Monday, July 20, 2015

Can We Be Creative and Not Change Things?

This is the reflection I offered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia on July 19, 2015.

The first time Igor Stravinsky played the beginning of the Rite of Spring, with its dissonant chords and pulsating rhythm, to Serge Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev asked him, "Will it last a very long time this way?" To which Stravinsky replied, "To the end, my dear."  (Seemingly not a very good beginning to a collaboration.)  When the work premiered in Paris on May 29, 1913, it sparked a riot.  The conductor of the premiere, Pierre Monteux, was told by one of his double-bass players that “many a gentleman’s shiny top hat or soft fedora was ignominiously pulled down by an opponent over his eyes and ears, and canes were brandished like menacing implements of combat all over the theatre.”

No one is sure whether it was the music (about which one critic wrote that it, “always goes to the note next to the one you expect.”) or whether it was the dance (which was described as “ugly earthbound lurching and stomping.”).  What is clear, is that chaos and mayhem ensued.  A member of the orchestra remembered, “Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on."  Today, the Rite of Spring is one of the most recorded works in the classical repertoire.

Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony was described as “[threading] all the foul ditches and sewers of human despair; it is unclean as music well can be.”  Of Richard Wagner it was asked, “Is Wagner a human being at all? Is he not rather a disease? He contaminates everything he touches - he has made music sick.”  I've heard that when Beethoven was asked what he thought about Rossini he said, "I like some of Rossini's operas.  Perhaps one day I'll set them to music."

Claude Monet’s painting style was called, “formless, unfinished, and ugly.”  Van Gogh created more than 900 works of art, yet was only able to sell one in his lifetime.  (In 1990 one of his paintings sold at auction for $82.5 million after only three minutes.)   The expressionist painter El Greco was called "mad "in his day, and his artistic style was said to be a sign of his insanity.

In literature:  Louisa May Alcott was told to give up writing and “stick to teaching.”  Rudyard Kippling was told that he didn’t know how to use the English language.  Marcel Proust had to pay for the publishing of Remembrance of Things Past, as did Beatrix Potter with The Tale of Peter Rabbit.  When he tried to publish The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John le Carré was told that he didn’t have a future as a writer.   Madelein L’Engle’s A Wrinke in Time was rejected 26 times before it was published.  Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 121 times.  And Gertrude Stein submitted poems for publication for 22 years before having one published
Do you see a pattern emerging here?  Last week I mentioned that we may resist our own creativity because of fear – fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, whatever.  This week I want to lift  up the question of why society at large seems to have such an ambivalent relationship with creativity.  On the one hand, the United States and, maybe, the Western world in general, has always praised The Artist, the Creative Genius.  On the other, the examples I just gave – and the hundreds more I could – seem to pretty clearly demonstrate that if your artistic genius is too creative … well … let’s just say that The Creator can be dismissed as The Kook.

But why is this?  Maybe because real creativity challenges the status quo.  In fact, that might be a good definition of creativity – the replacement of the old and familiar with the new and unknown.  British historian and philosopher Arnold Toynbee once wrote:
“Creation is a disturbing force in society because it is a constructive one. It upsets the old order in the acts of building a new one. This activity is salutary for society. It is, indeed, essential for the maintenance of society's health; for the one thing that is certain about human affairs is that they are perpetually on the move, and the work of creative spirits is what gives society a chance of directing its inevitable movement along constructive instead of destructive lines.” 
Sounds good, but let’s return to that first phrase: “Creation is a disturbing force in society.”  The Spanish poet Frederico García Lorca went further when he wrote, “The artist, and particularly the poet, is always an anarchist in the best sense of the word. He must heed only the call that arises within him …”  The artist is an anarchist, and creation is a disturbing force that upsets the old order.

There is a cartoon making the rounds on FaceBook (mostly, it seems, among colleagues).  It has a church search committee saying something like, “So we’re agreed.  We’re looking for a visionary leader who will help us to stay exactly the same.”  Creativity sounds good, unless it’s our “old order” that’s being upset.  And while so many of those artists – painters, composers, writers – who were rejected in their day are revered today, I can’t help but somewhat cynically note that they are revered today only after they are dead and their work can no longer quite so thoroughly challenge and disturb.

We usually think of creativity in what I'd call its most simple form – the arts – but I want us to look for creativity in a place we might not normally think to look:  religion.  I have always said that religious community serves two purposes.  On the one hand it is conservative in its most fundamental sense – religion exists to conserve, to preserve, the religious community.  On the other hand, the reason the religious community is worth preserving is because its mission is a subversive one.  Religions exist to perpetuate themselves so that religions can help us realize that there is more to life than simply surviving and following the dictates of the prevailing culture.

