Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Cost of Freedom

This is the text of the reflections I offered on Sunday, May 26, 2019 to the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Every year until his death in 2012, Senator Daniel Inouye introduced legislation to change the date of Memorial Day from what it is now, the last Monday in May, back to what it had been before, May 30th (regardless of what day that fell on in any given year).  That change occurred back in 1968.  If Inouye, who entered the Senate in 1963, took up this cause immediately, he would have introduced this bill over 40 times.

Marking Memorial Day on May 30th goes back to the mid-1800s.  The precursor of Memorial Day was Decoration Day.  The “official” history, the one we most likely learned in school (if we learned about any of this at all), is that in 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, the head of an organization of Union veterans, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, declared that May 30th should be a day for decorating the graves of the more than 620,000 soldiers who died during the war, “whose bodies,” he wrote, “now lie in almost every village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”   It didn’t matter on which side of the war you’d fought – Logan believed that the ultimate sacrifice paid by both Union and Confederate soldiers alike deserved to be remembered.  It is said that he thought the day should be celebrated in the spring, and that May 30th was chosen because it was a date on which no battle had been fought, making it a day to honor all the soldiers who died in all the battles of the war.

The story we most likely weren’t taught in school is that in 1865, at the very tail end of the war, as the white residents of Charleston, South Carolina fled the city in advance of the arrival of Union troops, the Black citizens remained, welcoming the troops back to the city where the war had begun four years earlier. 

A makeshift prison for Union soldiers had been erected in the middle of what had been a race track.  The men who died there buried hastily in a mass grave.  After the Union soldiers arrived, Black workmen from Charleston dug up the remains of those soldiers and re-buried them with proper respect, creating a proper cemetery.  Above the entrance they placed a sign that read, “Martyrs of the Race Track.”  This new cemetery was dedicated on May 1st, with a parade that included 10,000 people and which the New York Tribune described as “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”  It seems to me that this, truly, was the 1st Decoration Day, and is the real root of our modern Memorial Day.

But why did Senator Inouye, and a large number of veteran’s groups, care about the date on which Memorial Day fell?  Why would he try year after year for more than forty years to get it changed?  The last Monday in May is easy to remember and plan for; May 30th would be a Saturday one year and then a few years later it’d be a Wednesday; it’d keep moving throughout the week.  Inouye fought for the change in part because the last Monday in May made it so easy to plan for.  He, and as I said, a great many others, feared that what was going to be planned for each year was not how to honor the people who had died while serving in our nation’s military.  Instead, people would be figuring out what to do with a three-day weekend and the official beginning of summer.  In 2015, Marine Corps veteran Jennie Haskamp wrote a piece for The Washington Post in which she shared her frustration that meaning of Memorial Day had become “grilled meat, super-duper discounts, a day (or two) off work, beer, potato salad and porches draped in bunting.”  She argued that it should be a day to remember and reflect on the truth that freedom comes at a cost.

Stephen Stills – of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young – wrote a haunting song called, “Find the Cost of Freedom” which came out as the B side to their song, “Ohio,” written about the Kent State massacre.  The song is deceptively simple – it’s just two lines long:

“Find the cost of freedom buried in the ground. 
Mother Earth will swallow you, lay your body down.” 

Simple, right?  The complexity, the ambiguity of the song comes when you ask yourself who it’s talking to and what it’s talking about.  Soldiers are told that they are fighting for freedom, fighting to defend democracy, fighting to make the world more safe.  And I don’t know anyone who has ever served in the military, especially during times of war, who doesn’t know all too well that those things come at a cost.  Rows, and rows, and rows of headstones in Arlington National Cemetery; column after column, line after line of names on those polished black granite walls of the Vietnam War Memorial.  More importantly, and more impactfully, the cost of this particular father/mother/brother/sister/friend who will never attend another Memorial Day picnic.  This may not have been the band’s intention, but this song is talking to and about them.

At the same time, though, those who were protesting the military industrial machine also saw themselves as fighting for freedom; it was clear that they, too, needed to be willing to “lay their body down.”  And nearly every mass protest since, nearly every concerted effort for change, has seen at least some, “buried in the ground.” The song talks to, and about, them as well.

There are a number of different kinds of freedom, all of which come at a cost.

