Your ground is that place outside yourself and that space inside yourself to where you return to ground yourself, to calm yourself, to collect yourself. Once we ground ourselves, it is easier for us to find our horizon – that place we aim to for, the head and heart space we aim for.
I want to offer you the gift of this meditation that can be a quick way to ground yourself in the present moment.
Settle yourself wherever you are. Find a comfortable posture, whatever that means to you right now. Standing. Sitting. Laying down. Arms at your side or in your lap or holding each other, holding you. On your heart reminding yourself, ‘oh, honey’ if you need that reminder. Who doesn’t need that reminder at some point in the day. Oh, honey.
This is called a five senses meditation, so you keep your eyes open. We are going to start to ground ourselves by first looking around the physical space where we are and noticing five things that bring us joy or pleasure. Large or small, near or further away. As your eyes land on one of these five objects, count it out loud. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Next, I invite you to touch four things, there in the space where you are. It’s okay to get up to touch a thing if it’s not within reach. But it’s important to actually touch it – with hand, foot, elbow, eyebrow, you choose. But touch it and as you do, count aloud. One. Two. Three. Four.
Our third sense is sound. Wherever you are – if you stayed in place, or got up and came back, or are somewhere else than where you started – notice sounds that you are hearing. My voice might be number one. Notice two other sounds. You can name those outloud and count them, also. One. Two. Three.
What are two things that you can smell in this moment? One. Two. Count them as you name them and notice the odor.
And finally, is there something in your space that you can safely taste. Perhaps it is water nearby. Or a book page. Your fingertip. Experience one taste.
I hope that this exercise has helped you to a grounded ~ or more grounded ~ space. If it didn’t work for you, that’s okay. If you want to give it another try some other time, that’s good. Or you can let it go.
For now, let us breathe together. I invite you, if you are so moved, to join me in using your hands near the camera to move with the inward and outward breath, creating a collective visual hand symphony of breath.
And now that we have done this a few times, and a few more on top of that, let us spend the next shared moments in silence, to see what horizons present themselves to you.
** there are many versions of this out in the world; I do not know the origins of this meditation but am thankful for it to exist
For several hours on the 6th of January, it felt like a band of insurrectionists were attempting to put the lid on the coffin of democracy – the darkness of the tomb, not the darkness of the womb.
With curbing of that event – I am not yet sure we can call it a failure, despite the success of certifying the outcome of the presidential election, for so much of the rot within our system was (once again, if we are willing to look) laid bare by their actions – the glaring disparity in how law enforcement treated these white terrorists – taking selfies with them? – and how Black Lives Matters protestors have been treated in the very same location. Exposing the rot of white elected officials giving a white power salute and a sitting president telling these seditionists that he loves them.
On the Sunday before the presidential election, you might remember, I preached to you about possible scenarios. One was Biden winning and Trump refusing to leave.
Part of the scenario included authoritarian-leaning elements using this to their benefit and the presence of violence from the far right.
I said then we must be prepared for chaos.
Some are calling them terrorists or even white supremacist terrorists. There are questions whether to call it a coup, or an attempted coup, or some other nomenclature. Whatever you choose, please do not give them the label of protestor, that is so so wrong.
Though these rioters were removed from the Capitol building, and the election certified, I believe we must continue to be alert to possible authoritarian chaos.
In that sermon on the Sunday before the election, I worried aloud with you that some of you – not all, I know – might find my words hyperbolic. I said
I hope that I am wrong. I hope that have to eat crow and apologize to each and every one of you for falsely raising your fears.
And while there have been areas of concern – baseless lawsuits; and elected officials teetering very close to sedition,and possibly over the edge; and last week the head of the Proud Boys was arrested for vandalizing Black churches in Washington DC.
Still, if you wanted to turn away and not see the public, visible, in-our-faces planning by the far right, you could. It’s a powerful force persuading us to not see the dangers.
I did. I have to acknowledge that. Not completely, but I let the relative quiet and the demands of my own life keep my attention, narrow my vision.
So much so, I had been teaching myself how to make a rice crispies treat in the shape of a crow, to eat as part of my last sermon before going on sabbatical. I thought I should make good on my word and eat crow, because I had been lulled into thinking there wouldn’t be violence; that five people would not be dead after the capitol building was violently trespassed.
I fear that this is how many Americans are thinking right now: Routine surgery— the defeat of Donald Trump at the polls— will heal the American body. No need to look deeper, at police departments, at schools, at housing. Are Americans now acknowledging racism, but telling themselves the problem is contained?
Denial is both a psychological defense mechanism and the foundation for wider dysfunction, but it is not part of a healthy spiritual or ethical system. Yes, part of the human experience, yet an examined life includes a regular practice of illuminating and disarming it.
Our task now – as spiritual people, as ethical people – is to pay attention to how our denial might keep us from seeing the risks and the danger, might keep us from being – as I preached this past August – a stakeholder who defends democracy, rather than just sinking back into our comfortable couches and lives of relative privilege, assuming others will do this work.
You might remember Fiona Hill from the impeachment proceedings. She had worked in the Trump Administration on the National Security Council as the top Russia advisor. She was one of the people who had been for weeks predicting violence on January 6th.
Ms. Hill spoke in a recent interview, describing Wednesday’s events as part of a long “self coup,” operating in plain sight over a longer time frame, that it was one of multiple “stress tests” to our democratic institutions.
I understand that term – stress tests – as parallel to the concept of “grooming” — what abusers do when they are picking their victims – testing if will they their hair be touched even without permission; will THEY apologize for things the abuser does. If they will turn away; if they will overlook it; if they will say let’s move on.
If Wednesday was an act of grooming by authoritarian forces – and there have been others – such as Trump using the military to clear the crowds so he could have his photo opp with that Bible in hand, that was a stress test (one the military failed, but then came to understand the risks and decided not to do it again) an act of checking if he could count on the military to quell peaceful protesters – then how we respond now and in the days, weeks, months, years going forward is crucial.
I know we are looking forward to celebrating a peaceful inauguration. And we should. We should eat cake or light sparklers or call our dear friends and laugh and cry and feel relief.
Just like – and it feels like a thousand days ago – many of you spent Wednesday morning joyful at the results in Georgia: a Jewish Senator, son of immigrants and a Black Senator – the first in that state’s history – a pastor, a Christian who supports LGBTQ+ communities, elected.
