort as evidence that we’re growing. Today, if you feel discomfort arise within you – especially if you’re white – we invite you to practice being curious, and to allow your discomfort to lead you to new learning.”
With these words of “official” welcome, these announcements, and that preparation offered, our worship can begin.  I’ll say again, it is good that you are here; it is good that we can be together.
May we join together in saying the words we say each week through which we try to express the depth of our welcome:   
Whoever you are, Whomever you love,
However you express your identity;
Whatever your situation in life,
Whatever your experience of the holy,
Your presence here is a gift.
Whether you are filled with sadness,
Overflowing with joy,
Needing to be alone with yourself,
Or eager to engage with others,
You have a place here. 
We all have a place here.
We all are welcome here.                                      
The words of our chalice lighting were written by the Rev. Rebekah Savage, who serves full time as the Associate Minister at the UU Congregation of Rockville, MD, and serves in the US Army Reserve.  She is completing a Doctorate in Ministry at Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC.  The words in your Order of Service are the last stanza. 
We light our flaming chalice as a beloved people
united in love
and thirsting for restorative justice.
May it melt away the tethers that uphold whiteness in our midst.
May it spark in us a spirit of humility.
May it ignite in us radical love that transforms our energy into purposeful action.
This a chalice of audacious hope.
This chalice shines a light on our shared past,
signaling our intention to listen deeply, reflect wisely,
and move boldly toward our highest ideals

~ Rev. Rebekah Savage

OPENING WORDS:  “Missing Voices” by Connie Simon
Our Opening Words were written by Connie Simon, who is serving as Intern Minister at the Unitarian Society of Germantown, and Contract Chaplain at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. Following graduation from Meadville Lombard Theological School in 2018, she intends to pursue parish ministry.  She has offered for her words to be used in this service, even knowing that they will most likely be read by someone who identifies as white.  Her piece is titled, “Missing Voices”:
When I started attending a UU church, I was excited by the promise of worship that would draw from the arts, science, nature, literature and a multitude of voices. Indeed, some of the voices that Unitarian Universalists hear in worship each week belong to Thoreau, Emerson, Ballou, and others. Their words are beautiful, but they come from a culture and experience that’s foreign to me. When do I get to hear voices from my culture? I quickly learned that, other than the same few quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Howard Thurman’s “The Work of Christmas,” it wasn’t gonna happen. I sit attentively and listen with my head to “their” voices while my heart longs to hear more of “our” voices.  
I am a Black Woman. When I look around on Sunday morning, I don’t see many people who look like me. In most of the congregations I visit, I don’t see anybody who looks like me. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I don’t hear voices of people who share my experience. But it still hurts. I want to hear voices that tell the struggle of living under the weight of oppression in this culture of White Supremacy. I want to hear stories of trying to stay afloat in the water we swim in. I want to hear voices of Living While Black in America.
I don’t hear those voices in UU churches so I have to supplement my worship by reading black theologians like Anthony Pinn and Monica Coleman. I read Maya Angelou, James Baldwin and my favorite poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Though not a Unitarian or a Universalist, Dunbar chronicled the African American experience in the years following the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved Africans — a time of opportunities for blacks as we migrated north in droves seeking employment and education but also a time of continuing segregation, racism and oppression.
Dunbar acknowledged this tension in his writing. We hear him long for joy and prosperity while at the same time knowing that the system would conspire to keep true happiness just beyond his grasp. “A pint of joy to a peck of trouble and never a laugh but the moans come double; and that is life!” Still, he was a champion of social justice, believing that God has sympathy for the plight of the oppressed and that his grace will be bestowed not on those “who soar, but they who plod their rugged way, unhelped to God.”
For Dunbar, the struggle was real. One hundred years later, hearing Dunbar express his frustration and give voice to the contradictions of our existence as African Americans encourages me and nourishes my soul. His voice speaks to my heart. He knows my pain and understands my sadness, my fear and my rage. He understands the tears I cry as I pray for strength to get through another day in this world. He gives voice to my deep faith that real change is coming someday. He didn’t see it in his lifetime and I might not see it in mine, but I have to keep believing it’s possible.  
That’s the message many African Americans long to hear in church. I know that’s what I need to hear every now and then. Will it ever happen? Or will we always have to go “outside” to hear our voices? If that’s the case, maybe there’s no place for us in Unitarian Universalism. The thought of leaving is painful — but so is being in a faith that ignores our voices.  
OPENING HYMN  #1007, “There’s a River Flowing in My Soul”
FIRST REFLECTION:  “The Healing is Not Done” by Rev. Rebekah Savage.
