There Are No Unsacred Places (sermon)

September 17, 2017

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick

(this sermon was delivered extemporaneously, though written in full ahead of time; the content is substantially the same, though minor changes exist between this text and the one preached)

Place is important.  Where we are informs who we are and who we become.  When we are rooted in our place, we can expand our wings and feel our fullest power.  It’s part of why I am excited for our children today – their One Room Schoolhouse is outside on the grounds, connecting them to this place in a way that being inside the building cannot do, connecting them with our Seventh Principle in ways that only Nature can help make real.

To grow my roots here, in this place of all places, one focus of my study leave this past summer was getting to know New Jersey better.  Of course, everyone has an opinion about how to do that. Read Junot Diaz or Phillip Roth. Go to Patterson. Watch the Sopranos (which I did not do, have never done, and don’t plan on doing – that’s not the New Jersey I want to get to know).

I had my own ideas, as idiosyncratic as this may seem.  For instance, I visited New Jersey’s only green burial preserve.  I hope to tell you more about it at the end of October, but I just want to say that there is a line from a poem by Wendell Berry – it is at the top of your order of service: there are no unsacred places; only sacred places and desecrated places.  This green burial preserve is a fine example of a sacred place, sustained as such in how they honor the land and honor the natural processes of decomposition.

I read Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, which seems apt, given his iconic status as a Jersey boy.  I also read two books about the theologies in the Boss’ music – one written by retired Unitarian Universalist minister Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz, and a more recent one, written by a Rutgers professor, Azzan Yadin-Israel.

Aside from my field trip to Steelmantown Cemetery, and reading more about icon Bruce Springsteen, my New Jersey study leave time led me to a heart-breaking piece of local history that I mean to share with you today.

But let me back up a bit.  Back to a workshop presented by UU religious leaders of color in New Orleans this past June.

During the Q & A time, a white colleague asked what she can do to address racism since her congregation is not only majority white, but was 100% white.  The response came from religious educator of color, Aisha Hauser, who has been an important voice in our faith movement for a long time, and who gained more visibility in this past half year as we have more actively struggled with patterns of racial bias and white supremacy in our own midst.  Aisha said, “If you are anywhere on this continent and in a space that is white-only or white-majority, it wasn’t always that way.  Start there.  Start with that story.  See where it takes you.”

It wasn’t always that way.  Start there.  Start with that story. See where it takes you.

Even though our congregation is by no stretch all white, this piece of advice stuck with me.

There is a story of this place, this here. Pieces of it have been made public in academic history journals and by local history efforts. When I learned this story about East Brunswick, I heard the echo of Aisha Hauser’s admonition – start with that story, see where it takes you — I knew that I had to share it with you.

This story speaks of a place desecrated by the forced removal to slavery of human beings, done so for profit, done so by abuse of judicial power.  It is a story of white supremacy and it is a story of our place’s white supremacy.  As such, it belonging to the same place we belong, it makes it our responsibility how we respond, it makes it our responsibility how to change a place that has been desecrated back into a sacred place.

New Jersey was the last of the Northern states to abolish slavery, voting in 1804 to do so in a gradual way – so gradual that there were still 16 slaves in this state when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1865.  Until 1812, New Jersey law that allowed the removal of slaves and apprentices out of state (and into the Deep South) with their (or their mother’s) assent.  This is important because six years later, Judge Jacob Van Wickle, who lived here in East Brunswick and served in the Middlesex Court of Common Pleas, used his corrupt court to falsely claim the consent of children and their mothers to being sent to Louisiana, promising them pay, promising them safe return to New Jersey, promising these things all falsely, and benefitting financially.

We heard some of their names when Marie read them earlier:

Harriet

Susan

Mary

Augustus,

Rosinah, aged 6 weeks

Dianah

Hercules

Dianah

Dorcas

It is my understanding that Van Wickle brought these people, either under false circumstances or against their will, into his court.  In one case, in Rosinah’s case, he placed her in his courtroom, asked if she – a six week old — would like to go to Louisiana and when the infant cried, he announced to the court that cry was the cry of assent.  Then, with that child’s mother next to her, Van Wickle basically said, “Your child is going to Louisiana.  Where would you like to go?”  In this devious way, Van Wickle stole the real or promised eventual freedom of those people, consigning them and their next generation, to a life of slavery.  Despicable.

Van Wickle was able to do this with the help of at least two other primary co-conspirators, both of whom were related to him by blood or marriage.  They all benefitted from this financially, as payment for slaves in Louisiana was high.  However, they were not able to get away with this for long.  Once this slave trading ring was made known, there was public outcry.  There was the founding of the Middlesex County Association for the Prevention of Kidnapping – and the eventual legislation to prohibit the “exportation of slaves or servants of color” which shut down the slave trading ring within six months of its inception.  Van Wickle’s co-conspirators were eventually indicted. Van Wickle never was, though it was his home that was used as headquarters.  He continued to serve as judge, and histories stopped paying attention to this dastardly deed.  And in the way of things, particularly in the way of white supremacy, it was erased from our collective knowing.  It was only in the 1990s, when this history was recovered, that we can now know it.

Just off Old Stage Road, here in East Brunswick, near the border with Spotswood, there is Van Wickle Road.  The people in the 1970s or 1980s who named that street did not know this history, did not know that Judge Van Wickle had done such a devious thing. The tarnish on Van Wickle’s reputation had been polished by the whitewashing of history. No one knew at the time of the street naming, but now it is known.

More to the point: now we know.  Now you know.  What are we going to do with the information?  How do we become faithful stewards of this history?  Given that this is our place – it does not matter if you reside in East Brunswick or not, your congregation exists here, and thus our roots are here, a source of your authority and power is here, a place of your accountability is here – what are we called to do?

This has been my question ever since I learned this history this summer during my study leave.  I did not go looking for this history, yet in the course of a conversation, I came to know this horrendous history.  And I cannot unknow it.

The East Brunswick Township Council next meets on September 25.  It is my intention to attend that meeting, to find the courage to speak during the public section, and to add my voice to those who have asked the Council to remember the deeds of this slave trader judge and to change the name of the street. I will ask them to do so before the end of 2018, the 200th anniversary of act wherein he sent those people – let me again say their names: Harriet, Susan, Mary, Augustus, Rosinah, Dianah, Dianah again, Dorcas, Hercules and others with names unknown to us  — into permanent slavery.

We have a Racial Justice Team here at TUS.  We met earlier this week to reflect on the question, “Given our Unitarian Universalist principles by which we seek to live, what is our obligation as a good citizen of this Township?”  That team came up with some ideas and they are all invitations to you – to all of us:

  • Read the brief summary of information in the order of service;
  • When next Wednesday’s email comes out, read the information provided there – it will be more in-depth, including written materials and some video links;
  • A link to today’s sermon will also be there;
  • As an individual, consider signing a joint letter to the East Brunswick Township Council, asking them to change the name of Van Wickle Road. That letter will be available next Sunday for you to sign – so that it can be presented to the Township Council;
  • Consider attending the Council meeting on Monday, September 25 at 8pm – any and all of you are invited, but especially if you are an EB resident. Personally, I welcome your company, even if you don’t speak.  My confidence will be stronger if I have your good company.  More importantly, the more of us who show up, the more powerful of a message it sends to the Council.

Last week, I drove the short length of Van Wickle Road.  It’s lined with homes.  I wondered about the folks who live there.  I wondered how many know this history.  I’m guessing not many. I wonder if there has been any attempt to inform them.  I wonder, once they do know, what it will mean to them?  There is something powerful about place and knowing its history, knowing one’s connection, and thus becoming the steward of that history.

But I wonder about those folks, for they are just like us, could be us – how many would be allies, seeking a name change despite the inconvenience?  How many would be “apathetic”? (which is how one historian described New Jersey’s general attitude history when it came to the abolition of slavery).  How many – god forbid – might resist a name change, claiming good intentions, but the impact being a dangerous message about who earns commemoration in this town and in this nation.

I am struck by the powerful convergence happening here.  Our nation’s active grappling with Confederate monuments these past few years, but especially these past few months.  The ugly uprising of white supremacists with torches in hand, no hoods to hide their faces in Charlottesville last month.  And now history — how a corrupt East Brunswick judge sold away a hundred people into slavery and how he has a street named after him; how this happened 200 years ago next year – 1818 to 2018; how there was a public outcry then; how there can be a public outcry now.

As Unitarian Universalists, as people of conscience and people of faith, as people of this place, of this “beautiful neighborhood” as Nick sang earlier to our children, we can be a part of making once again sacred, a place and a history desecrated by human trafficking in African American slaves.

Let’s start here.  Let’s start with this story. Let’s see where it takes us.

Amen.

** Deep gratitude to the extensive historical research conducted by Richard Walling on this subject and for his persistent advocacy to have this wrong made right.

Posted in Justice, Sermons, Standing on the Side of Love, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A Visit to Steelmantown Cemetery

I don’t remember ever needing or wanting a burial spot, though I do remember thinking about it from an early age.

When one looks at my family, there are many ways to respond to the dead human body and the human desire to mark one’s death by location. My father’s ashes were spread near and in a river that he had loved to fish as a young man. When my Great Aunt Ruth was buried in one of the Jewish cemeteries in Sharon, Massachusetts, I found it powerful to shovel dirt onto the casket. The plan for my mother is to have her ashes interred with the ashes of her mother and father, in the valley where generations of her family lived out their lives. My husband cares less about what ultimately happens to his dead body as that we try, in the first three days after his death, to have his spiritual community be able to do the proscribed rites and rituals required.

I did not grow up with religion and so, was not raised with dogmatic admonitions of what would be necessary at the end of my life, either ritually or salvifically. As a young adult, when I learned of the cost involved in a typical burial, cremation seemed to be the way to go. Then I learned about the excessive pollutants thrust into the air when human bodies burned. I knew that if I could avoid it, I would. Thus entered my interest in the green burial movement.

I recently visited Steelmantown Cemetery, the only green burial preserve in the state of New Jersey. What a beautiful and peaceful place.

