Monday, December 11, 2017

Giving Birth

On Sunday, December 10, 2017, I had the privilege to facilitate worship with the UUCF (Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship) of the congregation I serve here in Charlottesville.  This is the text of the reflections I offered (along with some of the other elements of the service):

Chalice Lighting:  The mystic  Evelyn Underhill wrote, "The Incarnation, which is for popular Christianity synonymous with the historical birth and earthly life of Christ, is for the mystic not only this but also a perpetual Cosmic and personal process.  It is an everlasting bringing forth, in the universe and also in the individual ascending soul, of the divine and perfect Life, the pure character of God."
Prelude:  Islamo-Christian Ave Maria (Tania Kassis)
Opening Words:  Two more quotes about the mystical, cosmic nature of Christmas. Thomas Aquinas said simply, "The incarnation accomplished the following:  that God became human and that humans became God and sharers in the divine nature."  And in the 13th century the Christian mystic Meister Eckhardt wrote, "People think God has only become a human being there--in his historical incarnation--but that is not so; for God is here--in this very place--just as much incarnate as in a human being long ago.  And this is why God has become a human being: that God might give birth to you as the only begotten [child], and no less."  In another sermon he wrote, "We are all meant to be mothers of God.  For God is always needing to be born."
Opening Hymn:  “Silent Night”
A while ago I was reading a book I’ve read several times –  Francis:  the journey and the dream, a beautiful blending of biography and meditation on the life of St. Francis of Assisi by the Franciscan priest and poet, Fr. Murray Bodo.  In it I found this wonderful reflection on Francis' understanding of Christmas:

"At Christmas it was the infant Christ who was born again in human hearts, and it struck Francis that God came to earth as a baby so that we would have someone to care for.  Christmas was the dearest of feasts because it meant that God was now one of us.  Flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, this child we could approach without fear.  We could be silly and uninhibited as we sought to make [God] laugh.  We could be totally ourselves because a child accepts us just as we are and screams with delight at our little performances on his behalf.

Someone to care for, someone to try and please, someone to love.  God, a helpless babe; God, a piece of Bread.  How much trust God had in creatures!  In the Eucharist and in the Nativity, we grow [?] up, because God places Himself [and I’d add, “Herself … Itself …”] in our care.  We come out of ourselves if we are aware, because we now have responsibilities for God.  Not only the earth to till and creation to subdue, but now God to care for."
It is common for people to comment on the Incarnation as a both powerful and beautiful description of the nature of God.  God – King, Creator of the Universe – did not choose to incarnate as one of the mighty and powerful.  God’s incarnation, God’s becoming “one of us,” took place in the midst of a poor family from a tiny, backwater of an oppressed land.  Yet Francis reminds us that this isn’t the end of it – God can as “one of us” in the midst of a poor family from a tiny, backwater of an oppressed land as a baby!  An infant.  A utterly dependent infant.  That struck Francis’ fancy; that touched his heart deeply; that was for him a sign of the true nature of the Divine.
There is a phrase that rather graphically describes the utter dependence, the fragility of this “God made flesh” who resides in that manger crib of myth and faith.  I couldn’t remember it exactly, and I couldn’t remember who’d written it or where I’d read it.  So I turned to Google, and found something really interesting.  It showed up without a citation in a 2013 sermon by the Episcopal priest, the Rev.
“The Word become flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation.”
Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush-one handed.
History has it that the first nativity scene was created by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 because he wanted to encourage people to really engage with "God [the] helpless babe."  This seems to have gotten lost in all the hubbub and hullabaloo surrounding the holiday.  Yet even those who would have us "put the Christ back in Christmas" seem to be totally focused on the adult Jesus, even the crucified Christ.  But what about that baby?  That little, helpless baby for which we "now have responsibilities"?  What would it mean to your spiritual life if you spent this Advent season not so much preparing to receive God, as preparing to take care of God?  (Something I’ll leave you to ponder …)
Now … the mystics we heard from a moment ago were clear that for them the deepest understanding of the birth of Christ in the Christian tradition(s) really has little to do with the birthing of the baby Jesus—it has to do with the sacred coming to birth in and through us.  It has to do with us being, in that wonderful phrase from Meister Eckhardt, “mothers of God, because God is always needing to be born.”
Consider:  what needs to be born in you today? Can you imagine the possibility of giving birth to gifts you’ve felt within you but feared to let out because you are afraid that you’ll not be “good enough”?  Do you need to give birth to a little more patience or playfulness?  Are you ready to give birth to greater understanding of those with whom you disagree, or more self-confidence, or a little more hope in these trying times?  Maybe there’s a project that you’ve long dreamed of starting, or a change you’d like to make ...  What would it take for these things to be born in you—through you—this year?
So what needs to be born in you this year?  Let’s find out.
Take to share with one another the things people feel called to “birth.”
I did my Spiritual Direction training with the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.  They had what seemed to me at the time, and does still, as a radical understanding of prayer.  We do not pray, they said.  They suggested that God is always praying within us, and that our act of prayer is really an emptying of ourselves, and a quieting of our minds and spirits, so that we can hear what God’s prayer is for us.
With that in mind, the question we were just discussing is something of a trick question.  For us to consider what we want to give birth to is important, yet the even deeper spiritual issue is what it is that God wants to birth in and through us. 
Take two minutes of silence for individuals to try (as best they can) to nurture such silence.
When teaching about this approach to prayer, Tilden Edwards (one of the founds of Shalem) said that the first thing that comes to mind may well not be the thing you’re listening for.  So set it aside.  It may not be the second or third things, either.  Set them aside as well.  But when you notice yourself going back to the same thing repeatedly – especially, perhaps, if it’s a surprise to you, or feels unwelcome – that may well be it.

