Mission: POSSIBLE (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

January 26 2020

To not let go of the thread, we have to find the thread, know the feel of the thread, make it ours, and hold it in our fingers.  That thread – our communal thread – is our mission. Our reason for existing. Our purpose for being.

We just recited our formal mission, the one that you can read every Sunday you are here because it is on the cover of our order of service.  How many of you knew that it was there, available to you so immediately, not hidden away on some shelf or by clicking through too many web pages?

Right here, in our own hands, and still, perhaps, not so much written into our minds or hearts.  Plus, if it were written there, would it be relevant?  Our mission was last updated about a decade ago.  Best practice tells us that we should be looking at the relevance of our mission at least every five years.

And, in fact, the congregation’s leadership, at the direction of the Board, has begun this important work.  Last June, leaders met to begin to identify the sweet spot between what the community and world needs and where our gifts and longing overlap.  In August, the board met to refine this even further.  I’ll tell you about what they came up with in just a bit.

I said this is important work and I want to tell you why.  Because I think a common reaction to the idea of revisiting or revising a mission statement is to either go to sleep, numb out, or quietly exit the room. For some of us, it sounds deadly. So here is my chance to convince you otherwise.

Congregations that are mission-driven, and their mission looks both inward and outward, are the best inoculated against decline.  Knowing one’s purpose, embodying it in how we are with one another and how we are in the world, is the best thing we can do to feed the vibrancy of this place and people; is the best thing we can do to slow, perhaps even reverse, the shrinking we are experiencing. 

In her essay, Soul of the Whole[i], Rev. Victoria Safford writes

It seems to me we speak all the time and all at once of two kinds of spiritual integrity, two ways of being deeply, liberally, religious—one looking inward, one looking outward. And that presents a kind of paradox. Our work as 21st century Unitarian Universalists is to attend to both at once, never one without the other, because in fact they are not as separate as they seem; they’re entirely intertwined. And whenever we forget this, things start quickly to unravel.  

That thread we are supposed to hold onto unravels.

~~~

I mentioned that last August, the Board worked to revisit and reclaim the congregation’s mission.  As I shared at our Rededication event in November, they moved us closer into connection with our mission, by identifying two core purposes of The Unitarian Society:

One purpose is to Connect with Something Greater than Ourselves.  In reflection, the Board articulated this as two things: doing good in the world and connecting with a sense of higher power or Unity. We talked about how to bring this concept alive in the very space you find yourselves in: sanctuary.  Sanctuary for spiritual exploration and development, perhaps even moving beyond our Bond of Union’s threshold of spiritual satisfaction to spiritual growth.

The other purpose is to Build Partnerships in our Diverse Community. Current examples of living into this purpose include

·      our commitment to ensuring that the Montessori School thrives;

·      continuing our decades-long relationship with Elijah’s Promise;

·      institutional, financial, ministerial, and participatory support to the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project; and

·      another new ministry that feeds both the congregation and the community:  the MLK@TUS gathering on the Monday holiday that honors Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and his vision of a racially just Beloved Community.

But I think I am getting the cart before the horse.  For these concrete manifestations of our values and possibly of our mission are what are called Ends.  And actually, we want to start not with Ends (seems obvious, right?) but with Values, which hold our mission, which direct our ends.

The Board is currently reading a book called The Nested Bowls: The Promise and Practice of Good Governance in preparation for our upcoming March 14th workshop.  This book, written by Laura Park, comes out of Unity Consulting, a Unitarian Universalist consulting practice that helps congregations bring clarity and focus to their ministry. It is based in Minneapolis. 

It is from this book that the activity I invited you to engage in at the end of the Time For All Ages – to write down up to five nouns of overarching qualities you would like to see the congregation embody – comes.  (There’s still time to write those down.  And if you find that you can’t do it today, feel free to email them to me over the next couple of weeks.)

These qualities are the first of the three nested bowls:  the values bowl.  It is the largest bowl, by which I mean the most foundational, for it contains all our efforts and reasons for existing.  It is our essence when distractions are brushed away.

For each of the three bowls, the author asks a question or two.  For the values bowl, the question is

What transcendent, timeless qualities of our religious community will we embody in all we do?

It sounds like a big ask, to name these.  And it would be if it was just your job, or yours. Or mine.  Lucky for us, it’s up to all of us.  That’s why I invited you to write down three, and up to five, words or short phrases that capture the unique mix of qualities the congregation seeks to make real in the world. This is just a gentle reminder, if you did yet write them down, I do hope you will do so and then leave them in the basket in the lobby as you leave the sanctuary.

Heads up, we are going to explore this and play with this a little more as part of our canvass breakfast this year.

Next comes the second bowl, nested within our values.  This is where mission sits.  If we do not hold the thread of our values, and hold onto that thread through good times and bad, there is no way for us to situate a mission that is relevant or worthy.  The key questions for the mission bowl are

·      If we live fully into our values, what is our transcendent purpose?

·      What overarching difference are we here to make and for whom?

·      Whose lives will we change and in what way?

We’re not answering those questions today – yes, breathe a sigh of relief!  But we aren’t fully off the hook.  We must set aside the time and the head and heart space to answer them. 

Finally, the third bowl, nested within the mission, which is nested within the values, is what they call “Ends.”  The term “ends” is borrowed from literature on governance, which is about decision making, authority and responsibility, and measures. The question for this third nested bowl is

What more specific, measurable differences will we make and for whom?

And while we are not answering this question in this moment, we do answer this question when we develop a budget and vote on it.

While I have asked you to help us with the Values portion of this approach, and will ask you again at the canvass breakfast, and while it is important for the Board to not lose sight of the Ends, our focus today is on mission. Mission, not as some dry exercise in revising a dead sheet of paper, but mission as something that animates and enlivens, such as the story of Throop.  Mission as something that looks both inward and outward.  Mission as something that we actually remember in times good and bad, that feels our souls and educates others about who we are.

Towards that end, though we might be – again – putting a cart before a horse – but I do so to fire up your imagination – there is a sub section of mission building that comes after a mission has been revisited, reviewed, and redefined.  And that is not just the mission statement, but the even pithier, mission tag line.

We don’t have a mission tag line.  I don’t even know what ours would be and that’s for the best. It’s not for me to decide.  It’s for us to figure out. 

I can tell you that I often experience a mild case of holy envy when I see ones from other congregations, especially when they are memorable or clever. Now, this is not necessarily a good thing – it’s that part of my personality that is drawn to shiny objects.

But I have experienced – in the congregation I served as an intern – that these taglines can help consolidate identity, convey to visitors and outsiders who the congregation is, and act as a discerning question when internal decisions are being made. And that is a good thing. At that congregation, First Parish Church of Groton, their tagline is

WE ARE A SCHOOL FOR COMPASSION, GRATITUDE & GENEROSITY.

Here are some other examples from other UU congregations:

GROW YOUR SOUL & SERVE THE WORLD (White Bear)

TRANSFORMING OURSELVES, EACH OTHER & THE WORLD (Palo Alto)

NURTURE SPIRITUALITY, FOSTER COMPASSION, ENGAGE IN SERVICE (White Plains)

“In the spirit of courageous love, we forge a community of radical welcome and deep connection that moves us together to heal the world.” (Columbia, Missouri)

~~~

There are so many ways to approach a mission or to use the mission to approach how we live out our shared congregational life. For instance, one significant, upcoming way is already in process – the development and adoption of the yearly budget.

While a budget is a financial statement – both practical and aspirational – a budget has other qualities as well. If you listen to public theologians – like Dr. King, like the modern-day Poor Peoples Campaign, like the Nuns on the Bus – they remind us that the federal budget and state budgets are moral documents, not just financial ones.

This is true about congregational budgets as well. They are moral documents. And they are missional documents. They are one of the ways in which we measure – one of those Ends – whether we are living into our values and mission.

A budget reflects back in numbers what is most important (and what is least important).  A budget shows us, and sometimes not so kindly, where the gap between our stated mission is and where we put our money.  Budgets must always be developed by practical people, but if they are solely built by people who practice only prudence and not mission, then an essential part of what it means to be a people of spirit and vision is often lost. 

