Saturday, May 30, 2020

What the hell is happening?

It’s been a while since the last time I posted anything here.  Lots of things have happened that were worthy of reflection and commentary ... and thank goodness there are wiser folks than I who’ve kept up that work!  Still, as the Walrus famously said, “the time has come [...] to talk of many things.”

The big news recently has been the rioting, the violence and the destruction, taking place in Minneapolis in the aftermath of the death murder of George Floyd an African American on Monday evening.  (I know that there are those who will take exception to my referring to Mr. Floyd’s death as “murder” instead of simply a “death.”  I’ll get back to that in a minute.)

The apparently bigger news this morning, is that yesterday during a live segment on CNN the reporter Omar Jimenez was arrested along with the segment’s producer and camera operator.  A reporter arrested — live, on-air — while doing his job.

People are rightfully outraged by this brazen disregard of the fundamental Constitutional principle of a free press.

It’s important, though, that we don’t lose sight of what’s at the heart of this, and that’s more than the specific triggering event — the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department.  And I use the word “murder” intentionally, in part because I know that it’s provocative and I believe deeply that this is a time crying out for people to be provoked out of their complacency.  I also use the word because, whatever the “objective facts” surrounding this individual event, it didn’t happen in a vacuum.  It was not an isolated incident.  It occurred within a larger context:
Yesterday The New Yorker published an article written by staff writer Jelani Cobb, titled, “The Death of George Floyd in Context.”  It is not only worth the time it takes to read, it should be considered essential reading.  [Especially by white folks like me.]. Without it, the response(s) we’re seeing today won’t — don’t, can’t — make sense. [Especially to white folks like me.]

Pax tecum,


Monday, July 01, 2019

It's Almost Enough

This is the text of the Reflections I offered on Sunday, June 30, 2019 to the congregation I have served for the past 8 years.  It is the last Reflection I will offer as their Lead Minister.  It is also quite possibly the last sermon I will offer for quite some time, because I do not expect to seek out another pastorate.  Beginning in September I will become a student again as a Chaplain Resident at the University of Virginia hospital.  I will say that it's been quite a ride.

I’m going to tell you a couple of stories this morning.  Not the kind of stories we Unitarian Universalists usually tell one another; not the kind of stories to which we usually even give much credence when we hear others tell them.  Oh, to be sure, this isn’t true of all of us, yet as a generalization, and as we’re most often seen by people in the wider world, our elevation of and commitment to “The Rational” leads us to see such decidedly irrational stories as I’m going to be telling to be ... problematic at best.  Historically, at least, Unitarianian Universalism has encouraged a healthy skepticism; we’ve been largely agnostic at heart.  The English author W. Somerset Maugham once observed,

“A Unitarian very earnestly disbelieves in almost everything that anybody else believes, and they have a very lively sustaining faith in they don’t quite know what.”

The first story happened a whole bunch of years ago, back when a primary tool for mass communication was “the list-serve.”  A colleague posted asking for help about a conundrum in which she’d found herself caught.  A member of the congregation she served had died recently.  A short time after the memorial service the deceased woman’s husband came to talk with her.  “Don’t tell my son any of this,” he said.  “We’ve always been extremely rational in our family – we believe that if you can’t see, touch, taste, hear, or feel it, it’s not real.  We don’t go in for any of that spiritual ‘woo-woo;’ we’re scientific rationalists all the way.  So, if my son knew about this he’d think I was losing it.” 

The “this” he wanted to talk to my colleague about, and which he wanted to keep from his son, was that since his wife’s death he’d continued to feel her presence.  Literally.  He knew, he knew, that it wasn’t a memory, or wishful thinking, or a delusion, or a psychotic break.  He still didn’t believe in any kind of “spiritual woo-woo” – ghosts, life-after-death, spirits.  He was still committed to logical rationalism and the proof of the senses.  Yet he also knew, knew, that he had been experiencing the undeniable presence of his wife even though she had died.  As you can imagine, this was throwing him for a bit of a loop.

But that wasn’t the problem my colleague was writing about.  She’d been able to talk with this man about his experiences, trying to help him make sense of them.  The problem came when the woman’s son came to talk with her.  He also requested that she not tell his dad about what he was about to say, because he knew his dad would think he was losing it.  But since his mom had died he’d been experiencing her almost physical presence.  It didn’t make any sense to him, it didn’t fit with anything he believed.  Still, he was rock-solid sure that these experiences were real, nonetheless.
So, that was her conundrum.  It was obvious that these two men needed to talk with each other about their experiences, yet she felt beholden to respect each of their requests not to tell the other.  So … what was she supposed to do?