Going back to the image of that “first” Christmas, I’d just remind us that the author of “silent night” clearly had never spent much time around infants – who are rarely silent for long – and most definitely did not have any acquaintance with births.  Labor and delivery are not easy.  There’s panting, and grunting, and crying, and laughing, and fear, and courage, and challenges, and celebrations.  (A friend who’d given birth once told me that it was like passing a ham.)  And so it will no doubt be for us.  Whether the thing we wish to birth, or the thing that wishes to be birthed, it will not be easy, it won’t always be fun, it won’t be spiritual and serene.  It will be hard.  It will be messy.  It will quite probably be painful.  But as just about any mother will tell you, it will be worth it.  
Pax tecum,

Monday, December 04, 2017

Oh Star

When I was in high school, our concert choir sang a piece that really moved me deeply.  Every time we sang it, when we got to this one particular part, I would find myself tearing up.  And not just whenever I was singing it, whenever I’ve listened to it since I’ve teared up at that same spot.  And I’ve heard it a lot.  I asked the choir at First Parish in Concord to learn it so that they could sing it at my ordination.  I asked the choirs at our congregations in Yarmouth, Maine and Brewster, Massachusetts to sing it at my installations there.  And our choir sang it here, when we held our ceremony to install me as the newly settled Lead Minister, and all of us as ministers of equal value to this congregation and to the world.  The piece is Randall Thompson’s setting of the Robert Frost poem, “Choose Something Like a Star.”

The music’s beautiful, as I’ve said, (I dare say especially the tenor part!) yet the words of the poem have moved me, too.  And the last few lines, specifically, have been rattling around in my head over the past several months.  The past year or so, actually.  Here’s the poem:

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to the wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, 'I burn.'
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

“So when at times the mob is swayed to carry praise or blame too far …”  Seen any “mob mentality” lately?  Seen people taking “praise” or “blame” too far?  During the Presidential campaign, whenever I’d see video of a Trump rally, I’d think of these lines.  And, to be fair, in a lot of the exchanges among my good, liberal friends on Facebook I’ve seen there too that attitude that “my person can” do no wrong; “their person” can do no right.  Wherever we get our news, and whatever click-bait a person follows, we’re all being swayed these days, this way and that. 

I’ve found myself also thinking about the words of another poem and another poet, William Butler Yeats’ “Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world … The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  The mob is swayed, my friends, and these days just about everything seems to be being carried too far.

Or maybe it’s just me … but I don’t think so.  Since the election — since the campaign, actually — the world we’ve known, the world we’ve thought we’ve been living in, seems to have been turned on its head.  To be clear, that “we” there — the “we” that’s been so shocked and disoriented — is largely a “we” who identify as white.  You pretty much already know that the world is upside down when, for centuries, your humanity has not only been questioned, but vehemently and violently denied; when you’re 5 times as likely to be sent to jail than if you were seen as white; when you are roughly 3 times more likely to be shot by police; when here, even here in “blissful, liberal Charlottesville,” you’re 9 times more likely to be stopped on the street by police for no discernible reason.  If you’re a Person of Color you’ve never not known that this world we all live in is distorted and twisted.  But many of us are only just begun to see it, and in our seeing it, we’re seeing a changed world.

Lately I’ve been re-reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series.   In the afterword for what she apparently thought was going to be the last of her stories set in Earthsea — she has since written another — she said that not only was her fictional Earthsea undergoing tremendous, fundamental, utterly disconcerting change, but so was the real world we inhabit.  She wrote,

“All times are changing times, but ours is one of massive, rapid moral and mental transformation. Archetypes turn into millstones, large simplicities get complicated, chaos becomes elegant, and what everybody knows is true turns out to be what some people used to think.”

“What everybody knows is true turns out to be what some people used to think.”  “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world … The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  The mob has been swayed, my friends, is being swayed, and just about everything seems to be being carried too far.

So the question I asked our children on a personal level is a question for us, too — on a personal level as well, of course, but on this larger scale:  when everything appears to be falling apart, when “the center cannot hold,” when everything you knew to be true turns out to be “just what some people used to think,” what can you hold on to?  What can we turn to to help keep ourselves steady in decidedly unsteady times?

Some would answer this as easily as Moses did — we’d say, “God.”  God is what we can hold on to, and what will hold on to us, when our lives, when our country, when our world seems to be in free-fall.  Of course, that’s not an answer that works for all of us.  For many here the word “God” is a meaningless word, denoting nothing more real than a “flying spaghetti monster,” or a “purple unicorn with a really nice singing voice,” and neither of those will be of any help in the times we’re talking about this morning.  And, honestly, even those of us who would say that they’d turn to God for a sense of solidity are as likely as not to not know entirely what that means in practice.  So what can we hold on to?

Frost’s poem offers an answer.  It says that in times like this, “when the mob is swayed to carry praise or blame too far,” then “we may choose something like a star to stay our minds on and be staid.” 

Why a star?  What is it about stars?

Well, they’re lofty, the poem’s narrator tells us — lofty and shrouded by an “obscurity of cloud” and surrounded by an air of “mystery.”  They are awe inspiring.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once commented that our relationship to the stars, to our lives, would be radically different if the stars came out only once every thousand years.  The environmentalist Paul Hawken picks up that idea and adds, “Instead, the stars come out every night, and we watch television.”

The poem’s narrator first tries to understand the star with religious, or poetic, language (which, to my mind, are ultimately the same thing.)  “Say something we can learn by heart and when alone repeat.”  Like the character of the blind warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, repeating calmly, over and over as he walks through the raging Battle of Scarif, “I am one with the Force.  The Force is with me.  I am one with the Force.  The Force is with me.”  The poem’s narrator asks the star for something like that, something “we can learn by heart and when alone repeat.”