In every religious tradition I know anything about there is the same teaching.  Different words are used, but the same truth is lifted up.  “Most of us live lives of quiet desperation,” one of our Transcendentalist ancestors said.  Yet he also affirmed that there is a way of living “deep [and sucking] all the marrow out of life.”  Buddhism teaches that we live in the state of samsara, delusion, yet also that it is possible to wake up.  (The word “buddha,” in fact, simply means, “the Awakened One,” and we’re told that “all things have Buddha-nature.”  Even you and me.)  Christianity says that we are dead in sin, yet can become alive again.  Lots of metaphors are used but the point remains the same – the way life is led by most of us most of the time really is not the way life is supposed to be led.  Putting it in the practical, the mundane – our acquisitive, capitalist, consumer society; the patriarchal and racist systems in which we live; the hyper-hectic lifestyle that is expected of us is not the way to live.  The purpose of religion is to remind us of that, and to help us find a different path.

The contemporary author Elizabeth Ann Bucchianeri has said that, “It’s an artist’s right to rebel against the world’s stupidity.” I’d add that it’s not only a right, but a responsibility, and it’s a right and responsibility that’s shared by religiously creative and creatively religious folk.  Just as the spirit of creativity is anarchistic, so too is the spirit of real religion.  And it is no less dangerous, and no less threatening.

Prophets, mystics, saints … they always challenged the status quo, always lived their lives so as to be an indictment of the way things are.  Prophets, mystics, saints may today have been co-opted to the service of maintaining things the way they are, but in their day?  It really shouldn’t be a surprise that so many of today’s revered saints were so often branded heretics while they were alive.  The religious person is an anarchist, and religion is a disturbing force that upsets the old order.

Universalist preacher and teacher Clinton Lee Scott once wrote, “Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the directions of their vision.”  It seems to be human nature to look back at creative genius and see its power, yet only from that distance to give it respect and admiration.  “Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the directions of their vision.”

Perhaps even more directly, in the words of Henry David Thoreau we heard earlier, "The fathers and the mothers of the town would rather hear the young man or young woman at their tables express reverence for some old statement of the truth than utter a direct revelation themselves. They don’t want to have any prophets born into their families – damn them!”

I think it was just this that was in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mind when he spoke to the graduating class of Harvard College in 1838.  Retaining his gendered word choices, this is what he said to those promising new preachers:
Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, `I also am a man.' Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator, something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man's.”
This is not new advice.  William Shakespeare – who in his day was considered just one of a number of promising playwrights –  put this advice into the mouth of the character Polonius when bidding farewell to his son Laertes: “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any [one].”  Buddha, on his deathbed, advised his friends to be their own lamps. 

The Japanese have a saying – it’s in your Order of Service: the nail that sticks up is hammered down.  We know that this is true here, as well.  There is a danger to following the beat of our own drums.  Throughout history those who dared to step off the well-trod path are told in innumerable ways that they are making a mistake, and society has myriad methods to encourage them to return to the norm (and to punish them if they don’t).  We know that this is so.

So how do we – we who so often find it so difficult to claim our creativity in its most simple form, one of the arts – how do we discover within ourselves the power to be creative in and with our lives?  That may be the key – we discover it.  We discover it over and over again rather than simply settling for having “found it.”

The great jazz bass player and composer Charles Mingus remembered, “As a youth I read a book by Debussy and he said that as soon as he finished a composition he had to forget it because it got in the way of his doing anything else new and different. And I believed him.”  The sculptor and painter Marcel Duchamp said, “I force myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste.” The Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary, and writer Frantz Omar Fanon said of himself, “In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.”  And it has been said of Yeshua ben Miriam (who we know best as Jesus) that, “he was always discovering his identity; he was never possessed of one.”  Or, I think we could say, he was never possessed by one.  He was always free to discover himself anew.

So ask yourself:  Who are you?  Or, perhaps more accurately and importantly, who do you think you are?  You don’t need to do it right now.  You can wait ‘till you get home.  But ask yourself, and then ask: who do you think you’re not?  Who do you think you can’t be?

The spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson wrote a thing that has been so widely disseminated that it’s often attributed to other people.  (My favorite is that Nelson Mandela said it in his 1994 Inaugural Address!)  You probably have heard it at some point.  I think it’s good to hear more than once.  She uses theistic language, which reflects her beliefs, yet it’s not really necessary to hear her meaning.  Don’t let that trip you up.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
The person who is truly alive – truly, richly, fully alive – is an anarchist, and her or his life is a disturbing force that upsets the old order.  Upsets the old order in the act of building a new one. May it be true for you.  May it be true for me.  May it be true for us all.