A woman who speaks up about sexual harassment in the workplace, seeking freedom from the prison of misogyny, has often paid for that freedom with the loss of her position and having her reputation dragged through the mud.  A trans teen who comes out, seeking freedom from the false identity society demands of them, may pay the cost of that freedom in rejection by family and friends, and all too often with emotional, psychic, and bodily harm.  A woman of color who dares to speak her truth in her own voice, seeking freedom from the oppression of a society that demands she speak and act in ways acceptable to white folk, can pay for that freedom by having to endure an angry backlash and attacks on her character.

There is a cost to freedom.

When someone comes to realize that divorce is the right thing for them, seeking freedom from a painful and maybe even dangerous marriage, they pay for that freedom in friends who take sides, loss of income, or status, or the dream of what they’d thought life would be like.  Choosing to leave the safety of a career, seeking freedom from something soul-sucking to pursue a passion, has the cost of the incredulity of those around them and the loss of what our society deems “security.”

The Catholic priest and Trappist monk Fr. Thomas Merton said that the purpose of our lives is to free ourselves from the “false self” in which we are trapped, so that we can live deeply, fully, richly the life of our “true self.”  This is something every religious tradition teaches – that we live imprisoned in suffering, delusion, sleep, sin, not-life, and that we should wake up and strive for freedom.

In the Hebrew scriptures it is said that it took Moses and the Israelites 40 years of wandering in the desert after leaving their captivity in Egypt before they entered the Promised Land of Canaan.  The distance between the two could actually have been traversed in less than two weeks.  One rabbinic interpretation is that God led them on that long, wandering way because all of those who had grown up with a captive’s experience and a captive’s mentality had to die before the people could enter the freedom of the Promised Land. 

Is there something in your life that you feel traps you, preventing you from living full and free?  Is there something that you do, or don’t do, because you feel that you “should,” or that it’s “expected” of you?  Is there some part of you that is stunted, held back, imprisoned?  Our faith challenges us to risk the discomfort, the pain, even, of striving for freedom – ours and that of “all of us imprisoned,” as our Opening Hymn put it. 

It tells us too, though, that there will always be a cost.  The journey from what was to what can be always requires us to leave things behind, even things that have been precious to us; it always calls for a “death” of some kind.  That is why so many of us so rarely attempt it.  We fear the cost will be too high.  Yet the experience of those who have come before us, and even our own lived experience, tells us that the cost of not making this journey, of remaining in our prisons, is even higher still.

This is one of the reasons that we so highly value community, because change is frightening and potentially dangerous … nearly impossible if we try it alone.  Together, though, we can encourage one another, inspire one another, carry one another when the going gets really tough.  And when we make it to the other side, enter the freedom of our own “promised land,” we may one day be able to look back at that which we left behind, that which had had to die, and then clean and decorate their graves knowing that the cost we paid was worth it.

May it be so.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Reflections on a Ministry

This is the letter I sent to the members (both formal and informal) of the congregation I serve regarding my decision to end our mutual ministry as of the end of this church year (June 30th).  If you're interested, you can read the formal announcement to the congregation, as well as the reflections I offered the Sunday after the congregation was informed.

To the people of TJMC, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Charlottesville:

Eight years ago you called me to serve this community as your Lead Minister.  I promised that I would do my best to accept the challenge you offered:  help you move into the next phase of your journey, help you to write the next chapter of your history, help you to grow into something new, help you to be more fully the Unitarian Universalist congregation that Charlottesville needs in these times.

As I have often been the first to admit, I have not always satisfied everyone’s expectations of what a Lead Minister should do and how it should be done.  I have dropped balls, and I have let people down.  During candidating week I told you that one of the ways I understands local UU congregations is as “laboratories” for discovering how our faith tradition should manifest in a particular time and place.  Some of the “experiments” I encouraged us to try were dead ends; I don’t deny this and never have.  Over the years, in response to feedback, I made changes, course corrections, and led us to try new things – some of which have excited and inspired many here; some which have taken our congregation to the cutting edge of our Association’s evolution. 

I have championed a radically shared leadership and ministry model aimed at addressing systemic issues of racism and misogyny by refusing to continue the clergy-centric structures and assumptions so common in faith communities.  Leia, Chris, and I have twice been invited to teach a session at Harvard Divinity School about our Senior Staff model, in which the Director of Faith Development, the Director of Administration and Finance, and the Lead Minister collaboratively and co-equally share the responsibilities and authority of “running the church.”  Our approach to shared ministry was also influential in the decision to create a tri-Presidency at the UUA during the interim between Peter Morales and Susan Frederick-Gray.