Yet the star won’t give the narrator what she or he wants.  All it will say about itself is a simple, descriptive truth: “I burn.”  So the narrator turns immediately from the religious voice to the scientific one, demanding: “[So] say with what degree of heat.  Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.  Use language we can comprehend.”  Language we can make sense out of, that we can wrap our heads around.  Not all this mystery; not all this magic.  Facts.  Figures.  Functions.  And although the narrator admits that such things “give us strangely little aid,” they affirm that it “does tell something in the end.”

Yet in the end neither the scientific approach nor the religious approach proves ultimately satisfying.  Or, perhaps, neither is necessary.  Because whatever the star might inspire in our spirits or arouse in our minds, there is another facet to the star that just is — it is “steadfast.”  Night after night the star is there, and this predictable dependability, this constancy, is something which poets, and romantics, and all kinds of seekers have long noticed.  And this poet says that this “steadfastness” is  like “Keats’ erimite.” 

An erimite is a religious recluse or hermit, and the poet John Keats usee the analogy in a poem he wrote about a star:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art— 
         Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night 
And watching, with eternal lids apart, 
         Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite, 

For Frost, the star doesn’t have to deign to fulfill our desire for spiritual answers, or scientific ones to inspire.  It knows itself, it is itself, and without “stooping from its sphere, it asks a little of us here.  It asks of us a certain height.”  The star doesn’t come down to our level, doesn’t lower itself so as to be comprehendible to our mortal minds.  No.  We can’t make demands of it, yet through its sheer solidity it demands of us that when things fall apart, that when the center will hold no longer, that when the mob is swayed as it surely is today, the star demands of us that we remain solid, strong – ironically, that we’ll remain grounded.

I don’t know what it is that grounds you.  It may be God, or this faith community, or working with your hands, or walking in the woods, feeling the sun on your face, music (listening to it or making it), your family.  I asked this question the other night during the Spiritual Circle I facilitate with congregational leaders each month that has a fifth Wednesday in it, and one of the people said that she wasn’t really sure what it was that got her through hard times, that maybe it was simply the deeply held conviction that she would get through the hard times.

I don’t know what it is for you, but these are hard times.  Things certainly seem to be falling apart, and it sure seems that the center will not hold.  Daily there are new indications that “mere anarchy” has been, and is being, loosed upon the world.  The mobs are growing larger, and ever more entrenched in the directions of their swaying.  I beg of you, of myself, of us not to be complacent, not to let ourselves be simply overwhelmed, and not to become part of the mob itself. We must, each and all, look for, if we don’t already know, strive to find our “star,” whatever it may be, to “stay our minds on and be stayed.”

Pax tecum,


Monday, October 23, 2017

Sick & Twisted Roots

This is the text of the reflections I offered to the Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, October 22nd, 2017.  This service was part of the second UU White Supremacy Teach-In, which encouraged (and challenged) UU congregations around the country to look intentionally and explicitly at the ways we all participate in white supremacy culture.

Peter Walpole contributed an original piece for the Opening Words, "Three Fifths Compromise."

I’m want you to hang on to two numbers – 700 and 200 – because I think that they point to one of the reasons our Association of Congregations is having this second “white supremacy teach-in.” 700 and 200. Okay? Okay.

My friend Aisha Hauser is one of the three powerful and prophetic leaders of color who have called the congregations in our Association to look with unflinching honesty at the ways our Association, our congregations, and we as individual Unitarian Universalists participate in and perpetuate the systems and structures of white supremacy culture. (One of the others is Christina Rivera, our Director of Administration and Finance, who, along with Aisha, and Kenny Wiley, and with the help of a lot of other people, volunteered their time and talents outside of and on top of their “day jobs,” because they love our movement so deeply and fiercely.)

In describing this work, Aisha has said:
The UU White Supremacy Teach In is an effort to help us, well-meaning liberals, learn our complicity in a system that favors whiteness and punishes black and brownness.
I have been asked, “Why use these words? [White Supremacy] Why not different words?”

Kind words, gentle words, flowery words, poetic words, all manner of words have been used for the past four hundred years trying to explain the pain and suffering of black and brown people at the hands of white people and none have resulted in liberation.

It is past time to use words that are true and accurate and yes painful. It was painful for me to realize my complicity in a white supremacist system. And I realized that I must bear witness to what I notice and recognize, especially when it is in my beloved chosen faith.

I know this is uncomfortable.  [...]
This … is … uncomfortable. For some of us, it is a whole lot more than simply “uncomfortable,” while for others it is something entirely different than “uncomfortable” – it’s inaccurate, off-putting, a bad strategy, or deeply, deeply offensive. For still others of us – most often those of us who identify as people of color – it is both long overdue and painfully frustrating that we have to do it at all, and that some of us – most often people who identify as white – are so resistant to it.

Philosophers often begin their papers by defining their terms so as to be able to sidestep arguments over language and focus on the real issues. The reader, then, is expected to say, “Okay, that’s not how I understand that term, but if that’s how she’s using that word, what do I think of the point she’s trying to make with it?”

So here’s the way I’m using these words this morning. (And it’s not just me, and it’s not just some radical Unitarian Universalists. Academics who study race and racism in our country, and activists who are working to change things are using these words in this way too.)

“White Supremacy Culture” refers to the dominant culture in our society which is intended to foster and perpetuate the oppression of people of color, and to elevate everything “white” to a superior, to a supreme, position: history focused on the actions of white people; music and literature reflecting white tastes and norms; the designation of some language as “proper,” and what is in some way or other “deviant;” social norms of dress, and hair, and preferred features and body types; who is a bankable lead in a movie. I could go on with more specifics, but the point is that white supremacy culture is fundamental – foundational – to our society, and as such every institution incorporates, and is built upon, its systems and structures to some extent.