Her question was pretty quickly and easily answered.  A whole bunch of us agreed that without breaking her promise she could say to either one – or both – something along the lines of:  “I’ve been thinking about what we talked about, and I know that you think your son (or father) would think you’re losing it, yet I’d seriously encourage you to take the risk of talking with them about it.  I think you owe it to your relationship with each other and with your wife (or mother); I also think you might be surprised by the response you’d receive.” 

As I said, her question was quickly taken care of, yet the thread that grew out of it went on for several months, as I remember.  And that’s because, slowly at first, person after person posted something that began like, “I’ve hardly ever told anyone about this, but …”  They’d then go on to tell the story of something rather “unbelievable,” something that didn’t align with our profession’s much touted rationality, yet which the person knew with every fiber of their being was true.  Some confessed that they’d actually never told anybody about this thing; one even noted, “I’ve never even told my wife about this.”  Yet on and on the litany went – post after post, day after day, story after story – experiences that didn’t make sense yet which the person who’d experienced it knew in their core were real.

We may be inclined to disbelieve this kind of thing, yet I’d remind you of the words Shakespeare had Hamlet say to his friend: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  More recently it’s been observed, “The universe is not only more strange than you imagine, it is more strange than you can imagine.”  I’d always believed that it was the scientist and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke who coined that phrase.  This week, though, I’ve learned that it actually goes back to a passage in the 1927 essay “Possible Worlds” by the British-Indian physiologist, geneticist, evolutionary biologist, and mathematician, J. B. S. Haldane:

“Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. I have read and heard many attempts at a systematic account of it, from materialism and theosophy to the Christian system or that of Kant, and I have always felt that they were much too simple. I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy.”

The title of this sermon is, “It’s Almost Enough …,” and it comes from one of my own experiences.  (One of my own stories.)  In 2001 I was enrolled in the Spiritual Guidance program of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.  (That’s the same program Wendy Steeves, the Office Assistant here, recently completed.)  The program is largely done at-a-distance, but all of the participants come together for a 9-day retreat once in each of the two years.  There was a lot of instruction, a lot of prayer, a lot of silence, a lot of time for contemplation -- and a whole lot of “spiritual woo-woo,” that irrational stuff that’s eschewed by so many UUs. 

On one of the first days of the retreat we were given a prayer exercise.  It’s Shalem’s perspective that prayer isn’t something we do.  Rather, God is always praying in us, and what we do in what we call prayer is to quiet ourselves enough to hear God’s prayer in us for us.  I’ll note that Shalem is decidedly ecumenical in orientation, even with their deep openness to other faith traditions and spiritual perspectives.  Still, a theistic perspective is core to their understanding of life (the universe, and everything), so the concept of “God” is foundational to them – albeit not with its most common understanding.  Anyway …

In this exercise we were asked to try to find an “inner place of peace … a mood of meditation,” and to allow the thought (or feeling) of a person we knew well to rise into our consciousness.  In other words, to listen for who God might be praying for in and through us.  When we felt that we knew the who, we were then to again try to quiet ourselves and listen for the what, to listen for what God’s prayer might be for that person.  After a little while we were then invited to do the same thing for someone we didn’t know all that well, and, then, finally, for someone we were having some kind of difficulties with.

When I was focusing on someone we didn’t know that well, one of the other participants kept coming up. I saw her in my mind’s eye, standing with Jesus.  He knelt in front of her and she put her hands on his head.  She then sunk to her knees, and the two embraced as they both began to cry.  (Weird, right?)

I honestly don’t think I’d even said more than a couple of words to this woman by this point in the retreat, so you can imagine it was with a little trepidation that I approached her during a break to tell her about this “vision” (if you will) and ask if it meant anything to her.  She looked really shocked.  She said that some years ago she’d had a hands-on healing ministry but had gotten scared by something and had stopped.  We’d been told to come to the retreat with a question to ponder – her’s was whether she should start again.  She felt that the vision I’d had during prayer was at least a pointer toward her answer.

A few days later someone came up to me and said that in her prayer that morning I kept coming to mind, along with the hymn, “Here I Am, Lord.”  The hymn draws on a story from the Hebrew Scriptures in which the character of God keeps calling out to a young Samuel by name.  Each time Samuel answers, “Here I am, Lord.”  This was also the hymn we sang a lot at the Methodist church camp the year I first felt my call to ordained ministry.  My question for discernment was whether I should remain in the ordained ministry.  This person’s prayer, though she could have had no way of knowing it, was a pointer for me toward my answer.  (And here I am I, 18 years later.)
Stuff like that happened a lot that week – prayers being answered, needed messages given and received, we even had a couple physical healings.  A whole lot of “spiritual woo-woo.”  At the time I considered myself a Zen/Taoist/neo-Pagan/historically Christian/currently atheistic Unitarian Universalist, so all of this didn’t fit with any of my “philosophies.”

