Monday, February 29, 2016

I Owe So Much to Bill Carpenter

Bill Carpenter 1943 ~ 2015
A while back I was playuing around with a book on radically shared ministry.  In in the Introduction I attempted to describe the influence of a man named Bill Carpenter on both my theories and my practice.  I recently learned that Bill died this past December.  This is an adaptation of what I'd written:

In the 1980s I was not yet an ordained Unitarian Universalist clergy person.  I was, nonetheless, already a minister.  My ministry did not take place in the pulpit of a parish, but rather in countless fellowship halls, classrooms, and street corners.  I was a magician, juggler, fire eater, and clown.  In rather grandiose terms, I saw myself as a prophet of wonder.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in his journal, after an afternoon of wandering around Walden Pond, “I declare this world is so beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists.”  The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about how the things he knows about the cosmos, and our place in it, makes him want to “grab people on the street and say, ‘Have you heard this?’”  In my own ministry at that time I was using the tools and tricks at my disposal as a performer to offer people an opportunity to remember, or rediscover, their own feeling of wonder in the world.

The paradigm changed for me when I met and began working with a man named Bill Carpenter and his brainchild, The Midway Caravan.  Bill, known more at the time as “Gusto,” had an impressive resume in the theater world.  He’d worked on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and in prestigious regional theaters for more than a decade as an actor, director, stage manager, and playwright.  He’d worked with everyone from Katherine Hepburn to Will Geer.  And yet he couldn’t ignore his growing feeling that something wasn’t right.  In fact, he came to believe that theater was dead.  Or, to put it a little more alliteratively, he perceived that the prevailing paradigm of performance had been pushed as far as it could go.  Something new was needed.

There have always been professional performers, yet performance was also once something that brought people together.  Neighbors would gather around the pianoforte in the parlor, or in rocking chairs on front porches, and make music for and with one another.  Families would come together to watch “theatricals” put on by the children, acting out well known literary works.  (Think of the March sisters from Little Women, as well as the countless real children who acted out scenes from that book.)

There are many interrelated reasons for the demise of the amateur performance and the rise of the performer as a breed apart.  What Bill focused on was the result.  Put in its broadest terms, performance had devolved into a dynamic in which the performer stood on the stage and the audience sat in their seats and said, “oh how gifted you are!”  (And there was usually a subtext of, “and we could never do that.”)  Bill wanted to turn that dynamic on its head, using the form of a performance to subvert this performer-as-other mentality.  And, so, the Midway Caravan was born – a vehicle for interactive, family entertainment.

The clearest example of the Caravan in action was a show called “The Backyard Circus.”  Here a performer, the Ringmaster, arrived at a county fair, a theme park, a shopping mall, a school, and set up his stage – two step ladders with signs hanging between the steps that looked like some mom or dad with minimal woodworking skills had helped their child make and paint them.  Between the ladders hung a “circus banner,” which was really a blanket with an old poster attached.  An old rug was unrolled as the performance area, and the show was ready to start.

Except that there were no performers, apart from The Ringmaster.  So she or he would begin to recruit people from the audience – a lion tamer and four lions, a tightrope walker, a strongman and a clown.  Each recruit would be sent to a clothes rack where costumes awaited, and when the cast was assembled, the show would begin.  The tightrope walker, Wanda, was a young child who pretended to climb a ladder high above the big top and who then walked a rope held by two assistants . . . on the floor.  The crowd would appropriately “ooh” and “ahh” at this death-defying feat.  The strongman was a dad, strongest man in the world, who nonetheless was unable to lift the “500 ton weight” which Bobo the Clown, the strongman’s very young child, was able to lift with ease .  You get the idea.
This was a performance that didn’t create a dynamic of a passive audience staring up at the impossible feats of the performer and saying, “Wow!  Look what you can do!”  Instead, the audience looked at the performers, who just moments before had been the audience, and said, “Look what we can do together.”  The performance was actually something of a ruse; the real act was the creation of community.

I worked with the Caravan, traveling the country as The Ringmaster, and I watched the magic happen time and time again.  And it changed the way I thought about my own performances.  I began to use my own role as magician/juggler/fire-eater/clown as a tool to take the spotlight that would be thrown on me and turn it back on the assembled crowd, the congregation that had gathered, the community-in-the-making.