The term “white supremacist” is a little trickier, a little more nuanced. There are obvious and explicit white supremacists like Richard Spencer and his ilk. At the same time, though, virtually every individual is at least deeply influenced by the rot of white supremacy culture, even if unconsciously and unwittingly … even people who are consciously and intentionally working to combat it. We are, some have said, like fish who are entirely unaware of the water in which we swim because it is so pervasive. We are – even well-meaning liberal-minded white folks like most of us here – in this sense “white supremacists,” because the culture of white supremacy has perniciously permeated our thinking, our perceptions, and our behavior at our very core … even if, again, unconsciously and unwittingly.

You may disagree with the way I have said I am using those words, but for this morning I’d ask that you set that disagreement aside, and try to be open to what I’m trying to say with them. It should go without saying, I hope – although I’m going to say it anyway – that I am more than happy to talk with anyone who would, later, like to tell me what those words mean to them. I have not been called here to dictate to you what you should think but, rather, to share what I think as clearly, and lovingly, and forthrightly as I can so as to challenge you to really consider what it is that you think and believe. But for our relationship, for our mutual ministries, to have any meaning, I have to be open to being challenged as well … just as open to being changed by our interactions, just as open to being changed, as our faith calls you to be. For ours is not a church of the “closed and unchanging mind.” Each week our children remind themselves in Children’s Chapel that our is “a church of open mind.” That’s something those of us who gather here, instead of there, would do well to remember … at least from time to time.

Given the events that took place here this summer, and that Spencer’s in-and-out 10-minute rally a few weeks ago assured us that they will continue, it is all too clear that conscious, intentional, and disgustingly explicit white supremacists have not gone away in our country and that they are being emboldened. When the man who occupies the Oval Office does not plainly, forcefully, and unambiguously denounce them, he gives them his tacit approval.

Yet we were shocked when all those voices of hate descended on our beautiful oasis of progressivism, and we are disbelieving in the face of all the anger and all the charges of complicity that have been directed toward our police and city officials. We can’t believe the things that have propelled us into the national spotlight, that have made of our city a symbol for late-night talk show monologues and political posturing. We’re saddened by all of the pain, and the brokenness, and we really want to see the anger give way to healing. And I know that some of us are thinking this morning that given that we have had actual torch bearing mobs in our city, the idea that we’re being asked – in the safety of our own sanctuary – to look at our own participation in, and even perpetuation of, white supremacy is insulting. Right?

First, my apologies to the people of color here (and those who may eventually read or listen to this sermon online). You’ve just had to sit through the talk of yet another white person who clearly doesn’t get it. I know that you’ve had this experience far too often, nearly everywhere you go, even in the so-called “safety” of sanctuaries like this, and I am sorry to have put you through that again in order to make a point.

Now, for those of us who identify as white – did you notice what it is I’m apologizing for? I wouldn’t have just a few years ago. I can look back over two decades of sermons, and I did it over and over again with absolutely no awareness that I was doing it. The “it” that I was doing is participating in and perpetuating the systems and structures of white supremacy culture. Nothing less.

Throughout that paragraph about our experiences of, and responses to, the events that took place here this summer I kept saying “we” and “our.” But that “we” and “our” were not as inclusive as … well … “we” might have thought. That “we” was, really, a white “we,” because it ignored the experiences of, and responses to, the events that took place here this summer from the perspective of people of color, which are often really quite different.

While it’s not uncommon for those of us who identify as white to have been shocked and surprised by the ugliness of the Klan and the alt-right, it is perhaps equally uncommon for those of us who identify as people of color to not have been. And to say that this ugliness came to our city from outside, as though it weren’t already here, is something that it is far more likely for a white person to say. That’s because we – we white people – don’t have to live with it every day. Don’t have to expect it. Don’t have to brace for it. Don’t have to take notice of it, even, because it is not our day-to-day, lived experience. Most of us didn’t even notice that I was lifting up our white experiences and perceptions as though they were universal, oblivious to the fact that I was excluding people of color from that “we.” That’s a small demonstration of the way even we liberal-minded, good-hearted white folks keep the systems and structures of white supremacy culture alive. And we do so often, in so many ways, with absolutely no consciousness of doing it.

I’m speaking in some generalities, of course – there were people of color who were shocked and white people who weren’t – but in general, as a rule, it is simply the truth that people who identify as white and people who identify as people of color very, very often experience things in very different ways. Yet those of us who identify as white often, without thinking, identify our perceptions and experiences as normative, as though we speak for all. (One of my favorite sayings about white supremacy and white privilege is that those of us who identify as white “get to define reality and have our definition stick.”)

This may seem unimportant when there are people with Confederate battle flags, and Nazi flags, and Ku Klux Klan robes marching in the streets. And it’s true that those alt-right folks are perhaps the most explicit manifestations of white supremacy culture. Yet when I, even unconsciously, do something like lift up my white experience as if it is the experience, I essentially ignore, dismiss the realities of people of color. I dismiss them. And I demonstrate that white supremacy is alive and well here, too. And that make this sanctuary less safe for those who are not included in my “we.” It’s perhaps a difference of scale, but certainly not of kind. And that matters.

The reason we’re engaging in this white supremacy teach-in this morning is that those of us who identify as white need to learn to be more aware of the ways we participate in and perpetuate white supremacy culture, and because those of us who identify as people of color need to see that our Association, our congregations, and individual UUs are taking this seriously. And we’re not just trying to take this seriously here in our sanctuary:

  • Today our religious education programming is focusing on issues of white supremacy in age appropriate ways, and they don’t do this just once or twice a year, but have an intentional racial justice focus on one Sunday each month.
  • Our Adult Faith Development programming consists largely of curricula that aim to help our white members become more aware, and all of our members to find ways to make a difference in this struggle for our mutual liberation.
  • This past week our Board was talking about the importance of doing its own work in unlearning the lessons of white supremacy, looking for the ways it is embedded in our systems and structures, and leading our congregation toward being that “powerhouse for racial justice” so many of us desire to be.
  • We have a strong Racial Justice Committee which meets monthly. Its Chair, Kate Fraeligh, sends out an email each week which lists events in the community that you are encouraged to participate in.
  • And following [our second/this] service, in addition to the congregational potluck, there will be a “Race Café,” which is to be a space in which people can talk about any or all of this in an informal, yet safe way.