The cohort with whom I went through the program consisted of Catholic nuns and priests, pastors from various Protestant traditions, lay people, a staunchly rational atheist humanist psychiatrist, and a Zen/Taoist/neo-Pagan/historically Christian/currently atheistic Unitarian Universalist.  Early on I became good friends with two of the other participants – a Baptist clergyman and a Presbyterian laywoman.  (I’m glad to say that we’re still friends all these years later.)  I don’t remember any longer which of us coined the phrase, but whoever said it, it stuck.  Whenever we’d hear one of these stories about something “queerer than we can imagine,” we’d reply, “You know … it’s almost enough …”  Actually, the full phrase was, “You know … it’s almost enough to make you believe in God.”
Physical healings; seeing/hearing answers to questions we didn’t know were being asked by people we’d never met before; miracles, for want of a better word, both big and small … and we’d say, somewhat ironically, that these were almost enough to make one believe in God.

I know, I do know, that “God” is one of those words many UUs don’t want to hear in their sanctuaries during Sunday services.  It’s meaningless.  It’s harmful.  The fourteen times we uttered it during the Opening Hymn, and the eight or so times Adam said it, were more than enough for some of us to last a year or two.  The Sunday after Virginia legalized same sex marriage I put on the altar two placards that had been created for a protest planned that were no longer needed.  One said, “All Love Is Equal;” the other said, “God is Love.”  So strong is the allergy to traditional “God language” among some of us that I know at least one member of this congregation came in that morning, saw the sign on the altar with the word “God” on it, and then turned around and left in disgust.

I do understand that what has been and still is so often referred to by that word, “God,” is utterly meaningless and has been used to inflict great harm.  Yet I also know the philosophical definition of the word:  “God” is, “that than which no greater can be conceived.” This means that whatever “God” is, it’s the greatest, the best, the most awesome, the most life-affirming, the most expansive … it’s that for which no greater attribute can be conceived.  The way the word “God” has been and is still so often being used is incredibly limited and limiting.  The way the word “God” is all too often (mis)understood simply can’t be what that words is really pointing to because it’s so easy to imagine something greater.  And this means that those understandings of “God” simply can’t be what “God” is.  The word “God,” when properly understood, is so unlimited that no less an authority than Saint Augustine said, “if you can understand it, if you can comprehend it, it’s not God.”  (Si comprehendis non es Deus.)

When I did my chaplaincy training all those years ago my supervisor told us what she’d say when a patient told her they didn’t need a chaplain’s visit because they didn’t believe in God.  “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in,” she’d say.  “I probably don’t believe in that God, either.”  That “God” isn’t what “God” is.  And if that “God” isn’t God, then God might after all have meaning even for us skeptical, agnostic, rational UUs who “[disbelieve] almost everything that anybody else believes, and [who] have a very lively sustaining faith in [we] don’t quite know what”

In his address to the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School in 1838 Ralph Waldo Emerson asked those freshly-minted ministers,

“In how many churches, by how many prophets, tell me, [are people] made sensible that [they are] an infinite Soul, that the heavens are passing into [their] mind; that [they are] drinking forever the soul of God?”

Not given dogma or stern warnings, but told that they are, themselves, intimately a part of what God is; that they are inseparably part of something truly larger than themselves.  The answer is “not in too many” Unitarian Universalist churches today, I’m afraid.

And in his essay Nature St. Ralph described an experience he had when he was,

“Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball [I love that phrase!]; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”

In how many churches, by how many prophets, are we told that we are “part or parcel” of God?

I believe it was the first sermon I preached during candidating week for the first congregation I served which some encouraged not to give.  It was called “A Feather on the Breath of God,” a phrase used by the Catholic saint Hildegarde of Bingen to describe herself.  “Don’t talk about ‘God’ right out of the gate,” some people advised.  “It doesn’t go over well.”  (Yet here I stand, 25 years later.) 
Since I started out talking explicitly about God it seems right to talk explicitly about God in this last sermon, too.  Truth be told, I’ve done so in many, many sermons over the years since – maybe even in most of them, honestly.  I didn’t always use that word; you may not have even noticed.  But I did.  That’s because when we talk about “God,” we’re really talking about the Ultimate Reality in which, through which, and by which we live.  What a child once called “the Really Real,” in which, as the Apostle Paul put it, we “live, and move, and have our being.”  When we talk about “God” we’re talking about that which “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together” (to quote the esteemed theologian Obi Wan Kenobi).  We’re talking about, really, the only thing that’s really worth talking about – because that toward which the word “God” points is not some angry and judgmental anthropomorphic cosmic cop on the lookout for any infraction.  No.  When we talk about God we’re talking justice, we’re talking about truth, we’re talking about life, we’re talking about love.  What else should we be talking about?