In the 1990s when I was ordained to the professional ministry, I brought this perspective with me.  It is not too much of a stretch to say that in many – if not most – congregations the same dynamic can be found as in most theaters:  the people in the pews look up at The Minister and say “Oh how gifted you are!  We could never do that!”  The past two decades have been for me an ongoing experiment to see if the same paradigm shift could occur in churches that I saw happen in traveling circus tents.

One example:  it is typical to hold a ceremony called an “installation” shortly after a clergy person is called to a congregation.  It is a way of saying, “She is here!” and formalizing the relationship.  When I was called to serve the First Parish in Brewster Unitarian Universalist Church in Brewster, Massachusetts we had the obligatory Installation service.  Yet when the invitations went out they asked, “Why install just one minister when the church has nearly 500 of them?”  That event was not just an installation of a minister, it was an installation of the ministers of First Parish.  I was installed as Senior Minister, and the Rev. Dennis Meacham was installed as our Associate.  And we also installed our Director of Religious Education, our Director of Music, our support staff, and every single member of the church as one of its ministers, called to their own unique ministries in and through the church.  Look what we can do together. We had a similar Installation of the Ministers when I came to the congregation I currently serve, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia.

None of this would have been possible without Gusto, and the Carvan, the conversations long into the night about the theory behind it all, and the experience  of the theory come to life in in each and every one of those circus tents.  The motto of the Midway Caravan was, "midway between what you can see and what you can imagine."  Gusto took me -- and so, so many others -- beyond that point.  One of the programs he was still developing when I last worked with him was called "The Campfire at the Edge of the Universe."  That's the place I hope to meet him once again.

Pax tecum, et gracias tibi, Gusto,

RevWik (Ged)

Friday, February 26, 2016

One day ... but not yet

I've been listening once again to some of the great music on the original Playing for Change Album, Songs Around the World.  (And if you don't know about this amazing project, both where have you been and please go check it out right now.  I'll wait.)

One of the songs they covered is Bob Marley's "War/No More Trouble."  (Those two songs are often tied together.)  As I'm listening to it lately I find that it's pulling together some of my thoughts about the idea that "colorblindness" is the ideal and that talking so much about race and racism actually exacerbates the problem.  Check out these lyrics (which I've written to reflect the fabulous phrasing of the Playing for Change version):

the philosophy that holds one race superior
and another
is finally
and permanently
and abandoned
everywhere is way (me say war)

until there are no longer first class
and second class citizens
of any nation
until the color of a man's skin
is of no more significance
than the color of his eyes
everything is war (me say war)

Note that it doesn't say, "the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes."  That's what the advocates of colorblindness would say.  (And they'd likely quote Dr. King's famous affirmation of a world in which people are "not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."  See?  Even the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says that color doesn't matter!

Well, not exactly.  What Dr. King said was that he has a dream that one day that such a society will exist in which the color of one's skin doesn't matter.  "Dream" indicates that it's not yet a reality; "one day" reminds us that it's not so today.

And Bob Marley wrote, "until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes ..."  Until...  I have a dream that one day...

And that's the problem (one of them!) that I have with the assertion that we should be acting as if this were a "colorblind" world.  Because it's not.  And, ironically, the only way to get to that promised land is for folks like me who think of themselves as white to see what people of color see and live with every day -- it is not that way now.  Only by seeing clearly how it is do we have any hope of getting to the place where it should be.

And I believe that we will be able to get there one day.  That one day people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  That one day the color of a person's skin will be of no more significance than the color of their eyes.  One day.  But the dream will remain a dream unless and until the reality of how things are is recognized, truly seen, and deeply understood by those of us who people see as white (who are, for the moment at least, still the majority of people in this country and who absolutely are the architects of our country's dominant -- and dominating -- culture).

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Desire to Build a Better World

This is the text of the sermon offered at the congregation I serve -- Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist -- on Sunday, February 21, 2016.  It consists of three parts -- an introduction and conclusion that I delivered, and a middle section written by one of our lay Worship Weavers, Jeanine Braithwaite.  As always, you can listen if you prefer.