I have also unflinchingly demanded that we – myself as much as anyone – recognize in ourselves and our institution the ways we participate in and perpetuate the systems and structures of our white supremacist culture, however unintentionally and unconsciously … especially those of us who identify as white.  It is challenging for us good-hearted, well-meaning liberal white folks who have long been committed to racial justice, among whose number I count myself, to hear that even we are complicit in the continuation of the very oppression(s) we are trying to dismantle.  Yet as we learn to listen more fully and faithfully to the voices of people of color, this truth becomes unavoidable and our denial of it just provides more evidence.  The myriad of ways Christina has experienced racism during her time here, and the difficulty so many of us have had in believing her when she’s named it, brought up close and personal the need for us, as individuals and as an institution, to address white supremacy in here if we want to have any hope of making changes out there.

Not everyone has agreed with my methods or my understanding and vision of what a UU congregation needs to be.  Some have felt that I was going too far too fast, while others thought I was leading in the wrong direction altogether.  In the past two or three years this divide has grown increasingly visible and deep.  In 2016 we watched together as our country elected a misogynistic, xenophobic, regressively bigoted, and entirely unqualified man to be our nation’s President.  In the summer of 2017 our city became ground zero for a newly (re)empowered expression of the basest expressions of hate when first the KKK and then the “Unite the Right” rally gathered (from far and near) in our own downtown.  In February of 2018 our Director of Administration and Finance, Christina Rivera, was the target of a racist attack in the form of an anonymous note delivered to her office, with the perpetrator most likely being a member of our community.

That February marked the 75th anniversary of the founding of this congregation.  Throughout that history there have been many times when a division erupted between those who believed that our congregation was called to take the risky position of moving to the forefront of efforts for change, and those who were less enthusiastic about taking risks because of their deep desire and heartfelt commitment to the quality of this community and the need to respond first-and-foremost to the needs of those who called this place “home.”  (We could call these the “risk friendly” and “risk reluctant.”)  Neither is “right” nor “wrong” – both can create loving community and both can work for justice.  Yet they are different from one another, and it is extraordinarily difficult to be both at the same time.  It might even be impossible.  Each pulls the congregation in a different direction.  And while there is a good deal of overlap, ultimately a decision must be made.  Or, at least, a decision must be made if the congregation wants to be its most healthy, vibrant, and Alive.

Time and again this congregation has bumped up against this divide, and according to all of the history I’ve read and been told about by people who were there, the congregation’s decision has been not to decide.  “The wounds were never healed,” I have read, “the issues were never fully addressed.”  To paraphrase one of our long-time members, “we’re really good at sweeping things under the rug.”  This has made it possible for folks to come back together comfortably, to “heal,” while leaving the underlying issue of identity unresolved.

Some of the conflict that has grown among us in the past couple of years is unquestionably about differing opinions on my performance, my message, and my style, and there are people who disagree about the way our finances have been handled, and decisions the Board has made, and no doubt other things.  I don’t deny that, and have tried to acknowledge the validity of those disagreements whenever possible.  Dissent within a community is essential for its health and longevity.  Yet I believe that beneath and behind those things is the never resolved division between the “risk reluctant” and the “risk friendly,” between two competing visions of what a Unitarian Universalist congregation should be, and what a healthy congregation looks like.  The greatest predictor of the success in solving a problem is a clear understanding of what the problem is.  If one tries to solve the deep root of a problem by addressing only its surface layers, change can take place only at the top of the iceberg, not the estimated 87% that remains unseen.

Two years ago an organized effort began to bring an end to our mutual ministry by forcing me to resign or asking the congregation to terminate my call.  Their stated assumption was that my departure would fix what they see as wrong here.  There is no doubt that things would change with another ordained minister in my role.  Yet if my ministry is identified as the source of our current conflict, the underlying issue of who this congregation is and wants to be may once again go unresolved. No one, and no institution, can be all things to all people – at least not healthily.  So much energy gets spent trying to react to the needs of whoever is unhappy at any particular moment.  Yet there will always be someone unhappy if you try to please everyone, and this futile effort at achieving the impossible leaves little left with which to respond to the real needs of the community as a whole, and the demands of the wider world.

The decision to end my ministry with and among you is not one I’ve made lightly, nor is it one that I want to make.  I would like to continue to serve this congregation; I would like to continue exploring and expanding the ministries that have been nurturing and exciting to so many here.  We have done some really good things together, and have been moving in a direction that I deeply believe puts us more fully into alignment with the Call of our faith.  I know that many of you feel that way, too.  And there is so much still to do.  We continue to be beckoned forward on the journey toward becoming a truly anti-racist, anti-oppression, multicultural Beloved Community that will be a living, breathing alternative to the White Supremacist Culture which pervades every facet of our society.  I do not want to leave with so much undone, nor to leave all of you who are eager to embrace the discomfort of change.