Look around you.  Really open your eyes and look around you.  Look at your own life.  What do you see when you do?  A child’s open smile.  The warm touch of the person you love, and who loves you, most in all the world.  Leaves rustling on the wind when a stultifyingly hot day shifts with an incoming storm.  The pastel pinks and blues of sunrise; the vibrant crimson and azure of sunset.  The realization that you’ve found an answer for which you were seeking.  The courage to act on it.  Comfort in times of your own brokenness; strength when others need it from you.  Beauty, even in the presence of brutality.  The healing of body, mind, and spirit … even when there is no “cure.”  People who challenge our complacency; people who help point the way when we feel lost; people, plain and simple, other people.  Animals, plants, rivers, rocks, stars.  Moments of clarity about what really matters most.  Every breath we take.  (Every move we make.)  The sound of music.  The sound of silence.  The sound of life lived well, of life lived poorly, of life lived the best we can.  The sound of life lived in love, and love lived in our lives. 

All of that is real.  Really real.  All of it shows us, grounds us in the truth that, as I’ve been saying for years, “we are one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love.  All of it revealing the truth that we are not alone; the truth that in the end justice will prevail.  All of it reminders of the twin truths that life is stronger than death and that love is stronger than anything.  All of it God.

Look around you; really look around you, my friends, and really see.  And you know what?  It’s almost enough …

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Need for Change

There is a struggle going on right now for the heart and soul of the faith tradition I serve.  Actually, I believe that the "heart and soul" of the faith is safe and well, but the institutional expression of that faith, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Affiliated Congregations, is struggling with how to live in to our stated commitment of becoming a truly anti-racist, anti-oppression, multi-cultural community. 

The Unitarian, Universalist, and modern Unitarian Universalist traditions have a long (although decidedly mixed) history regarding issues of racism.  This history has been powerfully covered in the writings of the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, and the nearly exhaustive book, The Arc of the Universe is Long: Unitarian Universalism, Anti-Racism, and the Journey from CalgaryYet many see the so-called Black Empowerment Controversy of the late 1960s, as the catalyst for all the successes, failures, and struggles which form the foundation of where we are today.  Over and over again, this majority-white religious tradition has been challenged to look at just what it means to be a majority-white institution committed to the dismantling of the white supremacist culture in which we all "live, move, and have our being." 

In recent years there has been a strong call by people in historically, and still, marginalized groups within our movement for us -- as individuals, as congregations, and as an Association -- to really, fully, deeply come to terms with the ways in which we participate in and perpetuate the systems and structures of the white supremacist culture that is the dominant culture in the United States and which informs and "infects" every institution.  Especially those of us who identify or are identified as white are being challenged to recognize that we, ourselves, though good-hearted and well-meaning, are mired in the very muck we claim we are committed to cleaning up.

This is not to say that the commitment we claim is false.  When I first moved to Charlottesville, Virginia -- where I have been serving the UU congregation for the past 8 years -- I met with an African American pastor with whom my predecessors had established a relationship.  I'm paraphrasing him a bit here, but he said to me, "We know about you Unitarian Universalists.  We know how you've shown up over the years to support the African American community.  We know how you answered Dr. King's call to march in Selma.  We know about your commitment to racial justice."  And when the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr. came to Charlottesville to speak following the events of the summer of 2017, it was not by coincidence that he choose to speak from the pulpit of the Unitarian Universalist congregation.  Many UUs have spent a good deal of their lives, and a lot of their heart and soul, working for the cause of racial justice.  That's a fact that simply cannot be denied.

Yet that fact, that commitment, is not what's being challenged today.  What's at issue is not whether we UUs are committed to racial justice, but rather what that commitment calls on us to do -- again, especially those of us who identify or are identified as white.  In the years since the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and '60s the analysis of the many, and often insidious, ways racism works has evolved. 

One example is the growing insistence on using the phrase "white supremacy" where in the past one might have said, "white privilege" or, more simply, "racism."  For some whites the term is thought to be too provocative, too inflammatory, especially when it's being applied to us.  We might be willing recognize that there's a sense in which we are "racist," because of the inherent "racial bias" with which we've been inculcated from our earliest days, and we might even be comfortable acknowledging that we benefit from "white privilege," yet we draw the line at using the phrase "white supremacy," because we think that it should be reserved for those who march with tiki torches, while waving Confederate and Nazi flags.