Opening Words:  "Those of us who are alive in these times have a clear and evident mission. We have a compelling moral purpose that can direct our lives and our energies: We are about saving the world. So what is our part? The place is to begin at home- that is, with ourselves. Notice what is life-denying and resist it. Live with the moral authority that comes from compassion and non-violence. Form communities of people who will sustain you in living as you wish to live, whether they are study groups or alternative living arrangements or socially responsible, sustainable businesses. Our congregations must be central gathering places for such community."

Marilyn Sewell, "Reclaiming the American Dream," in A People So Bold

Place names can provide interesting glimpses into history.  Some are pretty obvious:  Charlottesville, for instance, was named after Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III.  Others are a little more obscure.  I can’t imagine how Boring, Oregon; Dismal, Tennessee; Hell, Michigan; or Looneyville, Texas got their names.  (I’m not sure I really want to know.)  And then there are places like Hopedale,Massachusetts.

Hopedale got its name back in the mid-19th century.  The famous Universalist, Rev. Adin Ballou (third cousin once removed of the even more famous Hosea Ballou), his wife Lucy, and two of their friends invested in 600 acres of land and created what they called, “Fraternal Community Number One.”  Today we might call it an intentional community, or a commune.  The Fraternal Community’s less formal name was Hopedale, which means, roughly, hope in the valley, or the valley of hope.
Hopedale came into being during a time when Utopian Communities were popping up all over the place.  Places like Brook Farm, Fruitlands, New Harmony, Oberlin, Oneida, Reunion, as well as a number of communities based on the teachings of the French philosopher Charles Fourier.  This is when the Shaker communities were established, too.

And I mention all of this this morning because this month we’ve been exploring what it might mean to think of ourselves, we Unitarian Universalists, as “a people of desire.”  This morning, specifically, we’re asking ourselves what it means to be a people who “desire to build a better world.”  So it’s worth noting that many of these intentional, utopian communities were founded by Universalists, Unitarians, or people who’d been influenced by the spirit of Transcendentalism – people who believed that a better world was possible and set about building it.  (I think it’s kind of funny, though, that some of the rock star Transcendentalists like Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau were too invested in the individual to join any community, however utopian.) 

This impulse, this drive, this desire to build a world that is more fair, more just, more economically and ecologically sustainable, that is, simply put, better than the world we see around us, is part of our genetic makeup as UUs.  And it’s still alive today.

In 2008, for instance, a group of Unitarian Universalist young adults began discussing the idea of creating an intentional community, and in February of 2011 they moved into the house that is now called the Lucy Stone Cooperative.  A second co-operative house, the Margeret Mosely Cooperative, is up and running as well.  These young adults are, as it was put in article in UUWorld, “living the values and traditions of Unitarian Universalism and focused on sustainability, spiritual practice, and social change.”

Of course, many of us here are only a few degrees of separation from Twin Oaks or its local sister communities Acorn and Living Energy Farm.  Several of us are involved right now in one way or another with either Eco-village or Emerson Commons.  This desire to build a better world runs deep in our veins.

Not all of us are able to take part in this kind of “building” project.  Not all of us would want to live in this kind of an intentional, cooperative community.  Yet all of us can be involved in making this world we live in more like the world we would want to live in.  Jeanine signed up to weave this morning because this topic of building a better world is near and dear her heart – she has spent her professional career trying to make a difference.  I think we should hear her story:
Our dream is a world free of poverty. These words appeared over the main entrance to the World Bank in Washington, DC in the early years of James Wolfensohn’s presidency of what insiders call “the Bank.” The Bank was chartered in 1944 as the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development, and was set up primarily to help Europe rebuild from World War II and only secondarily to assist countries to grow and develop. At that time, most developing countries were still colonies, but with the wave of independence for former colonies in the late 1950s and early 1960s, that development mission of the Bank became its major focus. Robert McNamara, president from 1968-1981, shaped the Bank to focus on poverty reduction, rather than investing primarily for economic returns. (Surprising many who protested him during his time as US Secretary of Defense in the early years of the Vietnamese war). I joined the Bank in 1994 and James Wolfensohn became President in 1995. 
Wolfensohn was a charismatic leader who recommitted the organization to poverty reduction as its primary goal. The Soviet Union had collapsed in December 1991, and the Bank, along with other international organizations like the UN and the international Monetary Fund, had 15 new countries in the FSU—the former Soviet Union, six new countires from the former Yugoslavia, and a lot of work to integrate Eastern Europe and the FSU into the world economy. A Sovietologist and economist who had lived in Moscow in 1987-88, worked for the US Census Bureau on technical assistance after that during the end of the Gorbachev years when the USSR opened up, and written about the income distribution in the USSR, I joined the Bank to help the FSU join the world community of prosperous and democratic countries. 
Margaret Mead famously said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” In the Wolfensohn years, it was a heady experience to be part of a small group of Bank staff, trying to help the FSU and Eastern Europe to “transition.” Some countries succeeded at this while others did not. Russia is not a democracy now and never has been one, but changing the world is not that easy a thing to do even though I do believe deeply that it can be done, and I know it has been done.