There are black iron gate that marks the entrance. After walking a short distance into the space, it becomes clear that this is a special place. The shape of an old cemetery becomes evident. Then there is the reconstructed chapel, built originally in 1910, it was vandalized and burned in the1950s. It is simple and sweet, with natural light through the windows or from lamp flame. It also holds an old pump organ. There is a small outdoor seating area with stone benches that suggest sitting there would be a good idea, just not for long periods of time.

There is an outhouse (a two seater) in recognition that those of us still among the living still have bodily functions we must perform.

The cemetery is old. The oldest section dates back to the 18th century and contains people who died in the Revolutionary War.   There are more recent – 19th through 20th century – traditional grave sites with cement or stone stones with names and dates, perhaps a word or two about the person.

There is the section that includes 138 markers for “boys” (really, these were men, some of them dying in their seventh decade) from a local home for the “retarded.” Each of these markers has a name, the year of death, and the age of the man at his death. I appreciate that each of these deaths is marked and named; where I last lived, there was a potter’s field where the graves were unmarked for the hundreds of dead from the local once-mental asylum.

And then there is the natural section, the section that is growing: the green burial preserve.

The cemetery’s mission is “to provide a place of sanctuary, open to all, and preserve its unique history and the pristine environment it encompasses.”

The cemetery has a long history, which I won’t go into here. Most recently, the Bixby family, with ties to the cemetery already in place (families members are buried there), decided to save it from neglect and disrepair. Then, struck by inspiration, they decided to turn it into a green burial preserve. For this, I am – and we all should be – deeply grateful to Ed Bixby Jr. and and Ed Bixby Sr. whose company I was blessed to have as I toured the cemetery.

Burial sites are in the midst of a forest, with a former cranberry bog nearby. The paths are covered in a carpet of moss. Graves are dug by human effort and shovel. It takes two people about six hours to dig. Given the forest setting, graves can be dug in all seasons. Bodies are brought from the iron gates at the entrance on a large-wheeled wagon, pulled by human effort. All this reminds us that none of this is a new innovation. It is, in fact, how it used to be done, for centuries. Most likely for millennia.

The gravesites that already contain a human body are the same general shape. Depending on how long ago the burial took place, there are varying degree of mounded-ness. More recent gravesites peak above the surrounding ground. Ones from five years ago or longer seem more level. This is the natural consequence of not having a cement vault that keeps hidden the effects of decomposition. Here, in this green burial preserve, we get to observe the natural processes otherwise hidden from view.

All gravesites are marked by a large stone. You can choose one from the collection, gathered over the years by Ed Sr. or you can bring in your own. Only natural markers are allowed. There are stone markers on sites that have been bought but not yet used. You can purchase sites side by side, or for whole families to be near each other.

There are stone markers on those sites that already have occupants. Some of the stones – more than not – are etched with words. Some are the name of the deceased, their birth and death dates, perhaps a message to or from them. Some stones are etched but do not have the name of the person, but a message related to their life.

My favorite marker not made of stone. It was made of wood. It topped a mounded grave site that showed the most active wear from earth settling. This seemed aptly-suited, given this person had chosen a marker, but one that would give way to the natural processes of decomposition, just like his body. He was a surveyor – had been, in fact, the surveyor for the cemetery, so I imagine that he had a deep affection for the land and its ways, and wanted to join it as fully as possible. No stone carved with human attempts to leave our mark. But a small sign that would exist for a few years, possibly a decade or two while his relatives are still on this earth, then it, too, would go the way all organic matter goes.

There were other graves and stories that caught my attention. There’s the Painted Turtle Man. I might not be getting all the details right, but apparently when he arrived to pick out the spot where his future grave would go, he encountered a painted turtle and decided that was the location where his burial would be. He is buried there, with an etched stone that speaks his truth but does not reveal his name. A real painted turtle — by which I mean live, not a statue as I first mistook it – is also there, right alongside it, and though it moves around, it apparently always returns to that spot. I nearly stepped on it as Ed Sr. was telling me the story.

On their web site, there is a short movie that tells the story of the cemetery and preserve, as well as the poignant story of Cheri Hall Decker. Cheri was an environmental educator who worked with the Bixbys and who, when she died from an acute form of cancer, is buried at the entrance to the forest trail, still keeping company this piece of earth she loved and stewarded.

Cheri was a local, but there are people from all over the country buried in this place. It takes some planning, and if you are far away, an airplane ride for a corpse along with a New Jersey licensed funeral director to pick up at the airport, but it’s possible. Not every state or locale has easy access to a treasure like this. Most recently, I was living in Western Massachusetts where such a thing does not exist, though there are people trying to bring a green burial preserve into existence there.

There are some traditional cemeteries that have sections that allow for green practices. You can go to this link and find out if there are some near you.  Yet having a full out preserve, where the natural environment is not only maintained, but sustained, is incredibly compelling.  It may not be accessible geographically to all, but it is often much more financially accessible.  Unfortunately, that it costs less may lead some in the funeral industry to not share information about green options unless asked.

I am new to New Jersey. I do not know whether I will be here when I die. If I am, Steelmantown is where my body should be laid to rest.  This is how I want to do it when I die. I want my body to rejoin the earth. I want my people to take part. I want to co-mingle my atoms with soil atoms and leaf atoms and acorn atoms and moss atoms. I want to decompose directly, without barrier.

Posted in Death, Travelogue | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Rise Up: Reflections on Patriotism (sermon)

I am the A-L-E-X-A-N-D-E-R we are meant to be

A colony that runs independently
Meanwhile, Britain keeps shittin’ on us endlessly
Essentially, they tax us relentlessly
Then King George turns around, runs a spending spree
He ain’t ever gonna set his descendants free
So there will be a revolution in this century

(Enter me)

Fair warning: interspersed throughout this sermon are lyrics from the musical Hamilton.

Just so I know who is in the room: how many of you are familiar with the Hamilton soundtrack? Familiar at the intimate level? Like blast it daily at home or in your car?

In late February, I was at the annual First Year Ministers’ Seminar (FYMS). This meant that for three days, at least twice each day, on my walk from the hotel to the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s in Boston, I walked past the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum.

You say
The price of my love’s not a price that you’re willing to pay
You cry
In your tea which you hurl in the sea when you see me go by

You know you are approaching the Tea Party ship because you hear strains of tin pipe. It sounds like music from the Revolutionary War era. That, what I just sang, is not it. That is the beginning of the song that King George sings as he becomes aware of the revolutionary furor growing in the colonies.

At that floating ship of a museum, there are period re-enactors who hurl crates of “tea” into the harbor. I did not actually go, but as I passed by, I saw rope attached to the crates so that they can retrieve the “tea” and do it all again the following hour for the next set of tourists, rising up against the royal ruler.

Rise up!
When you’re living on your knees, you rise up
Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up
Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up

The Hamilton soundtrack plays relentlessly in my household. We have not seen the actual show nor are we likely anytime soon. This musical has sparked my curiosity in an historical era that has never much interested me. It is brilliant in its depiction of :

  • the founding fathers and mothers by actors of color, turning this particular paradigm upside down;
  • the through-thread of the immigrant experience given our time of such flagrant hostility towards immigrants;
  • the juicy, raw conflict that produced the flawed documents of this nation’s founding; and
  • the candid truth that this was all an experiment and, in fact, still very much is, with no guarantees of success.

All this has captured my imagination.

Fact is, I’ve never been a particularly patriotic person. Ideologically and theoretically, I don’t believe in national borders. Practically I acknowledge them. I have a passport. Generally, I abide by the laws that define them (except when we took our honeymoon in Cuba six years ago).

Culturally, too. Having lived outside of this nation where I was born and raised, having traveled to several continents – three months in East Africa, Asia, a year and then again a summer Europe – I recognize that this place, this land, and yes, even this country, feels like home to me in a way that no other place does.

Still, despite this belonging, I do not participate in the pledge of allegiance. I think that started in middle or high school; I’m not sure. I raised my kids to choose for themselves. My older one got in trouble in first grade for not pledging, but even at that tender age, she knew her rights and stood up for them.

Typically, when I am someplace where the pledge – or the national anthem – is being done, I stand, facing the same direction as those who are participating, showing respect. Yet, I do not place my hand on my heart. I do not say the words.

Since becoming your minister, I have had more practice at this. At the East Brunswick commemoration of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, they pledged allegiance. At the South Asian Community Outreach Interfaith Holiday celebration they had Muslim boy scout troops bring forward the flag and lead us in the pledge. Same thing when I was one of the speakers at a Town Hall meeting at the Islamic Society of Central Jersey – boy scouts, flag, pledge.

I do wonder who is noticing my non-participation. I don’t want it to reflect poorly on this congregation. I wonder who might be upset or offended. I wonder who might not agree with me, but will defend my right to not participate. I often wonder if there might be someone, perhaps a young someone, who sees me not participating and realizes that this might be possible for them, too.

SANTA CLARA, CA – OCTOBER 02: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers kneels on the sideline during the anthem prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium on October 2, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

I am no Colin Kaepernick, the NFL player who this past year rose up by taking a knee during the national anthem in protest of unequal treatment Black and Brown people in this nation by our legal and law enforcement systems. He has inspired many young people to connect with our deep democratic and patriotic right to protest and speak truth to power and has opened what is becoming a floodgate of other professional sports players using their status in our celebrity-hungry society to also rise up.

In no way are my small gestures in that same league (literally or metaphorically). Yet this past year since I have been your minister, I have had more opportunities to not pledge allegiance than I experienced in the past five or ten years of my non-minister life. And it has given me cause to reflect on my own choices, particularly given the immigrant-rich nature of this region.

For most of my life, I have experienced American flags as indicative of a kind of aggressive patriotism. Remember, I grew up in rural Oregon. I know that one’s relationship with the American flag can be a nuanced one – for some veterans and their families the flag is a source of honor and a symbol of what they were willing to sacrifice, or did sacrifice. That said, I was raised in a household where my father – who served in WW II – did not hang the flag in our home or express any particular affection for it. Like so many marginalized communities in this country, I do not feel like the flying of the American flag is a particularly friendly act.