Yet as much as I want to stay I nonetheless feel compelled to leave.  Over the past two years it has become undeniably clear that there are those who are willing to withhold or withdraw their resources to ensure that my continued ministry cannot succeed and that the congregation cannot continue down its current path.  I want to be very clear — I truly do not disparage most of those who oppose my continued ministry; I believe that many of them do have the best interest of the congregation in mind, albeit an entirely different understanding than mine of what that is.  These are honest disagreements, and as I have repeatedly said, honest disagreements are essential to a healthy community.

Yet I must also say that there are some who have demonstrated that they are okay with the environment in our community becoming terribly unpleasant, extremely unhealthy, and, as many have said, toxic.  These few folks are willing to see the congregation hurt in their effort to see me gone, so strongly do they believe that I am the problem.  I cannot in good conscience allow this group to damage the congregation any further in the name of their opposition to me, nor can I continue to put my own physical, emotional, and spiritual health at risk or that of my family. 

I honestly don’t know how much my leaving will “fix,” yet I feel certain that nothing will be fixed as long as I remain.  I have said since before I arrived here eight years ago that this is an extremely strong, beautiful, and committed congregation.  I still say this today.  Unitarian Universalism is truly needed here in Charlottesville and this congregation can be a beacon, a true powerhouse for racial justice, and an amplifier for the life-save message of our faith.  I pray that with the issue of my ministry resolved you will be able to focus on the fundamental question of what kind of Unitarian Universalist congregation you truly wish to be, and that this time you stick with that discomforting question until you have finally found its answer.

It has been an honor to serve as Lead Minister in the midst of this community of ministers.  The staff I have worked with have been incomparable, rightly respected throughout our Association.  The lay leaders have been inspirational.  And this congregation has been like no other I have served.
I bow deeply in gratitude,

Pax tecum,


Monday, May 20, 2019

Let's Not Keep From Singing

These are the reflections I offered to the congregation I serve on Sunday, May 19, 2019.  They had just a few days earlier received the news of my decision to bring our eight-year mutual ministry to an end, as well as the decision of our Director of Administration and Finance, Christina Rivera, to resign.  This was my first opportunity to talk with them after they received the news.

In case anyone's interested, I sang, instead of read, the two verses of the hymn at the end of these Reflections.

What can I say?

Many of you received an email on Friday from Adam Slate, the President of the Board.  For those of you who are new here, or may not have gotten it for some reason, the email was an announcement of my decision to step down as Lead Minister effective at the end of this church year (June 30th).  It also shared the news that our Director of Administration and Finance, Christina Rivera, has also made the decision to resign.

For some I know this is a shock; some have no doubt been anticipating it.  Since the email went out I’ve heard from a lot of folks who call this their spiritual home.  They’ve shared with me expressions of their sorrow, their confusion, their anger; their feelings of loss and grief; their fears for the congregation’s future.  I know all of those emotions, because I’m feeling them too.

And, though no one has said this to me yet, I am certain that there are people who are feeling something of a sense of relief, hoping that the painful divisiveness of, especially, the past couple of years may soon come to an end.  If I didn’t admit that I understand this feeling too, I wouldn’t be telling you the truth — it’s been a hard few years.  And while I do not share these feelings, I have no doubt that there are some people who received this news gladly, happy that the goal they have been working for has finally been achieved.

All of this is to say that there are undoubtedly a wide array of emotions in our community, our church family right now.  In this sanctuary right now.  There are undoubtedly a wide array of emotions within any one of us, individually!  Emotions are so rarely clean and simple; most often they are convoluted and more than a little tangled.  Complicated, to say the least.

In the days and weeks ahead, and in the months and maybe even years after I’ve left, it will be important to remember that everyone has a right to their own feelings about this.  Not only do we not have to think alike — as the well-known maxim goes — to love alike, we don’t have to feel the same way as one another either.  Yet if we stay in covenant with one another — not something we’ve always been able to do, of course — then the words of the late 18th and early 19th century Universalist preacher and theologian Hosea Ballou will hold true:

If we agree in love, no disagreement will do us any harm;
Yet if we do not, no other agreement will do us any good.

