Each a Part of the Beautiful Whole (sermon)

Water Ingathering 2019

September 8, 2019

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

All of us need all of us to make it.

These are words from Reverend Theresa Ines Soto, the Senior Minister at First Unitarian in Oakland California.

All of us need all of us to make it.

No matter our shape or size, no matter the hue of our skin, no matter if our brains are neurotypical or not. Whether we are tall or short or inbetween.  Young or once young. Old or gonna be old.  Cranky, cheerful, skeptical, naïve – there’s room for you here.  Not despite whatever it is that makes you you, but because of what makes you you.

What makes you you, makes us us.

Each of us, a part of the Beautiful Whole.

All of us need all of us to make it.

The author, environmentalist, and Mormon, Terry Tempest Williams wrote a book awhile back called, Finding Beauty in a Broken World.  The last third of the book is about the unexpected complexity of prairie dog communities. The middle third is about healing after the Rwandan genocide.  The first third of the book is about learning how to make mosaics. 

She writes about a class she took from a master mosaicist in Ravenna, Italy.   There she learned that the tiles used in mosaics are called “tessera.”  She also learned the eleven classical rules. 

Number one: The play of light is the first rule of mosaic.

Number three: Tesserae (the plural of tessera) are irregular, rough, individualized, unique.

Number eight: There is perfection in imperfection. The interstices or gaps between the tesserae speak their own language.

Number nine: Many colors are used to create one color from afar.

Finally, number eleven: The play of light is the first and last rule of mosaic.

Tempest Williams learns things in this class beyond how to make a mosaic.  She learns classical history: the first mosaics were made in Mesopotamia, two and a half millennia before Jesus walked the earth, but died out as an art form.  It reappeared in 9th century Greece, first made of pebbles, a cheaper alternative to carpet.  Then, as cut stone became the primary material, the art form spread geographically: Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and those famous ones in Pompeii, buried under volcanic ash.

She learned other things.  Wisdom that might be applied beyond making a literal mosaic. How it is not only interesting, but necessary, to have diversity of color, of texture, of shape, of size.  How sometimes, it is not commonality that ties one tessera to another, but is the tension between them.  That somethings, if we perceive them from too close, in distance or time, they appear messy or disjointed, perhaps even at odds.  But with distance, there is a beautiful blending and belonging that was not, could not be, perceived close up. 

Her teacher said, “A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken… Mosaics are created out of community.”

All of us need all of us to make it.

~~

This past summer, I took a mosaic class while I was in Santa Fe.  I’ve placed what I made here for you to admire.

I made this!

I, too, like Terry Tempest Williams, learned some life lessons from those hours in the studio. For example, there were times when I was frustrated at my own limits. The teacher used the tools with ease. When I used them, I was clumsy. Still, the teacher showed me how to use the tool; she never offered to do it for me—which meant that by practicing, I had to figure it out for myself.

I learned that there were two ways for us to turn large sheets of glass into smaller, usable pieces: the intentional precision of a pistol-handled glass cutter. Or using a ball-peen hammer and a thwack of force. Each method renders very different results, both of which are necessary. The beauty of our mosaics emerged from a mixture of precision and chaos, control and surrender.

As instructed when I registered for the class, I arrived with a design in mind. However, the further along I got—transferring the design from my imagination to paper, then to the wooden base — the less the mosaic looked like my original design. Vision is essential, but I had to hold mine loosely so the final project could reveal itself to me along the way.

Here is the wisdom I gleaned from this class, different from Terry Tempest Williams’:

As much as you can, surround yourself with skillful teachers, no matter what you are learning. Let them teach you. But don’t let them do it for you. That learning is yours to do.

Respect the fragments and shards, whether they’re multi-hued glass or your life’s own story. Yes, they offer the occasional sharp cut, but they can offer also beauty and new ways to perceive the world. 