The life of a World Bank staffer is not a commitment that everyone can or should make. The frequent international travel meant a lot of nights weeping in hotel rooms after talking to my children on the phone, causing me to reflect on trying to save the children of others while leaving my own behind. My older daughter Vivienne would tell me “I don’t like that Russian, I don’t like it when you speak that Russian” as she rightly associated hearing Russian on the phone meant another trip there. My younger daughter Kelly would cling to my leg as I tried to leave the house for the taxi waiting to take me to Dulles, begging me not to go. I would cry all the way to Dulles, then for another 16 or so hours on the plane or transiting airports.

But I kept getting on those planes, because I felt that I could both mother my children and help the children of others through setting up social programs to identify and help the poor. And the advent of video-chatting and finding the right partner who could be with our three children in our blended family while I traveled helped a great deal. I branched out to work on Latin America and then Africa in addition to the Europe and Central Asia (ECA) region.

I managed to team with others to do some great projects. I wrote a lot of good analyses of poverty and social protection in Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Hungary, Moldova, Kosovo, Swaziland, Botswana, South Africa. There’s a program in Turkey for the mothers of poor children to receive a small cash payment provided their kids stay in school and pre-schoolers go to health clinics. This means that 5 million children are living a better life there, and the original idea for this conditional cash transfer program came from me. But that spark would have gone nowhere without key people on the Turkish side, and required a huge number of Turks to implement as well as a small Bank tema.

Once Jim Wolfensohn left the Bank’s presidency in 2005, subsequent Presidents failed to follow his legacy. My own career stagnated along with the Bank, and the frenetic excitement of the early transition years faded as I worked on countries that had been poor since independence and were still poor. I was as committed as ever to the dream of a world free of poverty, but I did not like the direction the Bank was going. Its new slogan is now “end extreme poverty within a generation and boost shared prosperity.”

In 2009, the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy graduated its first class of master of public policy (MPP) students, and in August 2010, I resigned from the Bank and began teaching 80 percent time at “the University” as a commuter. And in August 2014, we moved and I transferred my membership from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Rockville to TJMCUU.

After nearly 20 years, it was a big decision to leave my permanent staff position and a very tight community of people who intentionally did development work, but I realized that the best way that I personally could continue to fight poverty was to train the next generation of development workers, and that I did not always have to be the one to get up on the plane, that others (and particularly younger people) could and should.
Okay, I know some of you are saying, “you’re just trying to make me feel guilty.”  I’m not.  I’m really not.  I know that most of us – “us,” me too – aren’t the intentional community type.  And most of us haven’t had the kinds of opportunities Jeanine has had to make a difference.  So what about us?
I asked the Worship Weavers to brainstorm and here’s a partial list of ideas: 
  • Attend a rally (or organize one);
  • Raise your own awareness about important issues (and then help to raise other people’s);
  • Vote (do you still need to register?)
  • Run for office yourself (we’ve had several members over the years who served as Charlottesville’s Mayor, most recently Satyendra Huja);
  • Support the work of the UUSC – the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee – by becoming a member (ask Edith Good if you don’t know how);
  • Sign up to be a UU Chalice Lighter (a program that leverages small donations from UUs to generate large grants for congregations in need);
  • Volunteer your time for a good cause (and you don’t even need to leave the church to do it!  PACEM, IMPACT, the Soup Kitchen, the Food Pantry, the Meal Packets, the Book Bash in the Fall, the Giving Tree … I think you get the idea);
  • Connect with people of other belief systems and cultures (it was really heartening to see how many of us accepted the invitation and experienced the warm welcome of the folks at the Islamic Society)
  • Model in the congregation what we want the world to look like (healthy communication and assuming good intentions of one another are two good examples);
  • Parents – raise the next generation to be better than this one.
Of course, there are as many possible ways as there are people in the congregation!  More, even.