So here is another invitation to you.  On February 23, after the service, the Finance Committee is hosting the annual Budget Town Hall, when you are asked to engage in a review of a draft of the budget for next fiscal year. I invite you to save that time in your calendar.  I invite you to look ahead of time at that carefully ordered set of numbers that dear people will have extended great efforts to create and present to you. I invite you to ask questions about the congregation it describes and the congregation it aspires to be.  I invite you to read what it says about our looking inward and our looking outward. What does it say about our intentions around what we have called for a thousand years, religious education, but is really faith formation?  What does it say about how much you value the role of Minister? What does it say about the relationship between the congregation and the school sides of The Unitarian Society? 

~~~

I am deeply grateful for the past few months as we have been able to enjoy a stroll with our past.  I am thankful to Paula, Marie, Coleen, and Joyce, who created walls with images of our past, seeing old friends again, seeing current friends in their younger incarnations.  Now that those frames will be soon coming down for the most part, I have been wondering, “What next?” 

What if there was a wall, or a section of a wall, to give the past its proper due, and then walls and walls that reflected a vibrant now – images of what makes this place, this place. Images of what makes this people, this people.  Images that informed visitors, renters, new comers, and even folks who have been coming for a while, how we live into our values and principles? 

What if there were a wall, or a section of a wall, with images of the future, of a vision that drew people in, inspired them, made them want to be a part?  What would that wall look like if it reflected our mission? And inspired people to live more fully into it?  I don’t know the answer to that question, and that’s a good thing.  Because it is exactly that kind of thing that we should figure out together.

Let us discover, more intentionally, more explicitly, that, indeed, there is no power equal to a community discovering what it cares about.

Let us, remember ourselves into the future, along the endless yes of the horizon, shaking the scales from our imagination.

Let us continually remember to ask, not what is wrong, but what is possible.

Let us continue to look both inward and outward, never one without the other. Let us dig deeper where they intersect, combine, resonate, overlap, and create new synergies.

Amen.  Blessed be.

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Growing Equanimity: Via Rumi’s Guest House (sermon)

Do you know that old, and perhaps tired, and perhaps true, cartoon about Unitarian Universalists? There are two doors.  Each has a sign over it.  The first door says, “Heaven.”  No one is going through that door. The second door says, “Seminar about Heaven.”  All the Unitarian Universalists choose that one.

I want to begin with gratitude. Gratitude for so much, but especially for accepting the invitation to take part in our collective lectio divina.  I was moved by what we created together, what we allowed to rise up from our voices mingling with each other’s, a surrender to whatever would come of it. 

As you may have noticed, I am spending the year with the goal of preaching on the Unitarian Universalist principles – all seven plus one of them.  Thus far, I have preached on Principles 7, 1, 8, 5 and 4, in that order.  Today I am preaching the 3rd principle:

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.

But I am not just preaching on the topic.  We, together, are exploring and practicing it.  And doing it in our pluralist Unitarian Universalist fashion: informed by Christianity, Buddhism, and Sufism to find our way in. Today, together, we are saying yes to the first door – not of heaven, but of spiritual practice, trying it out in our meditation prayer today, in the lectio divina contemplative practice, not just attending a seminar about it. 

~~~

Upekkha is the Pali word for equanimity.  It is one of the four Great Virtues or Divine Abodes in Buddhism, along with

Metta – lovingkindness,

Karuna – compassion, and

Mudita – sympathetic joy.

It is what the meditation teacher was trying to grow within himself when he chose over and over again to bring the clumsy tea boy along.  It is the capacity that the great Mystic and poet and Muslim, Rumi, is describing when he says to welcome all the hard stuff into the house of your soul, inviting them in laughing.

Equanimity is the quality of inner peace amidst change[i], disappointment, surprise, fear, reactivity, disgust.  It’s not that you don’t feel or experience those things – you do.  It’s that they have their place and no more.  That they pass through without getting sticky and staying beyond what is necessary.  It is the capacity to stay centered without judgment, without clinging (what some call craving or desire) or without aversion, avoidance, or denial.

The Zen Buddhist teacher, Roshi Joan Halifax, describes equanimity as “the capacity to be in touch with suffering and at the same time not be swept away by it.  It is the strong back that supports the soft front of compassion.”  Gosh, when you put it that way, I want some of that.  I want all of that!  So simple, but not by any means easy.

Another way to think about equanimity, is the famous lesson called the Second Arrow.  Attributed to the Buddha, it is found in the original teachings of The Buddha once they were written down, which is a few centuries after he lived. In this case, this lesson was in the Sallatha Sutta

The Buddha noted that a person feels pain and that this is like being shot by a single arrow.  It hurts.  It may cause injury.  All this is true and real.  However, the untrained or unpracticed person – that’s you, that’s me, that’s most of us – we do not respond to the pain of that one arrow. We react as if we have been hit by a second arrow: we bring fear, or anger, or worry — all sorts of secondary emotional reactions that amplify the pain, turning it into suffering.  We might break our leg – that is the first arrow – but we turn pain into suffering by spinning stories of how we might not fully regain our strength or gait, or our livelihood might be impacted.

The Buddha said one can learn to feel just the one arrow. One can learn to not invite the second arrow.  Our modern interpretation has boiled this lesson – and perhaps all the lessons of Buddhism – into this: pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. Equanimity allows us to experience the fullness of the first arrow, without adding a second (or third, or forth) arrow.

~~~

The poem we know as The Guest House comes to us from an epic, unfinished collection called, “Masnavi,” that contains 50,000 rhyming couplets.  Rumi described the Masnavi as “the roots of the roots of the roots of religion”— which he understood was self-evident to mean Islam —“and the explainer of the Koran.”

Rumi, as you may know, was a 13th century scholar, poet, , a devoted student of the Qu’ran, and follower of the Mystic, Shams-i-Tabriz.  He was born in what is now Afghanistan and eventually settled in Konya, in what is now Turkey. 

There’s some information about this particular version of the poem that I think is important for us to know.  This English version comes to us from Coleman Barks and is likely the most familiar in America. 

Yet, the strange thing is, Barks does not read or write Persian, which is what the original verses were written in.  Saying he is a translator is an overstatement. He’s more of an interpreter and not even first hand.

Let me share with you some of the direct translation of the original text, just so you can get a sense of the liberty that Coleman Barks took

This body, O youth, is a guest house: every morning a new guest comes running (into it).

Beware, do not say, “This (guest) is a burden to me,” for presently he will fly back into non-existence.

Whatsoever comes into thy heart from the invisible world is th(e)y guest: entertain it well!

In 2017, published in the New Yorker,[ii] Rozina Ali wrote on the erasure of Islam from the Western encounter with Rumi, noting Barks willful ignorance of Rumi’s ties to Islam is part of a long line of other Western translators over the centuries who removed Islamic cultural and religious particularities in the original texts, while leaving in references to those shared with Christianity.  She quotes a Rutgers professor, Jawid Mojaddedi, who states,

“The Rumi that people love is very beautiful in English, and the price you pay is to cut the culture and religion.”

~~~

I hope that before you leave this morning, you will make the time to look at the painting of the poem which is a part of my family. I am no longer sure how old it is. I hope that it conveys the essence of the house metaphor for equanimity.

That metaphor — of house — for the encounter with equanimity is a powerful one that transcends wisdom traditions.  For instance, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book about equanimity, At Home in the World, writes

 “Our true home is the present moment, whatever is happening right here and now. Our true home is a place without discrimination [or] hatred. Our true home is the place where we are no longer seeking [or] yearning for anything, no longer regretting anything…. [Our] true home is something [we] have to create for [ourselves]. When we know how to make peace with our body, to take care of [it] and release [its] tension, then our body becomes a comfortable, peaceful home to come back to in the present moment. When we know how to take care of our feelings—when we know how to generate joy and happiness, and how to handle a painful feeling—we can cultivate and restore a happy home in the present moment. And when we know how to generate the energies of understanding and compassion, our home will be a very cozy, pleasant place to come back to…. Home is not something to hope for, but to cultivate….”