Our first reflection is a sermon written by the Rev. Rebekah Savage, who wrote our Chalice Lighting.  Although these are not my words, nor my experience, Rev. Savage invited us to hear her words and her experience.  So let us all open our minds, and our hearts.  The sermon is titled, “The Healing Is Not Done.”
I play this moment over and over again in my head: the day I heard of the Thomas Jefferson Ball, hosted by Unitarian Universalists in 1993. As a person of color, raised in a UU congregation, I felt a shiver down my spine as I learned something new and unsettling about the faith that I call home.
You may be wondering why this gathering of UUs in 1993 struck me as a profoundly memorable and painful moment. Beloveds, this is why: attendees were encouraged to wear period clothes to the Ball to celebrate Thomas Jefferson, who attended Unitarian churches. In the spirit of welcome, those who conceived of this social gathering did not take into account the centering of whiteness by asking people to attend in period dress. The organizers forgot or ignored the fact that in Jefferson’s time, we black and brown UUs would have been slaves: property to traded and sold, brutalized and subjected.
The matter was taken up at General Assembly when delegates challenged the appropriateness of holding this event. During a plenary session, delegates voiced their concerns by reading a statement of protest. In response, the organizers and other leaders gathered to consider how to proceed and came to a decision: the Thomas Jefferson Ball would proceed ahead as planned.
I ask myself: What would I wear? Would I be a house slave, favored for my lighter skin and “good hair”? My skin is a light brown that my daughter refers to as cinnamon, a product of a beautiful multi-racial family history. Would I catch the eye of a white man who could leverage any opportunity to take my body as his property?
What would I wear? Would I have had shoes on my work worn feet? Would I have stretch marks across my belly from babies that were taken from me to sell to other plantations? Would I sing to myself faithful, mournful songs of liberation, dreaming for the day when I can taste freedom for myself and my family?
What would I wear? Would I be allowed to come through the front entrance or directed to the back, to enter through the kitchen with the other slaves and servants? Would I be allowed to drink from the same punch bowl, eat from the same platters? Would I sit with the other people of color, in a separate room or at the back of the gathering? Would I be permitted to look a white person in the eye or even speak their name?
What would I wear, dear beloved UU’s? Tell me: what I would have worn to attend this ball? What period clothes would represent who I would have been in Thomas Jefferson’s time?
When we feel something deeply and are still finding the words: OUCH.
Seriously, OUCH.
Why do I raise this deeply wounding moment in our shared UU history?
Because this isn’t just a reflection about my lived experience as a person of color in a majority-white denomination. This is also part of the story of how people of color experience sharing worship and community within our faith. It’s a chapter in the story of who we are as a people, living in this country, swimming in the waters of white supremacy and centering whiteness, supported by centuries of indoctrinations and institutional structures.
I grieve for the hurts that this time in our history caused. I grieve for those who left our communities because of how this event was handled, which broke their trust in finding spacious rest in our congregations from the pervasive, violent racism in our country. I grieve for those who, at the time, were unable to traverse the gaps in their spiritual understanding of justice and belonging. I grieve that it has taken this long to have this level of conversation about centering people of color.  
This Ball was conceived by well-meaning people, beloved kin of mine and yours, who were able to identify welcome only through the eyes of white privilege. That is the insidious nature of centering whiteness: it denies personhood and the God given right for all to be fully accounted.
To put primacy on whiteness as the default setting in how we see and experience our world means that we are being theologically inconsistent. We covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, and yet we have devalued the full inclusion of too many.
In small ways, this trend emerges when music and readings for worship draw primarily from Anglo-European composers and writers and the paintings that hang in our congregations disproportionately represent our white foremothers and forefathers. We see this trend when congregational leadership is cultivated without honoring the diversity in our midst as a rich source of inspiration and prophetic messaging. We see this in considering that people of color have been a part of our living tradition for centuries — but our voices have been overlooked, silenced, or outright rejected with hostility.
I ignite my flame of justice and shine a light on this scar because the healing is not done. The healing is not done because we are still called to do the work of dismantling white supremacy culture and decentering whiteness from our bones: from our congregations, from the ways in which we interact and support each other. We are called to fulfill the promises once made in the name of faith and proclaiming Beloved Community. We are called to match our words with our actions, to bring the holy into our midst by truly and without fear honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
This is a beautiful time of opportunity, Beloveds, born of truly listening to people of color and beginning to repair the fabric of community that has been torn. Ripped asunder by years of broken and empty promises: words of good intention, unmatched by purposeful action.