Yes, let us celebrate these, and the growing arrests of who fomented insurrection, for they should be held to account. This is part of how we make real our imaginings of Beloved Community.
… and those white supremacists who have been flexing their muscles and feeling their oats: they are not going to stop just because their president is out of office. It’s far too complex for that. I mean, look – leaders of the Proud Boys white nationalist organization include men of color! Talk about complex! Proud Boys is a thoroughly misogynist group, yet white women take full part. Our country is too fertile of ground for this complex, confounding version of dominance and white supremacy culture.
We ALL are responsible for what happens next.
Good thing there are more of us than there are of them.
(Be sure to listen to the song by The Nields, Tyrants Always Fall, linked at the beginning of this post. That is the source of this sermon’s refrain.)
Timothy Egan published an opinion piece in the New York Times a week ago, comparing the next three pandemic months to the 1805 winter that Lewis and Clark, and their crew, spent at World’s End (what is now Astoria, Oregon) where the mighty Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. He referenced observations from Dr. Fauci’ and Dr. Redfield Centers for Disease Control, wherein Dr. Fauci called this month “a surge upon a surge” and Dr. Redfield said that the coming season had the potential to be “the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation.” I’m going to add – at least in living memory.
Frankly, the description of World’s End in that early 19th century winter – only a dozen days without rain – was grim, though no deaths were reported. Grim, in a different way, different than this pandemic. But still illuminating and offering up its lessons.
Grim. Certainly seems like the right word for this pandemic. How many lives have been lost? Here, in the U.S. nearly three and a quarter thousand. Here, on the planet: nearly one and three quarters million dead. Those are just statistics – for some of you, those numbers have the name of a loved one, a precious loss during a difficult year that is not finished with us yet.
So, what do either grim history or grim present circumstance have to do with a little old lady lonely in her weather-tight home, knitting warm mittens for school children? I will answer that question, but want to bring into the mix one more thing: the Christmas classic, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. You know it that song, right?
Have yourself a merry little Christmas Let your heart be light From now on Our troubles will be out of sight
…hang a shining star upon the highest bough And have yourself a merry little Christmas now
Written during World War II, the original lyrics, while wishing a merry little Christmas, also stated blatantly, melancholically
It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past
Not exactly a catchy tune for a Hollywood hit film. Judy Garland didn’t want to sing such morbid lyrics. In the end, it was changed for “Meet Me In St Louis” in which she was starring.
There’s a line that I love from the original. It’s the one that Sinatra wanted out, the one that was replaced by hanging a star on the highest bough:
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
That’s us now.
That’s this Christmas, with its disappointments and distances.
That’s this year, with its losses of life and livelihoods, purpose and stamina.
That’s us staring down the long tunnel of pandemic in winter when we think we know what it is to live in pandemic times, but now have to learn what it is to do it in winter.
We’ll muddle through relying on each other – not just reaching out and providing support, but also finding our way to receiving it as well.
We’ll muddle through with mutual aid and showing up on Zoom even though we would much rather be together.
We’ll muddle through by making or buying meals for those who are sick; by knitting or purchasing warm items for those who need them; by delivering Christmas presents to families living on the edge, having been pushed there by hostile immigration policies and a xenophobic federal government.
We’ll be like Old Sarah from the story – noticing when there is a need; doing what we can with the skills and capacities we have; giving when we can whether we know the recipient well or at all. That’s what we have done, in a nearly literal way, by partnering with Elijah’s Promise to create our “Mitten Tree.” Gratitude to those of you who have donated warm items – not just mittens, but also scarves, hats, gloves – as part of this holiday season.
Maybe we won’t be exactly like Old Sarah but will be like the unnamed source of new yarn – making sure that good continues in the world, even if we aren’t the direct source of it, even if we remain anonymous. That’s what we do with our weekly Be The Change donations. That’s what you do when you donate to the Minister’s Discretionary Fund.
Maybe…we’ll be like Old Sarah, knitting our little corner of the interdependent web of all existence, making it stronger, building relationships within this congregation and outside of it; noticing and honoring all sentient beings; surrendering to the truth that we cannot make our way alone; that we never make our way alone.
Which brings me to the origin story of this holiday. Not the Pagan one. Or the secular one. But the religious one. The Christmas story.
Whichever story you choose – an origin story or a children’s story; a mid-century Christmas song from a movie or an opinion piece in the Times – whichever story we choose, let us light candles that burn the whole year long.
Candles for love that does not belong to us and that will be broken, despite all our best efforts. Candles for what mystifies us and scares us. Candles for this aching mortal flesh. Candles for a love that will be born again and will die again and be born again, over and over, beyond our knowing, beyond our control, beyond our surrender, beyond our understanding.
Candles of joy despite all the sadness; candles of hope where despair keeps watch. Candles of courage for fears ever present and candles of peace for tempest-tossed days. Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens and candles of love to inspire all our living.
Candles to keep us company as we muddle through somehow.
Thanksgiving is not as we imagined or hoped it would be. This will likely be true for Christmas and New Year’s. So much loss, sacrifice, change. And still, we keep going on.
Some of us have lost loved ones – some due to covid, others due to our general mortality; some of us fear losing loved ones because they are sick, or vulnerable, or both. It is almost too much to bear. And still, we keep going on.
There are layers of pandemic pain, of pandemic fatigue – grief, rage, loss, numbness, fragility, edginess. It comes in different shapes and sizes. And still, we keep going on.
Perhaps you remember Rev. Megan Visser, who preached at TUS in July. She spoke on Ross Gay’s Book of Delights? Some of you have shared with me YOUR delight at what she had to share when she led worship that day. Like me, she found delight and wisdom in the Bengsons’ Keep Going song. She used it to explore aspects of pandemic fatigue. I’d like to share her ideas with you. They come in the form of an ailment with an accompanying remedy.
Number one. “This is Getting Old” – I have said this. Felt it. Have you? If so, can I get a Zoom amen? As the song says, they thought they were going to be at Sean’s parents’ house for ten days. “What did we know?” Some of us speculated that this was going to be a marathon, not a sprint. Yet, our intellect can forecast, but the experience of nearly anything, is something altogether different.