"If we agree in love, no disagreement will do us any harm; yet if we do not, no other agreement will do us any good."

Christina and I are writing letters in which we’ll share our stories about what led us to the decisions we have made.  Those should be going out early- to mid-next week, and I am sure that after you have read them both Chris and I will be open to talking with you.  We always have been.  It is, after all, part of our covenant with each other.

There will be opportunities for you to talk with one another, too, beginning after this service when there’ll be gatherings in several locations —  The Parlor, Lower Hall 2, and right here in the sanctuary.  Choose the space that works best for you.  These meetings were designed in a particular way to help facilitate the immediate sharing of feelings, the first asking of questions, and the initial expressing of hopes for the future.  There will be other gatherings, designed in different ways, aimed at serving different needs, in the days and weeks ahead. 

I want to say another word, to be clear about today’s sessions — they are designed to gather questions, not provide the answers.  The Board will take these questions and incorporate them into the FAQ they’re developing that will go out mid-week as part of the materials for the upcoming Congregational Meeting on June 2nd.  At that meeting the congregation will be asked to support the Separation Agreement the Board and I have negotiated (with the help of staff from the Southern Region of the UUA, and other consulting religious professionals).  Throughout these negotiations we kept asking, “How do we stay in covenant with one another?” and, “What does Justice look like in this situation?”  It took a while, to be honest, yet we finally came to a place we all could agree was fair and in keeping with our values.  I hope you’ll come to that meeting on Sunday, June 2nd (following the service), and with those two questions in your heart and mind I hope you will vote to ratify this Agreement.

When people have asked me what I planned to say today, or even why I thought I should talk at all this morning, I’ve repeatedly said that I believe times like these need a sermon — times of change, times of a sudden shift in our lives, times of loss.  Even when the loss is anticipated, even welcomed, it still can be so very hard when it comes.  When someone we’ve known and loved is in hospice, for instance, or has been struggling with an illness for a long, long time … we know that our parent’s, partner’s, sibling’s, friend’s, child’s death is coming, maybe even coming soon, yet when it does it is still so very often a shock.  Their death was expected … but not expected that day, or in that moment.

The suddenness of most (actually, maybe all) major life changes catches us off guard.  A pregnancy lasts roughly 9 months, yet after the delivery first-time parents often find themselves feeling as though the whole world just changed in an instant, that moment they first saw or held their child.  Even women who have labored mightily for hours to bring their baby into the world have told me that there’s still a moment after all that when they suddenly feel the reality of now being a parent, as if a switch was flipped.  And they tell me that even with all that preparation they’re still shocked and knocked off their feet a bit by it.

Anyone who’s ever changed a tire knows the experience of pulling, straining with all of your might, trying to loosen a lug nut that seems to have been welded in place.  You know the thing’s going to move at some point, but … until … it … does …  Andthensuddenlyitdoes!  Wham!  I’ve smacked my knuckles more than once when that nut finally let go.

Sudden change can hurt.  It can hit us upside the head, kick us in the gut, knock the wind out of us, or make us weak in the knees.  Sometimes it’s all of the above.  Even when it’s a change we’ve been looking forward to, its sudden arrival can leave us feeling disoriented.  Because change — even welcome change — is hard.  And hard change — change we didn’t expect or want — is even harder.

The change we’re in the midst of here is even more complex to navigate because there are so many moving parts to it — so many people involved, so many different understandings of just what brought us here, so many different responses to it.  Some people see things this way, others see those same things that way, and others aren’t looking at those things at all but are looking at different things altogether. 

And there are so many tempting places to place the blame.  “We wouldn’t be in this situation if only you hadn’t …” or, “… if only you had ...”  It’s human of us to want to find a cause, to identify a reason, to, in short, seek a place to place the blame for the change we wish we weren’t in, and all the cacophony and chaos, all the pain that comes with it.  A week or so ago I heard about a tee shirt that says, “I’m not saying that you’re responsible.  I’m saying that I’m blaming you.”  Right?  I’m seeing more than a few heads nodding.  Of course we get it; it’s so human of us.

It doesn’t do us any good, though.  There’s hardly ever — and I think I’ll go so far as to say that there isn’t ever — one person who is entirely at fault, or even a group of people who are entirely in the wrong.  It’d be nice if life were that clear cut, but it’s not.  It really isn’t.  This is not to say that none of us should be accountable for our actions — people do make mistakes, and people do consciously make decisions and take actions that are … problematic … and cause harm.  I’m not saying that we should always accept every kind of behavior in the name of “getting along.”  I am saying that blaming people is not helpful.  In fact, it can make it harder to hold them accountable. 