But this may be changing for me. Perhaps as they sing in Hamilton

The world turned upside down

The world turned upside down

While attending these community events as a minister, as your minister – in particular, the ones taking place in immigrant contexts, or in Muslim contexts – I am noticing my relationship to the flag shifting. I have been deeply moved by these immigrants, by these Muslim born here as well as moved here, claiming the flag, claiming this country as theirs. I sense how exquisitely subversive and true these claims are: acts of resistance to hate, to xenophobia, to Islamophobia that is being peddled in this land and unfortunately, is being peddled by the current administration.

It is like they are saying what the young Alexander Hamilton sings

Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot!

They are not throwing away their shot at making this place their home. And perhaps I am coming around to not throwing away my patriotism, but instead, to let it rise up, rise up.

I am coming to realize that my refusal to pledge allegiance to the flag just might come from the same source as an immigrant community’s publicly claiming that very ritual that I decline. Depending on who one is — if one is an immigrant in these times of anti-immigrant sentiment; if one is Muslim in these times of mosques being burnt and travel bans being sought and affirmed by the highest court in the land – claiming the flag, making that pledge one’s own, this, too, undermines dangerous patriotism by refusing to cede that oath, or the flag, or this country, to the haters.

As I consider this more, I’m not sure if it is purely patriotism or if it is connected to more deeply held values. Likely it is both. But sometimes, it manifests in me as an impulse to defend this nation – to show up for democratic ideals — and I am surprised more than I could ever fully describe.

Rise up!
When you’re living on your knees, you rise up
Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up
Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up

Have you heard of the moves in an increasing number of states to not exactly ban protest, but to relegate it outside of bounds of what it means to be a citizen in good standing? Over 20[i] states have introduced legislation to criminally penalize protestors, or to have them pay for the cost of police presence, as if the right to peacefully and safely assemble and exercise one’s right to dissent is a financial transaction?

It strikes me as patriotic to defend the right to protest, to publicly dissent; it strikes me as patriotic to defend that particular institution of our democracy. In Hamilton, they speak about the American experiment. Everything they do sets a new precedent.   One of my absolutely favorite lines is when King George hears the news that Washington is stepping down and not running for president:

They say
George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away
‘Zat true?
I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do

We are living in times when we are called to lend our voices to the success of this experiment in a way we have not been asked since at least the McCarthy Era, and possibly, since the Civil War.

I want to honor those who would reclaim symbols of this nation – like the pledge – as an act of exquisite resistance. And I know that my true allegiance is less with the nation, and more with the values that undergird a deep democracy. I am far too aware that if I were to wear the American flag on a t-shirt or have it hang from my home, it might well send an unintended message to my neighbors, especially since we are white, and many, if not the majority of my neighbors are people of color.

In fact, we do hang a flag from the parsonage, but it is not the American flag. It is a rainbow flag with the word, “PEACE” written large.

That is the message I want to send. PEACE. Or the implicit message, particularly to LGBTQ folks given the rainbow: SAFETY. I’d be okay with some other messages, like COMPASSION or SOLIDARITY or, particularly right now, RISE UP. Or GRATITUDE. I think all those would work for me, too.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author of this morning’s reading about her daughter’s refusal to say the pledge of allegiance, wrote a whole chapter reflecting on the pledge of allegiance – the one the United States of America asks its citizens to recite – and the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address of the Onondaga people. That address is often described as a pledge, but is, according to Kimmerer, “known more accurately in the Onondaga language as the Words That Come Before All Else, [that] sets gratitude as the highest priority.”

Gratitude as the highest priority.

She describes what happens in schools in the Onondaga territory, where all the classes gather together and each week a different grade is responsible for the Thanksgiving Address, reciting it in a language older than English, sending “greetings and thanks to all members of the natural world.” This is one of the reasons that I decline to recite the pledge, though I continue to show outward respect for the collective ritual. This is one of the reasons I supported my own child when they decided not to take part in this communal ritual: I want to pledge myself – I do pledge myself – to something much larger, much older, than this nation. Kimmerer asks,

“What would it be like to be raised on gratitude, to speak to the natural world as a member of the democracy of species, to raise a pledge of interdependence? No declarations of political loyalty… required…”

A pledge, like a world, turned upside down so that it is not about independence, but is about interdependence. A pledge turned upside down so that in order to defend basic democratic institutions, one must rise up. A pledge that allows us to claim and love this country, while at the same time speaking truth to those in power and governance of it. A pledge that acknowledges the existence of the republic, while recognizing that what we honor goes far beyond the boundaries of that, or any, republic. A pledge uttered and offered for that “elusive justice [that just] might be within our reach.”

May we rise up. Amen. And blessed be.

 

 

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/08/donald-trump-anti-protest-bills. May 3 2017: More than 20 states have proposed bills that would crack down on protests and demonstrations since Donald Trump was elected, in a moved that UN experts have branded “incompatible with US obligations under international human rights law”.

Posted in Fascism, Justice, Resistance, Sermons, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

And the Welcome Will Be Wide: It’s Not About the Bathrooms (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, New Jersey

And the table will be wide. And the welcome will be wide. And the arms will open wide to gather us in.

We are fortunate that here in New Jersey: more protections for the rights and safety of transgender folks have been enacted. In fact, just a few months ago, the Assemblywoman who represents East Brunswick, and is a member of this congregation, Nancy Pinkin, co-sponsored some of those protections that came in direct response to actions taken by our current president that erased protections put in place by the previous president.

These are important strides for which to be thankful and yet there is more to be done. Garden State Equality is New Jersey’s go-to advocacy organization on topics related to GLBTQ+ civil rights. They identify two areas that in need of advocacy. One is the threshold when someone can legally change their gender – right now it is set at an outdated level that is out-of-reach of many trans folks. Secondly is access to health care for medically necessary treatment. In New Jersey, health insurance companies do not have to cover these treatments, so few of them do. I am so thankful that my daughter lives in a state where that is not the case. I can testify that not only is such treatment medically necessary, in some cases, it is life-necessary. I am pretty sure that my older daughter would not be alive right now if she did not have access to this kind of medical care.

And our hearts will open wide to receive. And we will come as children who trust there is enough.

So there is advocacy that remains to be done here in New Jersey. And there is always room for growing our welcome wide within our Unitarian Universalist movement. But we also have reason to be proud. I want to show you a couple of photos of some great folks.

[I’m sad to say that my blog is not accepting new photo media so I can’t include them here.]

These pictures are from last year and from this year – in fact, just a few months ago.

These are members of TRUUST: a UU identity group for religious leaders that advocates for the gifts, safety, liberation, and leadership of trans religious professionals in Unitarian Universalist ministries and institutions.

Look at these beautiful people, some of whom are dear to me, at least one of whom helped to raise my children by being their Director of Religious Education. My life is enriched by their presence within our faith movement. Yours is, too, even if you don’t know it.

And, yes, there is work to be done right here at TUS. We could talk about the language in the Bond of Union. In an early board meeting this year, one member raised the question of whether we might make the language of it more inclusive. Of course, the language has already shifted once in the lifetime of the statement, specifically for that reason: moving from just the word, “his” to the words, “his or her.” So we know how to shift language to be more inclusive and accommodate the changing understanding of what is acceptable language. Today we practiced what that might sound like: using the singular “they” or “their.”

So we could explore that. Instead, today I am going to talk bathrooms.

Bathrooms? But the title of the sermon says it’s not about bathrooms. And that’s true. Here’s what Reverend Miller Jen Hoffman says about that. He’s a minister in the MCC (Metropolitan Community Church) and he wrote a Huffington Post piece:

It’s not about restrooms. It’s about people and our lives and dignity and affirmation. It’s not just about civil rights and safety, but also about pleasure and well-being. We want to go beyond receiving the bare minimum of life and liberty and also demand the pursuit of happiness, go beyond ending discrimination and violence to expect and also lay claim to enjoyment and peace and good fortune.

He goes on:

And all of us who are on the side of gender self-determination and public accommodation, even as we fight for bathroom access and gender autonomy, we must recognize that access to one or two bathrooms will still be inadequate,…We must remember that some folks are genderqueer and nonbinary and agender, … And we must continue to imagine and achieve a world where it is safe for all of us to name ourselves, safe for all of us to express ourselves, and, sure, of course, where it is safe for all of us to pee.

And we will come unhindered and free. And our aching will be met with bread. And our sorrow will be met with wine.

So while it’s about so much more than public restrooms, like it was about so much more than lunch counters during Jim Crow South, it is about the restroom. In many public places in our nation, including in our schools, it is not safe for transgender people. It was getting better, but now there is backlash; things are going backwards. In states like North Carolina (most infamous for this) and Texas and elsewhere, there are laws proposed and being enacted that bar trans folks from using the public restroom that fits their gender identity as they know it.

Here are two people who, with these laws passed, would have to go to bathrooms where likely their appearance would surprise others there. This man would have to go to the “ladies room” and this woman would have to use the “men’s room.” Not right.

It’s not just access to the bathroom at is at stake. While rightwing pundits create ungrounded fears about transgender people somehow being creepers, it is, in fact, trans folks, and gender non-conforming folks who are at most risk of harassment and violence. Just for going about their daily lives and having human bodies that need to use the toilet.