Home is not something to hope for, but to cultivate.  Equanimity is not something to hope for, but to cultivate. In this, I hear the work of spiritual practice.  In this, I sense the fruit of spiritual growth. Not the low bar of spiritual satisfaction that the congregation’s Bond of Union names.  Just sayin’.

~~~

I want to offer you an example from my own life, hoping that it may be of service to you in yours, then connect to why growing our capacity for equanimity might be of service to us as a whole.

As some of you know, I have the world’s greatest dog living at my house.  

Vera. 

I know those of you who have dogs think you have the world’s greatest dog living with you, and it may be true, too. 

Anyway, Vera, while the world’s greatest dog, is not perfect.  She has a habit, nearly compulsive by my standards, of licking herself.  Constantly.  Most of the time, I can shut it off.  She likes to be near me.  And when I sit myself down to meditate, she settles in nearby and begins her practice – perhaps her spiritual practice, I haven’t asked her – of licking. 

Incessantly licking. Never-ending licking. Unremitting, persistent, ceaseless.  You get the idea.  No matter how much I come back to my breath, bring my attention away from Vera or the sound, it does not seem to work.  My nervous system is drawn in and I grow increasingly reactive to that. sound.  Often it results in my impulsively breaking my silence, impulsively raising my voice, and impulsively commanding her to stop. 

Vera does not like that voice.  Neither do I. (It does get her to stop, though.)

I am working on this in two ways right now.  One is that I am trying to move from impulse to intention.  If I must break my silence, if I must issue a command, then there is an increased elegance if I do it with intention, rather than with impulse.

The second way I am working on this is recognizing that there is space between me and my nervous system.  It is my nervous system that is reacting so strongly to the sound of her licking.  It is my nervous system that feels a growing sense of desperation that if the sound does not stop I will somehow – and I’m exaggerating here for effect – disintegrate. 

So, if I can both know that I am not nervous system and that my nervous system is not the whole of me, then I might be able to experience something closer to equanimity.  That can begin when I can observe even a moment’s pause between the trigger – Vera’s licking – and my reaction.  Then I can slow down, I can choose something that might soothe my nervous system.

It might be getting Vera to stop.  Like the hosts of that ancient meditation teacher suggested by not including the clumsy tea boy along on trips anymore. That’s an external solution and sometimes we need them.  Sometimes we need to remove external triggers from our lives – or remove ourselves from exposure to them.

And we also need to identify and grow the capacity for internal strategies.  Observing our reactions and trying to get under them, or before them, in order to possibly interrupt them.  Learning how to use breathing as a means of self-regulation.  Or self-talk. 

Or somatic strategies that can bring us to center, that can help us touch that sense of home that Thich Nhat Hanh named, that can help us – and this is the advanced version – stand at the door laughing and invite in that trigger – for me, invite in Vera’s incessant licking. This is why I don’t just close my door and not allow her into the room with me when I sit down to meditate.  She is my clumsy tea boy right now (and I have other clumsy tea boys in our lives – most of us have more than one).  I want to learn what it is she has to teach me.

The thing is, when I develop this capacity for equanimity in the small and perhaps silly circumstance of irritation at my dog’s compulsive behavior, I am growing my capacity in other, much more urgent situations, where the need for my thoughtful, skillful, intentional response has bigger consequences – in my family life, in my relationships, in our shared congregational life, in the midst of the mounting anxiety provided by a world inhabited by climate crisis, deep cultural divides, weaponized acts of hate, and a federal government that continues its dangerous dalliance with an authoritarian demagogue.

When we increase our capacity for equanimity, we know better how to move in that space between brittle reactivity and numbed-out avoidance, which is a form of resilience for us as individuals and us as a community.  Equanimity allows us to stay engaged without being on one hand, overwhelmed or oversaturated or overstimulated or, on the other hand, using privilege to remove ourselves from the chaos.  If this is the case, then it strikes me that equanimity just may be a necessary super power when it comes to the increasing threats to democracy, as well as what we are facing when it comes to the climate crisis.  I’ll be preaching about that on the 23rd of this month.

~~~

May we choose the door of spiritual practice, not just learning about them.

May you never forget that you are the golden thread running through. That even in times when love feels opaque and distant, you can find your breath, you can find this community, you can find the deeper truth that all changes change.

In that midst, may you give yourself kindness and heaping, joyful love to get yourself through.

May you refrain from that second arrow. May we all refrain from that second arrow.

May we find ourselves at the door laughing, entertaining the hard stuff as a path is cleared for some new delight.

May we cultivate the super power of the Middle Way in ourselves, in each other, and in the worlds we inhabit.

Amen. Blessed be.

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White Lies: James Reeb, a Podcast, a Missing Murderer, & Liberatory Memory (sermon)

January 19, 2020

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

Reverend Karen G. Johnston

most of the sermon made it — just the last few minutes were lost

[a clip 1:17 minutes from the White Lies podcast, episode, “A Dangerous Kind of Self Delusion”]

…Why must good men die for doing good? “O Jerusalem, why did you murder the prophets and persecute those who come to preach your salvation?”[i]

These words, along with those that Marie shared with us in our earlier reading, come from the eulogy that Dr. King gave at the memorial service for Reverend James Reeb.   Dr. King admonishes us not to look just for the actual persons who held the weapons and inflicted the mortal blow, but to the system that led, and allowed, and actively cultivated such murder.  Don’t look just to WHO killed James Reeb, but WHAT killed him.

It might seem that the two journalists behind the White Lies podcast did not heed Dr. King’s words, because they went looking into the mystery of why no one was held to account for the brutal murder. 

However, by returning to this violent history, they are exercising what is called, liberatory memory[ii]. And they have extended to us the invitation to do the same: to liberate our history from a lie and out of that, possibly be saved by the truth.  And if not saved, then healed. And if not healed, then to experience a sense of integrity that might allow for a more resilient future.

~~~

Originally Presbyterian, James Reeb turned to Unitarianism after seminary. He was a minister in our faith tradition, drawn by our focus on social justice. Reeb, and his wife, Marie, had four young children. They were committed to do what was theirs to do to resist racism. In the different cities where they lived – Philadelphia, Washington DC, Boston –as a white family, they chose to live in neighborhoods where Black people lived, despite segregated neighborhoods in these Northern cities.

We just heard part of his last sermon, which he gave at All Souls in Washington, DC, where he served as assistant minister.  Longing to do community organizing, he left that position, unsatisfied with parish ministry.  He ended up working for affordable and integrated housing, moving to Boston.  Here is a small window into that new life, from a letter a friend[iii], dated the fall of 1964. I share it with you so you can remember the man alive, not just the martyr made:

It took me many days of looking to find this house.  It has three floors, 11 rooms and full basement plus a vacant lot across the street. Almost no one wants to encourage you to move here. One lady asked me if I was crazy when I told her I really wanted to move into the neighborhood. The children are in school and, in general, happy. John wanted to help to integrate his class.  Some gal in Washington wanted to know if I really wanted my children to go to school with Negroes and I said yes, of course, all children are lucky who integrate schools. 

Marie is busy, getting the house in order. I am faced every day to stretch my mind. There are new problems, new ideas, new experiences to deal with. I have seized the bull by the horns. I am doing what seems important. And let the damn torpedoes come.

We have a challenge to meet as a family.  We are together sharing in what I think will probably be one of the most significant times in our lives.  We are all amazingly well and I am spending more time with the family than ever before.  We have finally got our ping pong table and Marie, John, and I play regularly.  We are resuming our Friday night birthday festival: we have a cake, candles, and someone tells us about a person we admire, and we sing happy birthday. 

Just a few months later came Bloody Sunday – the violent encounter between police and marchers from Selma to Montgomery –  immediately after which Dr. King to put out the call to clergy across the nation and from all traditions to come to Selma.  Which Reverend Reeb accepted.

~~~

Chip Brantley and Andrew Beck Grace are both journalists. Brantley is a professor at the University of Alabama. Beck Grace is behind something called Moon Winx Films. They are the authors of the White Lies podcast published by NPR in May and June of last year. Both are Alabama-born white men whose families go back in that state before it was a state; families that had been slave-holding and Confederate. 

I’m not a fan of the true-crimes genre of most anything, but this podcast, with its intersection with Unitarian Universalist history, captured my attention. It was riveting. And even though this sermon contains spoilers, it is well worth your time to listen to. According to its makers, the podcast is

“the story of a murder at the center of the civil rights movement and the lies that kept it from being solved. It’s an event that rippled far beyond the time and place where it happened, sparking national outrage and galvanizing support for one of the most significant laws of the 20th century.”