Blame is easier, of course.  We get to distance ourselves, create a comfortable buffer of righteousness around ourselves.  Lovingly holding someone accountable, “lovingly calling them back into community” (when that’s possible), is harder and infinitely more uncomfortable because we have to stay engaged, have to bring our own selves right there into the midst, the mess of it, have to acknowledge that there are no angels and no devils.  Not even us.

In the days and weeks, months and years ahead I encourage you to stay engaged, to stay connected.  Don’t write anybody off.  Don’t give up or give in.  This won’t be easy, but living authentically in covenanted community never is. 

There’s one other thing I’d recommend — don’t let this become everything.  This morning had been scheduled as far back as the beginning of the church year to be our annual Music Sunday.  When it became clear that Adam’s email was going out this past Friday there was discussion about whether we needed to postpone Music Sunday to some future Sunday because people would very likely want to and need to focus on … this.  In those discussions the words of a hymn kept echoing in my head.  (It’s #108, “My Life Flows On In Endless Song,” otherwise known as “How Can I Keep From Singing?”)

My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

What through the tempest ‘round me roars,
I know the truth, it liveth.
What through the darkness ‘round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love prevails in heav’n and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

As a congregation, as a community, a people … as individuals … we have just received news that even if we kind of expected it, even if we wanted it, signals a sudden shift from things as they’ve been to … something else.  And some of us are sad, or confused, or angry; feeling the pain of loss and grief; fearing for the congregation’s future.  (Or all of the above.)  These feelings are real, and we should pay attention to them.  Yet we should not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by them.  Through all this tumult and this strife, though we may feel a tempest ‘round us roaring, let’s not keep from singing.  For, my friends, love does prevail “on heav’n and earth.”  The Love on which, in which, this congregation is grounded is stronger than any disagreement, any discomfort, any struggle, any loss.  That Love calls on us — each of us individually and all of us collectively — to be our best selves, to bravely follow where it leads, and … whatever else we do or don’t do … to keep on singing.

Pax tecum,


Monday, May 06, 2019

On Justice, Truth, and Peace

This is the text of the reflections I offered on Sunday, May 5, 2019 in the congregation I serve here in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel whose words are at the heart of the piece the choir just sang, was a Jewish sage and leader who lived a little less than 2,100 years ago. Rav Muna, the other rabbi quoted in the choral piece, was one of the two rabbi who edited an early version of the Talmud, known as “The Talmud of the Land of Israel.”  Commenting on the teaching of ben Gamliel that “on justice, truth, and peace the whole world stands,” Rav Muna said something that Amy Bernon didn’t include in her song.  He said that in truth, those three things are not three separate things, wholly distinct from one another.  Rather, he taught, those three things are really only one thing.  That’s why, as she quoted, “where justice is done, truth is done, and peace is made.” 
This put me in mind of another saying that has this same interlocking progressive structure.  It’s actually from our Unitarian kin in Transylvania.  I imagine that our friend the Rev. István Török leads the members of our partner congregation in Olteviz in saying this with some regularity:
Hol hit—ott szeretet
Hol szeretet—ott béke
Hol béke—ott áldás
Hol áldás—ott Isten
Hol Isten—ott szükseg nincen
Elizabeth North, the Director of Music at our congregation in Concord, Massachusetts and a Unitarian Universalist composer extraordinaire, set this text to music.  It’s #1043 in the teal hymnal. (I’ll note that Beth took a little liberty with the last line):
Where there is faith there is love
Where there is love there is peace
Where there is peace there is blessing
Where there is blessing there is God
Where there is God there, there is no need.
Let’s sing that together …
Do you see the pattern?  Where justice is done, truth is done – they’re one and the same.  And where justice and truth are, peace is made.  If faith exists, then hope exists, and love exists, and peace exists, and blessings abound, and God – however you conceive of that Sacred Something, that Unlimited Love that undergirds all that is – where that is, we have all we need (which is the original last line).
For the longest time I’ve had a magnet on my refrigerator with words taken from the writings of Lau-Tzu.  It also has this same understanding of the simultaneity, the essential, fundamental equivalency of what might seem to be different things. I’ll bet that a number of you know it:
“If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.” 
I did a lot of research for these Reflections – facts and figures, Jewish history, world history, current events …  I’ve thrown all that out.  (Although I will post that version on my blog next week for those of you who are into that sort of thing.)  I threw all of that because as I wrote I kept hearing a little voice in my head.  It was our Associate Minister, Rev. Alex.  Her voice was encouraging me not to tell you things you already know – about how if we look around us there seems to be so little evidence of justice, truth, and peace in our world today.  “They know that,” she said in my head.  “They’re already living with that, living in that.  What they need is to have some thoughts about what to do with that.”  And she’s right.