And we will open our hands to the feast without shame. And we will turn toward each other without fear.

~~~

How do we create the world we hope for in large and small ways? For those of us who have privilege — in this circumstance, where the sex of our body has always matched our gender (this is called “cisgender”) — isn’t this one of its beneficial aspects?: use for the Good, like a superpower extending protections that come with privilege to those most vulnerable?

This is the thing about Unitarian Universalism: our first principle not only asks us, it is requires of us, that we honor the individual worth and dignity of each individual, and their essence, regardless of our own level of discomfort or lack of awareness. As I have said before: it is okay to be ignorant; it is not okay to stay that way.

If I were to make this decision, then I would have these signs – or something like them — up now. Up yesterday. Up before I even arrived.

And we will give up our appetite for despair. And we will taste and know of delight.

This is where explicit welcome comes in. Where a wider welcome is life-affirming and life-sustaining. This is where we open the table wide. Especially in a world where hostility and physical threat come too often into play, where laws are being enacted and those who are threatened by the presence of trans or queer people are emboldened in their hate. Explicit welcome matters. Open the welcome wider still.

A true story: it was just after the Orlando massacre, just about a year ago – where 49 dear humans had been slaughtered at a gay nightclub. It was the last week of serving at my internship. A request came from the nearby Shriver Job Corps — a no cost education and career training program for youth and young adults. I don’t know about other Job Corps programs, because it’s a national program, but at this one on the former army Fort Devens, this one is made up primarily of youth and young adults of color and from communities experiencing economic impoverishment. This program also had a strong commitment to welcoming to its GLBTQ students, many of whom were reeling and feeling the weight of this act of terrorism. They asked if our church could send a minister to speak at a vigil they were planning the next day.

I was honored to say yes. It was a powerful experience for me: 50-60 people, the vast majority under the age of 22. I was one of two white people. The level of grief and fear was high. As all the logistics were coming together just before the vigil started, there is an impatient energy in the room and not a small amount of chaos. The teacher who volunteered to organize the vigil seemed worried that some of the students might be disruptive or disrespectful – it was clear she wanted to make a good impression on me, which was not my worry at all. I know that grief, especially in young people, takes many forms.

As soon as the vigil started, the whole group settled and focused. There was respect. There was unity. Here are some of the words I said:

Some of us just want to cry. Some of us just want to lash out. Some of us just want to hide.

I am sad. I am mad. I am afraid.

Yes, these words repeat, but not only those words.   These, too, and I say them to each of you:

I am still here.

I am still alive.

Yes, I might be tired.

But I will also be brave.

Brave enough to meet violence with peace; to meet hate with love; to meet shadow with light.

I will try to be brave. If you are not feeling brave, you can have some of mine. If I am not feeling brave, I will borrow some of yours. We will add our brave together, add it all up, so that our brave-together light will outshine the shadow.

I am sad. I am mad. I am afraid. But I am also brave.

Afterwards, I asked the teacher who organized the vigil why they reached out to our church – we weren’t in the same town; and to my knowledge, we didn’t have a relationship with the program. It turned out that part of her job was to drive students in recovery to a weekly twelve-step meeting that took place in our church. She had noticed the big rainbow flag in the high church window and faced the town green. [show image] She knew it would be safe to ask us.

Explicit welcome. Open the table wide. To do so is to affirm life, quite possibly to save a life. It may be of people we already know, but it is just as likely to be people we don’t – people to whom we may have no idea that we have sent up a firework into the darkness of their life. A firework, or a rainbow flag. And the arms will open wide to gather us in.

I wonder who in our spheres – among our children, among the people who attend events here, who attend the Gay AA meeting that we host here on Wednesday nights – we can be a life affirmer and life saver. We cannot know who might need that life-affirming and life-saving message of a bathroom sign that says, “gender diversity welcome here. You are whole and holy,” but we do know it is needed. And we know that we can be the people who offer that message.

Like I said, I could put up the signs like I insisted for the installation. How many of you noticed the signs on the bathroom at the installation. [show image] How many of you, when you noticed that, felt gratitude or joy? How many of you noticed just a few days later, their absence, and felt – I don’t know – disappointment? Or confusion? One of our youth came up to me the following Sunday, expressing concern that they were gone. It was a youth I had no idea would care or notice but this person was very upset that they were gone. This person felt that the message was an important one and needed to return.

And we will become bread for a hungering world. And we will become drink for those who thirst. And the blessed will become the blessing. And everywhere will be the feast.

You can’t always know who’s going to be touched by these explicit acts of welcome, of inclusion, of living our faith OUT LOUD. But we can be certain that it will touch many and be a life-affirming and in some cases, a life-saving, message.

I could put up the signs. But I truly feel this needs to be owned by the congregation – that a critical mass of people are here to support this explicit welcome and to embody it now and going forward. For some of us, we are already there. For some of us, it requires further education. I ask those of you who might have questions about why such a message is necessary, or wouldn’t feel comfortable using a bathroom with such messaging, or who want to learn more about this whole gender identity thing – which does ask for a serious shift in worldview on something that many were raised to believe was immutable – I ask that you attend the workshop that is taking place here in the sanctuary starting at noon, facilitated by folks who facilitate this kind of workshop for a living and, lucky for us, are TUS members: Lauren Piciano and Pat Connelly.

The decision is not up to me. The decision is up to you. To a critical mass of you to say yes. To a board that has already expressed support for the congregation to engage this conversation about how we can be more welcoming – what is necessary? If we say yes to the signs, are they enough? Is there room for a rainbow flag to make wider our welcome?

And the table will be wide. And the welcome will be wide. And the arms will open wide to gather us in.

Amen. And blessed be.

Posted in grief, Hope, Justice, OWL, Sermons, Standing on the Side of Love, Uncategorized, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Here We Are, All in One Place (sermon)

New Member Sunday

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

Not long after the presidential election, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder published an article that has been republished all over the internet and was turned into a little book. This little book. Originally titled, “20 Lessons from the 20th Century on How to Survive in Trump’s America,” in book form it is called, On Tyranny with a slight reordering and expansion on each of the lessons.

As you can see, it’s small – 126 pages that more or less fit in the palm of my hand. It gives the false impression that it’s a quick read. An easy read. Maybe so. But I haven’t been able to put the book down. I mean, I’ve read the book through; it didn’t take all that long. But I haven’t been able to let go of it. I return to it. Often. Sometimes in my mind; sometimes in hand.

Some of the twenty lessons are what you might expect:

  • §  do not obey in advance;
  • §  defend and strengthen institutions;
  • §  believe in truth;
  • §  hinder the one-party state.

And some of them take a little more time to understand the connection:

  • §  establish a private life; or
  • §  give regularly to good causes.

And then there is #11: “Make eye contact and small talk.”

Seriously? Does this mean that introverts cannot resist fascism, only extroverts can? I sure hope not.

And secondly, doesn’t this lesson kinda seem, well, ummm, superficial and insufficient? Well, Snyder follows up with additional detail:

This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

Dang. He’s not joking around. That’s some serious covfefe. In fact, when Snyder expands on this lesson (moving it from #11 to #12) in the book, he doubles down:

Tyrannical regimes arose at different times and places in the Europe of the twentieth century, but memoirs of their victims all share a single tender moment. Whether the recollection is of fascist Italy in the 1920s, of Nazi Germany of the 1930s, of the Soviet Union during the Great Terror of 1937-38, or of the purges in communist Eastern Europe in the 1940s and ‘50s, people who were living in fear of repression remembered how their neighbors treated them. A smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting – banal gestures in a normal situation – took on great significance. When friends, colleagues, and acquaintances looked away or crossed the street to avoid contact, fear grew. You might not be sure, today or tomorrow, who feels threatened in the United States. But if you affirm everyone, you can be sure that certain people will feel better.

In the most dangerous of times, those who escape and survive generally know people whom they can trust. Having old friends is the politics of last resort. And making new ones is the first step toward change. (On Tyranny)

I could give you the sermon on the fluffy lovely part of community, of how good it feels to build community, to be a part of a healthy community, how it’s just the right thing to do to get your own needs met, just the right thing to obtain “spiritual satisfaction” as our Bond of Union says.

One could.

But I can’t.

So I won’t. (Not this year. Not at this time.)

This morning we officially welcome six new adult members – and their families – into this congregation. As I said earlier, even before they joined, we were already whole and yet somehow, by joining, they make us more whole. Each of us and all of us: more whole. What, if anything, does that have to do with resisting tyranny?

~

In that beautiful song that Patty and Doug performed for us, we get to sneak a peek into the lives of fellow humans who are strangers to us, though less so once we know their story. The song’s refrain tells us that in knowing these folks stories we become witness to their lives and as such, we engage in what some might call, what I call, a spiritual act:

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold

Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind

What if that was the case every time we come into this place? What if we were to talk not just to our friends or folks we already know, but were to talk with people we barely know? If those of us without kids, or whose kids are grown, we were to talk with the children, get to know them by name? Or choose to talk with the very people who annoy us? What if we were to share our own and listen to each others’ stories like it was an act of spiritual communion, “eggs and toast like bread and wine”?

Are we already doing this? I hear sometimes yes. I see sometimes no. Can we do better? I know I could do better: I know that sometimes – one of you approaches me and my mind is careening everywhere rather than staying in place with you.

It’s worth reflecting whether we are listening and witnessing with just some people – our friends, our peeps – but not with others, leaving perhaps new folks or visitors to folks on the Membership Committee or who are greeters at the front door or some other “somebody else”? How do we all, each of us, all of us, own that this is not a role or a task, but a way of being in relationship with each other, a way of embodying the interdependent web of all existence, a way of “doing church”?

What would it take right now to act as if the person next to us – whether known for years; known somewhat; known just today — how might we act if that person is exactly what we need to be more whole?

And what if it’s not about our own personal wholeness or even our congregation’s sense of wholeness, but is about sustaining the wholeness of our democracy? What if small acts of making eye contact and engaging not only in small talk, but in deep talk, or in embodying covenantal relationships where we stay at the table in good and hard times, or in strengthening institutions through acts of choosing to become a member of this very congregation, what if these were acts of resistance against the rise of authoritarianism that is in our midst?