It is also an exploration into what happens when, in their words, “you call a lie and lie” and “find out what it means to live into that truth.”

~~~

James Reeb, along with other Unitarian Universalist clergy, arrived in Selma. That very evening, hungry for dinner, he and two other UU ministers – Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen – ate at a Black-owned diner. As civil rights workers, they were welcome there in a way they would not be at a white-owned diner.  As they were departing the diner, in a town unfamiliar to them, heading back to the organizing headquarters, they chose a route that brought them in harm’s way. 

Ultimately, three men would be arrested and charged, and quickly acquitted, for the beating that mortally wounded James Reeb on the street near that diner.  Initial reports said there were four men involved in the beating.  It is through the journalism of the White Lies podcast fifty years after the fact that the fourth man, never charged, is identified!  The podcast also establishes it was Elmer Cook, one of the three originally arrested, who was the man who swung the club that crushed Reeb’s skull. 

The night of the beating, during a harrowing ambulance ride to Birmingham, for there was inadequate medical care in Selma, Reeb lost consciousness and never regained it.  A few hours later, his wife was called before she would hear about it on the 11 o’clock news: you must come.  The national and world media was watching, as was President Johnson and Lady Bird.  Two days later, Reverend James Reeb died.

~~~

Out of this act of brutality, out of the culture of that place and time and system of justice, there arose a counter narrative of what happened.  While there was no denying the death, a story arose that he did not die from the beating outside the diner, but because the people with him in the ambulance – his colleagues and friends – inflicted an injury that led to his death. 

He died, they would say, because the movement needed a martyr.

This was not just some vague rumor or personal rationalization that the four men who beat the civil rights workers told themselves and their families (although they did do that).  This was the narrative that the prosecutor used in the courtroom, that secured the defendants’ acquittal.  In the podcast, Beck Grace and Brantley interview the only surviving juror from that case, who says that he still very much believes that Reeb was killed by his friends and by the movement. It was chilling.

This is not the only time of such a nefarious counter narrative arose during civil rights struggles.  Surely you remember the church bombing in Birmingham in 1963, the one that killed four little girls and maimed one? There was a widely disseminated – in the white community – that the church had bombed itself.  It had staying power until 1977, when then prosecutor, Doug Jones, now Senator Doug Jones, won the case against the actual bomber.

Though not as violent, but made of the same dangerous cloth, I think of the modern myth of the so-called transgender person – a person dressed as a woman who is really a man who goes into women’s bathrooms in order to creep on little girls and vulnerable women.  To my knowledge, there is no verified account of this happening, even though there are many substantiated cases of harm being threatened and inflicted on true transgender people just trying to pee. Yet the myth is perpetuated and transphobia grows.

To what lengths will we humans go to avoid culpability for our own evil?  To rationalize our own bigotry and ignorance?  It’s chilling.

~~~

In the podcast, they tell of the local cemetery in Selma, how there is a Confederate memorial circle with glorification of the fallen soldiers in the civil war.  There is one statute erected thirteen years after the war ended – like many others throughout the South, and the North, trying to make meaning after that horrific event. 

There is another statue, erected much later.  This one is of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan, a slave trader himself.  This statue was erected weeks after the first Black mayor of Selma took office. It was not a response to a war that had just concluded.  It was a response to a Black person holding political office. It was the KKK saying, we’re still here.  Want to guess what year that was? 

The year 2000.

I want to caution us.  Today’s sermon is about a story that took place in Selma, Alabama, it is true.  And in the story, we can see how that particular place struggles with history and memory in a particularly Southern way. This is also true. 

But let us not be arrogant or find ourselves wallowing in false exceptionalism.  There is no integrity in living such a life.  There is no liberation there.  The North has our versions of whitewashed lies. It is on us to call these lies the lies.

Perhaps you have heard of the concept of Sankofa.  That word comes to us from Ghana, from the Twi language. It translates as “go back and get it.”  It calls us to acts of “liberatory memory”: to look back to the past in order to learn for the future; to do so that we might liberate ourselves and others from some of the shackles of history – harm done, harm experienced, lies told, truths buried.  The Sankofa symbol is a bird.  Its body faces forward.  Its head turns back.  In its beak is an egg – fragile, precious, full of potential: the seed of knowledge from facing our past that we plant for a resilient future. A future with integrity.

The Lost Souls Public Memorial Project is our chance to exercise “liberatory memory.” It is our chance to call a lie a lie and learn to live with the truth of it. It is our chance to help others to do the same: to live a communal life of more integrity.

these are only some of the recovered names of the Lost Souls

For some of you the following is new information.  For some, this is an update. The Lost Souls Project is making known the horrific history of 1818.  A corrupt Middlesex County judge, who resided in what is now East Brunswick, along with what turns out is a cadre of other people, sold enslaved and free African Americans into the Deep South and permanent slavery. We are currently aware of 180 of whom we have the names for 141.  Just a month ago, we recovered three additional names. We have even discovered that the governor at the time was implicated. It’s chilling.

We call them the Lost Souls, though they were not so much lost as actively stolen away.  We are trying to build a memorial with all their names, and the history, so that it can never be forgotten, or whitewashed.  This spring we are developing the process for soliciting designs from artists and continuing community education.  In fact, next Saturday, Peter Kahn and I are presenting, along with Kristal Langford, at the Elizabeth Public Library.

The Lost Souls Project is a multi-racial, grassroots group in partnership with two African American community groups and in conversation with the Township of East Brunswick.  If you ever wonder how your life might be more multi-cultural, you might consider participating in this meaningful work.  We consider Lost Souls a ministry of this congregation, which currently acts as the group’s fiscal sponsor, enabling them to receive two grants so far.

~~~

In its conclusion, the podcast acknowledges that in this case justice is never done.  Three men were acquitted.  The counter narrative blaming the victim and absolving the white community took deep root.  The journalists identified the fourth man guilty of murder – yet, he died before any formal charges could be made.

The family of Elmer Cook knew he was involved in the beating, but they never acknowledged that his swinging the club caused Reeb’s death. That counter narrative – that lie — absolved their patriarch of murder.  A white lie to be sure, but not the kind we might call innocuous or harmless.

Still, acts of liberatory memory came out of this journalistic exploration. Katie Cook, the great granddaughter of Elmer Cook, went to college and learned outside and beyond the counter narrative told in her family. Out of that, she went seeking. Eventually, she met with the daughter and granddaughter of James Reeb and practiced authentic curiosity and reconciliation. 

Marie Reeb, James’ widow, had spent these fifty years not wanting to learn the names of the three who had been briefly arrested, for she did not want hate to grow in her heart.  In the course of the podcast, for the first time since her husband’s death, Marie chose to listen to the story of that tragic night. Not to start growing hate, but to rest in truth.

There came even further reckoning.   Katie’s grandfather – the youngest son of Elmer Cook – met with the podcast journalists. Despite a lifetime of holding fast to the counter narrative, he listened to what the journalists had to share and accepted as truth what they shared, opening himself to the possibility of healing, of liberation, of integrity. Opening his family, and his community, to that very same possibility. 