We can’t let our response to “this is getting old” be “I’m done with not seeing and hugging my people.” The growing positivity rates tell us: this virus is nowhere near done with us, so we cannot yet be done with it (or with social distancing measures).
According to Rev. Megan, the remedy is finding small pleasures and perceiving genius in our midst, genius that has also been our response to the pandemic. Is there someone who can teach you something new over the phone or outdoors six feet apart? Go ahead: ask them. Find ways to make this getting old into something new and energizing.
Number two. Anger. Rage. Mad, edgy, grouchy. Maybe it’s at the governmental response, or the virus, or a particular person. There’s much to be mad about – the loss of weddings, graduations, deaths, births, holiday celebrations. Our anger can surprise us, when we unexpectedly lash out, it can hurt others.
Rather than willing away our anger, our turning ourselves away from it, the remedy is that we bear witness to it. Find ways to express it, to vent it, to befriend it, and to let it move through us, leaving the possibility of relief. Maybe it’s through scribble journaling, screaming into a pillow, casting a spell or taking part in a ritual. I’m a big fan of someone listening without trying to fix.
And smashing crockery.
Number three. Haven’t we all sacrificed too much already? I’m not talking about dining at restaurants or going to the gym. Lost jobs. Lost security. Not being able to hug those we love. Not being able to sing together. Losing our sense of purpose.
We hear Abigail sing the remedy in the song: “What about joy? O boy!” She wonders and wishes that her joy could pollinate your joy, working it out as she goes along. “There is no rulebook for joy,” says Rev. Megan. Yet me must find a way, returning over and over as much as we can, to bring it forth – for ourselves, for each other, for the world.
So three ailments and three remedies:
What feels old requires of us to find something new.
What surfaces anger requires of us to give space and to witness that anger.
And when we feel the burden of all our sacrifices, we must find our way to joy.
While we might want to ask, “When is it going to be over?” we must train ourselves, gently, lovingly, perhaps with our hand on our heart and “oh, honey” in our tone of voice, to ask a different question: “How do we keep adapting?”
That is the rightful question to ask when we want to figure out how to keep going on.
I want to invite you into a healing practice I’m callig the “Oh, Honey” practice, inspired by the poem, “Self Compassion” by James Crews. I invite you, as I am speaking, to bring your attention to your body and its various sensations. If you feel a bit shy about doing this in front of all these other screens, turn off your camera.
You can keep your eyes open or you can close them. Either way, I encourage you to notice sensations in your body.
Notice where your body ends and the chair or couch or floor begins. Notice where your body begins and your clothes end.
Notice the movement of your abdomen and chest when you breathe.
Notice if there are any places of tightness, of contraction, of tingling, of heaviness.
For this practice, I invite you to find that part of your body that may be longing for gentle attention, where constriction indicates a stuckness or hurt or pain. I invite you to place the palm of your hand, or both hands, on that part of you; or place your one hand, or two, on that part of your chest where they feel connected to your heart.
Take a comfortable breath, hold it in a little longer than usual, then exhale. This is not a competition with others or yourself. Breath in, hold, then breathe out. And once again.
Let come to the surface, moving through the layers of your body and being, anything that accepts the invitation your gentle, caring hands offer.
Say to yourself, aloud if you can: oh, honey.
Say it like you are saying it to the love of your life, with all the concern and truth you have within you. Then say it like you are saying it to yourself.
Moving past any awkwardness, or snickering like in the poem. Moving past the discomfort of being the center of our own attention. Moving past the fear of what might surface, knowing that you will greet it all with a loving, a compassionate, a fierce, “Oh, honey.”
A next step, to go just a bit deeper: I invite you to extend the “oh,” drawing out the sounds and connecting with the vibration that rises from the elongation.
You can lengthen the “h” in honey as well, bringing about that vibration again, if it feels good to you, only if it feels good to you.
Again, only if it feels soothing, draw out those sounds. If it activates a negative response, if it doesn’t feel right, however you understand that, no worries, just stop the sound, and keep the gentle hand there, offering yourself compassion.
The elongated sound brings about a vibration that activates our vagus nerve, also called the soul nerve by therapist Resmaa Menakem, or the wandering nerve, because it spreads out throughout the whole body. The vagus nerve is one way to engage our nervous system, the part of the body that retains body sensation memories and feeling memories, that sends out signals of how to respond in a crisis: fight, freeze, flight, or fawn. For some of us a 5th f is feed – eating our emotions into “behaving” themselves.
Engaging the soul nerve ~ the vagus ~ can help us move pain or self disgust or rage or cyncism or resignation — the list is long – or shame, that’s a big one — through and help it not get stuck in the body.
We who prize the intellect, perhaps a little too much, our thinking our way out will not work, not in the long run. It can help in the moment, but if that is our only tool of healing it is not sufficient.
Let’s keep our hands there, on our heart, or on that part of our body with heavy, or tight, or painful sensation, cooing at it, cooing at ourselves, for just a few more moments until the chime rings and brings this practice to an end for now.
That’s the title of this service. I want to be clear from the outset, I am not advocating a particular vote for a particular candidate. I cannot do that and will not do that.
Despite a general assumption about this congregation, we do not all vote lockstep. Even in presidential elections. Even in this presidential election.
I am, however, advocating that all of us choose democracy, even defend it, and certainly, as our Time For All Ages story suggests, to protect it.
While this country has a riddled history of attempts and successes at disenfranchising eligible voters – usually voters of color – we have seen in recent years the expansion of such efforts in brazen and anti-democratic ways. What is new – definitely in our lifetimes, if not longer – is that we have a sitting president who has not committed himself to a peaceful transition of power, should he lose the election. Or, frankly, if he wins.
This, coupled with his mixed messages that leave him allied with white nationalism, makes choosing democracy both harder, and all that more crucial.
This seems like a good time to remind you that Unitarian Universalism’s Fifth Principle reads as follows
As I wrote in a memo to the Board of Trustees earlier this week, there are (at least) five possible scenarios that will substantially impact the nation in general and/or this congregation in particular. It would be beneficial if we were to anticipate them, not alone in our personal or family silos, ruminating and spinning ourselves into a frenzy, but together, so that we can imagine a response that is informed by our Unitarian Universalist principles.