Pax tecum,


Monday, July 13, 2015

Created in the Image of a Creator

This is the reflection I offered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia on July 12th, 2015.  You can also listen to the podcast if you wish.

So … there’s this Sunday School teacher, and she’s walking around the room looking at the kids who are all drawing.  She stops at this one kid’s desk and says, “What is that you’re drawing?”  And the kid looks up and sweetly answers, “I’m drawing a picture of God.”  “Oh sweetie,” the teacher says, “You can’t draw a picture of God because nobody knows what God looks like.”  A little less sweetly the kid responds, “well, if you’d let me finish …”

“God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness … So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Even folks who don’t know much about the Bible most likely know this passage.  (Genesis 1:24-27)  God created us humans in God’s own image.  Those who tend to disparage traditionally religious folk – and, perhaps especially, traditionally Christian religious folk – find this passage just one of a number of absurdities.  After all, if we’re made in the image of God, then God must have hands and feet … a spleen … like we do.

There are passages in the Jewish and Christian scriptures that would seem to support that view.  Jesus is said to sit at “the right hand” of God, for instance.  And throughout there are references to the mouth, or ears, or eyes.  According to the prophet Isaiah God even declares, “The heavens are my throne and the earth is my footstool.” It’s a good think God doesn’t have stinky feet.

The mistake made here, of course, is thinking that these and other such passages were ever intended to be taken literally.  Essentially – that is, in its essence – religious language is poetic.  When God is described as a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings, no one – then or now – really thought that God is a chicken.

As the Worship Weavers shared ideas about this service, Jeanine turned us on to a really wonderful article by a Muslim scholar about Islam’s teachings on the ultimate formlessness of Allah.  The author notes that the passage which says that God made human kind in God’s own image is better read as God making humans in the likeness of God.  This reading, which you’ll remember was in the New International Version I read earlier, teaches that we humans are made to be like God.  In other words, we are created to be good, caring, loving, merciful, forgiving, creative.

And if you think about it, this is really what people are doing when they turn things around and say that “Humans made God in our own image.”  These folks aren’t saying that we created a God with body parts like ourselves, but rather that we projected onto the universe an exaggerated version of ourselves … usually a decidedly negative version – warlike, and jealous, and capricious.

But let’s go back to the more traditional bit of poetry, that the Divine Creator created us and created us like them.  Specifically, that the Divine Creator created us creative.  Created us to be creators ourselves.  That’s exactly the idea I want us to explore together this morning, and we don’t even need a notion of “God” to do so.  We are part of an evolutionary process that is nothing if not creative.  And by that I don’t simply mean generative, I mean creative.  The life force, whatever we might call it, keeps adapting itself to new situations; trying new things. Sometimes there are leaps from one adaptation to the next that are really quite startling.  There are also evolutionary adaptations that seem gratuitously glorious … beautiful for no apparent reason.  (Or, if you prefer, our brains have evolved to see some things as beautiful, seemingly with no particular survival benefit.)  If you haven’t done so in a while, I really encourage you to go home this afternoon and watch a nature special.  Any nature special.  Or do it tonight.  But soon.  Nature, life, is astonishing in its creativity.

And this – creativity – seems to be fundamental to our nature, too.  Some, cynically, say that all we’ve ever really created are ever better means of destroying one another and our planet.  In George Bernard Shaw’s magnificent play “Don Juan in Hell,” the Devil says:
In the arts of peace Man is a bungler.  I have seen his cotton factories and the like, with machinery that a greedy dog could have invented if it had wanted money instead of food.  I know his clumsy typewriters and bungling locomotives and tedious bicycles: they are toys compared to the Maxim gun, the submarine torpedo boat.  There is nothing in Man's industrial machinery but his greed and sloth:  his heart is in his weapons.

Yet we know that those are not the only things we humans create.  Like life itself, humanity has always invented creative ways to address the challenges we face.  It gets dark at night?  We the created light bulbs.  It’s hard to keep in touch with people at a distance?  We created telegraphs, telephones (with and without cords).  We’ve created airplanes, solar panels, wind turbines, probes that can fly by dwarf planets.
And we seem also to create simply for the sake of creating.  There’s no real necessity for Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Georgia O’Keefe’s Abstraction White Rose; The Upanishads and Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor, Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood, and Taki Rentarō’s Kōjō no Tsuki. 