Just as the podcast offers us as a society and a nation.

~~~

In his eulogy for James Reeb, Dr. King asked us to work passionately, unrelentingly, and to make the American dream a reality, so that Reverend Reeb did not die in vain.

Let us take to heart the words those words, along with the words of Reverend Reeb in his last sermon, that we not allow ourselves to succumb to any kind of dangerous self delusion about how long in the making a truly racially just world is.

Let us keep each other company, making each other brave enough to call a lie, a lie, and to live lives of ever deepening integrity.

Let us be like the Sankofa bird: willing to look back so that the future might be more resilient.

Amen.  May it be so.

This plaque hangs at the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters at 24 Farnsworth Street in Boston. It depicts Jimmie Lee Jackson, the first to be killed near Selma (in Marion) and whose death was the trigger for the march that led to Bloody Sunday. Next is Rev. James Reeb, Unitarian Universalist minister. On the right is Viola Liuzzo, Unitarian woman from Detroit, who came South to be a civil rights worker and was shot while driving a car of other civil rights workers.

Deep gratitude to the White Lies podcast and its makers.


[i] https://www.uuworld.org/articles/memoir-kings-eulogy-james-reeb

[ii] Chandre Gould and Verne Harris, https://www.nelsonmandela.org/uploads/files/MEMORY_FOR_JUSTICE_2014v2.pdf

[iii] https://www.npr.org/2019/06/21/734713126/a-dangerous-kind-of-self-delusion

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Three Gates: A Sermon on Right Speech (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

January 12, 2020

John Woolman, a New Jersey Quaker from before the Revolution, is most-known for seeing abolitionist values among the Quakers.  It is also from him that the concept of “right relationship” comes, calling on humans to live in right relationship with all creation.  In a nod to our Soul Matters theme for this month, integrity, as well as next month’s (resilience), modern day Quakers Peter Brown and Geoffrey Garver tell us,

“A thing is right when it preserves the integrity, resilience, and beauty of the commonwealth of life and wrong when it does otherwise.”[i]

While our story from this morning comes from the Quaker tradition, the ever-unreliable internet also says it comes from Socrates.  It’s hard these days to know what is fake news.

That concept of right relationship belong to all humanity, which has always yearned to do right by each other, even when there are more than enough examples of the opposite.  Humans have sought, and continue to seek, a workable combination of freedom and limitations, what one might call rules, even if we choose to disregard, or even to break, them.

Some of these are BIG RULES, like the ten commandments from Judaism and adopted by Christianity. There is the Tao Te Ching with its long list of virtues, which might be considered rules for living virtuously. Along Buddhism’s Eight-Fold Path are suggestions for how to live ethically in the world, with instruction about right understanding, right thought, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Then there are small rules, or considerations, for how we might build a better world, perhaps even build Beloved Community. Or at least become a better person. Today I’ll be focusing on, to borrow Buddhism’s phrase, the right speech.  How do we use our words responsibly and well?

Let’s start with the concept behind that Quaker story, which is called by the Three Gates.  It seems to come to the world from the mystical side of Islam – the Sufis — though it has become so ubiquitous and widely adopted, it’s not easy to trace its actual origins.  The Three Gates are three questions:

Is it true?

Is it necessary?

Is it kind?

There is a simplistic poem from the Victorian era, written by Beth Day in 1835, with the subtitle “After the Arabian”[ii]:

If you are tempted to reveal

A tale to you someone has told

About another, make it pass,

Before you speak, three gates of gold.

These narrow gates: First, “Is it true?”

Then, “Is it needful?” In your mind

Give truthful answer. And the next

Is last and narrowest, “Is it kind?”

And if to reach your lips at last

It passes through these gateways three,

Then you may tell the tale, nor fear

What the result of speech may be.

There are many who attribute these three questions to the Buddha, though the perfectly wonderful and well-researched web site, Fake Buddha Quotes (#BuddhadidNOTsaythat), assures us that the Three Gates or Sieves or Funnels – whatever you call it — did not come from the Buddha, no matter what the pretty meme on Facebook says.  The Buddha had four – or five, depending on which sutta you look at – rules for right speech.  Inclusive of the three gates, with more[iii].

~~~

Oh! That life, and decisions, were so easy that all we needed to do was ask three (or even four) questions and the answers we received would be clear and incontrovertible, not subject to disagreement or subjectivity!

Interesting, for here the order of the gates is different than what I first found in my travels to write this sermon, which shared truth as the first gate and changed to order of kind and necessary.  Or of this button, which arrived in the mail yesterday, sent to me by a colleague who heard I was preaching on this topic.  It turns out that at some point in the not far past, there was a minor movement in our denomination that resulted in many of these buttons being spread far and wide.  They are lovely, but slightly different than the three gates, stating: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it helpful?  Which is a bit different than necessary – more proactive, in my estimation.

A gift from the Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson

Here’s a question that dogs me about this guidance – are all three gates of equal import? Do they co-exist on an egalitarian plane? Or is there some hierarchy, with one being fundamental, thus always the first gate by which to parse one’s words?

I have more questions.  First, what are the definitions of true, kind, necessary? Who decides?

Is the definition of what is true, or what is kind, or what is necessary strictly personal and subjective – each of us decides for our own selves? Is it covenantal, which is to say, a community-based definition? Is it possible that there is some absolute, universal definition that works at all times, in all contexts?

For instance. there are things I know to be true now, yet I did not know them to be true twenty years ago.  Others did.  My own maturity, and my social location, with its privileges and marginalized identities, impact this greatly…as do yours. My true experience as a white kid of Safety Officer Joe in elementary school is very different than the true experience of Eric Garner, a Black man murdered by a police officer who used excessive force.

How about kindness?  This, too, is both subjective, not only in that one’s intention can be different than impact, but also one’s own judgement of a thing that is kind can change over time.  Parents know this when we set limits on our children – they don’t think we are doing them a favor.  Yet, most of the time, by the time they grow up, there is a sense that what we did was beneficial, was kind.

And necessity?  That’s another one where one person in the equation might not ever agree that it is necessary, but another – perhaps the person speaking up on behalf of their own humanity – knows that it is true, that is a kindness to self, and that it is utterly necessary to speak up and say a thing that might make everyone else in the room uncomfortable.

Another question.  Or point of reflection. I wonder about the role of silence, of what happens when we decide not to speak.  Silence, too, can be unkind, or unhelpful.  Our silence becomes complicit with untruth, when silence is avoidance of hard necessities. 

“A thing is right when it preserves the integrity, resilience, and beauty of the commonwealth of life and wrong when it does otherwise.”

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky wrote in her book, The Age of Overwhelm: Strategies for the Long Haul, the following: 

There is merit in remembering that there can be a tension among the choices we make. There may be internal and external consequences. We may choose to do something that may mitigate consequences. We may choose to do something that may mitigate internal harm, but that, of course, doesn’t mean others will agree or understand or even respect our decisions.

Which is another way of saying, we might not all agree on what constitutes kind or necessary, or even true.  van Dernoot Lipsky’s response to this conundrum?

In these times, it can be helpful to take the long view. Don’t watch the ripples on the surface of the water; watch the still depths.

But why listen to her? She asks us to grow comfort with tension, and that’s hard.  So, why don’t we live by the wisdom of the 1970s heavy metal rocker, Meatloaf, and consider that “two out of three ain’t bad?” 

That still leaves us with two. Which may make life a little bit easier. Maybe.

~~~

So, if all these different traditions, faith or secular, have these different takes on right speech, what does Unitarian Universalism have to say? Do the Principles give us some idea of how to live into our best selves when it comes to our covenanted community? Or when we spend the holidays with our in-laws? Or when we are online and deciding whether to respond to a social media post? Or when we have to deal with that annoying co-worker who won’t stop with the xenophobic or transphobic pronouncements?

The 4th Principle can be invited to be our companion, along with all the gates and sieves and funnels, no matter their order.  The Fourth Principle names the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, which I propose are our UU gates: the qualities of “free” and “responsible.”

There is creative tension between free and responsible. I think of it as the creative tension between the individual (who wants to freely be themselves fully) and the community (be that a partnership, a family, a covenanted community, Beloved community, or the whole interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part) – which requires different levels of conformity to be coherent. Free means that I (or my group) do not lose my humanity to conformity.  Responsible means that I do not, by intention or impact, demean or threaten the humanity of others, individual or group. Free means I have agency to enter into a covenant.  Responsible means that I sometimes place the needs of the community ahead of my own.  Using these as our gates raises these questions:

Are my words spoken freely, so that I am honoring my reality and the reality of those groups and peoples who claim me and I claim them?

Are my words spoken responsibly, so that from whatever my social location, from the intersection of my particular mix of privilege and marginalization, they are responsible not only to me, but to others with whom I am in relationship, or aspire to be?

These two additional gates greatly enrich the discernment process around right speech.  Because, what if being kind necessitates, from one perspective or another, that you subvert an important part of yourself, collude with making invisible some aspect of yourself that others actively, intentionally erase, refuse to acknowledge?  This is untenable in the long run.

Or it may not be kind to remind someone in public that they are misgendering you, but it may be necessary for your own dignity. And for them to live more fully into the First Principle, which affirms the dignity of all.  This is where that tension comes into play.  This is where learning to sit with the discomfort of tension is a key capacity for living a well-rounded human life.

I do want to say, because I think it’s important, especially as we talk about those the gate of kindness, that we confuse kind with nice far too often.  Frankly, as people of conscience and faith, with ethics to draw us, and the call to make a more inclusive world, we often have to choose a fierce kindness over a limp niceness.

That said, I like the interpretations of this gate that suggest that once you have determined that something is true, the kindness gate requires you to do it as kindly as possible, which exists on a continuum.  That might means saying what you have to say in private, to help save someone from embarrassment. It may mean waiting until any of our own anger or self-righteousness has ebbed, so we can offer our words in an unattached way, letting the other person accept it if they will, letting them drop it if they choose.

Sometimes, the kind way to say a thing is to say it publicly because the kindness is not to the person who said the mean or hateful or racist thing, but is to others who are watching or listening – others who need to hear that as a white person, you don’t condone racist behavior; others who need to hear that you don’t share a fear of a transgender person using the same restroom; perhaps it’s youth in the room, or even your own heart, that needs to hear that you won’t abide by fat-shaming or slut-shaming. I think about this often when I am trying to pass my words through the gate of kindness – kind to whom?