No clear outcome for an extended period of time. We should count on this. As I preached back in August, we can no longer think of it as Election Day. We do not have a national election so much as fifty plus state-based elections and during covid times, that means an extended election season.
The sustained presence of irregularities. I am not speaking here of voter fraud, which has been found to have no substantial basis and acts as a dog whistle to authoritarian-leaning elements. Unlawful and unethical-yet-deemed-legal barriers to all cast votes being counted.
Biden wins, yet Trump refuses to leave office. How likely is this? It depends on where you get your news and whose analysis you trust. Yet, as I said before, this is the first president – ever? In our lifetimes – who has not committed to a peaceful transition. If that is bluster, it still instills fear in the nation, which those authoritarian-leaning elements are using to their benefit. There have already been credible threats of violence from the far right.
Biden wins, Trump concedes, yet in the process of transition, Trump guts the integrity of the governmental system. I do not know how likely it is that Biden will win. Yet a Biden win does not mean the country is out of the wilderness. There is the possibility of the current president, on his way out, will wreak havoc on protections for the most vulnerable. There has been conjecture that self-interest will lead to raiding public resources for his personal benefit. And not to go on too long here, but frankly, white supremacy culture and hetero-patriarchy do not go away regardless of who wins the presidential election. And the Supreme Court is what it has recently become, making decisions that will change the landscape of access to full reproductive health, full marriage equality, full enfranchisement, and much more.
Trump wins, resulting in grief and fear for most in this congregation. We will need each other then. We will need to take care of each other, gently, fiercely. And take care of those who will be at ever higher risk. And we shall. We are willing.
How can you stop them? Alone you can fight, you can refuse. You can take whatever revenge you can But they roll right over you. But two people fighting back to back can cut through a mob a snake-dancing fire can break a cordon, termites can bring down a mansion
Two people can keep each other sane can give support, conviction, love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation a cell, a wedge. With four you can play games and start a collective. With six you can rent a whole house have pie for dinner with no seconds and make your own music. (Marge Piercy, The Low Road, excerpt)
It makes me want to cry, to scream, to hide, to escape into magical thinking, but I have to say to you because I love you: we must be prepared for chaos this week and in the weeks to come. Just in case.
I hope that I am wrong. I hope that have to eat crow and apologize to each and every one of you for falsely raising your fears.
Have your loved ones’ phone numbers in your phone AND written down. Reach out to the people assigned to your TUS Care Ring
in the spring – even if you don’t know them or know them well. This builds layers of connection and protection. Share your phone numbers with each other. Stay connected. The surest form of security is not having access to law enforcement; it is having living connections and deepening relationships and engaging in mutual aid – with those near us (neighbors) and those near us in heart (chosen family, family of origin, beloved friends). Check in on people who you know lead isolated lives.
Do the things that make you feel strong – look at the list I sent out in my monthly column. Pay attention as much as you can without risking your sanity. As well as take intermittent media Sabbaths, so you can stay grounded. Put my cell phone number in your phone if it is not already there (it is in the directory).
In the coming week, there are ways to come together locally and online. On Election Day itself, there is an online space for UUs across the nation, with spiritual practices every fifteen minutes, from 10am to 10pm. This will be on Zoom and on Facebook Live.
From 9 – midnight, Community Church of New York is hosting a similar thing – go to their web site to access.
On Thursday evening, at 8pm, the UUA – the “Mothership” for want of a better term – will be hosting a national vigil online, just as they did after the George Floyd murder. Information on how to access all of these is going out in an email this afternoon or evening and can be found on our Facebook page. While I would love to help you find these things, please don’t email or Facebook me to find it but search your email (or spam) for this information.
Also in that email is information about local outdoor, socially-distanced gatherings of which I am aware, one of which I have helped organize and we are co-sponsoring. On Wednesday – around 4 o’clock – people are gathering in Metuchen and in Highland Park to show our support for choosing democracy. The message: Every Vote Counts. Count Every Vote.
This morning’s anthem– All You Fascists Bound to Lose – is an old Woody Guthrie song, updated by the fabulous Resistance Revival Choir.
It’s not just a song. There is social science there, as I have preached on before. Erica Chenowith and Maria Stefan, in their research covering the whole of the 20th century and the first six years of this one, found that campaigns of non-violent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts. They have found that nonviolent resistance presents fewer obstacles to high levels of participations of people like us, which contributes to enhanced resilience and a greater probability of tactical innovation.
They have found that successful nonviolent resistance movements usher in more durable and internally peaceful democracies.
Fascists bound to lose, when we come together, nonviolently, strategically, resiliently.
We can be prepared for the chaos that may well come in the days and weeks of this strange, stressful election season.
We can prepare to respond nonviolently to irregularities and upsurges of violence, or support those who do with whatever resources we have: our financial resources, our creativity, our ability to make food, to honk our horn to show support, to make sure that those who are taking risks for our democracy know that they are not alone. Let us be a people so willing.
on the occasion of the ordination of Gregory Jones
October 18, 2020
Reverend Karen G. Johnston
In addition to Ruth Feldman’s “Detour,” I offer two brief quotes. First, from the 20th century Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber:
The second is from Joy Harjo, member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, current U.S. Poet Laureate. She wrote it in the introduction to her book, How We Became Human:
A neuroscientist has found that navigating our way without using a GPS increases that part of our brain that just might help offset cognitive impairments later in life.
If we hold as true the fractal nature of reality, then we must wonder – and begin to imagine into being – that our acts of navigating without maps, electronic or otherwise; that our actions of attending to so-called wrong turns; could be journeys filled with Buber’s secret destinations, and Harjo’s sacred all-ness.
Before going much further, I must confess: I do worry that Harjo’s certainty is misplaced, that it might be a form of spiritual by-passing, for as much as there are happy endings, there are also rotten ones. Some get lost along the way, unintended detours riddled with ruts so deep we cannot climb out of them. Beloveds who cannot be retrieved or returned or resurrected,except in the most metaphorical of ways. I say a blessing over the memory of those gone from us, some stolen, some just gone too soon.
I say just a bare few of their names:
And alongside that worry about spiritual bypassing, alongside grief and rage, I hold also…what?