Not the only act. One of twenty in Snyder’s case. Gene Sharp, exalted founder of the Albert Einstein Institution and studier of non-violent struggles, created a list of 198 distinct acts of waging non-violent struggle. And Parker Palmer has five habits of the heart to heal democracy.

Parker Palmer is a prolific writer, a Quaker, and the founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal. You’ve heard me mention his name before.   He’s written many books, including Healing the Heart of Democracy. He’s friends with another spiritually and politically engaged modern Quaker: Carrie Newcomer, who composed this mornings anthem, “Betty’s Diner.” You might recognize her name; she also penned the anthem that our pop-up choir sang at the installation of our shared ministry a month ago.

 

In a video conversation between these two friends and collaborators, Newcomer names the question at the heart of her song, and then answers it. “Where does the spirit of goodness move through our lives?” Her answer? “Sometimes it’s in the expected places. But often it’s in the daily and even unexpected places we encounter it. When people come together from all kinds of backgrounds and areas and [from] their stories.”

Parker Palmer adds, “If only we invited those stories out more often, we’d live in a better world.”

He says this as someone who appreciates art, who appreciates humanity, but also as someone deeply committed to democracy. Palmer began writing his book on healing the heart of democracy in 2004 and finished it in 2010 – certainly before the current iteration of the political mess in which we find ourselves, but not before its precursors and roots were beginning to take shape and take hold, as Parker, among many others, were observing.

One of the many points that Palmer makes is that democracy doesn’t happen just in Congress or just on Capitol Hill, but in the ordinary places of our lives: diners, yes, and also on sidewalks and in schools or at city parks and on the streets and sidewalk cafes, libraries and yes, in congregations: in our daily communities.  I’m guessing that he and Timothy Snyder, that professor from Yale, would be in agreement here.

Whereas Snyder encourages us to save democracy through eye contact and small talk (among other quite serious things), Parker advocates that our democracy would be healthier if we all walked more often on urban sidewalks. This suggestion is in direct contrast to walking the sidewalks of suburbia where Palmer suggests that the advent of Suburbia and its sidewalks is part of the wider erosion of our democratic foundation in this country. He encourages us to take up, as a civic, as well as spiritual, practice, the act of walking urban sidewalks, providing us the opportunity to practice negotiating our “life in the company of strangers” and “the dance of public life.” He writes:

“All forms of life together—from intimate personal relations, to the family, the workplace, and civil society—require us to learn to dance with others while stepping on as few toes as possible! Simply walking down a crowded city sidewalk—and learning that we can reach our diverse destinations without slamming into each other IF we know how to dance—is a subliminal lesson in what it takes to make democracy work.”

Of course, this is not this is not sufficient in and of itself. Walking sidewalks, or talking to strangers in diners, will not keep the democratic experiment vibrant, or given the current threats, alive. We must find our ways into engaging what Snyder calls ‘corporeal politics,’ which some of you do, having joined some of the numerous grassroots organizations that have sprung up across the land and across New Jersey. In joining the board of the UU Legislative Ministry of NJ beginning next month, helping to grow our UU legislative advocacy voice in this state, it is my hope to do my part in this regard.

Given his appreciation for Newcomer’s song, I’m pretty sure that in addition to embodying democracy through walking urban streets, Palmer would also praise the choice of eating in diners as a civic and spiritual practice. Given that New Jersey has more than its fair share of diners, what if we were to move our acts of resisting tyranny and strengthening democracy to the diner nearest you: beholding our fellow human creatures and our shared humanity, mustering the courage to start up a conversation and learn a fellow human creature’s story.

I don’t know how realistic it is to consider each of us going out to our local diner and listening to a stranger’s story with compassion and possibly with an eye to strengthening our democratic institutions or following any of the other lessons – stand out, practice corporeal politics, learn from peers in other countries. If you try this out, be sure to let me know how it went.

 

And as you are trying it out, at the diner, or perhaps at your local Freeholders meeting (and big shout out to Laura Merz who spoke at the Middlesex County Freeholders meeting this past Thursday on behalf of the County improving its protocol for how it interacts with ICE regarding detainment of folks who are undocumented), — or even here at coffee hour while we are here, all in one place, the wants and wounds of the human race, despair and hope sitting face to face after we’ve come in from the cold, keep in mind and in heart not only these lessons and habits of how to strengthen the resilience of our democratic ideals, but also the truth spoken in our reading from Mark Nepo:

I have discovered everything
I could need or ask for
is right here—
in flawed abundance.

We cannot eliminate hunger,
but we can feed each other.
We cannot eliminate loneliness,
but we can hold each other.
We cannot eliminate pain,
but we can live a life
of compassion.

Ultimately,
we are small living things
awakened in the stream,
not gods who carve out rivers.

Like human fish,
we are asked to experience
meaning in the life that moves
through the gill of our heart.

There is nothing to do
and nowhere to go.
Accepting this,
we can do everything
and go anywhere.

 Amen. And blessed be.

Posted in Fascism, Justice, Resistance, Standing on the Side of Love, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s Going On?: Message for the White Supremacy Teach In (sermon)

May 14, 2017

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

Time For All Ages story:

 

Message

An uncomfortable journey. We have been asked to take one: talking and listening about something that is abhorrent, something that lingers, something that has attached its immoral residue to basically all that we know, sometimes visibly, but mostly not: white supremacy.

You can see the visible and the not so visible on the inside of one of the inserts in your order of service. It’s “the white supremacy pyramid.” Toward the top, above the line, there are unacceptable forms of white supremacy, the kinds we associate with Breibart and the KKK, Storm Front and the American Renaissance. With John Spencer and Steve Bannon. And our current president sees fit to invite these elements inside the White House, they become more socially acceptable.

They are not us and we are not them.

Yet there are other elements of white supremacy, below that line, that are more socially acceptable. That we can see, if we are willing to face them, in our own daily lives. That we can see even here, in Unitarian Universalism.

Here is the definition we are using. “White supremacy is a set of institutional assumptions and practices, often operating unconsciously, that tend to benefit white people and exclude people of color.” (Kenny Wiley) If we think of white supremacy in this way, we can see throughout our faith movement and throughout our society how patterns exist and persist that “tend to benefit white people and exclude people of color.”

It is easier for a white minister – for me — to be called to serve a UU congregation than it is for a minister of color. There is a pattern of ministers of color getting numerous requests to pre-candidate but then end up not being called, as if congregations are willing to go so far, but no further. Like the issue that sparked our paying closer attention to racist hiring patterns at the UUA, there is a pattern of congregations relying on notions of “right fit” that allow the comfort of the familiar, which means re-entrenching patterns of white supremacy, patterns whose fundamental structure centers white-ness, that makes white-ness so central that it becomes invisible.

This is not easy stuff to consider, especially with such a jarring term. White supremacy. It’s not even the term, “white privilege,” which can be hard enough for some of us to accept. But here’s this incendiary phrase. It’s easy to feel justified in shutting down. Or to focus solely on the phrase, rather than what it points to.

I’m asking you to stay with me on this. I know it’s hard to hear. It is not all that long ago that I hear my own voice declining to use it, finding it too evocative of hoods and burning crosses.

Even if those white supremacists are not us and we are not them, the difference between us and them does not give us permission to turn away from some of the very elements we share. We must choose to face how we swim in the same waters and breathe the same air. That we have in common elements they proudly choose to amplify and advocate while we, when we are our best selves, try to actively counter or extricate.

Sometimes, though, infuriatingly, we spend too much of our time denying elements of white supremacy. Instead of making it untrue, our denial feeds the very thing we loathe.

You might be wondering, what are examples of this more socially acceptable form of white supremacy?

How about: knowing the names of the countries in Europe but struggling to know the names of those in Africa.

How about: familiarity with Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows – books I loved growing up – without even noticing how many books we assign our children that are about white boys with dogs. That the titles of those books that Marley Dias collected as part of her #1000blackgirlbooks campaign are likely less familiar or unfamiliar to most of us.

It’s hard to see acts of centering whiteness, especially for those of us who are white. Like when we give a form of European ethnic music the title, “classical music,” thereby centering it and raising it above all others, making invisible the ethnic nature of it (for all music has ethnic roots, even as some music is so powerful, it can expand beyond them).

Frankly, it is painful to not do this [go la-la-la with my hands over my ears]. But when I hear my UU colleagues and friends of color telling me over and over how hard it is to be both UU and a person of color; when I hear of stories of raising UU kids of color and the stories UU youth of color bring home of how they are encountered by the wider UU movement as outsiders, as objects of suspicion; when I see our faith movement repeating devastating mistakes of the past, along cultural and social fault lines of race, I have to remove my hands from my ears. I have to confront not only the possibility of white supremacy in our midst, but also unconsciously in choices I make, in patterns I take part in and from which I, as a white person and a white minister, benefit.

The quote at the top of your order of service is one we have used before. It comes from the brilliant James Baldwin:

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

So today we are trying something different than denial or invisibility. We are trying, along with nearly 700 other UU congregations and covenantal communities, to acknowledge and confront. We are raising our awareness and in current parlance, becoming, “woke.” We are doing this because we have been asked by leading UUs of color to do so. We are doing this because when harm is done, this is one of the few ways to create possible transformation and redemption, rather than let calcify a growing residue of racism for the next generation.

This is by no means the first time UUs have confronted racism in our midst. Twenty years ago – back at the 1997 General Assembly, delegates voted for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to “commit to intentionally becoming a multicultural and anti-racist institution.”

Thirty years before that, in the late 1960s, there was the so-called “Black Empowerment Controversy.” The wider faith movement imploded with lasting injury to our denomination, with the loss of a significant number of UUs of color, especially, but not only, Black UUs, folks who left with a sense of deep betrayal. Though Unitarian Universalism has always been a historically segregated religion (as so many Christian denominations were and are), there was a time when we were not as white as we currently are.

It’s true too of this congregation. The late Margaret Maurer wrote in a 1980 TUS history that I referenced in my April 2 sermon. It documents social justice efforts over the first three and a half decades of this congregation including during the time of this national controversy, and how we, too, experienced betrayal and loss. The report states, “With great regret, we lost some of our Black members at this time who felt we were giving inadequate support…”.   The Society did not engage any further major efforts in racial justice for seven years after this loss.

This is our history. It impacts who is here and what is now. It need not dictate our future. That is a thing we co-create with choices going forward, choosing to face what might be changed. In 2010, Reverend Rosemary Bray McNatt, asked of Unitarian Universalism,

How do we—all of us—convert our ignorance into wisdom, manage both our shame and our earnestness, both our resistance and our desire to know?

If the answer was in my pocket, I would gift it to you. If the answer already existed somewhere out there, I would invite you to join me in seeking it out. Instead, we must look here [point to heart] and here [point to head] and here [point to congregation] and there [point beyond the doors]. By our very willingness to face these challenges, we create the chance that we might actually be the liberating faith movement we aspire to be.

 

 

 

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Shifting Grounds Beneath Us: Facing White Supremacy (sermon)

I never met Margaret Maurer, founding member of this congregation. She died in 2011 at the age of 101. Despite having never met her, I have benefitted – we all have — from her legacy.

Margaret Maurer, 1910-2011

Thanks to an incredibly generous bequest she made upon her death, The Unitarian Society has a solid endowment. It is thanks to her that we have new stairways (built last year) that bring folks from the parking lot up the hill. It is thanks to her that sometime in the (near?) future, we will have new flooring in the lobby and new doors more appropriate to a worship setting than our current accordion doors. We also have, thanks to Margaret, a history of social justice at this congregation, from its inception in the mid-fifties, up until 1980, when the document was written.

This morning, I want to share with you some modern history of our faith movement, how it came to be embodied in this congregation and how it is very much alive and electric today. Originally I had planned to talk about the rise of authoritarianism; instead the sermon today will still be about the shifting grounds beneath us, but from a different, related angle: the systems that center the white experience, building walls that preclude full involvement by people of color, as well as about how we must dismantle it – continuing to try, falling short, and hearing the call to try again.

~~

If you look around the room at the faces of your fellow congregants you will notice, or notice for the thousandth time, that we are a congregation that is majority white with some faces of color. Though Unitarian Universalism comes from a historically segregated tradition, we state over and over again that we are committed to ending oppressions in general, and eliminating racism in particular. How do these two realities co-exist?

Over and over, we fall short of living our faith out loud. We showed this yet again with the recent hiring of the Regional Lead in the Southern Region of our Association. There were two finalists for the position, both of whom have long pedigrees of serving our faith movement, including both until recently, serving on the UUA’s — that’s the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregation’s board. The UUA hired the white male minister who doesn’t live in the geographical region and does not plan to move there over the candidate of color, a religious educator, who lives and serves in the region, who was told she was qualified for the position, but that they were choosing based on “a good fit for the team.”

From listening to my colleagues and friends of color, I have learned that phrase, “right fit for the team,” is code for preferring to prioritize, or center, those skills, styles, and approaches that typify white culture, and often white male culture, and therefore white candidates. It’s a form of – and I’m going to use a strong phrase here, so notice your own reaction to it – it’s a form of white supremacy. Not the cross-burning KKK kind, to be sure, but a dynamic that perpetuates white and male culture as the measurement by which we measure preferred leadership.

White supremacy. For some, it is an immediate reason to defend against any other information that comes. If that is your reaction, I ask you to notice, breathe, and set it aside. Particularly for white people, our tendency to react to criticisms about race, criticisms about race from people of color, bring a defensive reaction.

I ask you to listen to this definition, offered by Kenny Wiley, one of our current, most engaged, powerful religious leaders of color. He wrote

Why “white supremacy” as the term here? It conjures up images of hoods and mobs. Here, we mean: “White supremacy as a set of institutional assumptions and practices, often operating unconsciously, that tend to benefit white people and exclude people of color.” (FB post, March 29, 2017)

You don’t have to be white to be defensive — as the letter from the recently-resigned-as-president-of-the-UUA Reverend Peter Morales, shows (he’s Latino). But the white version, or the male version, or the heterosexual version, when it comes to having persistent patterns of oppression pointed out to us, are particularly problematic. It’s like having someone helpfully raise a mirror to our face to show us the dirt there, and our responding with denial, or hurt feelings, or blaming the messenger, or an aggressive manner, rather than saying, “Yep, there’s that dirt again. Thought I took care of that. Thank you for telling me. Let’s clean it off together.”

On a side note, if I am ever talking to you, and I have something between my teeth, like broccoli: please tell me. Save me further embarrassment. After an initial moment of awkwardness, I will thank you.

On a real note, if you see a pattern emerging that concerns you as racist, please tell me, please tell leadership, what you are seeing. Help me, help us, see it too.

So here are some key facts of the last few weeks in the UU Universe:

  • In response to that hiring decision for the Southern Regional Lead, some UUs of color were clear-sighted and called for all our attention to hiring patterns at the UUA as one of many indications that racial justice is not alive and well despite our declarations otherwise. As Christina Rivera wrote,

The most recent census data available (2015) tells us that 83% of the service workers at the UUA are people of color. It also tells us that of the 49 positions of UUA Executive and First Management level, 42 are held by white people (86%), almost the exact inverse.

  • While still president, Morales responded in a letter that used the word, “hysteria” to describe those expressing criticism of the patterns and systems in the UUA. That did not go over well.
  • Letters and public statements – from ministers, from white religious leaders, from ministers of color, from the organization Black Lives of UU which called this a “moment of crisis for our faith;” as well as from individuals who care about the future of our faith movement, from all three of the presidential candidates – came along at the rapid pace that social media allows for quick, wide dissemination.
  • The UU World gave a summary online last Monday – it was linked in the email I sent to the congregation on Friday night.

And so what? What to do with all this? What does it mean for our lives here at TUS? What can we do about any of this? That is, if we are at all interested?

[Sadly, these next three paragraphs did not make it into the spoken sermon, but I include it here because it’s important.] The late 1960s was a racially charged time in our nation’s history, much like today with attention to concerns about racial justice as a dynamic topic within our faith movement. Two groups emerged on the national UU scene. One focused on integration as a strategy; the other group, called the “Black Affairs Council” or “BAC,” focused on Black empowerment.

The two groups and the wider UUA leadership imploded with lasting injury to our denomination. Much has been written on what is called “the Black Empowerment Controversy,” but one of the long-term legacies was the loss of a significant number of UUs of color, especially, but not only, Black UUs. They left with a sense of betrayal by their faith. Though Unitarian Universalism has always been a historically segregated religion (as so many Christian denominations were and are), there was a time when we were not as white as we currently are.

Our written social justice history documents efforts over the first three and a half decades of this congregation. When she is relating the situation here at TUS during this larger controversy, she wrote about TUS’ initial support of BAC, then an active vote to suspend support. Out of this, the history documents reports, “With great regret, we lost some of our Black members at this time who felt we were giving inadequate support…”.   The report goes on to say that after a decade of engagement on racial justice issues, the Society did not engage any further major efforts in this area until seven years passed. This was the early 1970s, folks, when this was very much on our nation’s heart and mind. But not here. This happened here and it impacts our experience of Unitarian Universalism and this Society to this day. It impacts who we see here. Given this moment of crisis in our faith movement, what will we choose today?

Gini von Courter, former UUA trustee Moderator, recently wrote this:

The UUA is drowning in a sea of whiteness, and we don’t even notice. This is an attribute of white supremacy culture. (Facebook post, March 29, 2017)

More often than I’d like to admit: that’s me. Not noticing.

A few months after I began serving here, I mentioned to a friend that in the first month I was here, that I was part of hiring three new staff (of a staff of three, if you don’t count me). My friend spoke of how I must have used my anti-racist values to impact that process. It was then, and only then, that I realized the obvious: we are a staff of white people. Not the Montessori School, but the staff of the congregation: we are white. And we can say, like the comic Seinfeld used to say, “not that there’s anything wrong with that” but I have to acknowledge, I didn’t see it. Not at first.

And if I didn’t see, then how could I, as Head of Staff, as Minister here, pay attention to how that impacts our collective lives – how that continues a way of seeing things that perpetuates white-centricity – white supremacy? How that impacts people of color when they worship here, whether just once and do not return or those who choose this as their spiritual home?

So I think, given that we will be hiring a new Music Director, we might want to think about how we can learn from the mirror being held up for us as a denomination and us as a congregation.

As Adam Dyer, the author of our earlier reading today, wrote,

Once again, we are being asked to look deeply at the self perpetuating patterns of white supremacy that continue to dog our efforts to be “multi-cultural”.

Or as Rev. Erika Hewitt – who will be giving the sermon at our installation – wrote:

“When our congregations, our leaders, and our governance structures reveal themselves as riddled with walls that keep people of color away from power and authority, our agency as white people arises from the humility to understand their truth as our own, and to make all necessary changes to live” our values out loud. (Pastoral letter, published on FB, March 31, 2017)

So what can we do? How can we build a new way? That’s the hashtag that is being used for all these calls for justice: #BuildingNewWay, which is a hymn in the teal hymnal: We are building a new way / getting stronger everyday / we are building a new way. It just so happens to be one of the hymns we will be singing at our installation. Good timing.

We can ask the TUS delegates to General Assembly, where the vote for the new president will be held, to pay attention to each candidate’s plans to address systems of white supremacy at the UUA and in our wider faith movement. We can plan to have folks who attend GA as delegates – either on- or off-site – report back to the congregation later in the summer about how all this played out.

We can support efforts to keep the UUA accountable for the promises it makes, paying attention after the fires of crisis have died down. We aren’t so good at that, but we can get better because accountability is one of the hallmarks of a healthy covenantal system.

The UUA is actually the UUAoC – the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. It can only do what congregations allow it to do through our attention or inattention, and through our paying our fair share of due to ensure a robust national association that serves its congregational members.

We can commit to attending to issues of racial justice, of patterns of white supremacy, in our own front and backyards. Yes, we can look at it in our neighborhoods, in our work places. But we must look here.

What does it look like in our worship choices – the music we play, the sources we use, the topics we choose.

What does it look like in our religious education? How are we serving our children of color? How are we equipping our white children to be able to engage in a multi-cultural world? For that matter, how we are equipping our adults, especially our white adults, to be able to engage a multi-cultural world without defensiveness or fragility, without sitting on past laurels or outdated ideas of what achieving racial justice or white supremacy looks like?