~~~

Which is more important?  Truth? Kindness? Necessity? Freedom? Responsibility?  I can’t answer that for you.  I do believe that they live in a synergistic relationship with each other.  It was probably not kind, the other day, when I spoke the truth that on the East Brunswick interfaith clergy council, we do not agree about the inherent problem of homophobia, but it was necessary. And I believe that I was being responsible with regard to how I represent this congregation, and our Unitarian Universalist values.

This is the thing: there’s no simple formula that will save you from being awkward, or clumsy, or from making mistakes, or from causing harm.  No formula that will ensure your good intentions will always have beneficial impact.  Life is much messier than that.  To live a life of integrity means getting it wrong sometimes, it’s a dance, it’s an art not a science, it’s an approximation. It’s when we choose to enter into that dance that the tension of messing it up can become creative tension, which offers the chance of deep connection and robust covenanted community.  

I encourage all of us, as Unitarian Universalists, to use both touch stones of free speech and responsible speech, free action and responsible action, free belief and responsible belief – not one or the other, but both in relationship, in regular check-in with one another, informed not just by our own most excellent thoughts, but also with reality checks from others with whom we are in relationship with, with others with whom we are in covenanted relationship, whom we choose as primary in our short and precious lives.

“A thing is right when it preserves the integrity, resilience, and beauty of the commonwealth of life and wrong when it does otherwise.”

Amen.  Blessed be.


[i] Right Relationship Building A Whole Earth Economy by Peter Brown & Geoffrey Garver; thank you to Lara Campbell for this reference/citation

[ii] https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2012/5/23/1092850/-Is-it-true-Is-it-kind-Is-it-necessary

[iii] [iii] https://fakebuddhaquotes.com/if-you-propose-to-speak-always-ask-yourself-is-it-true-is-it-necessary-is-it-kind/: speak at the right time; the truth; with affection; beneficially; with good intention

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Awestruck (sermon)

It is said that in each of his pockets, Rabbi Simcha Bunim carried a slip of paper. On one was written: f

or my sake the world was created...

How awesome is that?!?

On the other was written:

I am but dust and ashes...

How awful is that?!?

Both messages he carried with him, living his life in between these two realities.

What is it to live a life as if awestruck? Aware of the motion, and commotion, careening and gliding between these two experiences of the world – of the universe – overwhelmed, fearful, humbled, reverent, inspired?  What is it to live a life understanding that these two experiences are not polar opposites – awesome and awful – but at their deepest root, are knit of the same stuff, two sides of the same coin?

Are the meticulous making of the awesome sand mandala…and the awful – or was that awesome too? – destruction of it?

It turns out there are many entrances into awe: song, prayer, dance, theology, philosophy, great art, great architecture, even great science. And possibly, death. Let me tell you a story of the most awful, and the most awe-filled, moment of my recent life.

Three weeks ago, the wife of a dear friend – and herself a dear friend – died.  A year of awful for them both, in and out of long hospitalizations. Awful for my friend, now a widow.  Awful for this woman, who had struggled for months with swallowing, not able to eat enough on her own. I had been visiting three weeks before, when her ambivalence about fighting for her life was palpable presence in the room; yet she was worried about disappointing others if she “gave up.” That was awful.

Then, I was there for the awe-filled part. Awe-filled: the minutes and hours after she died, I was there along with her dedicated, desperately sad friends, many of whom had known her for forty-plus years. I was with my friend, her wife of just under a year ~ for they had gotten married in the hospital when the cancer abruptly raged, (they had been together for the sixteen years before that). She was both in shock and completely present to her beloved.

Altogether, filled with awe at the absence of our dead friend and the presence of her dead body, we washed that body, we took cotton balls and tenderly anointed it with baby oil, and then put on clothing picked out especially.  In twos, and threes, and just her wife alone, we said our good-byes.  Then came the hospice nurse, to pronounce her dead. Then came the funeral home to take the body away, placed on a stretcher, covered. All of us put on our jackets and shoes.  We created a human arch through which the funeral home personnel processed as they carried out the stretcher. We whispered and sang and said our good-byes.

As I said, a most awful, and a most awe-filled, moment.

Wherever or however you access it, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner suggests that when we enter into awe, it is the “Unio Mystica,” or being at One with the Holy One or the Holy One(ness).  He writes,

There are many ways we reach for the Holy One(ness). We can attain self-transcendence through our mind in study, through our heart in prayer, or with our hands in sacred deed.  We say, in effect, that through becoming God’s agent, though voluntarily setting God’s will above our own, we literally lose our selves and become One with the One whom we serve.  It rarely lasts for more than a moment.[i]

According to him, it’s not about becoming the same as the Divine; it’s about forgetting the boundaries of the Self. Forgetting where you end and creation or existence begins.  It is perceiving deeply, sensing in all the ways possible that creation is in you and you are everywhere in it.

Kushner practices from a Kabbalah perspective – an ancient, mysticial Jewish tradition – but these thoughts belong not just to Judaism. Think of Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of Interbeing, and we are in the same place.

So, there are many entrances.  Often, we think that to access awe, we must place ourselves in the midst of the rare and the extraordinary.  Visit the Grand Canyon, or Machu Pichu, or Alaska before it melts.  What if awe was available to us at home, in the ordinary?

There is an old story — told by many, I read it in Kushner’s book called Eyes Remade for Wonder — of a rabbi named Isaac, who lived in Krakow.  He was a good man and he was poor.  So, when he had the same dream, three nights in a row, of treasure buried under a bridge in Prague, he paid attention.  He made the long journey only to discover that the king’s soldiers patrolled the bridge.  He kept watch for several days and nights, hoping for his chance.  Instead, the captain of the guard spied him.  He was caught and questioned about his purpose there at the bridge.  Rabbi Isaac told the captain about his dreams.

The captain laughed in his face! “You mean to tell me you believe in such things?  If I believed as you did, I would be on my way to Krakow to find some rabbi named Isaac, because I have dreamed there is great treasure buried beneath his bed!” The captain never asked our friend Isaac his name or his vocation, but did allow him to return home, which he did.  Upon his arrival, he pushed aside his bed, removed the floor boards, and dug up the treasure that had been there all along.[ii]

That story makes me wonder what possibilities for awe am I missing here, where I make my home?  Here, among the mundane? On this side of the fence, even if the grass is not greener? 

What about you?  What might you be missing that is right under your nose?

Like the treasure beneath Isaac’s bed, might there be entrances into the Holy, to the Awe-filled, the Awe-some, nearby, waiting for you to discover them? Supposedly Albert Einstein said,

This might be another version of Rabbi Bunim’s two pockets. I know that while I’d like perceive the shine of miracles, I am often stuck in the tarnish of no miracles. So, while there is access all around us at all times to awe does not mean that we actually open that door.

There’s a wonderful Jewish tradition called midrash: telling stories to fill in the gaps from ancient scripture. Likely you are familiar with the broad strokes of the miracle story of the parting of the Red Sea, right? When Moses, with the aid of god, led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt by crossing parting the great waters? Well, there’s a midrash that focuses on two of the people who made that journey.