The reason that we have been encouraged to hold a second UU White Supremacy Teach-In, even though we engaged in one just this past May, is that it is so easy for those of us who identify as white to get all riled up, all charged up, all energized by the work of dismantling white supremacy culture … and then find our focus moving on to something else. It is so easy for us – that us – to forget realities that are not our own day-to-day realities, and, so, to forget the urgency of confronting and combating systems and structure that poison all of us (even those of us who aren’t aware of it).

Do you remember those numbers? 700? 200? Back in May, more than 700 Unitarian Universalist congregations participated in that first White Supremacy Teach-In. That’s roughly 70% of all Unitarian Universalist congregations in our Association, and I have never experienced that kind of a response anything. This time, though, there are only a little more than 200 congregations that have committed to taking time to intentionally examine and engage with these issues. 700 down to 200. 70% down to 20%. That’s a pretty dramatic decrease over a time during which there has been an extraordinary increase of undeniable demonstrations of just how present and real and dangerous white supremacy is … for all of us.

This is uncomfortable, yes … and it is so very necessary. And until we can honestly say that we have overcome, and until our “we” truly includes us all, and until we’ve built that “new way” that we need in order for the Beloved Community to be established and deeply rooted, then we – all of us “we” – will need to stay in this uncomfortable place, and stay with this so very necessary work. We are called to nothing less.

May it be so.

Pax tecum,


Monday, October 16, 2017

Roots Run Deep and Wide

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If you have made castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them.”

I cannot tell you how many people, over the years, have told me that they discovered Unitarian Universalism at some time in their adulthood, recognized it immediately as the spiritual home they had been searching for, and thought that it had to be something new, something that had come into being recently, bursting onto the religious scene, fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus.  They are often shocked to know that modern Unitarian Universalism has roots that go back thousands of years.

At the Council of Nicea, in 325, a priest named Arius argued that Jesus was not eternal, that he was created by God at a particular point in history, and, therefore, that Jesus was not God.  This heresy is sometimes named after Arius – “Arianism” – and sometimes by its more technical name – “monarchism.”  By any name it is the theological position that the Christian God is not three persons, but one.  In other words, it is an anti-trinitarian theology.  In other words, it is unitarian theology.  The Unitarian roots of modern Unitarian Universalism go back to the beginning of the Christianity. 

So, too, the roots of the other parent of our faith, Universalism.  During the first 600 years of Christianity there were six major schools of Christianity, four of which were one or another form of universalism.   This was the belief that no soul would be condemned to eternal damnation; that all souls would, at least eventually, be reconciled with God.  In other words, four of the six earliest theological traditions within Christianity affirmed some form of universal salvation.

If you have ever thought that modern Unitarian Universalism was something new, an example of creation ex nihil (creation out of nothing), then you should know that there are actually some pretty solid foundations under this seeming cloud castle.  You should know that we have roots that go pretty deep. 

And the reason that it’s important to know about these roots is that it is hard to understand – or to understand fully – why we are as we are without knowing at least something about who we’ve been.  Roots – a person’s or an institution’s, no less than a plant’s – feed the organism, and as we all know, “you are what you eat.”

In the Polish Brethren of the 1500s in Rakow, Poland you can see the seeds of our commitment to the principle of the separation of church and state (a principle they advocated long before Jefferson opined that there should be a “wall” between them).  These early anti-trinitarians saw all people as kin to one another, and believed that within the religious sphere all people should be treated equally regardless of religious “rank.”  Our current affirmation of the “priest and prophethood of all people,” or the recognition of that both lay and ordained people are, truly, ministers with distinct but equal important callings, can be traced here.

Around this same time, King John Sigusmund of Transylvania was issuing his famous Edict of Toleration which declared that within the borders of his kingdom there would be no religious favoritism nor discrimination.  This was a big deal, because in other kingdoms during this period people were being burned at the stake for holding the wrong theology.  (Michael Servetus, for instance, was burned at the stake by John Calvin because of his book On The Errors of the Trinity, and Calvin had a copy of the book bound to Servetus's body so that when he arrived in hell they’d know why he’d come.)  But in Transylvania, there was an edict of the king affirming religious freedom.

…[I]n every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve […] no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone […] for faith is the gift of God ...

The “freedom of the pulpit” we affirm can be seen to have its roots here.  And while this no doubt was primarily focused on a freedom for anyone in the Christian traditions to be free to hold their views, it should be noted that King John was no doubt influenced by his mother, Queen Isabella who, when her reign was under attack, sought and found safe haven with the Muslim Emperor Saladin.  That experience must have affected young John, and most certainly affected his mother.  The value of religious freedom which we so cherish flows into us through our well-established roots.

I could go on, talking about educators, social reformers, artists, activists, pioneers and exemplars of much of the liberal religious and political perspectives that form our faith today.  They are legion, and their enumeration can be a source of real pride.  Google “famous Unitarian Universalists” and you’ll find a number of such lists.  Champions of abolition, women’s suffrage, humane treatment of people with mental illness, peace, the vision of a united world, humanism, universal literacy, religious freedom, civil rights for people of color and the LGBTQI communities … I could go on and on. 
And it’s important to know our roots because we cannot understand why we areas we are without knowing at least something about who we’ve been.  And we’ve been some very good things.

Yet those are not our only roots.  Rarely are one’s roots entirely healthy.  I have said here before that on my mother’s side of the family I can trace my roots back to Berowold, the first laird ofInnes, in 1160.  That’s something I sometimes puff my chest out a bit about.

In that same lineage, though, I have ancestors who owned slaves, and one, John Harper, according to a paper of the time, held on his property a “mock lynching.”  His brother and sister had been murdered, and although evidence seemed to point to one of his nephews, it was apparently easier to blame some of the black people who worked there, so he took them, put nooses around their necks, and said that he would hang them if they didn’t say what they knew.  He released them when it was clear that they knew nothing, but he did that, and that is one of my roots.

And while we as a faith tradition justly celebrate the pride of our past, it is important to remember that modern Unitarian Universalism has not just strong and lovely roots, but rotted and poisonous ones as well.

So we celebrate Theodore Parker, who preached with a gun in the pulpit because he knew that in the church basement there were runaway slaves, but we also have Millard Fillmore, the President who signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law.

And we have often been at the forefront of civil rights movements, it is also a part of our faith tradition’s history is that we very systematically undermined promising ministries by and among people of color.  We could be now growing in places we wish would could be, but we intentionally ripped those roots out.

And along with our embrace and affirmation of life-affirming humanism,  many of our ancestors also advocated for eugenics – the so-called science that assumed that some people were genetically superior and others inferior, and that measures should be taken to ensure the growth of the former and the decline of the later.

For some years now, it has been the practice at our General Assemblies to acknowledge that the land on which we meet once belonged to someone else.  And so we seek out representatives of the indigenous peoples of the area to ask for their welcome.  When we met in Boulder, Colorado, though, then President Bill Sinkford asked not only for a welcome from a Ute leader, but forgiveness as well.  A part of our history includes the 1870s, during which Unitarians were among the religious denominations that sent missionaries to “civilize” native peoples in that region. 

We cannot know why we are as we are without knowing the whole of who we have been … and who we have been has been a decidedly mixed bag. 

And who we are today – not just our movement, but also this congregation – is a decidedly mixed bag. When I stand here and praise Unitarian Universalism I always begin with the qualifier, “At our best …”  “At our best we are like this.  At our best we are like that.” 

In our faith tradition we affirm lay ministry, yet often – and even in this congregation – we distrust our leaders – religious professionals and lay leaders both – and we do not always affirm one another’s “inherent worth,” nor assume good intentions of one another.

And while embracing religious diversity is one of the cornerstone values we espouse, we can be as closed-minded about this as anyone else, and be convinced that some religious perspectives – particularly, perhaps, the ones we happen to hold – are better than others.  All too often, all too many of us believe this, and we demonstrate this belief with our actions.  In our movement – even within this congregation – there are people who won’t say what they believe because they believe that what they’d say wouldn’t be welcome, and that they, then, would be unwelcome.

We lift up as a virtue the freedom of thought and behavior that our roots carry to us from those earliest of days, yet this freedom can often lead to a lack of a sense of engagement.  Since this faith does not tell us what to believe or what should do, far too many of us – even in this congregation – far too often come when its convenient to do so, holding back from a full-on commitment to this congregation, in large part, because we do not feel compelled.  I think that one of the sources of the low level of the contributions of time, talent, and treasure so many have observed can be traced to this.

We cannot understand why we are as we are if we do not know – and own – all that we have been.  And while some of our roots have been deep and strong, others have been rotten and poisonous.
Yet my message this morning is not a condemnation.  For when we are not at our best we are not evil, we are simply as human, and our institutions are as human, as is so often true of anyone else.  To move forward, though, to live more often from our best, we can not ignore those roots we would prefer not to see.  If we do they will continue to exert their putrid and putrefying influence in ways we will not recognize, and might not even be able to imagine.

Our roots – both our powerful and our poisonous – affect who we are, yet they do not dictate who we will become.  That is entirely up to us.  From which roots we draw our nourishment is a choice, and we – as individuals, as a congregation, as a faith tradition, and as a society – must make that choice.

The good news is that our Unitarian roots remind us that we have the mind and the will to make such choices wisely, and our Universalist roots remind us that we will, in the end, always choose Love.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

This Wonderful Sound

This is the text of the reflection I offered to the congregation I serve -- the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Charlottesville -- on Sunday, September 24, 2017.  (This re-telling of the parrot's story is my own, with references to the book by Martin and Gabar.)

“Do the little thing that comes from your heart and everything might change, in ways no one could imagine.”  That was the message lifted up during Children’s Chapel last week.  “Do the little thing that comes from your heart and everything might change, in ways no one could imagine.” 

They’d just heard a story called The Brave Little Parrot, by Rafe Martin and Susan Gabar.  It tells of a little parrot who lived in a large forest with lots of other forest creatures.  One day, during a storm, a bolt of lighting hit an old dead tree, setting it ablaze.  Because of the winds from the storm, soon the entire forest was burning.

The little parrot could smell the smoke, and began flying to and fro, shouting, “Fire! Fire!  Get to the river and safety!” Yet as she flew to the river herself, she could see just how quickly the fire was spreading, and she saw below her many of the forest creatures trapped by the flames.

She had an idea.  She flew more quickly to the river, and asked the elephants to take up water in their trunks and return to the forest to put the fire out.  But the animals there all agreed that it was hopeless.  The cheetah said that, fast though she was, the fire was spreading too quickly.  The elephants said that they were indeed very strong, but they weren’t strong enough to break through those flames.  “We should all stay here by the river where it’s safe,” the animals all agreed.

But the little parrot wouldn’t accept that all was lost.  She dove down into the water, getting her feathers all wet.  And then she picked up a little, cupped leaf that was holding a drop of water, and she flew toward the flames.  When she got to the fire, she shook herself, and droplets of water fell from her body, and she tipped the leaf, and that single drop fell.

Back to the river she flew, diving into the water and getting water in the leaf.  She returned to the fire and repeated what she’d done before.  Back and forth the little parrot flew, until her eyes burned from the smoke and her feathers were singed.  The other animals cried out for her to stop, and yet, she persisted.

It so happened that at this moment some goddesses and gods were drifting overhead in the cloud palace, and happened to look down upon the scene unfolding before them.  “What a silly little bird,” one said.  “Doesn’t she know that the water’s turning to steam long before it hits the ground?”  “Doesn’t she know,” another one said, “that what she’s doing is hopeless?”  

One of the goddesses took pity on the parrot, and changed into a golden eagle.  Down the eagle flew, until it came up on the parrot.  “Silly bird,” the goddess/eagle said, “What you’re doing has no chance of succeeding.  Surely you will die in this effort, without affecting the fire one little bit.”

“Great eagle,” the parrot said without stopping from her work, “time is running out to save the forest and the animals.  With all due respect, I really don’t need advice right now.  I need help.”  And off she flew to once again dip her body in the water, getting her feathers all wet, and filling that cupped leaf with the single drop it could carry.

The eagle flew high, back up to the cloud palace.  For the first time, she felt ashamed.  “We are goddesses and gods,” he thought, “yet none of us is as brave as that little bird.”  And with this thought, the goddess began to cry.  Great, big tears … tears coming in waves … coming in sheets … coming in torrents.  And everywhere a tear fell, the fire went out.  And after the last ember was extinguished, the goddess continued to weep, and these tears brought the scarred forest back to life.

“Do the little thing that comes from your heart,” Leia said in Children’s Chapel last week, “and everything might change, in ways no one could imagine.” 

That story was originally a jataka tale from the Buddhist tradition.  Jataka tales are teaching stories, said to tell the experiences of the previous incarnations of the Buddha (who was said to have been incarnated as every kind of living thing before his incarnation as the man who would discover enlightenment).  Pretty sweet, right?  (And in case you’re wondering, you can go to Children’s Chapel whether you have children or not.  Those services take place in the Parlor, at the same time as these sanctuary services take place in … well … the sanctuary.  I tell you, they’re worth a visit.)

But what does any of this have to do with singing bowls and wonderful sounds?

Sound is produced whenever anything vibrates.  Those vibrations cause the medium around it to also vibrate – air, water, jello, what have you.  If these vibrations reach our ears, they cause the tympanic membranes to also vibrate, and our brain converts these vibrations into sounds.

<Invite the bowl to sound … .>  The bell vibrates … the air between it and our ears vibrate … our tympanic membranes vibrate … we hear the sound of the bell.

Now … here’s something cool.  If two sound waves intersect, interesting things can happen.  If the two waves are in sync with each other, they magnify one another.  If, on the other hand, two waves meet that are out of sync, the diminish one another.  If two wave forms that are exact opposites of each other meet … they create silence.

The Vietnamese poet, peace activist, and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that in the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition monks learn a gatha to go along with nearly every act.  A gatha is a short phrase or two intended to remind monks to remain mindful.  There are gathas for when you wake up, when you get out of bed, when you brush your teeth.  And there is a gatha for when you invite a bell to sound:

Listen. listen.  This wonderful sound calls me back to my true self.

“Listen.  Listen.  This wonderful sound calls me back to my true self.”  The monk who invites the bell to sound says this silently before placing the striker on the bell.  The monks who hear it say it silently along with the sound.  If it is one of the large temple bells sounding, the monks outside pause in whatever it is that they’re doing and recite the gatha:  Listen.  Listen.  This wonderful sound calls me back to my true self.  When I was in Japan, working with the Kanjiyama Mime Troupe, there was a temple on one of the mountains that surrounded their studio in the countryside.  When they would sound their gong to call the monks to zazen, its sound would echo.  And when the vibrations from that big, beautiful bell set the air vibrating, and when those vibrations reached my tympanic membranes, I would pause in whatever I was doing:  Listen.  Listen.  This wonderful sound calls me back to my true self.  I repeat this gatha whenever I sound the chime to call us to worship.  Listen.  Listen.  This wonderful sound calls me back to my true self.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that we can use anything as this bell – the doorbell, the ring of a telephone, the red brake light of the car in front of us.  Anything can serve as this bell, calling us back to our true selves.

I think that that foolish little parrot was a mindfulness bell for that goddess.  The sight of that bird brought her back to her true self, called her to be who she really was.  She had forgotten that who she was, in her innermost core; she’d forgotten her better self; she’d forgotten who she knew she could be.  And that brave little parrot called her back to herself.

Do you ever need to be called back to your true self?  I do.  I do … often.  When I am frustrated, or tired, or hungry, or scared … it can be easy to forget who I am.  When my feelings are hurt, or I think I’m being judged, or I hear too clearly my inner demons judging me (always too harshly) … I can so easily lose sight of who I am at my best.  I can so easily act out of my worst.  You too?

Let’s spend the rest of today … the rest of this week … looking for and listening to every mindfulness bell we can.  And when we hear it, let us remember that we have a true self to which we can return … and, if needed, return again, and again, and again.

One last thought.  You know how, when you drop a pebble into a pond, the ripples spread outward, and then bounce back in on themselves?  That one little pebble can affect the entire surface of the pond.  That brave little parrot was a mindfulness bell for that goddess, because she was vibrating her true self, and the ripples of that vibration went in all directions.  The elephants, and the cheetah, and all of the forest animals could feel it – when the vibrations of love she gave off caused their own hearts to vibrate love and compassion as well.

You can I can be bells, sounding pure and clear who we truly are.  We can be the wonderful sound someone else needs to come back to who they truly are.  And when you vibrate love, and I vibrate love, and each of us and all of us vibrate love, those love waves intersect, and amplify one another.

“Do the little thing that comes from your heart and everything might change, in ways no one could imagine.” 

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Reflections on the story, "Grandmother's Courage"

On Sunday, September 10, 2017, the congregation I serve celebrated its annual Balloon Sunday.  We heard the story we called "Grandmother's Courage," and my reflections were an exploration of its message.  (Although the story is not included in this post, I think the lessons are clear even without knowing it.)

In seminary I was taught the skill and the art of exegesis.  Exegesis is a word that describes the interpretation of a text – usually a passage of sacred scripture.  It comes from an ancient Greek word that means, “to lead out.”  To do exegesis, to exegete, is to “lead out” the deeper meanings of a text.  Now … like I said … you normally exegete a passage of sacred scripture, but this morning I’m going to exegete the story Leia read a little while ago.

It all starts at midnight.  In many myths and stories midnight is a time of mystery and magic; it’s the transitional point between the day that has been and the day that is coming.  I think it’s important to recognize that Grandmother doesn’t realize that it’s midnight.  She think it’s her normal time of waking, 3:00 (which, for me at least, is not a magical time at all).

Because Grandmother doesn’t realize that she’s at this magical moment – she doesn’t realize that there’s anything out of the ordinary – and apparently neither does her horse.  Smart just plods along the way he always does, and Grandmother is so used to her routine that she’s even able to fall asleep!
But then, as in all good hero myths, something dangerous comes.  Smart and the Grandmother can tell that it’s coming, can sense its approach – it doesn’t suddenly appear.  This, of course, gives them both time to get pretty scared.

What does come suddenly, what does appears as if from nowhere, is that hare.  It just pops up, jumps up onto Smart and then into Grandmother’s lap, and without even pausing for a moment to think about what to do, Grandmother acts.  She acts to save the hare.  It’s just the right thing to do.  She may be scared, but she’s strong.

And then that scary rider comes up.  She can’t make out what, exactly it is, but she knows that it’s dangerous, and she knows that it’s bad.  Have you ever just had a feeling about something that it just wasn’t … right?  That something was wrong, even though you couldn’t put your finger on just what it was?  Well, that’s where the Grandmother found herself.  But even though she was scared, she persisted.

Now I want to pause here for a minute.  It was a hare.  It was a little bunny that she was putting herself in danger for.  It was just a rabbit that she was quite possibly risking her life for!  A lot of people would think that a hare is too small, too unimportant, too insignificant to take such a risk for.  I just wanted to make sure that we all recognized that.

Now my absolute favorite part of the story is the way the Grandmother answers the scary rider.  She doesn’t lie; she answers his question completely honestly.  She gives him the answer he’d asked for, but in such a way that she kept that hare safe.  I love that.  She didn’t lie; she didn’t forget about her values in order to save herself.  She stayed true to who she was, even though it was dangerous to do so.

And then we find that that small, unimportant, insignificant little bunny was something else entirely.  She did a good dead without knowing the full extent of its impact.  She just did what she thought was right without knowing, really, what it was she was doing.  If she’d known that that hair was really a bewitched woman, cursed to run eternally from the pursuit of that rider, it still would have been a good thing that the Grandmother did what she did, but it wouldn’t have been quite so … heroic … would it?

The grandmother did nothing extraordinary, she just “carried on;” she just did what she’d normally do, what her instincts, and her values, and her way of being in the world led her to do each and every day.  But this day, carrying on, simply being herself, made all the difference in the world.

I want to make one more point about this story.  But first I want to remind people of what we talked about last week.  We talked about pots – pots, and bowls, and cups, and people like us that have cracks in them, weak spots, broken places.  And we said that those very cracks, those very weak and broken places, might be the source of some of our greatest strengths.

That was a very individual-focused reflection.  It was intended to remind each of us … each of us individually … you, and me, and everyone else, that we have more beauty in us that we know, and more strength than we can imagine.

But the individual is only a part of the picture.  Because we’re not just a group of individuals here.  We’re a community.  We ritualized that truth when we poured our individual containers of water into that one, communal bowl.  But we didn’t really talk about it much.  We didn’t really focus our attention on it.

I want to focus our attention on it this morning, because the importance and power of the community is also something we need to remind ourselves of over, and over, and over again.  It’s so easy to forget.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the realities of our own lives as individuals, that we can forget the realities of our lives as part of something larger than ourselves, the realities of our lives as part of a community.

So here’s the last thing I want to lift up about the story “Grandmother’s Courage,” the last truth I’d like to lead out of it for us to consider:   the Grandmother was not alone.  She didn’t do the things she did all by herself.  She was in a relationship.  She was part of a community – a community of two, but a community nonetheless.  She was in a relationship with her “faithful companion for close to forty years.”  And when the Grandmother was asleep, Smart was “trembling all over,” and “his mane and tail were still with fright.”  But as soon as Grandmother woke up, as soon as Smart was no longer feeling alone, as soon as that old horse was once again in relationship with his community, he calmed down.  And when the Grandmother’s “heart was pounding [and] palms sweating” from fright, it was Smart who was able to give her the strength to do the heroic thing she did.  Or, rather, the heroic thing that they did, because neither of them did it – neither of them could have done it – without the other.

And we, too, need community to be our best, most true and authentic selves.  We need this community, which so many call their spiritual home, to be as strong, and as beautiful, as we are meant to be.  Only in community can we have the courage “to relax and trust our hearts to guide us even when we don’t think we know what to do,” because only in community can we be sure that we are held in loving hands, with care-filled hearts.

Pax tecum,