I love being a Unitarian Universalist. I was birthed into this world with the calling of service on my heart; I was shaped and molded in our congregations. I also know that, as Dr. Cornell West shared with us in his 2015 Ware Lecture at General Assembly, if I have white supremacy in my heart because I was raised in this country, so do we all.
While I grieve, I also have much reason to claim hope. I celebrate where we are as a people of faith because we are bravely facing the devastation and illness of “othering” people. We are looking at ourselves in the mirror and seeking a new way. I celebrate that we have the moral and spiritual courage to listen deeply to voices that have been marginalized. I celebrate that beloveds are choosing to move back humbly, to make space for an evolution in leadership and consciousness. The spark of working towards the greatest good is seen in every moment of insight as so many are waking up to our participation in centering whiteness.
Beloveds, now is our time to lead with love and make right the ways our denomination has fallen short of our shared principles. We are a powerful, aspirational covenanted people and we are being called to account for our historic moral and spiritual failings, in order to move into authentic Beloved Community.
Now is our time to harness our ability to reflect inward in order to reemerge with a power greater than ourselves that gives rise to a new day. Beloveds, with love and peace in our hearts, may it be so.
At a future service during the week of our 75th Anniversary we will be taking a special collection, and asking for even more generosity, to support the organization Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (or BLUU).  As the UUA President has said, “Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism is one of the most exciting ways our faith is answering [the call to be the whole community we strive to become]. As a national ministry for and by black-identified Unitarian Universalists, BLUU embodies a liberating community of all ages. A community that lifts up the lives, and stories and the leadership of those who have been marginalized and silenced. A community that brings hope, when hope is hard to find. And a community that calls us to wrestle with the gap between our theology and our practice in the world.
This morning the offering we collect will go to serve our work, here, to become a different kind of community working to build a different kind of world.  It will support us in further our dream of becoming, as it has been said, “a powerhouse for racial justice.”  If you believe in the promise and the practice of our Unitarian Universalist faith, and in the work of this congregation as a manifestation of that faith, then I encourage you to be particularly generous with your financial support.  The ushers will now collect the offering.
If the ushers will come forward we can, together, dedicate the offering with the words in the Order of Service:
We accept these gifts with gratitude.
May we use them wisely and for the highest good.

Our second reflection is a sermon written by Rayla D. Mattson serves as the Director of Religious Education for a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Connecticut, where she has been serving for just over 5 years. She is proud that outside of congregational life, she is raising her three beautiful children as a single mom.  Her sermon is titled, “Tired of Being Silent”:
The summer of 2016 began as an exciting one for me: I was finally going to a beloved Unitarian Universalist conference and retreat center. I’d heard many wonderful stories about it, and I couldn’t wait to bring my three children with me. On the drive there, I felt excited about spending a full week in an entirely UU space. After all, it was my UU community that so lovingly embraced me after a very painful divorce and several painful years of church shopping. I needed this week. I needed this healing.  
As UUs descended on the camp and found their rooms, I began to introduce myself to others, and thought I noticed them offering me a cursory hello before making a quick getaway. Maybe, I thought, it was hard for people to speak to me because I had my one-year old in tow. Maybe they were eager to reconnect to old friends.  
There was one other black woman at the camp who I had noticed; I was thankful we both signed up for the same program. I asked her: Was it just me or did she, too, feel a distinct coldness from the others? I wanted to make sure that I was not being paranoid.
But unsettling things continued to happen. There was an issue with my daughter in childcare:  they felt she was a problem and difficult in comparison with the other children—although a very kind person noted that she couldn’t understand how my child was deemed “a problem” when she was doing the same things all the other children were doing. Then a black child the same age as my son—12 years old—came crying to me one night. He was being bullied—but he wasn’t being heard, because the adults around him insisted that they “knew that girl and she would never say those things.” The child trusted that as a black mother, I was the only person at the camp who would listen and believe him. I brought the matter out in the open. The typical excuses followed, like the boy misunderstood what she meant and he was just being too sensitive, and it was just in fun, and nothing was really meant by her comments.
I tuned those excuses out. And I spent a lot of time alone that week. When my daughter and I walked around the conference center, I saw reminders of racism everywhere, from the statues and memorials to the paintings on the walls. It was everywhere; it was clear as day: “Your kind are not welcome here.”
I would end my strolls by going to the dining hall, only to find there was no table for me—not because there weren’t empty chairs, but because I was told that there was no room at the table for me and my toddler. The empty seats were for other people, I was told, and they couldn’t make room for me. The pattern became so distressing that on most days I considered not eating—but I couldn’t let my child starve. If my new friend was there, she always made room for me. And there were the kids.