Yet anti-racist scholars and activists note that the term "racism" is rather vague because it doesn't explicitly say anything about the power dynamics involved.  The bizarre notion of "reverse racism" can conceivably exist comfortably within the term "racism."  "White supremacy," however, clearly indicates that the issue is not just racial prejudice, but specifically all that follows on the idea that white history, culture, assumptions, norms, practices, perspectives, etc., are superior to those of people of color or, to put it another way, are "supreme."  So, while not every white person is a white supremacist, we all participate in, and benefit from, the culture of white supremacy.

What is being questioned today is whether or not we white UUs will evolve with this evolving understanding of the dynamics of white supremacy culture -- an understanding that comes directly out of the lived experience of people of color and those of intersecting oppression.  Another way of asking this is, will we who identify as white actually listen to and believe what we're told by our siblings of color about how we (even if unintentionally and unwittingly) participate in and perpetuate the systems and structures of the oppressions we are committed to ending?  Will we believe what we're told about what's needed to actually dismantle the culture of white supremacy, even if what we're told is different from, and maybe even contradicts, what we've always been told and what our own assumptions and "reason" tells us?

This is the challenge with which we are struggling today:  will those of us who identify as white within this predominantly and historically white tradition be willing to see ourselves and our institutions through the eyes of people of color, and will we be willing to change because of what we then see?  This is the direction a great many UUs desire to see the Association move, discomforting and disorienting though it will necessarily be.  We believe our faith calls us to nothing less than such a transformation. 

There is not universal agreement, however.  This disagreement gained public attention in Spokane, Washington this past week where our Association was having its annual General Assembly.  A member of our clergy distributed copies of his self-published book in which he decried what he sees as the Association's fall into "safetyism," "political correctness," and "identitarianism." 

The Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliance responded with "An Open Letter From White UU Ministers," which was signed by over 300 ordained Unitarian Universalist ministers.  It is even more important to read the responses from DRUUMM -- Diverse  Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries -- and POCI -- the People of Color and Indigenous Chapter of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association -- as these provide the perspective of the people of color who were most directly harmed.

Although I was not in Spokane, I asked to have my name added to the "Open Letter" because even without reading the book I have heard other UUs from historically, and still, marginalized groups describing the pain they felt and the harm the book's content caused.  I believe their testimony, and need no more "proof" than that to know that I must place myself in solidarity with them.

I will read the book, though, because as a person who identifies as white I think it is incumbent upon me to know what other white folks are saying, what "case" they're making to push back against the call to be transformed in and through the work of transforming our society.  In the little I've read so far I'm saddened, though not surprised, to see arguments that I've heard in the congregation I've been serving from people there who think that the way we were going about the work of racial justice was wrong.  The struggle that's going on in the larger Association is going on in local congregations as well.

I do not believe that I know everything about the work of our mutual liberation.  I know for certain that much of what I think and see has been conditioned by the very culture I am committed to changing.  I recognize that the truly anti-racist, anti-oppression, multicultural Beloved Community I am committed to working for will be entirely different than the world I know, undoubtedly unimaginably so.  And I know that getting there will require, will demand, that I undertake the painful work of transforming myself.  I do not like this.  I would rather not.  Yet if I truly am committed to dismantling the white supremacy culture I know that I have no choice but to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Pax tecum,


Monday, June 17, 2019

Leave It ... You're Fine

This is the text of the reflection I offered on Sunday, June 16, 2019 to the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A woman is doing some painting in her kitchen.  She bumps into a small table and then, in that horrified slow motion way, watches as the jar of paint falls off. When it hits the floor the jar shatters, paint spray hits the wall, and a mess of bright blue glossy enamel spreads across the floor.  Looking on this scene the woman says, “Good God …!”

I’m going to leave the story there for a minute, because we’ve all had that experience, haven’t we?  Oh, maybe it wasn’t spilled paint, but was, instead, knocking over a display in the grocery store.  My kids will never let me forget the year I totally, seriously burned the Thanksgiving turkey.  (I mean, the year I made the intentional decision to serve Caribbean blackened turkey.) If ever they think I have forgotten, they pull out the pictures they took. In my defense, I will say that once you cut through the half-inch or so of char, the turkey was pretty moist.

Have you ever meant to save something but somehow accidentally deleted it?  Or maybe hit “send” before you meant to?  I read about a guy who sent a group text to his friends and co-workers in which he spoke rather unflattering about their boss and told of his plans to pretend to be sick so he could go home and start the weekend early.  Unfortunately, he’d forgotten that his boss was part of the group.  He ended up with more than a long weekend.

Anybody here not have a story of some monumental screw-up?  Back in February I talked about how the theological concepts of “sin” and “grace” are so often completely misunderstood, that the one English word, “sin,” comes from eight different Greek words, many of which are, essentially, acknowledgements that we are prone to making mistakes.  “We are all sinners,” then, isn’t a judgmental condemnation.  It’s just a statement of fact: we all tend to screw-up. And that means we don’t have to put so much effort into, waste so much of our psychic and spiritual energy, trying to come off as something that we’re not: perfect.  We’re all just trying our best, bumping into things, making mistakes, making messes that have to be cleaned up.

So let’s go back to that woman in her kitchen.  This story comes from a song by the singer-songwriter David Wilcox.  When we left her, she was looking down at the mess on her floor, saying, “Good God …”. But I tricked you.  So doesn’t just say, “Good God.”  She says, “Good God, look at that pattern!  I’ve never seen that before.”

And then she lets the paint stay there on her floor.  When it’s dry she paints a white frame around it, installs gallery lighting, and gives it a name: “Kitchen Blue.”  And Wilcox tells us that, “rich folks come over for dinner, [and] they all want one of their own.  They say, ‘how much?’ ‘‘Who’s the artist?’ and, “My what a beautiful home.’”

The chorus is,

“Leave it like it is.
Never mind the turpentine.
Just leave it like it is.
It’s fine.”

Leave it like it is … it’s fine.  And you, and me, we’re fine.  Our messes?  Our mistakes?  Our failings and failures?  They’re just part of being human.  We don’t have to try to be perfect.  We don’t have to try to hide our mistakes.

I’m not saying that there isn’t room for improvement; this isn’t an invitation to keep all of our bad habits. There’s a saying, “God loves you just the way you are … and loves you too much to let you stay that way.”  Those of us who, for example, identify or are identified as white — the way we are it isn’t “just fine.”  Same, too, for us men.  The mess of misogyny needs to be cleaned up.  We can’t recognize that we participate in and perpetuate the systems and structures of white supremacy (whether we want to or not) and simply say, “we’re really good people, we’re fundamentally okay and, anyway, we aren’t as bad as those guys carrying tiki torches and waving Confederate and Nazi flags.”  No … there are some messes, some mistakes, some “sins” (if you will) that need to be addressed; that do call for the mental, emotional, social, spiritual turpentine. It doesn’t matter how old we are, how set in our ways, how many other good things we’ve done — when we see or are shown the way our mistakes hurt people, it’s still true that we’re “fine” just the way we are.  We can’t, though, be content to stay that way.

But let’s look at that song again.  The woman doesn’t just notice the spill and decide not to freak out about it. No. She highlights it, frames it, names it, shines a light right on it.  And when the “rich folks” come over for dinner she doesn’t throw an area rug over it to “keep up appearances.” 

What would that look like?  The peace activist, poet, and Buddhist monk the Venerable Tich Nhat Hanh described in one of his books the way interpersonal conflicts are handled in Vietnamese monasteries.  When a monk feels hurt by something another monk said or did, the two come together, kneeling face-to-face, very close. The rest of the monks gather around in witness.  Then the aggrieved monks began to recount the story of what happened … with each monk focusing on what they themselves did wrong.  One might say, “The other day I intruded on your meditation,” and the other might reply, “When you tapped me on the shoulder I shouted at you rather than asking what you needed.”  The first could go on, “I should have apologized for the interruption, but instead I started to insult the strength of your practice.”  See?  One says, “I did …”. The other says, “I did …”. They go on like this, alternating back and forth, until the entire incident has been described, with each person focusing on their own faults first.   

Now, the monks could begin by each accusing the other of wrongdoing, each one telling “their side” of the story in order to show what the other person did wrong.  That’s how our dominant culture teaches us to handle conflicts — come out swinging, shine a spotlight on the other person’s failings while simultaneously trying to hide or at least minimize our own.  Well … how well does that usually work out?  That aggressive posture, which is really a defensive posture, almost always just reinforces the differences.  We tend to dig in when we feel we’re being attacked. Often, and maybe most often, we’re so busy inventorying the other person’s faults that we don’t even notice our role in the situation. Jesus is remembered as asking,“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in [the other person’s] eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own […]?

So, the song (and virtually every real spiritual tradition I know of) tells us that we don’t need to get entangled in the paralyzing worry of what other people will think of us.  And we don’t need to try to hide our mistakes, our flaws, once we’ve seen them.  It points to the truth that being willing to show them to others is the only way we have any real chance of addressing and correcting them … of making the changes in ourselves that are necessary for real healing.

Now … if that’s all the wisdom to glean from that song, that would be enough. But there’s one more thing. The last verse is:

“Most folks suffer in sorrow,
Thinking they’re just no good.
They don’t match the magazine model
As close as they think they should.
They live just like the paint-by-numbers,
The teacher would be impressed.
A lifetime of ‘follow the lines,’
So they’re just like all of the rest.”