In the midrash, they are given names: Reuven and Shimon. Like all the others, they cross the bottom of the sea, yet they complain the whole way.  Though safe, the ground was muddy:

Reuven stepped onto it and curled his lip. “What is this muck?”
Shimon scowled, “There’s mud all over the place!”
“This is just like the slime pits of Egypt!” replied Reuven.
“What’s the difference?” complained Shimon. “Mud here, mud there; it’s all the same.”
And so it went for the two of them, grumbling all the way across the botom of the sea. And, because they never once looked up, they never understood why on the distant shore everyone else was singing songs of praise. For Reuven and Shimon, the miracle never happened.[iii]

This story, too, makes me wonder: have there been miracles – opportunities for awe – that I have missed, due to my own sense of grievance, or my own ignorance, or distraction, bidden or unbidden?  Due to my focusing on the solid facts beneath my feet, instead of the intangible possibilities swirling around me?

How about you?  Have you chosen to see the awful, when the awesome was available?

The skeptical mind, the mind habituated to poo-pooing miracle-talk, the mind that would rather explain why starlings fly as a collective awe-inspiring pack called a murmuration than let the awe-filled elegance wash over and be enough, calls out and asks, what’s so important about awe? And chides, don’t make me give up my science and my reason.  And by god, don’t make me have to do god, if you want me to even consider your invitation.

If that is you, I offer two gifts.  First, the work and words of Phil Zuckerman, author of Living the Secular Life, in which he writes about “awe-ism:”

Aweism is the belief that existence is ultimately a beautiful mystery, that being alive is a wellspring of wonder, and that the deepest questions of life, death, time, and space are so power­ful as to inspire deep feelings of joy, poignancy, and sublime awe. To be an aweist is to be an atheist and/or an agnostic and/or a secular humanist-and then some. An aweist is some­one who admits that existing is wonderfully mysterious and that life is a profound experience. To be an aweist is-in the words of Paul Kurtz-to embrace and experience “joyful exuberance” sans theistic assumptions. Aweists suspect that no one will ever know why we are here or how the universe came into being, and this renders us weak in the knees while simultaneously spurring us on to dance. 

So that’s awe from a secular point of view. Here’s awe from a scientific perspective.

Dr. Melanie Rudd, from Stanford University, studies the phenomenon of awe[iv].  She says awe has two defining characteristics.  One is the sense of perceptual vastness or immensity – this might be size (think Grand Canyon) but it can also be scope, or power, or complexity (think of those sand mandalas we saw earlier). 

Dr. Melanie Rudd & her dog

The second trait is what she calls “the need for accommodation.”  For something to evoke a sense of awe in us, it must challenge our mental structures or worldview.  We must work to accommodate what we are perceiving.  That need for accommodation is the likely source when we experience the fearful or humbling aspects of awe: we are confronted with something outside our ability to fully understand, brought into the territory of uncertainty. Not comforting, and, at times, awful.

Research shows awe is beneficial.  This past May, a study came out that suggests that awe helps us to stop ruminating on our problems and daily stressors, inspiring generosity and a sense of connection with others.[v]

Dr. Rudd’s research shows that awe increases humility. It results in our feeling smaller and – this is key – AND connected to the larger world, the larger universe. Not small and alone, but small and connected.

Secondly, in Dr. Rudd’s studies, and this is relevant, given our service a few weeks back about slowing down since we haven’t much time: experiencing awe impacts and expands our perception of time. We feel that more time is available. 

Lastly, connected to that shift in the perception of time, we feel more open to the prospect of learning, which somehow draws us to create. Which kind of leads us full circle back to that list of human responses to awe, the many entrances into Unio Mystica: song, prayer, dance, theology, philosophy, great art, great architecture, even great science.

Kinda cool, huh?

~~~

I want to close another loop – one related to my friend whose wife died. She texted me while I was writing this sermon. When I told her that I was struggling with writing my sermon on awe, she offered her take on it. With her consent, I share what she wrote. Listen for some of Dr. Rudd’s concepts — the unknowing and uncertainty that leads to the need for accommodation, the immensity of the experience that there is a gap that must be bridged…

Well, for starters, you bridged the gap between awful and awesome on that Sunday night to Monday when you showed up for me! I had no idea I needed you and how important you became in that space between an in the beginning and the end.  Maybe you didn’t know either?  Birth and death (metaphoric and actual) are awful and awesome.  In between we hopefully keep showing up because and in case our people are in need of hand holding, witnesses. Or in the words of Hafiz, in the poem called A Great Need:

Out

Of a great need

We are all holding hands

And climbing.

Not loving is a letting go.

Listen,

The terrain around here

Is

Far too

Dangerous

For

That.

~~~

As our reading from the Poet Laureate of the United States implores us to do, let us remember that you are this universe and this universe is you.

As our Unitarian ancestor says at the top of your order of service, “Let us express our astonishment before we are swallowed up by the jaws of the abyss.”

Let us not forget to look for awesome possibilities and hidden treasures that hide in our midst, available to us only if we embrace our dreams.

As we make our way through the mud and muck of our lives, may we not forget to look up and around, to perceive the ordinary miracles around us, reminding us of the blessings in our lives, the grace extended to us even in the midst of our fear, and the possibility of liberation for all, even if we cannot in that moment feel it.

Let us live our lives careening ever so gently between the realities in the rabbi’s two pockets, for we live there, whether we want to or not.

Amen. Blessed be.

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These Walls as Clouds of Witnesses: Our Library Re-Dedication

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick

November 24, 2019

What if these walls were a cloud of witnesses?  How can they not be?  For 55 years they have offered their shelter and their witness to the comings and goings, the hustle and bustle, the ups and the downs of this congregation, a once bigger, now Little Engine that could… that can, that will.

What stories would these walls tell, were they to speak?  Surely both symphony and cacophony; joy and pain; disagreement and resonance; delicious food and food politely left on the plate; conflict and reconciliation; voices far too aggressive and whispers so tender they were salve; acts of temerity and ultimate gestures of giving up.

This space had been home-central to the minister: meetings with lay leaders, pastoral care conversations, and thoughtful reflection in solitude. Not to mention a more convenient back and forth between Minister and Office Administrator than our current arrangement. We thank those who gave funds in Reverend R. Paul Mueller’s memory to improve what had once been his study, outside of which now sits a plaque that we might remember this beloved former pastor, leader, preacher, minister.

This room had been home to the burst of mural that laid claim to your attention as soon as you walked in, or even walked past, it commanded your gaze. A labor of love offered by former congregational president, Randy Bramwell, one of many artistic gifts he left so that we descendants might have art at the center of our collective identity. The mural enhanced and heightened the experience of this room for nearly half a century.

Then damage to the outer wall became damage to the inner wall, sadly neglected too long to be able to save the mural.  You can see here, to the right, the salvaged remnant of the original mural, and here to the left, the first of ten prints by the artist, gifted to us by Shirley Bartlett when she learned of the loss of the mural.  And here, between them, one of our current artist members, Coleen Tyler, paid homage to the mural and the artist, pulling out key symbols and painting them after the wall was repaired.

No more when you crank open the window does the glass pane fall to the ground outside.  Through the efforts of the Building Task Force, under the leadership of Cindy Mussman and Paula Lieb, and others, too, this library once with encroaching shelves of books mostly left to gather dust, an aging paint job, and a large table difficult to maneuver, has transformed into a bright and welcoming space, where day-to-day and evening time liturgy of the congregation takes place. 

I say liturgy, for the etymology of that work is ‘work of the people.’ That is what happens here now: the Board meets here; sometimes Shakespeare is read aloud here; on occasion, orders of service are folded here; this past fall, white fragility was examined and its demise plotted here. One day just last week, a succession of Montessori parents passed through the door and twenty minutes later out, for parent-teacher conferences.

This renovation is just one of the many recent signs of renewed attention by the congregation to the congregation.  It was made possible by gestures of love that came from the affection and admiration that many – MANY – had for Reverend Paul Mueller – and dare I say, for he was not a man alone – for Peg Mueller Richardson as well.  I have been here three-and-a-half years and it is a rare occasion that Paul’s name is uttered without Peg’s following close behind.  What a legacy to see come to fruition, fifteen years after his death! What a gift of the legacy of his ministry here!

It is said that when a congregation honors, respects and yes, even idealizes, a past minister, it speaks not only to that minister’s gifts, but more so to the congregation’s ability to be in constructive and synergistic relationship with their minister. Not a guarantee, but at least a possibility. Not all congregations have this capacity ~ especially Unitarian Universalist ones, with our ubiquitous ambivalence towards authority.