After the incident with the young black boy, the kids came to me quite a bit to mediate things going on between them. They even took turns giving me a break from my little one. Eventually one of them would see me trying to find a table and no matter how many people were at their table, they would find a way to squeeze me and my little one in. As kind as they were, they ate quickly and were off. And again, I was left alone in the silence. As all the tables around me buzzed with talk and laughter and I sat there alone staring at my one year old.
Then one evening my youngest finally settled down enough for me to attend evening worship. I was so excited; I grabbed my lantern and journeyed to the chapel. The guest speaker spoke so eloquently talking about what he called “the elephant” in the space—how the camp was rooted in racism. His words brought me to the edge of my seat. I was thrilled and excited: I hadn’t been paranoid! This white man saw what I saw. He was naming my hurt, my truth and I was elated.
As we left worship, my heart felt light. In the darkness that surrounded us, the voices started. I heard campers—who couldn’t see me, a black woman, listening—agree that it was one of the worst services they had been to at the camp. And how they couldn’t believe he dared to say those things. And how they, who come to the chapel to be uplifted, did not want to have that kind of mess thrown in their face.
I melted into the darkness that surrounded us. That night I cried myself to sleep.
When I left the camp at the end of the week, the knot that had formed in my stomach started to ease.
Once home, I shared my story—my truth—with multiple people who were connected to the camp and its programs; people who I believed might use my experience to make future conferences and retreats more welcoming. I even offered to teach, to add some diversity to future retreats. I was told by each person that they would pass on my information and have someone contact me so they could get a better idea of what happened and how I felt so it wouldn’t happen to others. That never happened. I sent several emails and responded to all the surveys and asked to be heard. But as usual when I bring up concerns about race, there is only silence in response.
Fast forward nearly a year, and the approach of another summer. My oldest two children chatted excitedly about going back to the camp. Although I had explained that it took two years of funds and planning to go, they were still hopeful that we could make it work for this summer. I felt anxious; I felt guilty; and I could feel the knot creeping back into my stomach. I wanted them to see their friends and go back to a place that they come to love—and yet, I could not see myself stepping foot in that retreat center.
I broke down one day: I shared with my oldest two children my experiences the previous summer. Their father is white and at times I choose not to tell them things that I feel would cast a negative light on white people as to not give them negative feelings towards their family or be torn about their own genetic make-up. But I could be silent no more. And as I shared with them my experiences and my time at the camp, they sat there not saying a word but staring at me with silent tears rolling down their cheeks. They asked me why I didn’t say anything during our week at the camp. Why hadn’t I shared with them sooner?  Like a lot of parents, I answered that I wanted to protect them and not give a negative light to such an enriching experience they had had.
My oldest child then asked me if I often sit in silence and hold in the pain. I answered him truthfully. I answered with a “YES.”
Many times as a black woman, I hold in my pain and my experiences to protect others. To keep and hold up the white fragility that I have been taught, or rather trained, to value more than my own feelings and my own experiences—more, even, than my own needs and self-worth. I have been trained to minimize myself, my light, my voice. To Just grin and bear it. To put up with it because I should know  that they mean well. Or I didn’t want to seem too sensitive or be the “angry” black person in the room.
But I’m tired of being silent. It’s a heavy load to carry day in and day out. Sometimes, I’d like to take off my blackness and pick it up another day; sometimes it’s just too heavy a load. But I can’t, so I press on. So, I ask this question whenever someone will listen, “Who is standing in your dining hall looking for a seat at the table? And can you make room for them too?”
A MUSICAL RESPONSE:  #1031, “Filled With Loving Kindness” 
The stories we have heard so far this morning are so radically different that the experiences many, if not most, of us here have had, they paint a picture of a Unitarian Universalism that is almost, if not entirely, unrecognizable.  They are so different as to be almost unbelievable, yet they are part of our shared, whole, Unitarian Universalist reality.  So we’re going to take a moment of silence now, so that we can take into ourselves these truths many of us would rather not have to face and, perhaps, so that they can take root in our spirits.  In this silence, I encourage you to look at any push-back you might be feeling, any resistance, any disbelieve, any pain.
LITANY:  “The Promise That Binds” by Viola Abbitt
This morning we will share a litany written by Viola Abbitt, who is a candidate for the Unitarian Universalist ministry, and a seminarian at Meadville Lombard Theological School. She is currently the ministerial intern at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Greater Springfield in Massachusetts, and a board member at Unirondack.  “The Promise That Binds”
Loving inclusion has been an elusive goal within our congregations.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.
Many hearts have been, and often continue to be, broken, time and again.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.
The names of many of those of us who helped to make this denomination great were erased, their existence forgotten.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.