I know that lists like these can be overwhelming – too many possibilities and too many causes vying for the too little time and energy we have.  I get that.  I was overwhelmed as I wrote it!

But Makenna Breading-Goodrich wasn’t overwhelmed by all of the need around her.  She focused in on one thing.  She went door-to-door in her Phoenix neighborhood asking for coats, jackets, and hoodies for homeless people.  This past December 12th she dropped off 1,000 of them at the Phoenix Rescue Mission.  Oh, I forgot to mention, Makenna is in seventh grade.

12-year old Blare Gooch wanted to do something after seeing a picture of a child crying on a news report about the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010.  He used the power of social media and soon was able to send 25,000 teddy bears to the island, with another 22,000 that he gave to other non-profits.  The next year he turned his sights on toys and school supplies.

After Charlie Coons’ older brother returned from volunteering in an orphanage in Jordon, she was moved by the stories he told her of the conditions there.  She decided to make a fleece blanket to send them and asked some of her friends to do it too.  Soon the other sixth graders in her school, as well as some other local volunteers, were able to send off a package of 50 blankets.  She didn’t want to stop, so she founded HELP (Hope Encouragement Love Peace), and that group has now sent over 700 blankets to orphanages in nine countries.  Did I mention that she was 11 when she started this?

10-year-old Tyler Page saw an episode of The Oprah Winfrey show about children in Ghana being sold into slavery for as little as $20 US dollars.  He and some friends put on a carwash and raised enough money to save five children.  Tyler then asked his mom to help him, and the non-profit that he created has since raised more than $50,000 toward rescuing more than 650 Ghanaian child slaves.

Are you noticing a theme here?  I had to eventually stop searching the internet for stories because there are just so many stories of young people who have not yet learned that “really, after all, there’s only so much that one person can do,” or that “the world has so many problems that anything I might do would just be a drop in the bucket.”  Both of these things are true, of course.  But these children didn’t know that that was supposed to be the end of their plans.

There are two things I want all of us – again, us – to notice in these stories.  First, as I just said these kids didn’t worry about any of the things so many of us worry about.  They just went ahead and did something.  They did one thing to try and make a difference.  So that’s a lesson.  Just do something.  Anything.  Just get started and do it.

And here’s the second thing – none of them did these amazing things on their own.  Yes.  4-year-old Alexandra Scott opened a lemonade stand to raise money for doctors like the ones who were helping her with the neuroblastoma she’d been battling since she was 1.  But the $2,000 she raised wasn’t because her lemonade was so good.  It was because people heard about what she was doing, and what they did was to make a contribution to help her out.  Alex Scott died at the age of 8, but the effort she began is now Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation and it has raised more than $1 million dollars for cancer research. 

She didn’t do it alone.  Nobody ever does it alone.  Not really.  And that means that you and I don’t have to either.  In fact, you and I don’t even have to start anything ourselves; we can simply lend our support to those who have.  But in whatever way we can, we can be part of building the better world we so deeply desire.  And this desire is part of our Unitarian Universalist DNA; it's part of what it means for us to be "a people of desire."  This is part of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Three little words

The author of the Christian scripture, 1 John 4:8, wrote succinctly:  "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love."  The Universalists, one of the two lineages of heretical Christians who birthed the religious tradition I serve, took this idea and ran with it.  "God is Love," they declared.  Over and over and over again they said it, "God is Love."

Several years ago I had a bit of an inspiration and took the well-known passage from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians and substituted the word "God" for the word "Love."  After all, as written this idea that "God is Love" is a tautology -- a logical, rhetorical structure in which the argument is true "forward and backward," you might say.  A = B, so B = A.  Or, in this case, "God is Love," so, "Love is God."
God is patient, God is kind.  God does not envy, does not boast, and is not proud.  God does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs.  God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
God never fails.
Not the kind of God that is held up by so many -- the God of judgement, wrath, condemnation, who revels in our fear and shame.  A very different God, indeed.

Recently a member of the congregation I serve offered another example of how those three little words -- God is Love -- can open up new meanings in old teachings.  In this case, a passage in the Book of Matthew (22:36-40).  Jesus is asked to name the "greatest commandment in the Law," and he replies, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind."