But don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m talking simply about creating something.  Producing product.  I’m also talking about our penchant for creating for the pure sake of creating.  When I lived in an artists’ community (back in the day) there was a woman down the hall who painted some of the most rich and dynamic images I’ve ever seen.  And then, instead of getting a new canvass out  she would simply start painting a new painting over the old one.  And then she’d do that again.  Some of her finished works were painted on top of five or six other paintings.  And she didn’t stop because she like that last one best; and she didn’t paint over the earlier ones because she didn’t like them.  I asked her once why she did this and she said that there were so many images in her head that she just had to get them out into the world.  She honestly didn’t care whether anyone else ever saw them.  She just needed to paint them.  Creativity for the sake of creativity.  I’ve heard that the American composer Charles Ives would sometimes take the completed manuscript of a new piece and simply put it in a box in the barn.  He didn’t care if anyone ever heard it.  He just needed to get it out of his head.  (I’ll admit that I don’t know for sure if that’s true, but it is certainly a helpful illustration for this sermon.)

But that’s not us I’m talking about.  At least, not most of us.  I mean yes, as a species we are creative, and certain individuals are creative, but me?  Not so much.  I see some of you nodding.

Let's go back to our Opening Words by Maya Angelou (herself no slouch in the creativity department):
We are all creative, but by the time we are three or four years old, someone has knocked the creativity out of us.  Some people shut up the kids who start to tell stories.  Kids dance in their cribs, but someone will insist they sit still.  By the time the creative people are ten or twelve, the want to be like everyone else. 
We are all creative, but by the time we are three or four years old, someone has knocked the creativity out of us.

We've talked together before about all of us who were told that we can't sing and, so, don't.  And maybe it wasn’t singing you were told you couldn’t do.  Maybe it was dancing, painting, writing, playing the recorder.  But somewhere, at some time, for many of us – maybe even most of us – someone came along and knocked the creativity out of us.

A few years ago Deborah Rose preached about how there are all kinds of creativity -- cooking a good meal, for example, really spending time playing with a child, cleaning and organizing everything just so.  Even our ability to create excuses about why we’re not creative is a form of creativity, isn’t it?  There are so many ways that that innate creative impulse seeks to find its way out, yet so few of us are willing to accept for ourselves the title of "creator;" so many of us seem to want to go out of our way to deny our own creativity.

And why do you think that is?  I know one reason.  From my own life I sure know one reason.  I’m a pretty musical guy.  I’ve played a few instruments in my day and I’ve sung a bit.  But I know that I’ll never be a piano player – because I’ve heard Dr. John play.  And I’ll never play the guitar because, well, Eric Clapton.  And trumpet?  I played one a bit in high school.  I have one – one of you lovely people loaned me one a couple of years back when I announced on FaceBook that I was thinking of picking it up again.  But to date I haven’t done much with it because … well, because there’s always Miles and Dizzy hanging over my head.

Over and again I find my creative chops blocked by the fear that whatever I do is not going to be good enough.  To put it simply, bluntly, I’m afraid I’m going to fail.  I’m afraid I’m going to fail and look stupid.  I’m afraid I’m going to fail and people’s opinion of me will drop.  I’m afraid I’m going to fail and prove once and for all that I’m really not creative after all.

In the most recent UU World magazine UUA President Peter Morales wrote an article titled, “Embracing Failure.”  He’s talking about us as a movement, but we could just as easily hear his words addressed to us, as a congregation, or each one of us as an individual.  He wrote:

What I do not do often enough is to highlight the spiritual challenge we all face in these times. I am convinced that the future health of Unitarian Universalism depends on all of us learning to embrace failure. Embrace failure? Absolutely. The thought of failing at something is pretty frightening. I like to be thought of as competent. I like triumphs small and large, and I love feeling respected for the things I accomplish.

Yet in times like these if we limit ourselves to what we already know how to do we will never imagine new opportunities and seize them. Ironically, repeating past success will, over time, bring failure. But failures, the right kind of failures, will bring success.

In that same artist’s community I mentioned earlier there was a guy named Greg LeFevre.  Of the 60 of us who lived in these two converted mill buildings, he was the only one to make his entire full-time living from his art.  He stopped by my studio one afternoon and noted that I’d been working on the same mask for several weeks.  He could see I was really struggling with it, and I was.  There was part of it that just wasn’t working out right. 

That afternoon Greg told me about the way he worked.  His living space and his studio were separated – intentionally, he said.  Every morning he would get up, go down to his studio, and start to work on a new piece.  By the end of the day he’d have finished it.  Every day.  He worked in a variety of mediums, but his approach was always the same. Every day he’d create a new piece of art.  He wouldn’t worry about trying to make it perfect, he’d just do it, and at the end of the month he’d have about thirty pieces … most of which weren’t worth much.  But he’d usually have two or three that were spectacular.  He said that I, on the other hand, was so concerned with getting it right, getting it perfect, that it’d be a miracle if I ever finally finished one piece.  It’s the same principle that photographers use – take a lot of pictures, rolls of film (or now, I guess, a lot of gigabytes), and from that you might find a few really excellent shots.   