Not for progress – we left that behind in the 20th century. But for emergence, for co-creation, for not only listening to the world we dream of, but dreaming it into being, without a map to show the way.
The secular American social philosopher, Rebecca Solnit, and the Christian public theologian, Barbara Brown Taylor, each suggest that we should practice getting lost. On purpose. And if not choosing to, then assenting once it happens. Taylor reminds us that if we do not start, now, choosing fairly low-risk ways of being lost, how will we handle it when “life’s big winds” knock us off course? She reminds us that the skills needed for literal lostness are the ones we need for other forms: managing our panic; marshaling our resources; looking around to see where we are; openness to the offerings of this unexpected development.[i]
Unitarian Universalism is lost. Some might call it trying to redefine ourselves. Others that we are rooting our authentic selves in the 21st century. It’s both right and wrong, what some our Christian detractors have claimed from the start ~ that we are one dangerous, gigantic, god-killing wrong turn.
Instead, I believe that we have taken a detour. Not just a semantic shift, but a true re-orientation. Some of the wisest of us, having noticed that we were lost/are lost, instead of immediately trying to find our way back, are offering to find our way…our way forward?
Maybe. Perhaps just our next way. And then the next.
Potawatomi biologist/writer/poet Robin Wall Kimmerer describes Abrahamic religions, with their commandments detailing right and wrong, as maps. [ii] What she was taught of indigenous spirituality is more like a compass: pointing in a direction, and then you just have to find your way.
Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
does not resemble authentic indigenous spirituality. Still, there is something powerful within Unitarian Universalism and it is worth respectfully borrowing that metaphor: a compass, not a map.
Comfort with getting lost.
Agreeing to not rely on GPS, which was, no doubt, programmed by white supremacy culture, anyway.
When Greg first asked me to preach at his ordination, I asked if he had already chosen a reading.
His first answer was supplanted by an email arriving in my inbox minutes later. Well before we met during his first year at seminary and my last, he had a poem taped to his mirror. It was the one you heard earlier, “Detour,” by Ruth Feldman.
Ruth was my Great Aunt, a relative to whom I was fiercely devoted in the final decade before she died, having lived a life filled with tragic, delicious, and drama-filled detours. About whose life – and I do not think that Greg knows this part – I preached my very first sermon, as a lay person, nearly sixteen years ago.
Greg has told me that he experiences the poem as describing not only his life, but an essential aspect of his ministry: not only a willingness to get lost, but an appreciation for what one finds along the way, particularly as one who is willing, as Greg is, to move back in order “to support the development and leadership of those [traditionally marginalized and silenced] who are [currently] transforming our UU movement by their courage, insight, and energy.” His words.
What is emerging, in this world where maps don’t know everything? And, in fact, might be leading us the wrong way?
What is possible in this world of secret destinations, where all is sacred?
Pleasure activist, community organizer, and all around badass, adrienne maree brown, suggests that
We are creating a world we have never seen. We are whispering it to each other cuddled in the dark, and we are screaming it at people who are so scared of it that they dress themselves in war regalia to turn and face us. Because of our ancestors, because of us, and because of the children we are raising,there will be a future without police and prisons. Yes. There will be a future without rape. Without harassment, and constant fear, and childhood sexual assault. A future without war, hunger, violence. With abundance. Where gender is a joyful spectrum. Where my nephew would not be bullied for his brilliant differentness. Where each of our bodies is treated like sacred ground, whether we have insurance or not.[iii]
This is Greg’s work, his ministry, the one he has been already conducting and the one to which we are ordaining him today.
This is our work: using the compass of Unitarian Universalism to find our collective way, living a life of integrity and liberation; a life in service of a greater good; a life that if not obliterates oppression, then reduces its harm, hopefully mightily.
In announcing on Facebook on October 4th the death of Unitarian Universalist minister Carl Bretz, his minister (and colleague), Reverend Jake Morrill described Carl as happily welcoming
what he called the “revolutions” among UU clergy in each generation, which he believed necessary to move the faith forward.
Reminds me of Greg – welcoming and celebrating the renewing energies of the revolutions – like the recent report of the Commission on Institutional Change, that keep our Living Tradition alive. Generational revolutions that move the faith forward remind me that Robin Wall Kimmerer says the Original Instructions within her indigenous spirituality call for following them differently “for each of us and … for every era.”
For too damn long, Unitarian Universalist ministers: so much white. Until not that long ago, so much male. And driven by a not-especially-benevolent form of exceptionalism. Were told to be great leaders. In this era, Greg, with your ministry, you are a part of a movement of white, and/or male, and/or cisgender ministers, who recognize that our instructions ~ our compasses ~ are to follow. Our compasses are to make space for those historically and currently pushed to the margins.
That if we are to lead, it is to do so by showing others with similar identities and social locations how to grow resilience, holy curiosity, and the capacity for celebration, particularly in those who feel that we have taken a wrong turn, role modeling to congregant and colleague alike. No to fragility, defensiveness or sabotage. No to gaslighting and gadflying.
All is not lost, even for this nation, as our flirtation with authoritarianism has moved well-past a one-night stand into a weaponized and self-destructive affair.
All is not lost, even as the world continues its rapacious consumption and the waters are rising, the droughts are multiplying, the fires scorching.
So while we may consent to lostness, to losing our way in order to find it, let me say with a confidence that I did not know I have inside me: we are not lost. At least not in the old fashioned way.
We are, I think, on a right path, perhaps even a righteous path, sacredness all around as every wrong turn has the potential to become right; as our journey emerges with its secret destinations; as we cast aside the maps that don’t know everything.
May it be so. Amen.
Here is the video of the sermon
[i] Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World, 2010
[ii] Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass, 2015
So says Widening the Circle of Concern, the highly anticipated report from the UUA’s Commission on Institutional Change. Published this past June, it was a central focus of this year’s General Assembly.
Throughout this current year, many different groups within Unitarian Universalism have committed to making this report the focus of their learning and leadership development. For instance, the Metro New York chapter of religious educators (our own Jessica M. Hess sits on their exec team), developed and held just this Thursday a Professional Day for professional religious educators, ministers, and musicians focusing on the report’s findings.
This past summer, a hard copy of the report was sent to EVERY congregational president with an invitation that boards spend time with the recommendations. I am unaware of any similar determined effort to get the word out to congregations: an indicator of how important the report is.
Side note: my guess is that if any congregation wants to be considered by minister of color or one who centers anti-racism work, they are likely going to be asked how the congregation engaged in this report. Choices now impact future options.
So, to large degree, today’s sermon is “insider baseball” for Unitarian Universalists. It’s important that we know not only of its existence, but become familiar with its recommendations. Backstory that brought the Commission on Institutional Change ~ and their report ~ into being will help make sense.
There was the “Spring of our Awakening” – as some call 2017, when a courageous voice among our Unitarian Universalist leaders of color spoke out about an unfair hiring process within the Unitarian Universalist Association. Out of this whistle-blowing came accusations, later founded, of hiring patterns that reinforced white supremacy culture, hiring white individuals to leadership positions and people of color to positions with less influence and capacity to shape the course of our association. Threats also came – aimed at the whistleblower and her family, from within the congregation she served and wider Unitarian Universalism. Yes, from within our own faith movement.
Also that spring: surprisingly, and painfully, and in my opinion, non-covenantly, the president of the UUA, himself a Latino man, resigned with just a few months left in his term, which sparked other resignations within the leadership of Unitarian Universalism.
What seemed like our Association falling apart, became an opportunity to tend to the roots of the problem, to consider new ways of doing leadership and shared ministry, and to re-examine what we, as a faith movement, stand for.
Would this become yet another time in our history when we make bold promises about building the multicultural world we dream of, only to break those promises? We have done this repeatedly. Or would this be different?
We don’t know yet. Part of how we will know is if we – yes, this congregation, and others like us, for all of us make up the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations – decide to engage this report, or just let it lay gathering dust on a shelf.
What is at stake is nothing less than our future.
The Commission on Institutional Change was made up of six UU leaders from across our faith movement – representing different roles, positions, and cultural identities in Unitarian Universalism. The people who made up the Commission were chosen with great intention. They spent three years of deep listening, learning and researching, soliciting stories and input, analyzing data, and then, producing what turn out to be 30 recommendations with 90 identified actions in ten categories of our communal life as Unitarian Universalists.
All of the categories are more or less relevant to every Unitarian Universalist. A few are more directly relevant to us, particularly the category, “Congregations and Communities.”
This report is not for the faint of heart. But we are not a faint-hearted people, are we? We can’t be, not if the report tells us that what is at stake is nothing less than our future.
The report recognizes that more and more folks opt out of organized religion and as such, the reasons that people opt into religion, are willing to check out a UU congregation, have changed over the past decades, have changed since some of you longer-here beloveds, found your way here. The report notes that
“As institutional religion declines, more who enter our doors are not the refugees from other faiths, but are experiencing faith communities for the first time through our faith and are seeking spiritual ground.”
“We have spent [too] time comparing our religious wounds rather than healing them…our time as a haven or social club for those disaffected by other religions has passed. In these searing times of political division, climate change, economic polarization and global strife, people need a sustaining faith.”
“We continue to attract a greater diversity of people and to retain a very small percentage of those who do not match the resourced, white, aging, majority within our congregation.”
The report attributes one of the reasons our congregations are in trouble is “our inability to address issues of inclusion, equity, and diversity.” Adding to this is the toxic prioritization of individualism – of focusing on the First Principle without understanding it in the context of covenantal community.
The report goes beyond naming the problem, including sharing firsthand testimony, to making recommendations and naming action steps. Of the 90 action steps, in the chapter on congregations and communities there are thirteen. While there isn’t time to list them all here, I do want to share with you the “take-aways” at the end of this chapter in particular:
Congregations that choose to engage to increase equity, inclusion, and diversity are leading the way into the future.
Too often congregations must do this challenging work by themselves when learning communities would be easy to form.
Curated resources, learning circles, and funding to develop needed tools should be a priority for UUA-led efforts under the leadership of the Liberal Religious Educators Association.
Anti-oppression tools as well as conflict facilitation are essential to leadership development efforts, and leadership development is needed in the complex and often conflictual context of leadership today.
None of this can be accomplished without better communication between the Unitarian Universalist Association and the congregations it serves.
Regional gatherings could touch more Unitarian Universalists and help provide a common frame of reference.
Regional staff should provide a consistent structure for work on diversity, equity and inclusion.
What is at stake is nothing less than our future.
I wonder if we ~ The Unitarian Society ~ will take up the invitation to do this work? We have people in this congregation willing to spend their time growing their anti-racism skills. We have people who express the desire for a more multi-cultural congregation.
Can we do the deep work that goes beyond wanting a diversity of skin hues in the pews just to make ourselves feel better? Are we willing to do the work of opening to the deep transformation that genuine equity, inclusion, and diversity necessitates?
I welcome the chance to share this ministry with you.
It can feel daunting ~ it is daunting ~ particularly given everything else going on in the world. With that in mind, I want you to hear this voice, these words, of hope and possibility. They come Rev. Sofia Betancourt. She spoke them a year after the Spring of Our Awakening, the year many congregations, including this one, took part in an association-wide Dismantling White Supremacy culture teach-in, a year in which it seemed possible that chaos might win.
Reverend Betancourt teaches at Starr King, one of our two UU seminaries. She was, for the brief period when we had no president of the UUA during that Spring of our Awakening, one of the three co-presidents who set our Association on a new course. Here she is, her own self:
With the strength of generations. This is what we are.
As the hymn sings: our grandmother’s prayers. Our grandfather’s dreamings.
Living into and becoming “the weary, ragged miracle that is our living tradition.”
With our Soul Matters theme this month of Deep Listening, I invite us listen deeply to this report, even if it makes us feel all sorts of ways, like some of the animals in today’s story – like shouting out of anger, like trying to focus on fixing, like getting stuck on remembering the past, like wanting to blow up the hard work of others. I wonder if we can move through all the feelings of resistance, of defensiveness, of intellectualization, and get through to the part where we can altogether take a step back and behold a vision of our faith movement building into something that will be amazing.