Resist the urge to fully map out the future. Instead, cultivate humility and a capacity to trust. Know that there is a bigger picture out there, something bigger than any one of us, and we can connect with it, hitch our tent to it, and discover unexpected beauty. 


~~~

Terry Tempest Williams wrote,

“Mosaic celebrates brokenness and the beauty of being brought together.”

May you get through this life, not unscathed, but with all your broken parts available for you to piece together into a beautiful whole.

May we all.

All of us need all of us to make it.

Amen. Blessed be.

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Lucky Pocket & Love Match

Have you ever had the experience of putting on your winter coat for the first time since last season and finding money in the pocket?  Or heard a story about someone buying something at a thrift store and finding money in it – an old book, the pocket of a pair of jeans, something like that?

Do you ever “hide” money from yourself and then have the joy of finding it anew?  I love it when that happens.

Well, in our congregation’s budget we have a pocket like that – a lucky pocket.  Officially, it is called the Shortfall Reserve, which is a pretty boring title, though it describes the purpose well: if we have a shortfall in our budget, this money is reserved to help fill the deficit.

Anyway, I am proposing that from now on, we call it our “Lucky Pocket.”

In past years, this Lucky Pocket has helped us so that when our budget didn’t balance, we haven’t felt the depth of cuts that we might have otherwise had.  This Lucky Pocket has been a gift from generations that have gone before you, who sit here now, who looked into the future and knew there might come a time when having a little extra money in reserve would help.

Now it’s our time to look to the future. Now it’s our time to put some money into that Lucky Pocket and build it up for a time when we really need it.

And lucky for us, there is a special incentive to do this.  A small group of donors have created a fund – I have been calling it “the Love Match.”  This fund holds $4,000 and will match, dollar for dollar, what you – and you – and you – and all of us – donate to the Lucky Pocket from now until November 17th.

We are not asking for you to make a special pledge – which means you promise to give money in the future.  We are asking for you to give money now – perhaps today, but between now and Sunday, November 17th.  Cash, check, electronic bank transfer, the swipe of your debit or credit card.  As often as you would like between now and November 17th.  You can give all at once, or each week.  You can give $10, or you can give $10 each time you are here.

The Love Match will match it, dollar for dollar, up to $4000.  That means that we have a chance between now and November 17th to put into the Lucky Pocket an additional $8000.

And it’s already begun!  Every member of the Board of Trustees is participating.  They have already ponied-up, hoping to inspire you all to do the same.  Altogether, they have given $950, which will be matched by the Love Match. So we are already nearly a quarter of the way there.

Now, it’s your turn.

I ask you, and the Board of Trustees asks you: what can you do to help future TUS when it encounters a time of need?  Can you give $100? $300?  Can you give up a weekly coffee or espresso or cappuccino or latte at your favorite café and give $4.90 to TUS.

I can’t wait to hear at our big Rededication Festivities on November 23 & 24th, that we not only earned the whole Love Match, but that we blew it away.  That our Lucky Pocket was bulging with abundance from all of you—from all of us – who thanked the generations before us, for creating this place for us, and thought of the generations to come, knowing they could rest easier here at TUS.

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Doom & Bloom: Reflections on Climate Grief

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

August 11, 2019

Perhaps you know in your body.  Perhaps you know in your head.  Perhaps you know in what Buddhists call your heartmind, that deep place of coherence beyond the binary, beyond the either/or, beyond the one or the other.

We have moved past climate change…

…to climate changed.

Or climate catastrophe or crisis or constriction. Emergency. Breakdown. Chaos. Take your pick.

Instead of stopping global warming, there are some who have given up the notion of prevention and now speak of mitigation. Sometimes, folks with this worldview – and perhaps it is you — speak of adaptation, lower case “as,” a kind of adjustment that forecasts society as still recognizable, our current linear economy more or less intact, just smaller, inconvenient to be sure, but manageable.

There are those who speak of reversing the damage, of seeking salvation (and perhaps even redemption) through technology or artificial intelligence or a combination of both.  Seeding the clouds, carbon capture. Perhaps this is you.

Even though I do not hold these worldviews, if you do, I honor you.

There are those who believe we are well beyond the tipping point, yet believe that it is irresponsible to disseminate that perspective, no matter the science to back it up, for it raises despair.  Perhaps this is you. 

It is not me, though it is tricky for a minister to raise despair without guaranteeing a counterweight of hope, a punchline to the perverse joke of environmental destruction.  Or at least a silver lining.

There are those who do speak of collapse:

“an uneven ending

of our normal modes

of sustenance, security, pleasure, identity,

meaning and hope,”[1]

a definition I borrow from Jem Bendell, an academic in Britain, the founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability and of the Deep Adaptation Forum; and associated with the new movement, Extinction Rebellion.

I want you to hear that again, for it’s important for this morning’s sermon:

an uneven ending of our normal modes of sustenance, security, pleasure, identity, meaning and hope

This is not the collapse of a house of cards, something known from the very beginning will fall apart.  No, this is collapse of what we were raised to believe was rock solid.

Deep Adaptation is a concept put forward by Bendell, whose paper, “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy” was published about a year ago (on July 27).  A mere 26 pages, with an additional ten pages of citations, Bendell concludes that collapse is both inevitable and imminent. 

“It is a difficult conclusion to arrive at. And a difficult one to live with.” (Bendell)

Bendell is no cynic or masochist, nor is he particularly morbid, as far as I can tell, having never met him.  He is a person who has turned towards fear and grief for the world. A person who has invited the poison of despair to surface and the terror of species extinction to manifest in his psyche. 

A person who has lived to tell about it on the either side. Doing so, speaking of hope and love; speaking not of Doom and Gloom, but of Doom and BLOOM.

In Deep Adaptation, collapse is coupled with love, community, and compassion. Rather than lose all hope, it is about shifting the shape and texture hope now takes.  Survival at any cost is not the pinnacle of human aspiration.

Instead, how we are with one another – cultivating what some call our humanity, but is much wider than that, more inclusive of all sentient beings – that is our utmost aspiration.  Our goal is not to turn against each other, as Tim deChristopher described in the video reflection we just watched. Not survival at any cost if the cost requires us to be ugly to one another.

Deep Adaptation offers four guiding principles:

  • Resilience: discerning which values and norms we wish to retain and cultivate as we seek to survive. This is a deeper concept than the more typical notion of resilience as bouncing back from adversity – rather than bouncing back to one’s previous circumstance or capacity, it’s about intentional cultivation of some of our capacities that will serve us going forward.

It makes me think of some of what we heard in the video earlier, from Tim deChristopher.  With the impossibility of seven-plus billion people living in a climate constricted world, what kind of society do we want to have.  How do we cultivate it right now? Resilience.

Then the other side of the cultivating resilience coin:

  • Relinquishment: the opposite of cultivating.  This is about letting go – relinquishing – capacities that may have served us in the past, but will no longer do so – in fact, might make things worse.  For instance, buildings along coastlines or on flood plains. Access to foods from halfway across the planet or out of season locally. No more avocadoes in Buffalo. Here in Jersey, peaches only in July and August. Relinquishment.

Third is

  • Restoration which is about rediscovering attitudes and approaches of to life that were largely, or wholly, left by the wayside in our fossil-fuel-saturated, growth-based society. Waking with the rising of the sun, sleeping with its setting.  Moving away from a linear economy of take-make-use-lose to a circular economy where reducing is prioritized first, reusing as second, and recycling is still an option, but only after those first two. Restoration.

The fourth R was not in the original paper, but added in January of this year.  It’s

  • Reconciliation. and it asks, “What could I make peace with to lessen suffering?” It is an invitation to make peace within ourselves, with others in our personal lives or in our cultural circumstances (like healing systemic racism), or with whatever divine source in our lives calls to us.  We do this because without some form of reconciliation, we risk tearing each other apart, increasing our suffering on the way to collapse. Reconciliation.

I attended high school in the early 1980s, the height of the nuclear arms race and the peak of mutually assured mass destruction.  The first sleep-away summer camp this nerd ever went to was during high school and it was studying the impact of nuclear holocaust on literature.  So I think it’s fair to say that my life holds a long-running thread related to the possibility of doom. 

It was in this era of my life that I came across this quote, which I wrote down in this very notebook which I hold in my hand, the first entry in 1984 and the last in 2003.  The quote comes from someone named Elissa Melamed and clearly captured my imagination back then. You can find it at the top of your order of service:

I don’t know how long we have.  We have to do this work because we believe in peace and in building peace.  We start with ourselves, our communities: the circles get larger.  If the bomb falls tomorrow, there’s something so valid about living this way, that we would live this way anyway.

This is the reason to turn towards our grief for the climate, towards our despair for the planet, rather than away.  This is the reason to let surface the fears and, yes, even the terror, that we might release it. It may not let full go of us, but it will take on a different weight and a lesser power in our personal lives and in our collective life.

This should not be done alone.  Isolation makes the burden heavier.  While feeling such heavy feelings may feel beyond possible, the alternative is exponentially more corrosive. To our individual selves and to society.   

Shifting out of isolation, normalizing conversations about the climate emergency we find ourselves in, weaving and reweaving connection of community and growing deep inclusion now — these are our survival tactics. Being present in this way takes practice, for it is not easy to allow ourselves to feel the despair, the rage, the sorrow, the guilt. 

Surfacing our climate grief is not a substitute for enacting change in the public sphere. It is, rather, a tool of such efforts, likely making us more effective, for we come out of such sharing more robust, more able to face the world as it is.  As British psychologist, Susie Orbach, another member of the Extinction Rebellion movement, says, “We need to mourn AND organize. It should not be one or the other.”

This is exactly the reasoning behind one of the new ministries – Adult Religious Education, if you prefer that term better – that I will be facilitating this year.  Starting on September 15 – it’s a Sunday evening – there will be gatherings here called ClimateSpirit.  These gatherings will include food, poetry, activities that are grounding, singing (I am looking for someone to take on the role of leading the songs — I am willing, but we all know there are folks better equipped than I to do this).

Every time we gather, we will begin by grounding ourselves in gratitude, essential to how I was taught to facilitate such groups.  Then we move into space that invites our pain for the world. After that, we engage our imaginative hearts, rather than our skeptical intellects, into seeing with new eyes and then practice going forth into the world.

There will likely be tears.  And definitely laughter.

It will not be a space for sharing the latest horrific news or intellectual debates. We will, as much as possible, veer away from advice giving. We don’t gather to solve each others’ problems; we gather to offer our witness and to receive it, to lessen the weight of the world so that each can be able to do what is theirs to do, whatever that is.

How often will we meet after that first dinner workshop on September 15? I’m not sure. Quarterly? Every other month? Monthly?  It depends on the momentum we generate. 

And I want to fess up. While I have developed this ministry this for you, the congregation I serve, and for our local community, which I also serve, let’s not kid ourselves: I am doing this for me.  I spent most of my summer study leave focusing on the climate crisis.  What I learned or was confirmed for me is devastating.  I need this.  And I know that I am not the only one.

Perhaps you know in your body.  Perhaps you know in your head.  Perhaps you know in what Buddhists call your heartmind, that deep place of coherence beyond the binary, beyond the either/or, beyond the one or the other: you need this, too.

May the ways we prepare for this great turning, whatever it be, be ways that lead in love.

May it be so.  Amen.  Blessed be.

[1] Jem Bendell, Doom & Bloom, This is Not a Drill

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On Not Waiting to Be the Hummingbird (redux)

The Life and Death of Lee Hawkins

First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque

July 14, 2019

A quarter century ago, I asked the coordinator of my grandmother’s hospice care, how my grandmother was doing – not medically, but spiritually.  She said simply, respecting both my grandmother’s confidentiality and my grief-as-curiosity,

“As we live, so we die.”

This was unfortunate for my grandmother, who barely topped five feet but intimidated the beejeezus out of nearly anyone, including her progeny, with her need for control and insistence on her rightness in the world.  Dying was no easy path for her.

Today I want to tell you about a different older woman whom I also loved.  I want to tell you about a different way to encounter dying and death.  I want to tell you about someone who, when the time was right, couldn’t wait to be the hummingbird. 

I want to tell you about Eleanor “Lee” Hawkins.

Lee Hawkins

In the process of becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister, one must go before the daunting Ministerial Fellowship Committee.  When I was preparing for that august meeting, word on the street was that a commonly posed question was a request to name a Unitarian or Universalist or Unitarian Universalist hero from each of the last four centuries.” I knew that I would name Lee as my 21st century choice.

I tell you about Lee as a talisman for myself, a gesture as part of my own spiritual practice of befriending death, my inelegant attempts to live into that line from our reading: “the tenderness yet to come.”  That poem is our reading today because Lee left instructions for me to read it at her memorial service in 2014. 

Lee was, indeed, that hummingbird.  In 2004, a full decade before she died, when her husband was dying at home, he called out to Lee from the bedroom.  It was time. He told her that he was at death’s door.  Lee went to him full of devoted love – they had been married for decades upon decades and were still effervescent with their adoration for each other.  She sat on the bed, and asked, “Rog – what’s it like?” 

Minister or lay person, churched or so-called “unchurched,” organized or free-range, death is the great leveler, and there is much for us to learn and gain and be enriched by these stories and acts of witness. So, I am telling you about Lee because I want her witness in the world – dead as she is now — to enliven and expand your notions of what is to be human in this aching world that always, without exception, ends in death. In this way, I make good on a promise I made to her: to tell the story of her death and her life. 

~~~

Born in California, Lee lived much of her life in Staten Island, active in the UU congregation there.  Then, for the last twenty or so years of her life, she was in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she and I were members of the same UU congregation. 

As I understand it, for most of her adult life, Lee spoke of her intention to be aware and in control at the end of her life.  Yes, documents: a will, advanced directive, all that, yes.  But conversations, too, with her family: extraordinary medical interventions, her vision of what a good life is and also what a good death might be. 

Control is the wrong word, conveys the wrong meaning, because she was not controlling death in the way too often depicted in our death-adverse culture – controlling it by keeping it at bay.  What I mean is being in relationship to death, being willing to surrender to death, when the right time comes.

This intention was part and particle of her deeply rational, deeply kind, deeply political being.  As she gained years, having not succumbed to the vagaries, surprises, and tragedies so many of us humans experience, she prepared for the possibility of dying of old age on her terms. 

This impulse was not born of that depression that can accompany the aging process, which is often so much about losing – losing capacities, losing friends, losing out on experiences in the wider world – though anticipating this, and eventually experiencing it, did inform some of the timing and texture Lee’s choices.

While her choice was a personal and private one, shared with her family and closest beloveds, Lee was public about her plans. When the time came – and she did not know exactly what time that was, but when it did – she would “manage her own death.”  That’s the phrase she chose to describe her actions.  “Manage her own death:” facing towards it, not away.

She researched her options methodically and with attention to how her choice might impact her family and community.  She made her decisions in relationship with her adult children – not seeking their approval, but informing them, bringing them along, gaining their assent.  In the end, at the age of 90, still without terminal diagnosis, living in a body weakening and a mind beginning to forget, after significant research, she made it clear that, when the time came, she would stop eating and drinking.

Five springs ago, Lee was living at home, one side of her body weakened so much she could barely use it.  She found herself facing the reality she might fall and lose her autonomy.

In June, I heard from a mutual friend: it was nearly “time.”

Like so many of her friends did at this time, I brought dinner over to Lee.  Each of us did this, knowing we were not just bringing food – Lee barely had any hunger at this point – but coming to spend time with her.  We were having what each of us knew would be our last conversation, our good-bye.  Lee took such delight in the gift of knowingly having a last conversation – she said it was one of the best parts of being public about deciding to manage her death.

That summer I was working as a hospital chaplain intern at a Trauma I hospital — part of preparation for the ministry that all Unitarian Universalist ministers go through.  While “eating” with Lee, I asked her if she would be interested in meeting with my CPE peers and supervisor.   Lee had been a school teacher for decades and never lost that drive to teach.  Indeed, she jumped at the chance.

Seven of us – representing multiple faith traditions — spent a few hours with her, listening to and learning from a person choosing to encounter death with such intention.  One of my favorite moments from that meeting is Lee chiding the ones who didn’t ask questions – “how could they pass up this opportunity?” she queried, impatient at their timidity.

Ever committed to teaching and to public witness of encountering death without fear (or, from her humanist side, superstition), the year before she had taken part in a community dialogue about death.  She had been interviewed by the local newspaper reporter about her plans, engaging in an intimate and frank dialogue that was published in 2013. 

By late August, Lee had intentionally stopped eating and drinking. Surrounded by her three adult children, moving towards death, Lee invited (and her children allowed), that same local newspaper reporter and photographer to be present, to record in word and photo, the process of her dying and her death, which took place on September 2, 2014.

The narrative and photo-narrative was published to much praise… and much condemnation. We have, as a society, for the most part, hidden death away.  So, when a person like Lee, or a journalist, or a newspaper, decides to stop hiding, strong feelings erupt.

~~~

Not many of us are ready for death.  I am not ready for death. 

But it does not much matter, our readiness, our assent.  Death comes.  Wise people tell us that if we live our lives knowing that we are going to die – that we are in many ways, always dying, each moment – that our lived days will be fuller and more precious.  A hard lesson to take in, but our ministries, and our very lives, depend upon it.

While you or I may not make the same choices as Lee made, I invite you to consider the invitation her choices extend to us all: to bring intentionality to our lives by bringing intentionality to our deaths before they happen.  To hold conversations with those nearest us, with someone here in this room, even with strangers.  To engage in a process of discernment about the end of life – about the end of your life – and then share what you learn with those nearest and dearest to you. While some say to contemplate death is a morbid preoccupation, it’s actually true that there is a way for such ruminations and meditations to be… enlivening. 

Let me close with another UU voice who has blessed us with reflections upon her own death.  The Rev. Nancy Shaffer was diagnosed with a brain tumor which eventually, and far too soon, took her life on June 5, 2012.  Nancy kept a journal with the intention of having her reflections published, which they were, under the title, While Still There Is Light:

This is not lost on me:

Given that I have a tumor

That – I am told – will someday kill me

I have also the advantage

That I must reflect now –

While I am alive –

On the meaning of my life

And how I want to leave it.

I might have died quickly.

This is harder, perhaps,

But exquisitely richer:

I get to grieve for my own self.

How tender and not-to-be-missed

Is this?

May each of us be more able to face death: that of loved ones — even our own — to know peace and ease, and perhaps even the curiosity of Mary Oliver’s hummingbird.

Amen.  Blessed be. 

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All Good Intentions: A Sermon on White Fragility


The Unitarian Society

East Brunswick, NJ

May 5, 2019

Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout is the Director of Music and Worship at the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor.  A Black, gay man, he wrote, not all that long ago, about an encounter he had with a white woman at General Assembly, the national gathering of Unitarian Universalists that happen every June.  The thousands gathered had sung, just like we did this morning, There is More Love Somewhere, which is from the African American tradition.

The woman shared how she changed the words from “there is more love somewhere” to “there is more love right here,” because this reflected her experience of finding love and belonging within Unitarian Universalism.  She asked, why, at GA, it wasn’t sung with those changed words.

Dr. Rideout, tired but willing, said, “Thank you for trusting me with that question,” and then continued his response.  Here are his own words:

… I explained to her why I thought it was necessary — particularly with the music of people of color — that we enter and examine these songs with more curiosity than colonization.

I thanked her, and…I explained that it can be difficult to understand the lived experience of those who have trouble finding the evidence of love in their immediate vicinity; in their church; in their neighborhood; in their city; in their nation; even in their planet.

I thanked her, and I explained that for some who don’t share the privilege of perceiving love “right here,” moving toward that idea of privilege had become a vital practice of Black faith.

I offered that if we, as a spiritual community of Unitarian Universalists, populated by well-meaning people, are to mean anything to the lives and the deaths of people of color, we must begin by learning — not squelching — the forms of expression that arise from these living perspectives.

And she said, “Thank you. I’ve never heard it expressed that way. I’ve never understood it that way. And I will never sing it that same way again.”

More curiosity than colonization.  That’s a powerful contrast.

What also caught my attention is this white woman’s response.  Thoughtful. Thankful. Willing. Open. Curious.  The exact opposite of most of the defensive, reactive responses from our Time For All Ages.  The exact opposite of what Dr. Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.”

Dr. DiAngelo, an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Washington, is the best-selling author of a book based on a longstanding concept for which she coined the term, back in 2011, “white fragility.” Published by (Unitarian Universalism’s own) Beacon Press, it is currently at #3 (on the paperback, non-fiction list) on the New York Times Bestseller list and has garnered much attention far and wide. 

Dr. DiAngelo has presented at General Assembly and is scheduled to present again this year.  For a religious denomination that is majority white and declares that racial justice and dismantling white supremacy are crucial, her work is challenging, compelling, constructive – though not comfortable or comforting – and in my opinion, crucial.

So, just what IS white fragility?

Even if the term is new, the concept isn’t.  Likely by any person of color recognizes the behavior, though probably fewer white people do, even well-meaning, well-intentioned, liberal and progressive white folks.  It takes many forms.  In my white experience, it is unavoidable and inevitable. And it is also workable.

When I say that it’s not a new concept, think of the passage from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, where he takes to task white moderates, calling them – us? – a greater stumbling block than the KKK.  He describes the white moderate as someone “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” This devotion to order, as well as the preference for the absence of tension, are the bedrock of white fragility. 

~~~

DiAngelo’s framework for understanding how race – and in particular, whiteness – operates has been clarifying and challenging and expanding for me. I raise it here, on Sunday morning, because I think it might be useful to you, whether you are white or a person of color. And because it can be helpful to us as a congregation that is majority white, but aspires to engage in racial justice work and to be welcoming and truly inclusive to people of color here, not just in our intention, but in our actual impact. 

As we heard in this morning’s reading, Dr. DiAngelo posits that in our modern, post-civil rights society, there is a good/bad binary when it comes to racism. Racism is bad, so only bad people can be racist. If I am a good person, then I can’t be racist.

However, this false binary precludes us from seeing that good people can say or do things with racist implications or impacts all the time.   And while it happens without diminishing our inherent worth or our essential goodness, it does seem to lead to white people becoming defensive and failing to see harm we cause.  DiAngelo writes

Within this paradigm, to suggest that I am racist is to deliver a deep moral blow—a kind of character assassination. Having received this blow, I must defend my character, and that is where all my energy will go—to deflecting the charge, rather than reflecting on my behavior. In this way, the good/ bad binary makes it nearly impossible to talk to white people about racism, what it is, how it shapes all of us, and the inevitable ways that we are conditioned to participate in it.

And then she names the problem with this:

If we cannot discuss these dynamics or see ourselves within them, we cannot stop participating in racism.

This defense of our character – and I am here speaking to other white folks in the room – expresses itself in recognizable ways, for which she uses the umbrella term, “white fragility.”  DiAngelo has developed a list of qualities or behaviors that make up white fragility; it is included in your order of service. It’s too dense to recite in wholesale from the pulpit. I encourage you to take it home with you as a prompt for family conversations or personal reflection, being sure to pay attention to the reactions that arise within you as you do.

~~

Having just explored the second to last item on her list – “defensiveness about any suggestion that we are connected to racism” – I want to raise to you the last item: “a focus on intentions over impact.”  

I want to raise it because some of what we use to form community, including in our covenant of right relations (the bullet point to assume the good intentions of others) can lead us to minimize harmful impacts.

I want to raise it because I think that if we are going to engage in the dismantling of white supremacy culture and the marginalization of any group of people, we have to start paying attention the impact of our actions, not just our intentions.

A simple example to illustrate the point: I accidentally step on someone else’s toe.  I didn’t intend to, yet I hurt them.  The impact is pain, perhaps injury.  It is not enough to say that I didn’t mean it. To be in right relationship, I must tend to the pain I caused.  Pretty straightforward in that situation.  Yet racism coupled with white fragility makes it more convoluted.

I remember that the first time I was told that a phrase I had just used was racist, I felt the sting of being called out.  Racist? Me? That simple term?  Then I listened and learned that the word “gyp” – as in, being tricked out of something – is based on a racist stereotype of gypsies – the Roma people – as deceptive thieves. Though I did not intend harm, I was thankful to be informed that was the impact of my use of such a phrase, so that I could choose a different way to convey the same meaning.

~~~

My white colleague, Molly Housh Gordon’s, who serves our Unitarian Universalist congregation in Columbia, Missouri, describes white fragility as,

“when white people cannot bear to face conversations about race because of the pain of becoming aware of deeply unjust circumstances that people of color have endured with their lives.”

She goes on to acknowledge that other forms of fragility exist, all of which are located in any identity that has privilege in our society: male fragility, able-bodied fragility, hetero- fragility, wealth fragility, cisgender fragility, and more.

Notice your own internal response to that list, especially if you hold one of those identities. 

Do you notice a defensiveness rising, a wish to argue, or rationalize? 

Do you see rising within you a response like, “well, what am I supposed to do, feel guilty?”

or an impulse to deflect? 

Do you want to talk about good intentions, those of others or your own, rather than to have to sit with the reality of the impact of whiteness – my whiteness, your whiteness if you are white?

I raise up all these possible reactions because I know them personally and intimately. Intellectually, I share Dr. DiAngelo’s suppositions about how race operates in America; and still I find myself emotionally wanting to argue against some of her points. 

For me, though I’m not proud of it, these suppositions sometimes feel like accusations. Then I realize, that’s on me – she’s naming a challenging reality, not making an accusation. That emotional reception, the one that contorts it into an “accusation,” that’s my responsibility to own.  And I can choose a different response; I can choose to be curious. 

Rev. Housh Gordon has a playful, but effective, way of thinking about the white fragility response.  She calls to mind a comedy sketch popular from Key and Peele of Luther, the Anger Translator.  At the 2015 White House Correspondent’s Dinner, the comedian Keegan-Michael Key played Obama’s Anger Translator in real time, standing behind the president as Obama said everything in measured, politic tones.  Luther would rant and rave in a way that would never be allowed as a leader of color in our society.  

image by Yuri Gripas

Rev. Housh Gordon feels that white fragility is not an anger translator, but a SHAME translator.  So when

A person of color says: “Hey that thing you participated in hurt me.” And from the shame translator on my shoulder I hear: “You are a bad person unworthy of love.”

Or someone writes: “You received a head start in life because of the color of your skin.” And from the shame translator on my shoulder I hear: “You deserve none of the good or joy you have found in this life.”

Rev. Housh Gordon concluded

These shame translations are lies – the have nothing to do with what is being said or meant, and yet until we build the resilience to override those creeping voices of shame and self-doubt with curiosity and humility, they are powerful enough to shut down transformation and conversation the world over. They have done it for centuries.

What if, instead of shame, we bring curiosity to such circumstances, like the white woman from the story by Dr. Rideout?  This is, of course, not a one-time task, but an ongoing practice; and even a life-long calling.  It is for this reason that a small group of congregants here, at this time all white, and I are hoping to put together a covenantal book discussion group next year, to delve more deeply into this worthy work.  Perhaps you will join us?

~~~

DiAngelo describes a situation that I think many of us can recognize, perhaps even from interactions here in this congregation:

 [it’s] the big family dinner at which Uncle Bob says something racially offensive. Everyone cringes but no one challenges him because nobody wants to ruin the dinner. Or the party where someone tells a racist joke but we keep silent because we don’t want to be accused of being too politically correct and be told to lighten up.

These are examples of what DiAngelo calls white solidarity (fourth from the bottom on the printed list in your order of service), a term that raises all kinds of defensive alarms for me, because it sounds like the behavior of groups like the KKK or the people with tiki torches in Charlottesville.

But I have also observed in myself when I have kept quiet instead of speaking up. So I’m trying to stay curious, rather than let that shame translator be what feeds my reaction.

In those examples, we could trade out racist here for sexist, and a similar dynamic is at play. 

I have observed in such situations, in myself and in others, that there is a process of rationalizing staying silent by convincing myself that the person who just said the racist or sexist thing had good intentions, just problematic expression.  I have given that benefit of the doubt around good intention more weight than the possible impact of creating an unwelcoming environment or causing outright harm. I know I am not alone as I have spoken with some of you who have been in this struggle. I think this is something worthy of our grappling with, individually and together as a community.

I want to close with these wise words from Dr. DiAngelo, which she speaks as a white person, with resonance around any of our privileged identities:

I did not set this system up, but it does unfairly benefit me, I do use it to my advantage, and I am responsible for interrupting it. I need to work hard to change my role in this system, but I can’t do it alone. This understanding leads me to gratitude when others help me.

And these gentle words from Rev. Joe Cherry, which we heard in the prayer:

May we be bold enough to step into our discomfort,
brave enough to be clumsy there,
loving enough to forgive ourselves and others.

Amen. Blessed be

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I Want You to Panic: An Earth Day Sermon


April 21, 2019 The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, New Jersey

Not my words, but I stand here before you to amplify them.

I want you to see the faces of our current leaders. Our real leaders.  Not presidents and prime ministers, or CEOs of world-wide corporations.  I want you to see not future leaders, but current leaders, leading us right now. 

Greta Thunberg, whose TED talk you just heard, and whose Twitter Feed describes her as “16-year-old climate activist with Asperger,” who began striking for the climate last August by not attending school on Fridays, launching a global movement.

13-year-old Alexandria Villaseñor, who strikes outside the United Nations every Friday and has done so since mid-December.

Zayne Cowie, whose book we heard earlier, which he co-wrote with some help.  He’s been a regular climate striker outside City Hall in New York.  I think he’s 9.

Nadia Nazar, co-founder along with Jamie Margolin and Madelaine Tew, of Zero Hour – all of whom at the ages of 16 co-founded Zero Hour, a youth climate activist group based out of Baltimore.

Here is Lilly Platt of Holland.  Since the age of eight years, she was involved in cleaning up plastic pollution.  At the age of ten, she heard about Greta and her strike, and immediately began striking too.

This crew of young people is known as Juliana et al v. United States, 21 young people who filed a lawsuit in 2015, asserting that the government has violated the youths’ rights by encouraging and allowing activities that negatively impact the climate, such that it significantly harms their right to life and liberty.

It is not just these young individuals and small groups, but whole youth and young adult movements emerging: Zero Hour as I mentioned before, the Sunrise Movement, and Extinction Rebellion, where just this past week 63 people were arrested outside City Hall in New York and arrests in London for acts of civil disobedience this week are approaching nearly one thousand.

They are living into the truth of this aphorism, attributed to our Unitarian forbear, Edward Everett Hale, echoing ancient Talmudic wisdom:

Are the words of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg’s TED talk still echoing in your ears? Making your heart both soar with inspiration and sore with the challenge she lays leaden at our feet? 

There are losses that cannot be reversed or retrieved.  This is our heart-breaking legacy.

Yet, it is within our means to prevent still greater losses. There is no time to lose in starting or growing the deeply-rooted, radical transformation necessary. 

This morning, I bring you no scientific facts about climate change. There are other sources for that. Outside on our frontage we already declare to our larger community that “Climate Change is Real!” Rather than provide facts, I am here to PREACH.  

Some say it is the preacher’s role to preach hope. Others say the preacher’s role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, so there’s that.  You can let me know which (or both) this ends up being for you.

When it comes to climate change, climate changeD, climate chaos, climate constriction, climate collapse…whatever you call it — preaching hope is not a straight-forward thing. It’s there; hope is still there.  It’s just not in the shape you expect.  It doesn’t feel good or comforting. It doesn’t smile at you or speak softly in your ear or make you laugh with joy.

Hope comes as resilience in reckoning with our utter vulnerability.  Hope comes in being able to watch the horrifying images of what has been lost alongside the beautiful ones of this majestic, corrupted world. Hope comes from being able to face our own complicity, coming to terms with what we must give up.  As we heard Greta Thunberg tell us, hope comes in the shape of action.

At this point, hope does not mean reversal.  It might mean mitigation.  It definitely means adaptation.

Hope takes the shape of youth climate activists – like Greta, like the others whose pictures I have shown, like local ones – Eden Summerlin who is a Unitarian Universalist from the Morristown congregation; like Rachel Gurevich, a 14-year-old who lives here in East Brunswick, both of whom organized a climate strike and rally on March 15, as part of the global movement to get adults in power to up our game. 

I spoke with Rachel recently — I haven’t met her (yet). She wants you to know what the youth are up to. She hopes you will come out to the next climate strike rally that they are in the midst of planning — not to take over, they are doing just fine without us adults — but to be there in solidarity, to be there to amplify their voices.

In January of this year – just three months ago – Greta Thunberg addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  In a speech called “Our House is on Fire,” she said,

Too often I feel as if I am home, watching television reporting that my house is on fire.  My response? I walk over to the window and wave at the fire fighters who are trying to put it out.  It’s absurd, when you think about it.  Yet I recognize myself in this analogy, and wonder if some part of you might recognize yourself, too?  I’m there, waving at the fire fighters, not really taking in that it’s my house on fire; acting like it’s some random other person’s house on the television, far away, that is on fire. (Thank you to my colleague, Rev. Sara Goodman, for this metaphor.)

This stuff is hard.  Some of us choose to not go to deep into the bad news, because it’s so heavy, so despairing.  I’m guessing most of us do small dives into the information by choice or we can’t avoid it. Some of us might do deep dives, becoming paralyzed by what we learn there, or try to use dissociation as a strategy so that our minds can try to comprehend it but we don’t feel the feelings – the fear, the terror.

Rather than dissociating from the terror of extinction, we can choose to rebel against extinction but we must create safe and brave spaces where we can experience the fear and terror, acknowledge it in more than intellectual ways, work through it, and come out the other side, learning resilience, as part of our preparations to do the necessary work of adaptation to the new planet we have made. In the fall, when I preached on this, I called them Islands of Sanity (a term borrowed from Margaret Wheatley). 

These places must have singing in them, I think. And laughter, like the poet and Mad Farmer, Wendell Berry says, for when we are expecting the end of the world.

We can give them all the pretty names, but that does not matter if we do not create these spaces and places of adaptation.

The words from Rebecca Solnit for our chalice lighting today spoke of hope that comes from “small groups that seem at the outset unrealistic in their ambition” yet shape possibilities that come to fruition – the fall of the Soviet Union, for example.  This is not just poetic or philosophical or anecdotal.  The research of Dr. Erica Chenowith, political scientist at Harvard’s Kennedy School, tells us that for a peaceful mass movement to succeed, all we need is 3.5% of the population to come together, to mobilize, to join forces, in order to shift habits as entrenched as our abuse of the planet and her natural resources.

Today is not only Earth Day, it is Easter, which we celebrated in our Sanctuary Garden at an early service this morning.  Like our call to worship which hearkened us to rise, Easter is a holiday that celebrates rising again, rebirth, and as I preached in the garden, in the spirit of poet Wendell Berry, to practice resurrection. Might we try that? Do we have any choice?

Friends, the earth remains our only home. And we, fellow travelers, its only hope for healing and wholeness, so rise! Dear Ones, Rise! (words from Gretchen Haley)

As we bring together our voices in a chant that was sung at the March Strike 4 Climate event in Morristown, let us let echo in our ears and hearts these at once exhilarating and daunting words from Greta Thunberg:

Amen.  Blessed be.


** With deep gratitude to Sarah Metcalf, who presented as part of a team a worship service on climate change at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence and who shared her presentation with me, that mine might be inspired by her knowledge and dedication to this issue.

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From Phone Booth to Cell Phone: Building the Next RE Program (sermon)

I borrow this series of questions from my colleague, Rev. Peter Boullata.  You might also remember that I asked you these same questions about a year and a half ago when I preached about change and generational shifts.

The need to speak on the phone in public persists. We just meet that need differently now. What was once ubiquitous and obvious – for instance, a rotary phone – becomes if not obsolete, rare and antiquated.

Congregations are famous – or infamous – for being one of the last bastions of “But we’ve never done it that way before.”  We humans have a tendency to stick with the familiar.

Yet, this mindset leads us to problem-solve by applying past solutions to new challenges, hoping and assuming that will work. Apparently, Henry Ford once said, “If I gave my customers what they wanted, I would have invented a faster horse.”

We can no longer try to invent a faster religious education program.

In this era of no obligation to attend religious services or to be affiliated with a religious institution, in this era of getting one’s needs met through the internet, we Unitarian Universalists and we UU congregations have something deeply meaningful to offer.  We’ve just got to figure out how to do it in this new cultural and societal context.

About a year ago, I preached on the necessity of “fail, fail again, fail better.” I raised up to you some of the concerning trends in attendance in our RE program, in UU RE programs across the nation, and said that we would be entering into a phase of experi-learning – trying out new things because the old model of Sunday School was not working and the new next thing to meet the needs of children, youth, parents, and families has not yet been invented.

That said, we cannot let go of that essential quality of a religious education program that we heard about in today’s reading, The Playground Atheist from Jake Morrill, in which our children know that they are not alone. 

Perhaps you have noticed that I have been talking about it much more lately. In staff meetings, in one-on-one conversations, in committee and board meetings, and even from this pulpit. Even in the weekly eblast, where week before last I inserted this quote from Religious Educator and Independent Consultant, Kimberly Sweeney: 

Someone is learning how to be a person of faith (and I will add conscience) by watching you. Someone is watching us, learning how

  • to speak with integrity about their spiritual leanings and longings;
  • to reach out when there is a death and provide solace;
  • to tell the facts about bodies and sexuality and consent;
  • to show up when someone who is trans or gender-binary is being harassed;
  • to know that families are best defined by love, not the sexual orientation or gender identity of the people in it;
  • to reach out across religious differences and side with love with the vulnerable and marginalized; and
  • to experience that meaning making can come from some other place than consumer culture.

Many of you in this congregation found Unitarian Universalism as adults.  You came out of other religious traditions that you found less than satisfying. This small but mighty religion was here, in congregational form, for you and in some cases, it was life-saving. 

If things keep going the way they are going with our children and youth, both nationally and right here, how we have, according to the data that is available, the worst track record for retaining children and youth of any religious tradition in America, it won’t be around for others who had the same need as you, it won’t be around for your children or grandchildren, if we don’t pay attention to the faith formation needs of children in a new way.

I believe that we as a congregation and that Unitarian Universalism can be, and must be, life-saving. What we offer not as political liberals, but as religious liberals, is sorely needed in our world today:

  • that wisdom comes from many sources and belongs to no single tradition;
  • that human diversity — be it racial, ethnic, national, gender expression, sexual orientation — is natural, holy, and enriching, making the human family whole;
  • that both direct experience of mystery and science-based reason can co-exist and do so for the betterment of culture and society;
  • that we all are a part of an interdependent web of existence, with mutual reliance and collective liberation at its core.

The times are calling us into something new, something unknown, and we are still very much discerning what that is, what it looks like.   In order to say yes to the new, there will come a time when we must say no longer to the old; where we will need to let it go, and await, even cultivate the proper conditions, for what is to come. 

I believe that we – in this congregation — have already past the point when it comes to age-segregated classroom-type religious education.  We just don’t have the attendance to do anything other than a single room approach. Families come, but only once or twice a month – this is true of adults without children, too, but with less noticeable impact on the RE program. 

This shift to a one-room Spirit Lab need not be a loss, but rather an evolution to help us meet the spiritual and ethical needs of children, youth, and parents of today.

Judy Lief, a Buddhist teacher I have long admired and whom I got to meet for the first time last weekend, wrote this about transitions:

Our religious education program is in a time of deep transition. How do we gracefully let go of what is no longer working? How do we ready ourselves to be open to the new possibilities?

We look to our mission statement, grounding ourselves in our core purpose. We persist in our curiosity about new models and possible innovations. We cultivate imagination to stretch beyond what we have known along with the willingness to sit with unknowing. We come together to figuring it out together.

And by together, I mean: together.  Families attending as often as possible (and perhaps a bit a bit more than currently seems possible).  Congregants without children in the RE program showing interest and active support, both volunteering and showing up for what has become – yet again – a dormant Religious Education Committee. The Board committing financially with a budget that allows for trying out new possibilities informed by fairly compensated, experienced religious professionals.

What comes after the Sunday School model of age-segregated classes set apart from the rest of the congregation?  I have taken classes. I have taken webinars. Currently, I am in what is called “a Community of Practice” for ministers of UU congregations who are actively exploring this challenging aspect of the changing congregational landscape. I can assure you: the next big thing does not yet exist.  If it did, I would deliver it to the congregation on a silver platter.

Informed by what the staff of this congregation have been learning, here at TUS, we have been trying out ideas, receiving input, revising and tweaking, and trying the next iteration.  At a speed that sometimes makes my head spin. We have been taking to heart the try, try again, fail, fail faster, fail better motto. We have been strengthening that “muscle” that gets us comfortable, or at least more tolerant, of experimentation, of transition, of change.

We didn’t know that we would go through three transitions in religious education staff in one year.  While we could benefit from some stability in our program, I’m choosing the frame that we have been expanding our capacity to experiment.

Spirit Lab – our religious education program – began meeting in the Gathering Room a few weeks ago, experimenting with how that larger space impacts delivery of content to one room of age-diverse children.  It’s noticeable to the wider congregation because that means a change in coffee hour.  We are trying it out this spring to see how it goes.

We learned in the past several years that family attendance drops off in the spring.  Last year, we ended the formal RE program the Sunday before the Memorial Day weekend; we will continue with this, having All Ages services in the first half of June, then shift to our summer status, where we provide child care only.

Perhaps you have noticed that there is an increase in All Ages services recently? Welcoming children in this space for the whole service, not dumbing down the content, providing activities to children if they stay in the sanctuary, increasing the age of who can attend child care on those days. Acting as if we are really and truly a multi-generational community. Remembering that there are younger humans watching older humans be people of faith and of conscience. And paying attention to whether this impacts attendance.

We are also trying something completely new – tonight, in fact – a non-Sunday morning offering for families, centered around dinner, providing content for both children/youth and parents. We’re calling it a Family Connection Dinner and in addition to dinner, it will have a Spirit Lab for the children and one for the parents. It’s a form of Family Ministry.  We are wondering if this might be a way to meet the spiritual needs of families, since many of our families are coming only once a month Sunday mornings.

Plus, there is more to come.  The Sunday Service Committee has spoken about it, staff whose role is to serve the religious education program have been talking about it, and I’ve checked in with our head of Arrangements.  The Board has been discussing these changes, knowing that the budget they recommend to you next year must be informed by what we have learned this past year of transition and a vision for what is to come. I hope you will come to the Annual Meeting on May 19th, whether you are a Member or Friend, for much will be presented, and hopefully you will choose to discuss it all, including the congregation’s vision for the RE program going forward.  Plus, if you’d like to have an individual conversation with me about all this, I welcome that as well.

One concrete experi-learning change you can expect, likely in August or September, is a space dedicated to the presence of children in the sanctuary. We’ll try it out for a couple of months, to see how it goes, the check in with how it is going.  We may find, like another of our sibling UU congregations, this one outside the Twin Cities in Minneapolis, that inclusion of children made it a bit louder, but it made it also more joyful.

This is how we live into the possibility of a really and truly multi-generational community, one of the few public contexts left for inter-generational interaction as our society grows ever more isolated and ever more segregated.

Let us make sure that we do everything we can so that any child or youth associated with this congregation knows that they, like the Playground Atheist, are never alone.  Strike that.  So that any person associated with this congregation, no matter their age, knows that they are never alone.

Amen.

[ii] Lief, Judith. Making Friends with Death, p.15.

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Ritual for Broken Times: After the New Zealand Massacre


led at First Unitarian Society of Plainfield

March 17, 2019

This afternoon’s ritual space is a lamentation, a condemnation, and rededication in the aftermath of the New Zealand tragedy on Friday where so many, too many, taking part in religious expression at two mosques halfway around the world from here, had their lives stolen by at least one white supremacist, who named the president if this, our, nation as inspiration.

In this vessel are shards of broken ceramics, symbols of what has been shattered by this violence.  Over the broken pieces, I pour what I call “homegrown holy water,” gathered last September in the congregation I serve as a part of our annual Water Ingathering, made holy by the intentions claimed by the congregation in that ritual, used throughout the year for child blessings and prayers before memorial services.  I add it now as an intentional act of healing and witness.

I speak these words of condemnation: not in our name does this violence happen.  We claim those killed, wounded, and touched by this violence as our kin, bring our presence to their side, and condemn this white supremacist hate.  We recognize that the damage from the evils of white supremacy endure long after individual incidents and that it is ours to bring respond, to resist, to create in small and large ways another world.

I now invite each of you, as you are so moved, to come forward to add a stone to mark the death of the fifty, or a gem as symbol of our rededication to a world absent white supremacy. 

As you come forward, I will speak names of some of the victims – may they have found solace in god in their last moments, may their families know comfort in their memories, as well as in a world coming together to resist hate.

Mucad Ibrahim

Husne Ara Parvin

Ramiz Vora

Asif Vora

Ansi Alibava

Ozair Kadir

Lilik Abdul Hamid

Linda Armstrong

Khaled Mustafa

Hamza Mustafa

Sayyad Milne

Haji-Daoud Nabi

Amjad Hamid

Ghulam Hussain

Karam Bibi

Zeeshan Raza

Sohail Shahid

Mohammad Imran Kahn

Mounir Sulaiman

Ashaf al-Masri

As we come to a close, this Prayer of Peace, from the Qu’ran:

In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful.

Praise be to the Lord of the Universe who has created us and made us into tribes and nations, that we may know each other, not that we may despise each other. If the enemy incline towards peace, do thou also incline towards peace, and trust in God, for the Lord is the one that heareth and knoweth all things. And the servants of God, Most Gracious are those who walk on the Earth in humility, and when we address them, we say “PEACE.”

—Based on the Qu’ran, 49:13, 8:61

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Upstanding

Think about your personal experiences with the place beyond hope and fear. I’m certain there’ve been many times when you found yourself stepping forward without hesitation. Something in the situation called you into spontaneous action without calculating costs and benefits. This is the definition of courage—actions that spring from an open heart without premeditation. (The word courage comes from the old French word for “heart.”) Sometimes these spontaneous actions are good; sometimes they get us into a lot of trouble; sometimes people lose their lives rushing in to save others. What’s important to notice in your experience is how it felt to be fearless. You were also hopeless. You did what had to be done as it appeared in that moment. You weren’t thinking of outcomes, and you had more than enough energy.  

(Margaret Wheatley)

Mike had seen better, and much worse, days.  He was a familiar presence in the neighborhood we both called home.  He lived in one of the SROs – Single Room Occupancy – buildings – what used to be called a boarding house or flophouse.  He was one of several local personalities who had been a long-term in the local psychiatric hospital, placed there as a teenager, whether for true psychiatric reasons or perhaps for developmental disability reasons, living there for decades, then released in the 1980s during the era of de-institutionalization.

I think it’s fair, though perhaps not kind, to say that he looked odd.  Perhaps even intimidating if you didn’t know him.  He had never hurt anyone.  He was mostly quiet – not like Geography Jerry, who had a similar backstory and asked the same geography riddles over and over.  Sometimes Mike hitchhiked from the Main Street to the village, which is how I got to know him just a little.  Though I gave him a handful of rides over the years, I don’t think I ever became familiar to him.  But he did to me.  Familiar and appreciated.

One time, when my kids were still in elementary school, we rode our bikes to the local soft serve ice cream joint.  I noticed Mike in an unexpected circumstance: wielding his large flashlight in a menacing manner at three kids – middle schoolers, I’d say.  I’d seen the flashlight before – you never saw Mike without it – but it was usually in his back pocket.

I told my kids to stay put – out of harm’s way – then approached Mike. Not sure what to do, I knew something needed to be done, and quick. I couldn’t tell what was going on, but I did not want him to hit the kids.  That would be all kinds of bad. I moved closer cautiously, my heart beating hard in my chest, keeping a cool distance from the heavy object in his hand.  Calmly, gently, I asked, “Hey, Mike.  What’s up?  Something seems wrong.” 

Cutting to the chase: no one got hit or hurt.  Mike kept his flashlight.  The three middle schoolers got a mild tongue lashing from me. It turned out that those kids had been taunting Mike – he was an easy target for bullies, even ones much smaller than he.  They had tried to take his cherished flashlight.  Mike responded fiercely, protectively, defensively.  I can’t say that I blame him. So, I even had a semi-maternal conversation with Mike about potential consequences of his choices.   

It taught me two things:

  • I’m braver than I think I’ll be when the moment demands it. 
  • Situations aren’t always what they seem.

In this case, my first impression was that Mike was the aggressor.  Not true. 

It has helped me to understand that in other situations, say, when a Black kid hits a white kid first, it’s important to listen and find out more. It’s just possible — and in some situations, likely — that the white kid (whispered loud enough only for the Black kid to hear) said the n-word first.  If so, it changes who the aggressor is and who needs an ally to intervene.

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Dalliances with the Afterlife (sermon)

“Herein the afterlife, everything exists in all possible states at once, even states that are mutually exclusive.  This comes as a shock after your Earthly life, where making one choice causes the other choices to disappear.”

So begins the short story titled “Quantum” in the David Eagleman’s book called, Sum: forty tales from the afterlives.  In these forty stories, each 2 or 3 short pages long, we experience possibility and mystery at the same time, someone with a deep irreverence that is salted with reverence (or is it a deep reverence that is salted with irreverence – I think you’ll need to decide), and someone who ably mixes science with godtalk, balancing cleverly on the edge between rationality and irrationality, curious about all the possibilities.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist, an adjunct professor at Stanford, a former Guggenheim fellow,and host of a show about the brain that aired on PBS.  He calls himself a “Possiblian,” a term coined by a friend of his after reading the book.  Eagleman describes it this way:

 “Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position,agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. But with Possibilianism I’m hoping to define a new position — one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story.”[1]

What I find most brilliant about how this book works its way on the reader (or listener):whether you believe in a god-induced afterlife or believe that is utter poppycock and go for the “we’re all worm food” approach, these stories invite you to loosen your grip on whatever certainty you bring to this human question.  These little, innocent stories are neither little nor innocent in their power to be a pry bar applied to the arrogance of our own certainty.

Today’s service is strongly informed by two of Unitarian Universalism’s foundational tenets.  One of this is our humanist leanings, that whatever our beliefs about an afterlife, our focus returns again and again to this world, being not so much concerned with whether there is another world post-death.  (In this way, we share a commonality with Buddhism.) 

The other foundational tenet at work in our service today is Unitarian Universalism’s affirmation of religious pluralism.  With this in mind, I alert you to the delightful song we will hear during the offertory — Iris Dement’s, “Let the Mystery Be,” the lyrics of which go:

Some say once you’re gone you’re gone forever
And some say you’re gonna come back
Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour
If in sinful ways you lack

Some say that they’re comin’ back in a garden
Bunch of carrots and little sweet peas
I think I’ll just let the mystery be

We not only tolerate different theological perspectives; we understand ourselves to be enriched by them. While each of us individually might lean one way or another on the question of an afterlife, how can we do anything but follow the wisdom of that song?  Just let the mystery be.

Death is a serious topic.  It can be heavy.  The afterlife, an afterlife, the possibility of afterlives – can stumble into causing unintended offense, can lead us to develop arrogant stances as we push away the doubts and fears that can arise when we enter into this topical territory.  In the spirit of today’s service, I invite us to actively invite in curiosity –not just intellectual curiosity but spiritual curiosity — about the mystery.  I invite us to engage with the topic seriously, without taking ourselves – or our own opinions – too seriously. 

This service includes five of the forty tales from the book, sum.  Four are read by people in this room.  One is a beautiful brief film.

It was not easy to cull and curate which tales to include – I wanted to stretch time and, I must admit, I might have overdone it.  It we go long and you need to leave before the service is over, please do so.

So let us begin our dancing and dallying with afterlives with this humorous video not at all related to David Eagleman, but from the comic duo, The Kloons.


[1] Stray questions for David Eagleman, New York Times Paper Cuts, July 10, 2009.

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