That takes a real willingness to make mistakes.  That takes a real embrace of failure.  That takes a real trust in our inherent creativity.  And that’s hard for a lot of us – again, maybe most of us – because we know, because we’ve been told, that we can’t.  The famed jazz guitarist and inventor Les Paul said that the reason he was able to play in such seemingly impossible ways was that no one had ever told him that they weren’t possible.  Edison supposedly said that the only reason he was able to figure out how to make the filament for the incandescent light bulb was that he knew nothing about metallurgy, so he didn’t know he couldn’t make the metal do that.  We need to unlearn what we’ve been taught – that we don’t have a creative bone in our body.

And we need to do this not so we can go forth and create some kind of masterpiece.  (Although that would be kind of cool, wouldn’t it?)  We need to reclaim our creativity because it’s a part of who we are and because we need it to survive.  We need it when we face a difficult time and just don’t know what to do – the car breaks down and we don’t have enough money right now to fix it.  The company downsizes and we suddenly find ourselves unneeded in the workplace.  Our spouse tells us that they want a divorce and we are unexpectedly faced with the need to make a new life for ourselves.  We need it because someone we love – or we, ourselves – receives a diagnosis that abruptly turns everything we know on its head.

It is so easy for us to live our lives from box to box to box – the boxes we put ourselves in and the boxes we put others in.  And we get locked into those expectations of what is and what isn’t possible.  And knowing with such certainty what is and what isn’t possible means that when we face something new and unexpected, we’re stuck.  Trapped.

Yet when we know ourselves to be creators, then we are not limited to the response set we have used over and over again.  When we know ourselves to be creators, we’re able to try new things, to risk failure and to know that even if we fail it’s not the end of the world.  We just try something else.  When we know ourselves to be creators we can look at our lives, look at what we have to work with, and see new ways of being.

We – you and I – are created in the image of a creator.  Call it God, call it the Spirit of Life, call it the evolutionary imperative.  Whatever you call it, creativity is our birthright.  Don’t let anyone take it away from you.  And the truth is, of course, that no one can.  As much as I hate to disagree with Ms. Angelou, I think she's wrong.  No one can knock the creativity out of us.  They can knock our faith in it out of us.  They can knock our courage and conviction to be creativity out of us.  But the creativity itself is part of our nature.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Walking Together

In case anyone is wondering ... yep, those are my kiddos!
In the Book of Amos (chapter 3 verse 3) the Prophet asks, "Can two walk together, except they are agreed?"  This is a line which has had a tremdendous importance in liberal religions, perhaps most especially in Unitarian Universalism.  The late scholar Conrad Wright made the point that the answer to this question is ultimately what separated early Unitarians from their Congregational neighbors.

Traditional religion answers this question with a fairly firm, "no."  Traditional religions cohere around shared beliefs, creeds, and dogmas.  If you don't accept and affirm the teachings on virgin birth, for example, you can't be a member of our tradition; if your understanding of resurrection is out of accord with ours, then we are out of accord with one another.  Can two walk together, except the be agreed?  No.

This attitude is perhaps nowhere more typified than in that well known joke about two people who meet on a bridge:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said, "Stop! Don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!" He said, "Like what?" I said, "Well, are you religious or atheist?" He said, "Religious." I said, "Me too! Are your Christian or Buddhist?" He said, "Christian." I said, "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?" He said, "Protestant." I said, Me too! Are your Episcopalian or Baptist? He said, "Baptist!" I said, "Wow! Me too! Are your Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord? He said, Baptist Church of God!" I said, "Me too! Are your Original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God!" I said, "Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!" I said, "Die, heretic scum!" and pushed him off.
Can two walk together, except they be agreed?  No.

Liberal religion -- or, at least, Unitarianism -- answers the question differently.  Absolutely, we say.  Of course two can walk together even if they do not agree!  Long (and apparently erroneously) attributed to Ferenc Dávid (aka, Francis David) is the sentiment, "We need not think alike to love alike."  Each and every Sunday Unitarian Universalist congregations prove this to be true -- Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Atheists, Hindus, Sikhs, birth-right Unitarian Universalists, Neo-Pagans, and so many others gather together as one religious community, and this is not only in spite of these differences but in a very real way because of them.  We recognize that this diversity strengthens us, stretches us, enriches our gatherings.

At my ordination twenty years ago, I was honored to have the Rev. Jane Rzepka preach one of her wonderful sermons, in this case, using this idea of "walking together" as the basis of what holds us together as a religious moment.  She was not the first to make this connection, of course, nor has she been the last, but my, O, my could that woman preach!