Reverend Betancourt was rightly quoted liberally in Widening the Circle of Concern, for she is one of our wisest contemporary theologians. She said these words which I invite you to take in to soothe our troubled, challenged hearts as we listen deeply to this daring and demanding report:
“The good news is that we are in control of what we do with our daily living. If we, each one of us, represent a missing remnant in the fabric of our collective future – then together we can lean into a possibility that we have yet to fully experience in human history. A collective wholeness. An unassailable good. That is the very kind of salvation I am here to fight for in the small moments of every single day.”
I call on all of us to remember who we are: our grandmother’s prayers, our grandfather’s dreamings, just as the hymn reminds us.
I call on all of us to remember who we are, just as the poet Joy Harjo urges us:
While Buddhism asserts that we all have Buddhanature – that at our core can be found a golden goodness – the roots of Unitarianism or Universalism does not make this claim. Not quite.
Historically, Unitarians claimed that we have within us the capacity to be both good and bad and that we can BE good by DOING good, that we can build our character to achieve salvation, rather than it being reserved only for an elect few, as the Calvinists (and Hosea Ballou’s father) believed.
Historically, the thing that made Universalism heretical is that no matter how much good or bad we do, god loves us and will welcome us into heaven – kicking and screaming, if need be, as one of my colleagues has famously preached.
What does that mean for Unitarian Universalists today?
For months, this sermon had a different title in my head. It was “Marie’s Sermon,”
because during one of my June driveway visits, Marie Phelan, a member of this congregation, shared that she was struggling to find the inherent worth and dignity of a certain high placed politician, given all the pain and suffering he continues to cause. I knew she was not alone.
It IS easier to damn some people to hell.
Frankly, it is easier to know there will be an ultimate judge of good and bad, and to assume (or hope) that such judgement reflects our own.
It is easier to exclude someone from humanity – call them a monster, a demon, inhuman – when they do something terrible, rather than to tolerate the discomfort of knowing that person is within the same human family as we are.
The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association – the UUA – Rev. Susan Frederick Gray says “this is no time for a casual faith”. If we take Unitarian Universalism seriously, it is actually an exacting faith and always has been. This is true, even if we have a reputation for not knowing what we believe, or “religion lite,” or what our current congregation’s board president thought before he checked us out, decades ago: that we were the McDonald’s of religion.
Unitarian Universalism, with our First Principle asks ~ even demands ~ that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every individual. Every. Even at a time when there is so much violence and hatred being fomented by both bot and real persons alike; when there is much policy-based harm being perpetrated against the already vulnerable and marginalized, including some of us in this congregation; when hypocrisy is rife among our elected officials: this is a radical act.
How to do this impossible thing? I’d like to ask you to reflect upon three things.
Number one: while each individual has inherent worth and dignity, not all behaviors do.
Our faith requires us to see the inherent worth of every one – the killer on death row, the hypocritical politician, the child molester – and it requires us to bring all our personal and institutional power to not only mitigate that person’s harms, but to stop them, if we can. Acceptance of inherent worth does not, and cannot, mean approval of harmful action.
The easy part of our First Principle is affirming as having inherent worth and dignity
of those individuals or identities that are so often the target of hate or derision – trans and nonbinary folx, atheists and so-called non-believers, family constellations outside the traditional, Black Lives Matter, undocumented immigrants. It feels good to be a First Principle people on those occasions.
Reverend Sofia Betancourt says it this way:
We are the theological inheritors of teachings on universal salvation. There is no winnowing out of the supposedly unworthy that can be named sacred among us.
It is our very Universalism that is at stake when we turn away from the impact that our institutions have on the same communities and groups that society encourages us to dehumanize and make small.[i]
This is absolutely where we should start. And it’s not where we should end. It is harder to be a First Principle person when we are face to face with someone who has assaulted us, or who has passed a law that demeans our humanity, or who has been cruel or violent towards another living creature.
Can we practice affirming their inherent worth and dignity while denouncing their action? Can we afford not to?
Number two: For, when we cannot perceive the inherent worth and dignity of another person, it is less a reflection of them, and more about us. It is possibly, and I say this as gently as possible, more of a comment on the depth of our own humanity, or perhaps our own experience of trauma,than on the humanity of the person we are judging.
White supremacy couldn’t survive if enough of us set about the work of reclaiming the human spirit, which includes reclaiming the sense of humanity of the people that are the current vehicles for those very forms of oppression.
It is the nearly or wholly impossible aspect of Universalism that calls us to see the humanity of the police officers who perpetrate brutality ~ or the humanity of white supremacist shooters like Dylan Roof. Yet in so doing, we are more able to access our own.
Even though I do not believe in either heaven or hell, I do take seriously the legacy of our Universalist ancestors: that god loves all (no matter how muddy we get) and that everyone will get into heaven. Everyone.
On some days, I don’t like it. I don’t like thinking that there won’t be an ultimate comeuppance. It seems utterly unfair.
I don’t like the hard heart work it requires of me. I don’t like to see myself regularly failing at this high standard set before me.
But then I inhale and I think of how so much of our common project is aspirational, that we must aim and aim again, not because we are failing, but because we are practicing.
I think about how long eternity is and how I want to affirm life, not destruction, not ugliness,not punishment ~ so I try again.
I think of how moved I am by the song we played earlier by Arjuna Griest,
and by this poem, from Andrea Gibson called, “Daytime, Somewhere” shared here in part:
So when asked if I think you’re a good person,
I say, I don’t believe in good people. I believe in people
Who are committed to knowing their own wounds intimately.
Truth knows everybody’s dark side is daytime somewhere.
Do you know science just proved an atom
can exist in two places at the same time?
No one is ever only at the scene of their crimes.
Each of us is always also somewhere holy.
If what we are called to do this thing that is both necessary, and impossible, what are we to do?
Number three: We pay attention to where our empathies linger and attach themselves.
Especially for those of us with identities of privilege – folks with white skin, folks who present as male, folks with economic protections and privileges, folks who have had positive experiences with law enforcement, folks living without physical ordevelopmental disabilities – it is easy to have our empathies collude with narratives that support systems of oppression. It is how we have been trained. It is how I have been trained.
For instance, I noticed the pathways of my empathy as I watched the video footage, released this week, of the fatal police shooting of Hasani Best in Asbury Park this past August.
I watched as the tension became so thick; as the police officers took attentive care of each other, making sure their shields would protect each other from assault by someone with a knife in his hand, screaming at them.