What do we do when we live in a society, and increasingly a world, where injustice can seem to be the norm, where truth appears to be under attack, and where peace is hard to find?  If on these three things the whole word stands, what do we do when those supports are looking increasingly unstable? 
Well … if justice, truth, and peace are not three separate things but only one thing; and if faith, love, peace, blessing, and that Holy Whole in which “we live and move and have our being” co-exist; then for there to be any of them in the world, they must first be alive in our hearts.

So … how do we bring these needful things to life and nurture them in ourselves?  We cultivate them.  We work at it.  Sorry, but there’s no other way.  No shortcut.  We have to work at it.  We make choices day-in and day-out, responding to the situations we find ourselves in rather than reacting to them out of our cultural conditioning.  We ask ourselves again and again, “What is the truth here?  What does justice look like in this encounter?  What would Peace do?”  (WWPD)

This morning I’m going to suggest three things, three ways that we can do the work of developing peace in our hearts.  Although justice, and truth, and faith, and love, and all of those things are needed in our world, I think peace provides a good model of how to respond to our own heart’s need of them. 

So … three things we can do to cultivate, to develop, to strengthen peace in our hearts:
First, we can put ourselves into direct contact with beauty.   We’re surround by beauty here right now – after the service wander around the sanctuary and take in Marissa Minnerly’s paintings.  On the drive, or the walk home, grey though the sky is today, look at the flowers you pass.  Really notice them, how their colors pop.  Let their beauty into you.  Go out into the woods, get onto a river or lake, drink deep the natural world.  Look into the eyes of a loved one, listen to their voice, reminisce about the good times you’ve had and about all the good times to come (as Willie Nelson says in one of his songs).  For that matter, listen to music.  Music is a great way to put yourself in the presence of beauty.

I have to pause here a moment to express my deepest appreciation to the choir, to Scott, to James.  I often hear clergy colleagues bemoaning the fact that they so rarely get to worship themselves, because they’re so often facilitating worship experiences for others.  I tell them that I get to worship every single Sunday.  St. Francis of Assisi is remembered as saying to his companions, “Preach always.  When necessary, use words.”  Each and every Sunday I get to – we get to – hear powerful preaching and profound sounds of prayer.  I’ll let you in on a secret:  when Scott plays a Prelude, or James plays the Musical Meditation, or whenever the service switches from words to music, I forget all about all y’all.  I don’t give you another thought.  I just open myself and let the beauty of the music wash over me, flow through me, and I revel in the mastery we’re experiencing.  That is worship here for me, and even though I think that from time to time the preacher has something worth hearing I know that many of you feel as I do. 

I do also want to put in a good word for words, though.  I was brought up by parents who shared with their kids a love of words, and to this day a well-crafted sentence brings me joy.  A few years back my friend and mentor, the Rev. Gary Smith, served on the panel that interviewed candidates for the position of Professor of Homiletics at the Starr King School for the Ministry, our seminary out in Berkley, California.  He told me that there were two questions he asked each prospective professor:  who is your favorite poet, and what was the last novel you read?  He asked these not only because if you’re going to make your living with words – which we preachers do – then you should regularly engage with the work of others who share the craft.  He also thought it important because both poetry and fiction are acts of imagination, of taking the world as it is and opening it up, exploring it in new ways, creating something revelatory.  Poetry and (good) fiction are beautiful in a very deep sense of that word.  And they are avenues for that direct contact with beauty that can help us cultivate peace in our hearts.

My second suggestion is to regularly do things that fill us up.  Modern life can be so … draining.  It can take so much out of us, the day-in day-outness of our lives.  We can go for long periods of time – for some of us extremely long periods of time – without having the opportunity to replenish our souls, our spirits.  The things we’re doing may be really important, even enjoyable, yet the often pressured pace depletes the peace we, and the world, so desperately need.  For there to be peace in the world there must be peace in the heart. 