Black Lives of UU has put out a call to congregations to hold a #WhiteSupremacyTeachIn. A growing group of congregations is committing to shift worship programming to cover racism and white supremacy. Though the call is to do this on either April 30 May 7, our service today is a response to that call. Still, might someone here agree to look at the resources offered soon on their web site and host a conversation about this worthy topic?

Yesterday, several of us attended the livestreaming of a forum of the UUA presidential candidates – we drove to our sibling congregation in Lincroft to be able to watch among other UUs. I was struck by what one of the candidates said about all this. It resonated strongly for me. She said, “I believe in our ability to make this moment valuable: a turning point….[yet] If we miss this opportunity friends, I doubt our ability to survive. Now is the time.”

So what can we do as these grounds shift beneath us? At the very least, and at the very most, we can be open and willing, as the song tells us, for to be hopeless would seem so strange. It dishonors those who go before us. So lift me up to the light of change.

Blessed be. May it be so. Amen.

Posted in Justice, Sermons, Standing on the Side of Love, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Befriending Death: An Excursion (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

Our reading can be found here.

Dylan Thomas’ most famous lines are these:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I come today to vanquish Dylan Thomas. At least those lines of his. I come today to ask you, encourage you, plead with you, do go gentle into that good night.

Not the old age part: that part I hope that you all, that I, that we all, burn and rave and be alive while we are alive.

But also for the dying of the light part: I ask you, beseech you, entreat you: do not rage against the dying of the light; do not resist.

Instead, turn to it, bring with you curiosity, see it, rather than your preconceptions.

Do the work now, in light, that allows you, in the dying of the light, a final, magnificent opportunity to be awake.

There is a famous lesson from the Buddha called The Two Arrows. This can be found in the original teachings of The Buddha once they were written down, in this case, the Sallatha Sutta. In it, the Buddha noted that an untrained person feels pain and that this is like being shot by one arrow. It hurts. It may cause injury. All this is true and real. However, the untrained person – that’s you, that’s me, that’s most of us – we do not respond to the pain of one arrow, but react as if we have been hit by a second arrow: bringing fear, bringing anger, bringing all sorts of secondary emotional responses that amplify the pain, turning it into suffering. The Buddha said – and in this lesson, he was teaching monks wishing to gain enlightenment – with training, one can learn to feel just the one arrow, not invite the second. Our modern interpretation has boiled this lesson – and perhaps all the lessons of Buddhism – into this: pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.

~~

Death scares us. Dying scares us.  Even when we say we are not scared, even when we think we are not scared, we are like Woody Allen’s joke: I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

We turn away from the fact of death and its inevitability. We build vast and robust economies on its denial. We flood our senses with all sorts of speculation, all sorts of preconceived notions and longings and in so doing, we invite second arrows rather than preparing ourselves for the one.

It’s worth our while to reflect on what we actually mean when we use the word death. Yes, there is the literal level whereby we recognize physical indications of death: heart no longer beating, cessation of breath. But you might be surprised how what seems obvious and empirical is culturally bound and open to argument. For instance, while the medical establishment says that brain dead is dead dead, that state does not involve the stopping of systole and diastole or the termination of the inhale and exhale. Among indigenous Tibetans, as well as modern Westerners who follow Tibetan Buddhism, there is an understanding that the death of the body happens as a process, taking more or less three days.

Judith Lief

Beyond the literal understanding of death, there are a host of murky thoughts and disturbing emotions, not to mention a crowd of theories and preconceived notions, some available to our consciousness, others not readily. They all tend to be mixed up with hopes and fears. Wise people – in particular, one of the wise people I go to for my own befriending death practice, Judith Lief – tell us that if we do not surface these attitudes and bring our awareness to them, it is to our own detriment. Not because we miss out on a so-called “correct” view of death. But because these preconceptions have real effects on our lives.

According to Lief, and I agree with her,

They determine how we relate to death ourselves and how we relate to other people who are dying. When our experience is distorted by speculation, it is difficult to see clearly. We lose the ability to distinguish what we know directly from what we have heard secondhand, what we believe on faith, what we cook up out of fear, and what is wishful thinking. So it is important to bring our own personal assumptions to light and find out what they are.

They impact not just our attitude towards dying, our experience of death, but they impact our appreciation for what it means to be alive in this very moment.

~~

A poem from Mary Oliver, When Death Comes:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

I think that line in the poem is one of my life goals:

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

I don’t seek to die earlier than I am supposed to. I do not court death.  I’m happy to be here now, be here alive. My curiosity does not draw me closer to that date in the future when I exist this life. But whenever death happens, it is my hope that rather than turn away, I turn toward, full of curiosity.

Candidly, I kinda expected that we would have an emptier house than usual, given that folks can know the content of the sermon ahead of time. This is not the easiest topic. In the past, my husband has sometimes called the degree of my interest in this topic “on the morbid side” with a wee Yorkshire accent.

Befriending death has been part of my meditation practice for many years. On and off. I like to think that besides making me a better person, it makes me a better minister. But to be clear, I am preaching this topic not because I already got this befriending death thing down. I don’t. By any stretch.

I am preaching this — and planning for great things in the fall — because I do not have this down. Because I’m not ready to die and yet I could any day. Because when I get a little bit sick, I’m amazed at the unbidden fear-based stories that occupy my mind and send my imagination to places I did not know were part of my psyche.

My hope is that you – all of you, some of you – will accept my invitation to we walk this walk together, learning and delighting and comforting and coping: together.

My mind is bright with ideas, not all of which will come to fruition. One of our decades-long Friend of this Society and retired geriatric social worker – she and I have been hatching plans and we are looking for a few more accomplices.

  • I’d like for TUS to host a Death Café, a simple event concept that started in France and takes place all over the world, where people come together, gather in small circles, and talk death and – this is the important part — eat cake.
  • Esther is hoping that everyone will read the book, When Breath Becomes Air.  She thinks it inspires the reader to face death in order to live a more vibrant life. Maybe the monthly book group would be willing to make that happen.
  • I’ve had conversations with too many of you discovering that you do not have Advanced Directives – also known as health care proxies. This means that if you are in a serious medical condition, your loved ones and your medical providers won’t know your wishes. Not okay. So I think we need to host a workshop where we can learn about these things and make promises to each other to get them done.
  • Perhaps you know this, but it turns out there is one – and only one — green burial cemetery in New Jersey. It’s in the Pine Barrens – I plan to visit it and I like the idea of a congregational field trip.
  • Maybe a workshop on Writing Your Own Obituary. I think that would be fun! I guess that is a strange sense of what fun is. I guess that’s a minister’s version of fun.

Again, we need a few more accomplices to make this happen, so if you are interested, please let me know.

Last month there was a piece in the New York Times called, “First Sex Ed, Then Death Ed.” It was written by a medical doctor, Jessica Zitter, in the Bay Area who had taught sex ed to her middle school daughter’s class and years later taught a death ed class to a different daughter, this time in high school.

What a concept! I had never thought about riding the coattails of our amazing Our Whole Lives – OWL – sexuality curriculum with a curriculum on death. What a great idea! Here’s some of what Zitter wrote in that article:

Many of the patients I have cared for at the end of their lives had no idea they were dying, despite raging illness and repeated hospital admissions. The reasons for this are complex and varied — among them poor physician training in breaking bad news and a collective hope that our technologies will somehow ultimately triumph against death. By the time patients are approaching the end, they are often too weak or disabled to express their preferences, if those preferences were ever considered at all. Patients aren’t getting what they say they want. For example, 80 percent of Americans would prefer to die at home, but only 20 percent achieve that wish.

Many of us would choose to die in a planned, comfortable way, surrounded by those we love. But you can’t plan for a good death if you don’t know you’re dying. We need to learn how to make a place for death in our lives and we also need to learn how to plan for it. In most cases, the suffering could have been avoided, or at least mitigated, by some education on death and our medical system. The fact is that when patients are prepared, they die better. When they have done the work of considering their own goals and values, and have documented those preferences, they make different choices. What people want when it comes to end-of-life care is almost never as much as what we give them.

The moment of death, the moments of dying and the physical and emotional discomfort that come with it, these are much harder to not be overwhelmed by, unless we have spent time in the days and years and decades facing toward, rather than away. This is the thing that is one of human existence’s deep paradoxical truths: for most people – I will not say for all – for most people, facing and engaging with death now brings an unparalleled sweetness and awareness of life as you are living it – an awareness of life and its precious qualities unavailable any other way.

So this practice is not morbid, as Tony once thought but has come around to think otherwise, but a gift. A gift to yourself, a gift to those whom you love when they are close to death, a gift to this death-denying culture, and in my opinion, a necessary act of political and spiritual resistance.

~~

May we all find the ability to cultivate what the poet Mary Oliver so beautifully described as wanting to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness. And let us end with those beautiful words from Mark Morrison Reed:

So let me die laughing, savoring one of life’s crazy moments. Let me die holding the hand of one I love, and recalling that I tried to love and was loved in return. Let me die remembering that life has been good, and that I did what I could.

But today, just remind me that I am dying so that I can live, savor, and love with all my heart.

 

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A Compass, Not a Map (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

March 19, 2017

 

 

A compass, rather than a map.

Last week I told you that I have been reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Its subtitle is “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.” Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a botanist, an academic, and poet. Her storytelling is exquisite.

A compass, rather than a map.

That’s how Kimmerer describes the difference between indigenous spirituality and Judeo-Christianity. With its ten commandments, she suggests that the Abrahamic religions provide a map, with clear directions for right and wrong. What she was taught, is more like a compass: pointing folks in a direction, but then they have to find their way, each generation anew.

A compass, rather than a map.

When I heard that, a spark of recognition touched me. Unitarian Universalism also aims, in its essence as non-creedal religion, a religion without dogma, to be more of a compass, than a map.

Unitarian Universalism has its seven principles, one of which states that we have “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”  So rather than a map, or even a GPS to tell us exactly where to go, recalculating as we take wrong turns, we have this principle that aims for an resilient balance between an individual’s free search and the responsibility we all hold within our covenantal community.