“The mass of [people] live lives of quiet desperation,” is how our Unitarian ancestor Henry David Thoreau put it. To a large extent that’s because we’re trying to stay within the lines, conform to the expected, to behave — and be – the way we’re “supposed” to.  There’s a scene in the movie Avengers: End Game (which, if you haven’t seen it yet, first, shame on you, and, second, don’t worry, no spoilers here), after one character confesses with shame to another that they’re really just a failure, the other character responds, “Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be […].  The measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are.”

It takes courage to buck the system, to take the risk of standing out, to be who we are instead of who the world wants us and expects us to be, to, “march to the beat of a different drummer,” quoting Thoreau again.  In our bones we know the truth of the Japanese aphorism, “the nail that sticks up is hammered down.”  And this thing of openly acknowledging our faults and failings, of paying more attention to them than to the faults and failings we see in others, to, keep clean, “our side of the street,” (as the 12 Step movement puts it) … well … that would make us stick out in a world where we’re encouraged to do anything but.  Yet being who we are, who we really are, with all of our follies and foibles, daring to publicly name our “growing edges,” is the key to living a full, rich, and authentic life.  All of the great religions of the world assure us of that.  And so does David Wilcox.

Oh!  One last thing.  It turns out that there are people who really have framed and highlighted their mistakes!  This is a photo of a hole a man put in the drywall when he fell down the stairs during the first Thanksgiving he and his love spent together.  In case you can’t see what’s at the bottom of the photo, it’s a small plaque that reads, “First Thanksgiving, 2015,” and he describes his medium as, “hand, drywall.”

Pax tecum,


Thursday, June 06, 2019

It’s Time For a Change

I submitted the following Letter to the Editor in response to the article in The Daily Progress on Wednesday, June 5, 2019, “City considers nixing Jefferson’s birthday observation.”

I want to thank Mayor Walker for proposing that we stop celebrating Thomas Jefferson's birthday in April, but, instead, make a holiday of Liberation and Freedom Day in March.  Undeniably Jefferson played a pivotal role in the founding of the United States.  His words about equality are the basis of the "promissory note" Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared had “come due” in his famous address in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963.  For the past 8 years I have served a congregation named as a memorial to the third President, specifically because of his championing of religious freedom.  And yet he also believed it was right for him to “own” roughly 600 women, children, and men, and we know that he raped at least one of these women, and was responsible for the separation of families, and the brutal treatment and deaths of the others.

I don’t believe that we should ignore his accomplishments and contributions to this country; I do not believe that we should forget or ignore history.  Yet that means the entirety of our history — including the ugliest and most traumatic parts.  As the more complete picture is more widely known it makes sense to think about what parts of history should be not only remembered but celebrated.

So ask yourself:  should we be celebrating the birthday of a slave owning rapist and murderer, (which is a true description of him regardless of all the good and great he did), or is it more appropriate to celebrate the day on which freedom was finally given to those whom that man held as property, as well as all the others enslaved in Charlottesville and Albemarle?   I don’t see how the answer is not obvious.

There is a saying  “If you can’t change your mind, how do you know you still have one?”  As individuals, as a community, and as a nation we should be able to change our minds as our knowledge and understanding evolves.  Thomas Jefferson did many things worthy of celebrating.  The man himself, though?    The time has come for a change.

Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom

Monday, June 03, 2019

Crossing Over

This is the text of the reflections I offered on Sunday, June 2, 2019 at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.  This was the Sunday of our annual Bridging Ceremony, the uniquely Unitarian Universalist rite of passage from "youth" to "young adult."  It might be worth noting that these words were illustrated by project images.  (I've put the images at the end of the post, and noted throughout where they came.)
Prior to the reflection we watched a clip from an episode of the BBC Documentary "Human Planet," about the "Living Bridges of Meghalaya."  It's awesome.

There aren’t too many rituals that we Unitarian Universalists all share.  The vast majority of congregations light achalice at the beginning of their worship services, covenant groups, and some meetings, but not all congregations do.  And many UU communities celebrate an annual Flower Communion, yet I don’t think it’s even most.
Back in 1967 the Rev. Peter Raible took songs from the hymnal that was then in use, Hymns for the Celebration of Life, and, as he described it, “freely translated” them, creating Hymns for the Cerebration of Strife.  One of the more popular, sung to the tune of “Holy, Holy, Holy” was, “Coffee, Coffee, Coffee:”
Coffee, Coffee, Coffee,
Praise the strength of coffee.
Early in the morn we rise with thoughts of only thee.
Served fresh or reheated,
Dark by thee defeated,
Brewed black by perk or drip or instantly.

Though all else we scoff we
Come to church for coffee;
If we're late to congregate, we come in time for thee.
Coffee our one ritual,
Drinking it habitual,
Brewed black by perk or drip instantly.

Coffee the communion
Of our Uni-Union,
Symbol of our sacred ground, our one necessity.
Feel the holy power
At our coffee hour,
Brewed black by perk or drip or instantly.
So there’s that – the Coffee Hour.  Yet not even all of us drink coffee.
No, the one ritual that I believe is celebrated in every Unitarian Universalist congregation is what we’re about to do here today.  As far as I know every Unitarian Universalist congregation marks the transition of its young people from being youth to being young adults.  We don’t have a first Communion.  We don’t have Confirmation.  We don’t have Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.  We don’t send our children out into the woods to come back adults.  Instead, we have the Ceremony of Bridging.
Bridges are symbols with deep roots in our cultural consciousness. From “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” and “A Bridge Too Far,” to “Bridge of Spies,” “Bridge to Tarabithia,” and, of course, the 1995 classic, “The Bridges of Madison County,” bridges evoke so much.
Fundamentally, bridges represent getting from here to there, here to somewhere else. (1)  They cross some kind of chasm, connect two places separated by some kind of gulf. (2)  Some bridges take a long time to traverse (3), while the journey over some others is pretty quick (4).  Some bridges are solid (5), when you’re on them you feel safe, secure.  Others are a little more … sketchy (6).  Some (7) are improvised, rather impermanent.  Others (8) you know can last for centuries.  Like those bridges in Meghalaya. (9, 10)
This morning I want to lift up three messages I find in this metaphor.  I’m talking particularly to our bridges, of course, yet I think we could all do well to listen.
First, even on the most solid of bridges crossing over from here to there is an act of faith.  You don’t always know (11) where there is.  We generally know where here is, but where there is, (12) and what’s waiting for you on the other side is not always so clear.  Sometimes you’re not even sure what’s under you, (13) what’s supporting you, what's keeping you up.  Yet we all have to cross over the bridges of our lives when we come to them. 
Oh, we don’t always have to be in a rush about it.  (14) Sometimes we’re able to take our time. (15)  Eventually, though, we all have to cross over the bridges of our lives. (16)  If we want to keep moving forward, that is.  If we want to truly be Alive, that is.
The second message in bridges is that crossing a bridge can be a dangerous thing.  That’s why so many movies set a fight scene on a bridge (17) – it ramps up the tension (18), because we all know, viscerally, that when you’re crossing a bridge from here to there, (19) there’s always the danger of falling.  Of course, there are some bridges that don’t give any cause for concern (20) -- they're not all that high, and a fall wouldn't be so bad.  And there are others that are built (21) so as to inspire every confidence, constructed to assure you of your safety.  But not all bridges are like that. (22)  There are some bridges that are truly dangerous (23) to traverse.  We know that we cross over them at our peril. (24)
Yet even these we have to cross if we want to keep moving forward and be truly Alive.  The truth is that even when it’s a bridge like this – and I hate to tell you, if your doing it right, you’ll come to such bridges more than once in your life – even when it’s a bridge like this – and maybe especially when it’s a bridge like this – it is actually far more dangers to our life’s journeys if we refuse to cross, and instead settle for staying stuck where we are.
So that’s two things – as we live our lives we will be faced with crossing over a bridge the end of which we can’t always know, and we will have to cross them even though we do know that it can be dangerous.  The third lesson comes specifically from those living bridges of Meghalaya. (25) The third lesson is that the bridges that are the strongest (26), that will truly stand the test of time, are those that we create with others (27), those bridges that are really Alive not only because they grow and evolve but also because they are made by living and loving hands. (28)  
You who are bridging today are about to cross a bridge (29) from here to there, from being seen as youth to being known as young adults.  And this bridge you cross has been lovingly built and carefully tended by your parents, your siblings, your friends, your teachers at school, your teachers here at church, the people who make up this Unitarian Universalist faith, and all those who have crossed over this bridge before you.  You, too, have a part in building this bridge, because as you cross it you leave something of yourself.  You add your own unique beauty, and you strengthen this bridge for all who will cross over it in all the years to come.
In this distinctively Unitarian Universalist ritual, one of the few shared by every Unitarian Universalist congregation, we recognize that you are young adults; that you’ve reached a milestone, a turning point, a transition in your lives and that we, as a community that loves you, recognize, mark this moment and honor this passage.
Oh, one more thing.  Despite the roughly 1,200 words I’ve just spoken, in the end it is up to you to determine just what the bridges of your life mean, and what messages you will glean from your crossings.  (30)   

Pax tecum,




(5) (6)


(9) (10)