When you really grasp the depth of meaning in the assertion that "God is Love," though, this man pointed out that what Jesus was really saying is, "Love Love with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind."  We are called on, he said, to "love Love" -- to focus our hearts and minds on Love, to commit ourselves to Love.

Doctrines kind of melt away if your focus is on loving Love.  Distinctions blur.  Divisions cease to matter.  We will be looking everywhere for signs of Love, opportunities to celebrate Love, and ways that we can make Love more manifest in the world.  If we love Love, if we focus our hearts and minds on Love, then we are going to do all that we can to increase Love.

Pax tecum,


Monday, February 15, 2016

Being Christian in a Non-Christian Religion

This Sunday I had the opportunity to offer my  reflections at the worship of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship in the congregation I serve.  This is the text:

There are the jokes, of course:  The only time you hear the name “Jesus Christ” in a Unitarian Universalist church is when the minister stubs their toe.  Unitarians believe in one God … at most.  Unitarian Universalist prayers begin, “To whom it may concern …”

Then there are the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, suggestions that if you really think of yourself as a Christian … you might try the UCC church down the street where you might feel more comfortable.  (UCC, you may know, stands for Unitarians Considering Christ.)

And sometimes there is outright animosity.  Unitarian Universalist Christians – or Christian Unitarian Universalists (and there really is a difference, if only a linguistic one) – often report being told that one simply can’t be a Unitarian Universalist and a Christian at the same time.  Or dismissed with a single broad brush-stroke that declares that there is only one kind of Christian – the conservative, judgmental, hell-fire-and-brimstone kind who, as I recently saw it put by a UU on a colleague’s Facebook page, "spend their time spreading a doctrine of shame and guilt."

For many who identify themselves as Christian UUs – or UU Christians – it has seemed that Unitarian Universalism is an anti-Christian religion.  In fact, as I wrote the first draft of this sermon that’s what I thought I’d said I would talk about this morning, “Being Christian in an Anti-Christian Religion.”

To my great relief, though, I’d said that I would talk about being Christian in a non-Christian religion, and that’s a lot easier to do.  Because whereas the sense of Unitarian Universalism being an anti-Christian religion is one of subjective perception, the idea that Unitarian Universalism is a non-Christian religion is simply a fact. 

Our religious parents, Unitarianism and Universalism, were both part of the body of the Christian church, although not all of the other parts recognized them as such.  (They were, after all, both branded heresies only a couple of hundred years after it all began.)  In the 20th century Unitarianism became increasingly open to, and embracing of, Humanism and, then, Atheism to the point that you could say they had almost become synonymous.  Universalism, at the same time, had largely moved from the theological teaching of universal salvation to a celebration of the universality of human experience and the goals of universal kinship, universal peace, universal prosperity, and universal justice (among other things).  Their union, which gave birth to us, reminds me of something a comedian once said:  “We’re in a mixed marriage,” he said, “I’m Jewish and she’s Christian, and we don’t know which religion to not raise the children in.”

So here we are – a dogmatically non-dogmatic religion which teaches emphatically that there are no creeds.  And from the early days of our existence we identified ourselves largely by what we were not: we were not the kind of church that asked you to believe things you found unbelievable; we were not the kind of church that condemned you for who you are, or whom you love, or how you express your identity; we were not the kind of church that had perpetrated some of the most ghastly of acts in the name of our God; we were not the kind of church that denied the insights and discoveries of modern science; we were not, in other words, the kind of church you had experienced in your past and which you saw all around you.  And given that the various Christian traditions were by far the most common in our country, we were saying (implicitly if not explicitly) we are not a Christian church.

And yet, as we have grown we have really become not only a non-creedal church but a multi-faith tradition.  We say it a lot – in our pews theists sit next to atheists, pagans share potlucks with physicists; Jews, and Muslims, and Sikhs coexist not just as religious neighbors but as members of the same religious family.  Yet still, there are the jokes, and the jabs, and the old not-church mentality persists among many individual Unitarian Universalists but in many of our congregations as well.

So what’s a good UU Christian – or Christian UU – to do?   I have a few suggestions.