This is our work: using the compass of Unitarian Universalism to create a map for a life of integrity, a life in service of a greater good, a life that is whole and holy.

And this is where I believe that wisdom enters the picture.

What do I mean by wisdom? How do we distinguish between it and garden variety knowledge?

Where is wisdom to be found? Is it inside us? In our hearts?

Is it outside us? In our laws? Scriptures?

There are books in the Hebrew Bible that have been given the name, “Wisdom Literature:” the Book of Job (my favorite), Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. If wisdom resides there (and I happen to think some does), our Unitarian Universalism holds that it is not, by far, the only source.

To try to learn what wisdom is, I could have turned to the social sciences, perhaps an article from Psychology Today, based in research, attempting to quantify the qualities of wisdom. Such data-driven exploration would tell us that wisdom is

  • Not correlated to age, but to the capacity for reflection
  • connected to the ability to see shades of grey, rather than either/or
  • balances self-interest and common good
  • willing to challenge the status quo
  • aims to understand, rather than judge

And does not guarantee more happiness: people considered by others as wise do not score higher on scales measuring happiness. Wisdom does strengthen one’s sense of purpose in the world.   For a wise person, that would be enough.

Yet that was not the first place I turned. I turned to the poets. I can’t share with you all the poems from my research, but here is an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s In Blackwater Woods:

Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Wisdom strikes me as knowledge saturated with humility, knowledge with its certainty tempered. This idea — of humility, of curiosity, of recognizing the need to learn — fits with botantist Kimmerer’s ideas:

“In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brothers of Creation.”

We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.”

I have wondered about the role of generosity when it comes to wisdom. Is wisdom some form of knowledge shared generously? like Spider learned (the hard way)? Shared without attachment, knowing that it will evolve, that it is a process of ongoing co-creation, and will come to serve purposes beyond our current kin or ken?

Perhaps John, from today’s reading, with his generous idea of what it means to attend church, was a wise man. Since John Eric was one of the first people I met when I walked over the threshold of my first Unitarian Universalist congregation, lo these 22 years ago, I would have to say yes, he was. Certainly his efforts seemed informed by a balance between self-interest and common good, as mentioned by that social science data.

I have also wondered if wisdom is the capacity to see beyond the apparent, to see the sacred nature of a person or a thing or a place or a moment; to see interconnection and interdependence where others might only see individualism and competition? I think here of the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and his teachings that we are here on this earth to awaken from the illusion of our separation. This, too, is an aspect of wisdom.

When I look at the wise ones whom I have encountered — in person or through stories — I find that they are people who can hold paradox loosely in their hands. They do not fall apart from the strain of contradiction, but are invigorated and inspired: moved to laugh with delight, or weep at its beauty. Their lives are lived-out versions of Walt Whitman’s declaration: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then. I contradict myself.  I am large.  I contain multitudes!”

There is the old story of Rabbi Simcha Bunim. It is said that in each pocket, he carried a slip of paper. On one he wrote: for my sake the world was created. Such grandiosity! On the other he wrote: I am but dust and ashes. Such humility! He carried both messages as a constant reminder. Holding paradox, loosely.

A compass, rather than a map.

Kimmerer explores the relationship between scientific knowledge and spiritual wisdom, not seeing them as contradictions, but existing in reciprocal relationship. As a botanist and someone very much grounded in her spiritual heritage as indigenous person, she values science, though takes a dim view of “the scientific worldview,” which she does not believe can co-exist without harm.

I appreciate the distinction between these two concepts – Science and “the scientific world view.” While Science is key for Unitarian Universalists and our understanding the world, and is affirmed as one of our faith movement’s six sources, we must tread here carefully, for we have not always done so. Many late 19th and early 20th century Unitarians, like many so-thought forward thinking white folks at the time, were part of the Eugenics movement – full of science, but science that served racist belief systems, and became the breeding ground for Nazi ideology.

Kimmerer is eloquent about the distinction between those two concepts. She writes

Science is the process of revealing the world through rational inquiry. The practice of doing real science brings the questioner into an unparalleled intimacy with nature fraught with wonder and creativity as we try to comprehend the mysteries of the more-than-human world. Trying to understand the life of another being or another system so unlike our own is often humbling and, for many scientists, is a deeply spiritual pursuit.

Contrasting with this is the scientific worldview, in which a culture uses the process of interpreting science in a cultural context that uses science and technology to reinforce reductionist, materialist economic and political agendas.

The practice of Science, at least as Kimmerer speaks of it, is one that raises up curiosity as a virtue, valuing it equally, and perhaps even more so than certainty.

So yes, we need to support Science, particularly when we see it under siege as evidenced by climate denial or being erased from our public schools. Yet we must also be cautious, for we can confuse Science for “the scientific worldview” and make the latter our god so much so that it prioritizes knowledge over wisdom, leading us like a GPS hellbent on arrogance and exceptionalism as our final destination.

A compass, rather than a map.

One last thing: in writing this sermon, I knew that I should try to answer the question of what wisdom looks like right now: early 21st century; a divided nation; lived experience of increasing climate constriction all over the globe and right here at home; unprecedented challenges to this American experiment in democracy; and the impact of all of these things on the most vulnerable among us. A compass, not a map, for every generation anew. I cannot and do not claim to be wise, so the following should be taken with that stipulation.

For me, wisdom looks like the following:

  • Seeing proposed budgets not just as financial documents, but as moral and ethical statements, and acting accordingly.
  • Living into the truth, quoted here by Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “Every view is valued, as long as it does no harm.”
  • Despite warnings from those who would subvert our most cherished values, persisting.
  • Embodying the deep and abiding reality of the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part by showing up for those who are most vulnerable among us.
  • Lastly, and by no means, leastly, remembering this: we were made for these times. Do not lose heart. None of us is alone.

A compass, rather than a map.

Blessed be. Amen.

Posted in Earth, Hope, Resistance, Sermons, Spiritual Practice, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Honorable Harvest: A Canvass Sermon (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

March 12, 2017

This is our work, to discover what we can give. Isn’t this the purpose of [church], to learn the nature of your own gifts and how to use them for good in the world? (adapted from Robin Wall Kimmerer)

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist who currently teaches Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York. She is a citizen of the Potawatomi nation and a compelling storyteller. For the past month, I have been listening to book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.

There are many stories in the book. For instance, she describes a field trip — well, to be literal, it’s a marsh trip — with her students. Five weeks away from the wired world to transform the students to field biologists. As part of this annual expedition, they build a round house as their shelter and classroom.

They built it not from a kit that they have brought along, but from what was found there: starting with a frame made of bent saplings. The next step includes a “shopping” trip not to a home improvement big box retailer, but at the cattail marsh. Kimmerer does compare the cattail marsh to Walmart, but only in that “they both sprawl over acres of land.”

After overcoming initial reticence, these budding field biologists come to see how much a cattail marsh has to offer:

  • fibrous rhizomes that taste like a potato, edible roasted or as porridge or made into a flour;
  • cattail leaves as an easy source for creating twine;
  • at the bottom of many layers of leaves, a slimy substance that is antimicrobial, and soothes sunburn from a day of harvesting on the marsh;
  • there’s spongy and waxy material, both serving the plant well, but also serving humans, providing superb water repellant and insulating material for a shelter, not to mention a softer ground upon which to sleep;
  • under the leaves, and slime, and spongy material, and waxy outer coating, there is a white pith, sometimes called Cossacks’ asparagus, that tastes – so the book says — like cucumber.

This short list doesn’t even include that the cattails themselves can be dipped in fat and used as torches, or that their pollen can be captured as a source of protein. In the end, given all that they were able to find on their “shopping trip,” they don’t consider it a Walmart, but someone does joke that perhaps they have just been to the Walmarsh

This is our work, to discover what we can give. Isn’t this the purpose of education, to learn the nature of your own gifts and how to use them for good in the world?

More and more, folks often choose their religious affiliation, rather than inherit it. Out of this, the notion of church shopping has emerged. For some, this is part of a temporary discernment process, having felt a spiritual longing or a yearning for community, you go “shopping,” visiting several congregations, perhaps even differing denominations, seeing what is on offer. Some people do it all their lives – never choosing one place to get their religious and spiritual needs met, never setting down roots, never making a commitment of reciprocity to one place.

But others – and I’m guessing many, if not most of you, are in this group – after process of discernment (that is what I would rather call it): you decide. You choose a place.

And now you are here, in your chosen spiritual home, done with your shopping. It is time to follow what Kimmerer calls the precepts of the Honorable Harvest:

  • to take only what is given,
  • to use it well,
  • to be grateful for the gift, and
  • to reciprocate the gift

These precepts are a sermon in and of themselves, perhaps even a whole small spiritual practice group, but today I want to just focus on the last one: reciprocate the gift.

Because that is what we are doing this morning: figuring out how we can reciprocate the gifts we have been given by this congregation; how to reciprocate the gifts being given in this moment — shared laughter, pride at seeing young people raised here give back, breaking bread – or pancakes – together, strengthening our sense of shared purpose; and how to reciprocate the gifts that will be given and received in the months, years, and hopefully decades, to come.

What in our shared life is the cattail torch that shines light in the darkness? Is it lighting our chalice? Or the words and music we share in this space we make holy by our gathering, week after week?

What is the slime factor? Maybe it’s different for each of us, but hopefully the discomfort of the slime is balanced by the relief of facing your fear, or tolerating discomfort, or growing your growing edge.

What is the surprising pith that after persistent peeling away of layers, then refreshing nourishment? Could that be being known as whole and holy, held in the embrace of this welcoming spiritual home?

It is up to us to recognize the gifts we receive here — ones we were looking for and ones that catch us by surprise, ones we welcome and ones we’d rather gift back – and then act on that last precept of the Honorable Harvest: reciprocate. Reciprocate in a variety of ways, like Kimmerer’s students with their creative ways to thank the cattail marsh for all it gave them.

But also in the very specific way that is our focus today: through financial stewardship, bound by a covenant of reciprocity, that ensures that The Unitarian Society not only survives, but thrives.

This is our work, to discover what we can give. Isn’t this the purpose of [church], to learn the nature of your own gifts and how to use them for good in the world?

Blessed be. May it be so.

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