The pulpits and pews which should have been warm and welcoming, were instead sometimes cold and unforgiving.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.
People who were considered pillars in their communities, were sometimes considered pariahs within the walls of our congregations.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.
Many of us straddle two worlds: one of filiation and one of faith.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should be enough to bind us together in love.
Our beauty is that we are all different, and yet not different from one another.  None of us should be considered exceptions, nor should we be subjected to baseless assumptions.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should be enough to bind us together in love.
The future of this faith is reliant on and belongs to all who embrace religious liberalism. Let us never forget that…
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, is enough to bind us together in love.

Our Parting Words were written by the Rev. Kimberly Quinn Johnson, who serves as the ordained minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork. She notes that among her specialties are anti-racism and youth ministry.  Her piece, titled “Black Joy,” begins with a poem by Barbara A Holmes:
Joy Unspeakable
is not silent,
it moans, hums, and bends
to the rhythm of a dancing universe….
For our free African ancestors,
joy unspeakable is drum talk…
For enslaved Africans during the
Middle Passage,
joy unspeakable is the surprise
of living one more day…
For Africans in bondage
 in the Americas,
joy unspeakable is the moment of
mystical encounter
when God tiptoes into the hush arbor…
Joy unspeakable is humming
“how I got over”
After swimming safely
to the other shore of a swollen Ohio river
when you know that you can’t swim.
When theologian Barbara A. Holmes talks about “joy unspeakable,” she’s talking specifically about how the contemplative practices of the Black church have sustained Black people in America through suffering and survival. More than referring to a particular church or denomination, this experience is collective and transhistorical. It’s also a different expression of Black religion than I’m expected to exhibit, as a Black woman.
On more than one occasion, I’ve had a particular mode of black worship projected onto me: the more charismatic modes of Black worship that we’re so familiar with—the shout, the stomp, the song. That particular style of Black worship sometimes strikes me as a caricature of joy—a shallow stereotype. I see this in the expectation that more “black” worship will bring more lively singing, more rhythmic clapping, more energetic worship. I see this in the anxiety that more “black” worship will bring more lively singing, more rhythmic clapping, more energetic worship. The shout. The stomp. The song.
But this caricature—this stereotype—is a narrow sliver of the complexity and the richness of black spirituality and black worship.
The modes of black spirituality that are most powerful, nourishing and nurturing for me aren’t the stomp, shout or song. Instead, I think of the rock, the sway, the bend, the moan, the hum. And I think of these things done in community. I marvel that in the midst of sadness and sorrow, in the midst of feeling the effects of generations of trauma wrought by racism and white supremacy, we can still find joy with each other. We are finding joy in each other.
I call it Black Joy because I am Black and it is the joy that I have been familiar with my whole life. It is the joy that I have learned from Black people. It is the joy created through our collective healing — our laying down of burdens, to be picked up and shared by our people, our community. This is not joy in spite of suffering — a mask put on to hide pain, an armor put on to push through pain. This is an embrace, holding and soothing us in our suffering. This Black Joy, is joy created through our being together. This Black Joy reminds me that I am not alone, that trouble don’t last always, that I am held and carried forward by a power beyond what I can comprehend.
I call it Black Joy, but I want to offer it—to the extent that it is mine to offer—to this faith. One of my gifts to Unitarian Universalism is the suggestion that joy is ours. We are the people who commit to justice, equity, and compassion. We are the people who aspire to world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. We are the people who affirm our interdependence with each other and the universe itself. I want to challenge Unitarian Universalism and Unitarian Universalists to claim Joy.
Unitarian Universalist Joy will require a different way of imagining ourselves and a different way of being with each other. Claiming the possibility of Unitarian Universalist joy requires making space for the surprise that Holmes describes. Claiming the possibility of Unitarian Universalist joy requires slowing down to hear the talk of the drum—pausing to move to the rhythms of the drum. Unitarian Universalist joy requires opening to the possibility of the mystical encounter. Unitarian Universalist joy requires embodying this faith differently than many of us are accustomed to.
HYMN OF GOING FORTH #95, “There is More Love Somewhere”
The words of our Benediction were written by Kimberly Quinn Johnson.  The repeated, and well-known, words, “We are the ones we have been waiting for” originate with June Jordan, from her work, “Poem for South African Women,” which she presented at the United Nations on August 9, 1978:
We are the ones we have been waiting for.*
We are not perfect, but we are perfectly fitted for this day.
We are not without fault,
but we can be honest to face our past as we chart a new future.
We are the ones we have been waiting for.
May we be bold and courageous to chart that new future
May we have faith in a future that is not known
We are the ones we have been waiting for.*

Pax tecum,