First, let’s keep in mind that whatever kinds of anti-Christian sentiment we may have encountered, or are encountering, or will encounter for that matter, it ain’t nothin’ compared to those early Christians who were literally being thrown to the lions because of their faith.  And it’s been said that it was the moment when Christianity stopped being an underground cult and became the religion of the Empire that it all began to go to hell in a handbasket.  Some would say that Christians did their best work while operating under the radar.  Perhaps our position today offers some opportunities …

That said, let’s revel in our evangelical opportunity.  There is good news that the Christian tradition speaks to more clearly and with more power than any of the other of humanity’s religions.  I’ve often said that I think religions are, in many ways, like languages, and just as there are some concepts that can really only be fully grasped in Russian, let’s say, or that only a native speaker of Italian will fully comprehend, so, too, I think that there are some religious or spiritual concepts that can really only be fully articulated in Buddhist, or Christian.  We have good news to share and we should not keep that light under a basket but should put it up on that old lamp stand so that it can shed its light.

Yet let us remember, too, that while we may want to claim our calling to evangelize, that’s not the same thing as going out and seeking conversions.  Remember, as the stories come down to us Yeshua be Miriam did not require either the Samaritan woman nor the Roman Centurion to convert to Judaism before praising their faith as greater than any he’d seen among his own people.  The Centurion worshiped completely different Gods, and the Samaritan woman worshiped the same God differently, yet Jesus affirmed that that was alright because he could see that they got it.  He could see that they understood the good news he’d come to share even though they may have, as it were, spoken a different religious language.  And remember that at that Pentecost described in the Book of Acts, the spirit of God made it so that everyone heard the Message in their own tongue.  So, can we share the good news that we have to share so that non-Christians can hear it in their own native language?   That’s certainly a challenge, but it’s also – and here’s that word again that I keep using – an opportunity.

So what is this good news?  I don’t think I can articulate it all, but here are pieces of it that came to me as I was writing this last section this morning:

We are not alone, and existence is not meaningless.  There may be – there are – all sorts of ways of saying it, but we do not live in an indifferent universe.  Does that mean that there’s a God?  That’s what I’d say, but that doesn’t mean it’s how I have to express it to folks who aren’t open to hearing the G-word.  Modern science has shown that there are forces, fields, that connect us to one another and to all things.  Everything is literally made from the dust of stars and, so, share an atomic connection to everything else that is, was, and ever will be. 

And although this may not be scientifically verifiable – which not everything is, of course – we declare that the foundation of our existence, at least, is Love.  Perhaps it’s a choice, perhaps it’s an ontological fact, but Love is what’s real.  Love is what’s real.  (And remember, our Universalist ancestors said simply that “God is Love.”  That’d mean that “Love is God.”)

And because of this we are called to live out that Love with care for one another and for the world in which we live.  In this we agree with the Humanists and the Atheists (which are not the same thing no matter how much it may sometimes seem that way).  Although there are certainly some theists and some Christians (also not the same thing), and some of us, who believe in an intercessory God, yet we also all agree, I think it’s safe to say, that, as it’s famously been said, “we are the hands and feet of God.”  There’s a well-known saying that I’ve seen attributed to everyone from Ignatius of Loyola to Dorothy Day:  “Pray as if it all depends on God; work as if it all depends on you.”

Is there more to our Unitarian Universalist Christianity – or our Christian Unitarian Universalism – than that?  Maybe so.  Probably so.  And can we affirm that in our own lives and our own practices?  Absolutely.  And can we – should we – be willing to share that in places and situations in our congregational life where it seems appropriate to do so?  Again, I’d say absolutely.  It’s important that we all challenge one another to live out, or live into, the values of openness, curiosity, and affirmation that we espouse.  Yet let us also remember that the most important thing is that we live our lives in Love so that others might see us and wonder what it is that would lead us to live in such a way.  That’s our calling as people who identify as followers of Yeshua.  That’s also our calling as Unitarian Universalists.

Pax tecum,


If you're interested in learning more about Christians within Unitarian Universalism, I recommend two resources.  There's a fabulous anthology titled Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism.  It is worth reading.  (Several times, actually.)  Then there is the website of the national Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship.  

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Lifelong Quest for Humble Competence and Competent Humility

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

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

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

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

Pax tecum,


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

Monday, February 08, 2016

We Are a People of Desire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, February 03, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pax tecum,


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