It is our agreement to walk together -- our covenant one with another -- that holds us together.  Creeds we can talk about and can lovingly and respectfully disagree about -- that's not what binds us.  Our promise to continue to recognize each other as kin even without either of us having converted the other, or been ourselves converted to the other's point of view.  We promise to walk together; to sing together; to laugh together; to struggle for justice together; to comfort one another together; to love ourselves, each other, and the world ... together.  And although it can certainly be a challenge, nor do we always succeed, it is the assertion of liberal religion that this is what Beloved Community looks like.

I was recently talking with someone who is not a UU about all of this and he asked me some very probing questions that got me thinking.  What, exactly, does it mean to "walk together"?  Does it mean a group of people simply milling about in one another's vicinity?  That wouldn't really be walking, would it?  So how about a group of people marching with purpose behind a leader?  Well, that's not exactly walking together is it?  That'd really be one person walking and a whole other people following behind.

There certainly can be a feeling of camaraderie, of solidarity, in such marching.  Think of a massive protest march in which hundreds, maybe thousands of people come together and march together in common purpose.  Look to your right, look to your left, look before or behind you and you see people with whom you feel connected no matter how many differences might otherwise divide you.  And there certainly can be a sense of empowerment, a "we are in this together ... this is our march" kind of thing.  But not always.  Often there's more of a "we're here together ... and I hope I can eventually find the people I came here with."  Very often there's the recognition that no matter how much we might all be "in this together," we are there at someone else's behest. 

So, again, what does it mean to "walk together?"  To really and truly walk together?

First I decided to see if this question -- "Can two walk together without being agreed?" -- has been translated in any other way(s).  What I found really surprised me.  "Blew my mind" might be a little more accurate.  Here are three other translations of the original Hebrew:

According to the New International Version, the translation should be, "Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?" 
The New Living Translation has it, "Can two people walk together without agreeing on the direction?" 
And, finally, the International Standard Version translates this verse as, "Will a couple walk in unity without having met?

Pretty different, no?  Each one of these points toward a very different understanding of Amos' question, yet each seems to support and reinforce the liberal religious understanding.  Can two walk together with having agreed to do so?  Well, that seems to point to the idea of covenant, as does the image of "agreeing on the direction."  (I often say to people that in Unitarian Universalism our first question isn't "what do you believe?" but, rather, "toward what do your beliefs point you?")  That last --- will a couple walk in unity without having met -- reminds me of a bumper sticker I've seen:  the most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another.

As we look around us at the world we have created it seems clearer than ever that we need to find ways to walk together.  People are dying because of our inability to do just that.  I do not, by any means, imagine that Unitarian Universalism offers the answer to all our world's ills.  Even if we attained and maintained our ideals all the time -- which, of course, we do not -- we would not be the answer.  There is no one answer; life is to complex and varied for their to be any one way.  Yet our approach to building community is, I believe, an answer.  It is one way ... and I wish we did a better job of sharing our good news.

Pax tecum


Monday, July 06, 2015

We Should Refuse to be Comforted

I have been asked by several people, now, if I would be willing to share the words I spoke at the prayer service at the First Baptist Church on Main Street in Charlottesville on June 22nd, 2015.  The service was a response to the tragic murder of nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlotte, S.C.  I had preached on the subject the day before, and was honored to have the opportunity to address the truly diverse crowd that gathered at First Baptist that night.

I serve a congregation that is named after Thomas Jefferson, a man who in many ways embodies the reality of America -- he talked a good game about freedom but was, himself, unable to live up to those ideals.  From that context, I offer these words:

From the book of Jeremiah, hear these words:  "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."  I read ablog post this afternoon by the Reverend Jennifer Bailey, an itinerant AME minister and founder of the FaithMatters Network, and she reminded me of these words:  "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."

Refusing to be comforted!  Refusing.  That means to me that she'd been  encouraged to be comforted, invited to be comforted, no doubt pushed, and pulled, and prodded toward being comforted. But she refused. She refused.

I don't know about you but when I'm in the vicinity of someone who is in mourning with great weeping I want to comfort them. I want to help them to feel better. I want to help them to see the big picture, to remember the context, to think about the plan. I want to help them feel hope.

But I'll tell you a secret:  as much as I want to be somehow comforting for them, I'm also wanting to do it for me because it's uncomfortable to be around great weeping. It's disconcerting. Distressing. Disturbing.  So the people around Rachel wanted to comfort her at least in part so that they wouldn't have to feel uncomfortable.  Rarely does the one who's feeling comfortable wants to be made to feel uncomfortable. But Rachel refused to be comforted.