The concept of “extroverts” and “introverts” is often misunderstood, seeing “extroverts” as people who like people and “introverts” as people who … prefer their cats.  It’s not that at all.  There are a great many people who are introverts who really like being around people, and extroverts who enjoy being alone.  The real differences is that an introvert’s spiritual/emotional battery is refilled by solitude, while the inverse is true of extroverts – they get charged by being with others.

So for those of us who are introverts, we need to find time, make time, to be alone, and to be alone with nothing to do.  No laundry, no shopping for groceries, no making of lists.  Of course, we can do those things if doing them feeds us.  The point here is, as one of my spiritual teachers put it, “don’t do anything that you have to do, that you feel obligated to do.”  So make time for this solitary not-doing regularly.  Not every once-in-a-while when the opportunity presents itself.  Regularly.  Frequently.  We should schedule it in our day timer.

For those of us who are extroverts, we need to schedule time to hang out with people we enjoy.  And I don’t mean those social events we kind of have to go to, parties (or meetings) we feel obliged to attend, those gatherings that have some kind of purpose to them.  I mean just hanging out for the sake of hanging out.

Making the time and space for those things that fill our spirits, along with putting ourselves, regularly, into direct contact with beauty – these things can help us to develop the peace in our hearts that is essential if we’re to survive these times we’re in.

One last thing.  (And given my background as a magician, juggler, fire-eater, escape artist, and clown you should probably be expecting this one.)  Play.  “Life’s too mysterious,” a greeting card said, “don’t take it serious.”  Find a young child and get down on the floor and play with them.  Heck, get down on the floor and play even if there’s no child anywhere around.  From the floor there’s an entirely different perspective on things.  Go to kids movies – superhero films come immediately to my mind, of course, but Toy Story 4 and The Secret Life of Pets 2 are coming out soon.  Do something silly because it’s silly.  A therapist I know (who I consider a rabbi, a wise sage) told me once that he’d like to write a book about how our lives could be so much healthier if we’d try to laugh, really laugh, full-throated, no-holds-barred laugh at least once a day.  He said that he worked in a group setting he made it a practice for the staff, and that it made all the difference.  (When I told him about how much our staff laughs when we’re together he was impressed, even envious, and said that we must be doing something right.)

So .. to cultivate peace in our hearts, in our lives, we can ourselves into direct contact with whatever we find to as expressions of Beauty – wherever we find them.  We can take time, make time, to do what (re)fills our spirit, taking care to avoid doing anything that we feel like we have to do, are supposed to do, feel obligated to do.  And we can play, be silly, laugh – early and often.  These three things can help us to create peace in our hearts without which there cannot be peace in the home, among neighbors, in the cities, in the nations, or in the world; without which the world doesn’t have a leg to stand on.


Pax tecum,


Wednesday, May 01, 2019

What Makes a Memorial?

I wrote this in response to the article “Judge:  Statues are war memorials” that was published in the Daily Progress on Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

Judge Richard E. Moore has determined that the statues of Lee and Jackson are, in fact, war memorials, and as such are protected.  “It does no good,” he wrote, “pretending they are something other than what they actually are.”  As reported on Tuesday it appears that the Judge is dismissive of arguments about, “their intent and placement.”  Yet isn’t it reasonable to assume that the intent of those who commissioned and erected the statues is precisely the issue at hand?  Isn’t a war memorial, by definition, something that’s intended to memorialize a war?  To memorialize something means “to preserve the memory of; to commemorate.”

The earliest Civil War monuments were mostly commemorative markers honoring soldiers who died during the war.  The large statues glorifying the Confederacy’s leaders went up later.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the majority of these monuments were built between the 1890s and 1950s, “which matches up exactly with the era of Jim Crow segregation.”  The Jackson and Lee statues which are the center of such controversy here in Charlottesville went up in 1921 and 1924, respectively.

A growing number of historians and other scholars are in agreement that the intention of those who erected such statues was not memorializing the war — at least not entirely.  They were created with such gigantic proportions, and placed in such central locations, in order to intimidate the African American community, which was increasingly demanding — and to some small extent beginning to receive — the full measure of rights due them as citizens.  In other words, these statues were not intended to “preserve the  memory” of the war.  Rather, they were intended to continue it, to strike another blow for the culture of white supremacy the Confederacy seceded from the Union to preserve and, then, fought against the United States to protect.

When you consider the issues of intent and placement the conclusion is “inescapable,” to use Judge Moore’s word — under the guise of being war memorials these statues were intended to serve as weapons.  It does no good pretending they are something other than they actually are.

Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom