Friday, April 26, 2019


I recently had the privilege (and good fortune) of being asked to read and review the Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd's new book, After the Good News:  progressive faith beyond optimism (Skinner House Books).  I was going to read it anyway -- Nancy is one of my favorite Unitarian Universalist writers -- so I was excited to know even before I'd even started I had already been asked for my opinion!

After the Good News is easily one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time – it should be required reading for every religious professional (ordained or otherwise) who is serving a faith community that considers itself liberal or progressive, as well as each and every member.  In fact, after reading just her Introduction I found myself seeing the liberal tradition I serve with new eyes, and challenged to change because of it.

With her usual self-depreciating humor, solid scholarship, and a willingness to prophetically challenge people she so clearly loves (among whom she explicitly includes herself), Nancy lays out the roots and present ramifications of the, 
“oft-unacknowledged arc of history that doesn’t seem quite so triumphant; a narrative of the liberal church that stands counter to the rampart-holding optimism we proclaim in our most stirring hymns.”  
In cogent and lucid prose she makes sense of the confounding resistance to efforts for real change experienced even among congregations that are calling for it.  She makes clear why it is so difficult for so many people in liberal and progressive faith communities to recognize and acknowledge ourselves (particularly those of us who identify or are identified as white) as participating in and perpetuating the very systems and structures of white supremacy we are so committed to ending (even if unconsciously and unwittingly).  In fact, she explains that it is our very enthusiastic optimism and faith in the vision of "Beloved Community," important as it is, that can make us oblivious to the luxury, the privilege we have to keep ourselves at a distance from the reality of the suffering oppression has caused historically and causes still.  

Yet After the Good News does not simply convict liberal and progressive religious traditions for their inability to recognize their own complicity in maintaining the injustices we would end.  It also provides a pathway by which these traditions can evolve beyond their past in order to live more fully into the vision of Beloved Community we espouse.   
“If liberal religion is to step into a future of engaged, anti-oppressive work,” she writes, “we will be called to serve not only because others are broken or the system is broken, but because, as Bryan Stevenson says, ‘I am broken too.’” 
The empowering and inspiring vision is important, yet Nancy calls us to move beyond our ingrained optimism and to recognize the work of liberation as not just for those who have been marginalized by society, but for us all.  As the Indigenous Australian academic, artist, and activist Lilla Watson has written, 
"If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together."
To do this will be hard, painful, and disorienting, and Nancy is clear about how challenging this transformation will be.  Ultimately, though, she is hopeful because of her faith in, and very obvious love of, the people who make up these liberal/progressive traditions.  After the Good New delivers a prophetic message that will be extremely difficult for some to receive, yet which is fundamentally a message of hope.  After reading it, my hope is renewed and deepened as well.

After the Good News:  Progressive Faith Beyond Optimism is available from inSpirit (the UUA's bookstore), as well as through Amazon (as both a paperback and an ebook),, and GooglePlay.

Pax tecum,


Monday, April 22, 2019

A Rite of Spring

"The question is not whether we believe in resurrection 
but whether we have known it -- 
known it in our own lived experience, 
seen it in the lives of others, 
felt it in the world around us."

For the last two decades or so, on the Sunday the majority of Christians celebrate Easter, every congregation I have served has held a service titled, "A Rite of Spring:  An Eastertide Celebration in Two Acts."  It is a visually rich service of readings and hymns, much like many Christmas Eve services, an it is one of the things from my time as a parish minister of which I am most proud.  I think it is an authentic expression of Unitarian Universalism -- both our message and our method.
Back in 2016 I posted the text of "A Rite of Spring."  It is a very different thing to read the text without being able to see the roughly 100 images that are projected throughout or to experience the beauty of the hymns.  Still, even by themselves I think the words are worth considering.  If you're interested, here is the link:

Pax tecum,


Monday, April 08, 2019

The Inevitability of Victory

This is the text of the reflection I offered on Sunday, April 7, 2019 at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.

It was just after 6:00 in the evening on Thursday, April 4th.*  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had arrived in Memphis just the day before.  His plane out of Atlanta had been delayed because of a bomb threat, but he’d made it there in time to speak as scheduled at Bishop Charles Mason Temple.  The address he gave that night has come to be known by the name “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” because of what he said at its end:

“I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

The next day, and at the age of only 39, he was dead.