She refused to be comforted, and maybe so should we. I know that the purpose of tonight is to bring us together -- to bring  us together so that we can heal, to bring us together to reclaim hope, to bring us together so we might comfort one another in our grief, and our anger, and our despair.  But while I think that the coming together is good, even necessary, this is not the time to come together in healing.  We should come together to demand that things change, We should come together to demand the end of these atrocities!   We  should come together and refuse to make others comfortable when we are grieving, grieving that so many of God's children, so many children of life itself, have been slaughtered for no other reason than being black in a country that can't live up to its ideals.  This has got to end, and I refuse to be comforted until it has.

Do you remember Dr. King saying there were some things to which he was, and always would be, maladjusted?  Do you remember that he called on us all to form -- and you gotta love this name -- the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment?  Now that is a reason to come together! That is a group I would stand with, and sit with, and march with, and, yes, fight with, and mourn with, and weep with, and be with .. just as we are doing this evening. 

That's what I had to say that night.  And that's what I'd say today.

Pax tecum,


Climbing the Mountain

This is the sermon I delivered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist on July 5, 2015.  You can listen to the podcast.  [Note: this is not the sermon that was planed for this week, so the description on the church's web site doesn't match.  This was a last-minute replacement due to public events.]

It was her twenty-fifth birthday.  Marsha P. Johnson had gone to a local bar to celebrate, to dance with friends, to have fun.  Marsha P. Johnson was a twenty-five year old African American Transgender woman, and her birthday fell on June 28th.  The year was 1969, and the bar was the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village.  At the time, it was one of the few bars in which gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people could gather and dance with little fear of police harassment.  Stonewall was owned by a member of the famed Genovese crime family – three members of the Mafia spent $3,500 to convert what had been a restaurant and nightclub into an intentionally gay bar.  It’s said that the mob would keep track of who frequented the club so they had blackmail material at the ready.  None of that mattered to Marsha Johnson on that Saturday night.  She was having fun and she was in one of the few places that LGBTQ people could feel safe in a decidedly unsafe, hostile, world. 

At a little after 1 am that dangerous world burst into the Stonewall Inn in the form of six police officers, announcing a raid.  In other clubs at other times these raids had a predictable rhythm.  I’m quoting here from Wikipedia’s article about Stonewall, “Standard procedure was to line up the patrons, check their identification, and have female police officers take customers dressed as women to the bathroom to verify their sex, upon which any men dressed as women would be arrested.”  But that’s not what happened this time.  This time the patrons resisted and a riot ensued – a riot that is often cited as the beginning of the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for LGBTQ rights.  Less than two weeks ago, 46 years after the events of that night at the Stonewall Inn, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that marriage is a human right and that it cannot be denied to homosexual couples.  Justice Anthony Kennedy in his Majority Opinion wrote,

“The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest. With that knowledge must come the recognition that laws excluding same-sex couples from the marriage right impose stigma and injury of the kind prohibited by our basic charter.”  (And that “basic charter,” of course, is our Constitution.)

This is a time to celebrate!

It’s been a long journey.  In October of 1972 the Supreme Court dismissed Baker v. Nelson, a case challenging the legal discrimination against gay and lesbian couples as it was seen in marriage restrictions.  A few months later, in January of ’73, Maryland became the first state to pass a statue explicitly banning same sex marriage.  (Virginia came next in ’75.)  Jump ahead to 1993 when then President Bill Clinton signed into law the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, an act which defined marriage as between “one man and one woman” and which ensured that the roughly 1,200 protections and responsibilities that marriage triggers at the federal level would not be available to same sex couples.  This underscored the “separate and unequal” state inherent in “same-sex unions” which had begun to be legally recognized as an equivalent to marriage.

State by state we’ve seen this play out.  A court case here; a referendum there.  But what we’re really talking about, of course, is people’s lives.  Couples who loved each other yet whose love was seen as “other,” “different,” “evil,” even.  State by state, court case by court case, referendum by referendum they watched their lives – their love – discussed and debated, argued over and attacked, all the while just wanting, as Justice Kennedy put it, “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.”   The Supreme Court’s verdict on June 26th affirmed that “the Constitution grants them that right.”  For so many this was a day so long sought even if never fully imaginable.

Yet I can’t simply invite us to celebrate, to shout out “Love Won!” as if all of the struggle is over.  This is hardly any more a post-homophobic America than it is a post-racial one.  And, so, there have been other voices.  One of many that touched me was posted and reposted on the FaceBook feeds of a number of my friends.  I do not know David Dezem, but I’ve found his words worth listening to:

"Dear Friends: I listened very carefully this Pride weekend as person after person celebrated that "they never thought they'd see gay marriage in their lifetime." And as I listened closely -- really closely -- I heard another feeling underneath that celebration. I heard sorrow, pain and loss that we need to be aware of in the days and weeks after the party calms down. Because "I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime" also means "It wasn't available to me for most of my lifetime." So please, look out for your gay friends, particularly those who aren't in their 20's or 30's anymore, who have had to make personal, financial, medical, familial, and other life decisions without these newly acquired privileges. There's something going on there that I can't quite put my finger on: A sense of lost time, and lost loves, and lost lifetimes that are being mourned in private, away from the public celebrations. And a sincere sadness, melancholy and perhaps even depression that we really need to listen for if we want to hear it over the (equally sincere) shouts of public joy. Our country took a long overdue step towards justice on Friday. Gay Seniors and even Gay Middle-Agers are celebrating that fully, even as they recognize that for many of them, on a practical and emotional level, justice delayed is still justice denied."

I began by talking about Marsha Johnson.  Some witnesses say that she was really the one who got things going that night on Christopher Street; her resistance inspired others to resist and the rest, as they say, is history.  I should also mention Sylvia Rivera, another key figure.  She was 17, and wasn’t even in the club when the police came; she was one of the many who gathered outside.  Some witnesses said that she was the one who threw the first bottle at the police, and that’s what took the events at Stonewall from just another incident of police harassment to the beginning of a movement.  These two, Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera should be remembered as two of the igniting sparks for all that has come since.  Yet the names of neither of these women is well known today.  I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that both were women of color – Sylvia Rivera was Puerto Rican, and Marsha Johnson was African American – and that both were transgender women.  That’s worth noting.

My friend David Glasgow recently wrote that when we shout “Love has Won!” we inadvertently do several things, one of which is to suggest that “the inability to obtain a marriage license was the most important, or even the only, struggle that LGBTQI individuals faced, and all  but ignores single persons, trans persons, and poor persons categorically.”  Even as we celebrate that the circle of inclusion has widened significantly – and it has, and that is worthy of celebrating – we need to remember that there are so many who are still left out.   Transgender women and men are no more safe than they were a couple of weeks ago; LGBTQ teens are no less likely to be bullied.  And while gay and lesbian couples may now have their love legally recognized through marriage, they can still have their jobs or the housing taken away.  And now because of this ruling both gay and straight couples who have entered into legal domestic partnerships are in danger of losing their right to domestic partner benefits unless they decide to get married.

In her Opening Words Lucy quoted Claudia Black, “It is not the mountain that is moved that makes a difference. It is the little steps taken, one at a time.”  I’ve been thinking about mountains, too, but I’ve not been thinking as much of moving them as scaling them.  It’s been a while since I climbed my last mountain, and even then to a real climber the mountains I hiked would have probably been “really big hills,” but still I can remember viscerally the urge, no the need, to stop.  “Oh man … can’t we … just … take … a break?” Oh, to sit down for a moment.  To pause.  To catch one’s breath.  To take a drink of water and drink in the scenery.

And sometimes you could, but sometimes you couldn’t.  It would take so much energy to get up and get going again on a slope like that, or at this time of day, and you really just had to push on.  Oh, maybe you could pause, but only that.  A quick swig, a quick look around, and then back to the one foot in front of the other.

I want to stop here for a moment, drink in the sight of couples around the country finally free to have their love and their lives legally recognized and affirmed to be equal to that of anyone else.  But there’s a lot of mountain still ahead of us.  As the folks at GetEqual -- #More ThanMarriage – remind us,
  • Black queer and trans people are subject to police scrutiny and violence everyday;
  • LGBTQ people can be fired without recourse because of their sexual orientation or gender identity;
  • Undocumented LGBTQ people can be deported and detained, facing abuse & torture;
  • 40% of all homeless youth identify as LGBTQ;
  • LGBTQ people continue to face harassment, discrimination, and violence on a day to day basis.

The mountain we’re climbing has many names – Heterosexism, Transphobia, Patriarchy, White Supremacy, Racism.  It is discrimination based on perceived ability, or age, or income.  It is fear of mental illness, or whatever form The Other takes.  In fact, fear may well be this mountain’s first name – fear and hate.

And so, perhaps, now is a good time for us to pause in our climb.  Take off our packs for a moment, maybe unlace our boots.  We can get out our water bottle and that Cliff Bar we’ve been thinking about for the past couple of miles.  We ought to take a moment to look out over that beautiful vista, the view that has opened up with those words, “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed. It is so ordered.”  What a promising landscape we can see before us.  But then we’ve got to get those boots back on, heft our packs onto our backs, and keep moving.  Oh we’ll get there.  Heaven knows how we will get there.  But we know we will.

Pax tecum,