I noticed as the officers demonstrated few effective de-escalation skills, using words and tone of voice that only made things worse.
I heard the way that tension overflowed into nervous laughter coming from several of the officers, not out of disrespect but because human nervous systems work that way. I recognized it because that is something I have experienced in my own body when engaging fragile men with violent histories in high-tension situations.
And let me be clear: I saw no escalation in threatening behavior by Mr. Best at the time one of the officers pulled the trigger. Which means that I, and anyone who watches that recording, observed the unnecessary use of force that resulted in the death of another Black man.
Now Mr. Best is dead.
With his yelling, his violence towards his partner (which is why the police were there in the first place), even with his brandishing a knife: I affirm Hasani Best’s inherent worth and dignity. I say Black Lives Matter.
In their aggressive approach and in their fear for their own safety and that of their co-workers, I affirm the inherent worth and dignity of the law enforcement officers. This is what my faith calls me to.
In June of this year, a bipartisan group of over 100 individuals with backgrounds that include two former governors, senior political campaigners, prominent journalists, social movement leaders, experts on national security, election law, and more, came together over three days to test the integrity of our democracy.
They explored four possible scenarios:
· a win for the incumbent by Electoral College, but not by popular vote (like last cycle);
· a clear win for the challenger;
· a narrow win for the challenger; and
· an outcome too close to confirm a winner the morning after Election Day.
The purpose was not to predict winner or loser, but to identify weak spots in our democracy with an eye toward mitigation now. As many of us fear, it turns out our democracy is more fragile than we would like.
Earlier this month, they issued a report that revealed alarming (their word) insights, including that the concept of “election night” is both no longer accurate and dangerous AND that we must anticipate a rocky transition period should there be a change in the presidency. Writer David Frum described the conclusions in the following way:
The bottom line: There do exist outer legal boundaries to the mischief that can be done by even the most corrupt president.The bad news is that there is A LOT of mischief that can be done within the legal boundaries by a determined president, especially with the compliance of the attorney general and enough political allies in the state capitals.
In it he said that democracy is not a state, it is an act.
In it he said that each generation must do its part to help build Beloved Community.
In it he invited us all to walk with the wind.
Like many others, has also invited us to remember that no matter who occupies the White House, threats to our democracy are rooted deep within our nation’s origins for, as Ta-Naheisi Coates reminds us, it was not only the genocide of Native peoples but also the erection of a slave society, which created the economic foundation for America’s great experiment in democracy.
It is the end of August. One political party’s convention has just ended and another’s is about to take place. In some ways, this sermon is a follow up to one I gave last November: Healing the Heart of Democracy.
I am preaching to you about this now because there is still time to do something. Though not much time.
I am preaching to you about this now because Unitarian Universalism is guided by our Seven Principles and the Fifth one affirms democratic processes not only in our congregations, but in society at large.
I am preaching to you about this now because the 671 mail sorting machines that were taken off line so far this year – 150% more than last year and 400% more than the year before that – by the USPS were strategically and not coincidentally from those states that will decide both the presidential race and key Senate seats.[i]
I am preaching to you about this now, because as overwhelmed with the pandemic and our own personal lives as we may be, we cannot pay attention to this state of affairs just by watching television and social media, shouting at the pundits or the latest news, and then sinking back into to our demanding lives. We cannot let the terror some of us are feeling – many of you have shared it with me – that we are losing our democracy in front of our eyes – we cannot let the state of terror or rage be our only response. We must act.
In our Time For All Ages story, John Lewis referenced the parallels between this summer and the summers of the late 1960s, when there were also uprisings in the face of structural racial inequity in the nation. In the report from the Transitions Integrity Project, they note that our nation’s closest experience to the contention of this election cycle was the 1876 election. The TIP report describes it as
a time of extreme partisanship and rampant disenfranchisement, where multiple states proffered competing slates of electors, and the election was only resolved through a grand political bargain days before Inauguration—one that traded an end to Reconstruction for electoral peace and resulted in a century of Jim Crow, leaving deep wounds that are far from healed today.
That same TIP report tells us that the risks they identify can be mitigated. It states that the worst-case scenarios that played out in their three-day experience need not come to fruition. That they explored the possibilities and raised their clarion call to “spur all stakeholders to action.” In their words:
Our legal rules and political norms don’t work unless people are prepared to defend them and to speak out when others violate them.
Spur all stakeholders to action. ALL STAKEHOLDERS. That’ us, right? Don’t we all hold a stake in the integrity of our democracy? Isn’t this a call for each of us to act?
If you are already taking action in this arena, I welcome the chance to those hopeful stories. Actions beyond posting on social media. Perhaps you have found a group that resonates with your sense of politics and are phone-banking or text-banking or writing postcards. Perhaps you are attending local NAACP meetings where they are strategizing about how to ensure the widest access to voting. Perhaps you have written letters or signed petitions to save the integrity of the United States Postal Service, given the shift to mail-in ballots, given the risks posed in areas where there will be Covid hot spots come early November.
Donating as part of this morning’s Be The Change is an act of supporting the re-enfranchisement of people in Florida, particularly when they are facing obstacles placed in front of their right to vote by the state legislature after the people voted to return the right to vote to citizens returning home from prison
How else can we live into our Fifth Principle? As I raised to you last November, I want to raise to you again the organized efforts by our faith movement called UU the Vote. As part of our UU General Assembly this past June, UU the Vote made 117,000 calls to voters in Texas to help them overcome voter suppression. There continue to be many ways, small and large, that each of you, or small groups of you, can enter into strengthening the resilience of our nation’s democracy.
For instance, there are phone banking opportunities to help get the vote out in Florida, including one THIS Tuesday night that you can register to take part in. There are other dates, other states, all in the next two plus months. Or postcard and letter writing efforts done together over zoom to provide fellowship and a sense of community. Or efforts that focus just next door, in Pennsylvania. Put “uu the vote” into any search engine and explore. Get a couple of other TUSians together on Zoom and help our congregation live into our values and principles!
Let me close with these words from John Lewis’ final message to us:
Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.
Let us clasp our metaphorical hands together and move towards that corner of our collective house that is weakest, bringing the weight of our presence as a saving act – one of many saving acts that save our democracy and, as Mr. John Lewis says, redeems the soul of our nation.