On April 4th, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stepped out onto the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Hotel.  He’d not only stayed in this hotel before, but he and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy had stayed in that exact same room so many times that it was colloquially known as “the King-Abernathy suite.”  It was a chilly evening.  Jesse Jackson had just told Dr. King that he really should take a coat with him, and King had teased Jackson about how casually the later was dressed.  As he walked out room 306, Dr. King asked one of the musicians who’d be playing that night to “make sure [to] play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ … [and to] play it real pretty.”

The day had been tense.  A federal judge had issued a restraining order against the march that had been scheduled for that coming Monday in support of striking sanitation workers, the reason King was in Memphis.  Throughout that Thursday, leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been in court, arguing to have the injunction lifted.  The city said it was worried about violence; SCLC reiterated its commitment to non-violence.  Right around 4:30 Judge Bailey Brown issued his ruling lifting the ban and allowing the march to go forward.  By about 5:00, Andrew Young had returned to the Lorraine to deliver the good news.  Yet perhaps because of all the tension that had been building up a fight broke out – a pillow fight!  That’s right.  Just before he was murdered by a bigot’s bullet, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his companions had been giddy, having a pillow fight and worrying about whether or not to take a coat against the evening chill. 

And then a single bullet fired from a bathroom window in a boarding house across the street brought an end to the levity.  Dr. King lay in a pool of his own blood.  An hour later he would be dead. 

Several years ago I developed a Unitarian Universalist service to fall on the Christian holy day of Good Friday – “A Memorial to the Martyrs.”  It provides an opportunity to pause and reflect on those, both known and unknown, who have given their lives in the pursuit of justice.  Jesus, of course, and also eco-martyrs like Chico Mendes, and Jairo Sandoval.  There’s Oscar Romero, Harvey Milk, Ingrid Washinawatok, Stephen Biko, Mohandas Gandhi, Malcolm X, Viola Liuzzo, and, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr.  And you know I could go on … for a long time.

One year, as I prepared to lead this service, I was feeling a bit of despair.  A lot of despair, actually.  Maybe you’ve felt this kind of despair, too:  despair that so many people have been killed, are being murdered, simply because they were trying to make the world a better place.  So many, oh so many who, like anybody, would have liked to have lived a long life. (“Longevity has its place.”)  So many people who knew full well the dangers that you face, and that face you, when you are working for real change, yet who refused to be “concerned about that.”  At least not so concerned that they let it stop them.  I was despairing – and I expect at times you have too – because of just how often, despite their courageous commitment, they were stopped by a gun, or a knife, or a fist.

I’m honest, I wasn’t just feeling despair; I was also feeling hopeless.  Who here this morning hasn’t felt that sometimes, too?  That night the future looked to me bleak, and my hope for change was weak.  The promise of justice rolling down like an ever-flowing stream felt like an empty promise, because those who want things to stay just like they are seem to always be able to build a bigger damnable dam.  (Or, if you would prefer, a “wall.”)  If preachers are supposed to inspire hope, to provide uplifit, I surely didn’t know how I was going to do it that night.  As the choir just sang,** I was asking myself:

Will justice ever roll down?
Will justice ever roll down? 
Hope that calls in vain,
So much hurt and pain, 
Sorrow all around...

Have you ever asked that?  Have you ever felt a sense of futility in all this work for change?

That evening my wife – wise woman that she is (except for that one time when she for some unfathomable reason said, “yes”) – suggested to me that I was looking at the wrong thing.  Yes, the list of people who have been martyred in the name of justice is agonizingly long.  And yes, their example of sacrifice – their willing sacrifice – should never be forgotten.  Yet, she reminded me, the list of people who those sacrifices have inspired, who are working right now, or who lived out their lives in service to that vision of a better world … well that list is really, really long.

I believe it was that same year that I came across this cartoon.  “The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King,” a seated Mahatma Gandhi is saying to a standing Dr. King, “is that they think they’ve killed you.”  I truly do not mean to be flip, but I can’t help thinking of Obi-Wan saying to Vadar, “If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”  “The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you.”  A verse in Peter Gabriel’s song Biko puts it like this: “You can blow out a candle, but you can’t put out a fire.  Once the flames begin to catch, the wind will blow it higher.”  The guns, the knives, the fists are strong enough to stop a person, yet not so strong as to stop a vision.  In fact, they seem to always end up amplifying it.

In the fantastic film Gandhi – which if you haven’t seen you should go home and watch it this afternoon … this evening at the latest – there is a scene in which Gandhi is speaking to people who will be participating in a demonstration of satyagraha (the “insistent holding on to truth” which is the power of non-violent action).  He acknowledges that there will be risks, saying:

“They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me – then they will have my dead body, not my obedience.”

And when the assassin’s bullets took his life, they did not take his commitment, his passion, his spirit of justice-seeking.  And neither was Dr. King’s faith in that “moral arc of the universe,” bending “toward justice,” his belief in the inevitability of victory, his unshakable certainty of the arrival of all people in the “promised land” he saw from “the mountaintop” – that was not silenced on April 4, 1968.  It lived on.  It has lived on.  And the good news is that with the spirit of all who have died in the name of a better world, it continues to feed and nurtures today’s seekers of justice.

If I am to tell the truth as I deliver this Good News of the inevitability of victory this morning, I must offer a word of caution.

A few weeks ago I talked a lot about the new book by my colleague the Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd, After The Good News: progressive religion beyond optimism.  She notes that there is a danger faced particularly by large-hearted, well-meaning liberal folks like us (and even more particularly by large-hearted, well-meaning, liberal middle-class, well-educated white folks like most of us here).  So few of us have our own direct, lived experience of the injustices we are committed to ending.  So few of us have personally suffered under the oppressions we strive to dismantle.  And because of that distance, it is actually pretty easy to find hope.  It’s actually pretty easy for us to believe in a better world, because to a greater or lesser extent most of us have been living in a better world than most of those who experience injustice first hand. 

For many of us, maybe even most of us, our vision of the future is derived from our experience of comfort and privilege.  It is, even if we don’t say it this way, the hope that one day everyone will be free to live “the American Dream,” not as it now so perverted, but as we believe it was meant to be.  Yet such a hope, such a vision, is ultimately doomed to failure because “the American Dream,” in any form, is, itself, the source of oppression, the reality in which all oppressions are rooted.  So the caution is this truth:  the Beloved Community will not be a better version of what we have today.  That toward which we strive will be a way of life that that has been transformed into something radically, disorientingly, discomfortingly new – un-imaginably different from anything we, especially those of us who identify or are identified as white, have ever seen.

To work for that vision takes a kind of commitment, a kind of courage, a kind of faith, a kind of hope that is nearly impossible for those of us who have known more comfort than suffering, more opportunity than struggle.  Such unshakable certainty in the inevitability of victory can only – only – take root and grow in the lives of those how do not stand apart from, but are, instead, intimately connected to suffering and struggling.  That’s because only a hope that is rooted in the struggle and the suffering, can transcend it; only a faith that is born in pain can survive the pain that is inevitable as we create, together, the true, and new, Beloved Community we all need so desperately.  And that means you, I, we (most definitely I) must find ways to step out of our zones of comfort and into the places of suffering, to not simply name it but to know it, directly, immediately, in our bones. 

I know, most of you know, that despair is easy to fall into.  Hopelessness is always just outside our door, waiting for an invitation to come in to our lives.  Yet those who have known the suffering, the anguish, the pain of oppression declare unequivocally that the promised land is our final destination, and that we are destined get there.  No matter how stony the road, no matter how many are martyred on the journey, victory is inevitable.  And one day “We shall overcome,” will be truly transformed and become “We have overcome.”

Pax tecum,



* The choir sang Will Justice Roll Down?  Words and Music by Jason Shelton.

** The details about Dr. King’s last days and hours come from both the Wikipedia article about Dr. King’s assassination, and also from a project of the Atlanta Constitution and Chanel 2 Action News in which, for the 50th anniversary of the assassination they covered the events as if they were live tweeted.