So, well, done, The Unitarian Society, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, in so many ways. Well done. These cloud of witness walls are cheering us on. Cheering us on that we may not let another wall fall into such disrepair.  Cheerig us on that we not lose yet another thing precious to us. Cheering us on that we may cherish the creativity and art that sparks our spirits and spread it abundantly here.  Cheering us on that we may find synergies that create the path of the future. 

May we hear the roar of their praise and applause. 

May we continue to offer it to each other.

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Pivoting the Sweet Spot: The Future of The Unitarian Society

November 23, 2019

This address was given on the occasion of The Unitarian Society’s Rededication event, marking the 64th anniversary of the congregation and 55th anniversary of the building.

Theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

It’s like the Venn diagram that used to be taped to a wall in my office: one circle was the hurt of the world and the other circle was the gifts you bring. The overlap is “the sweet spot.”

Both circles change over time.  Though it sure seems constant, the hurt of the world does.  As each of us knows so well, our abilities shift and develop over time, with maturity, with aging, sometimes growing, sometimes waning.  Sweet spots shift and change, too. True for individuals. And true for congregations.

I have come to see this weekend’s Rededication festivities not as a sweet spot, but as a sweet spot pivot. Borrowing from that clever turn-of-phrase in an early congregational pamphlet – the sweet spot requires pivoting “where the past meets the future.” 

Granted, a bright future was easier to discern during the height of the fellowship movement, a time when Unitarian Universalism was experiencing its most robust expansion, this congregation being one example.

Our current societal landscape makes that phrase more daunting.  National – and our own – trends reflect declining participation by adults, children, and youth in congregational life – even though Unitarian Universalism is doing better than many mainline Protestant denominations.

And this congregation has its own history. We are much smaller than we used to be and are still figuring out how to adjust to this new reality. We are still healing from conflict a decade ago that sent too many of our beloveds away.  Some of whom are here today; that is a blessing and a gift.   Thank you for returning.

So, the question emerges: how to pivot to meet the future? Here is my offering:

Release. Come alive.

Release. In order to grasp the future, we must give the past its due. Then we must release it.  While I’m not sure that it was ever helpful, the refrain of “that’s not how we used to do it” is not useful in a territory and landscape that has changed so drastically in the past 64 years.

Acknowledging the loss of a religious education program that used to have scores of children and youth, and then letting it go, has allowed us to release the “used-to-be’s” and make space for new possibilities. Literally: make space, here in the sanctuary, with our V.I.P. – Very Inquisitive Person – space that recognizes while the Sunday School model is dying, the need for faith formation and religious exploration is very much alive and it is ours to give it voice and form.

Come Alive. Theologian Howard Thurman said it this way:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

The past half year, leadership at TUS has met to connect and claim its mission – to identify the sweet spot we now occupy.  We continue this work, so we’re not done yet.  However, in August the Board identified two purposes that make The Unitarian Society come alive and I’d like to share them with you.

One purpose is to Connect with Something Greater than Ourselves, both through doing good in the world and through connecting with a sense of higher power or Unity. We talked about how to bring alive the concept of the very space you find yourselves in: sanctuary.  Sanctuary for spiritual exploration and development, perhaps even moving beyond our Bond of Union’s threshold of spiritual satisfaction to spiritual growth.

The other purpose is to Build Partnerships in our Diverse Community. Examples of living into this purpose include

  • our commitment to ensuring that the Montessori School thrives;
  • continuing our decades-long relationship with Elijah’s Promise, which we recognized and amplified earlier this past year with a gift of two $1,000 scholarships to students at the Promise Culinary School;
  • our institutional support to the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project, a community partnership with individuals, non-profits, and now, the Township of East Brunswick, thanks to the leadership of Mayor Brad Cohen, an effort that we lead, to not forget or erase a truly horrific local event of an 1818 slave ring run by a corrupt judge who lived in East Brunswick. The Lost Souls Project envisions a public memorial to the 177 Lost Souls who were sold into permanent slavery. Until this congregation lent our institutional, ethical, and moral support to remembering this history, it was white-washed and forgotten.  This is truly work that is ours to do. And as anyone who hears me speak about it, this is a ministry that makes ME come alive; and
  • our newest ministry that we hope will become a signature annual event for the congregation, meeting a need here in the local community: a gathering that focuses on what is ours to do to bring racism to an end.  Called MLK@TUS, this January 20th will be our second time pulling this event together. We welcome your participation: helping to organize, attending, spreading the word, inviting others.

Looking inward – creating sanctuary and connecting with something greater than ourselves – and looking outward – building partnerships in our diverse community – not one without the other.  Where they intersect, combine, resonate, overlap, and create new synergies – this is the sweet spot this congregation can claim, here at the pivot, as we release the past, as we meet and make the future.

I am blessed to be on this journey with you.

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Pivoting the Sweet Spot: The Future of The Unitarian Society

delivered at the Rededication event at The Unitarian Society

November 23, 2019

Theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

It’s like the Venn diagram that used to be taped to a wall in my office: one circle was the hurt of the world and the other circle was the gifts you bring. The overlap is “the sweet spot.”

Both circles change over time.  Though it sure seems constant, the hurt of the world does.  As each of us knows so well, our abilities shift and develop over time.  Sweet spots shift and change, too. True for individuals, and for congregations.

I have come to see this weekend’s Rededication festivities not as a sweet spot, but as a sweet spot pivot. Borrowing from that clever turn-of-phrase in an early congregational pamphlet – the sweet spot requires pivoting “where the past meets the future.” 

Granted, a bright future was easier to discern during the height of the fellowship movement, a time when Unitarian Universalism was experiencing its most robust expansion, this congregation being one example.

Our current societal landscape makes that phrase more daunting.  National – and our own – trends reflect declining participation by adults, children, and youth in congregational life – even though Unitarian Universalism is doing better than many mainline Protestant denominations.

And this congregation has its own history. We are much smaller than we used to be and are still figuring out how to adjust to this new reality. We are still healing from conflict a decade ago that sent too many of our beloveds away.  Some of whom are here today; that is a blessing and a gift.   Thank you for returning.

So, the question emerges: how to pivot to meet the future? Here is my offering:

Release. Come alive.

Release. In order to grasp the future, we must give the past its due. Then we must release it. 

While I’m not sure that it was ever helpful, the refrain of “that’s not how we used to do it” is not useful in a territory and landscape that has changed so drastically in the past 64 years. Acknowledging the loss of a religious education program that used to have scores of children and youth, and then letting it go, has allowed us to release the “used-to-be’s” and make space for new possibilities. Literally: make space, here in the sanctuary, with our V.I.P. – Very Inquisitive Person – space that recognizes while the Sunday School model is dying, the need for faith formation and religious exploration is very much alive and it is ours to give it voice and form.

Come Alive. Theologian Howard Thurman said it this way:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

The past half year, leadership at TUS has met to connect and claim its mission – to identify the sweet spot we now occupy.  We continue this work, so we’re not done yet.  However, in August the Board identified two purposes that make The Unitarian Society come alive and I’d like to share them with you.

One purpose is to Connect with Something Greater than Ourselves, both through doing good in the world and through connecting with a sense of higher power or Unity. We talked about how to bring alive the concept of the very space you find yourselves in: sanctuary.  Sanctuary for spiritual exploration and development, perhaps even moving beyond our Bond of Union’s threshold of spiritual satisfaction to spiritual growth.

The other purpose is to Build Partnerships in our Diverse Community. Examples of living into this purpose include

  • our commitment to ensuring that the Montessori School thrives;
  • continuing our decades-long relationship with Elijah’s Promise, which we recognized and amplified earlier this past year with a gift of two $1,000 scholarships to students at the Promise Culinary School;
  • our institutional support to the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project, a community partnership with individuals, non-profits, and now, the Township of East Brunswick, thanks to the leadership of Mayor Brad Cohen, an effort that we lead, to not forget or erase a truly horrific local event of an 1818 slave ring run by a corrupt judge who lived in East Brunswick. The Lost Souls Project envisions a public memorial to the 177 Lost Souls who were sold into permanent slavery. Until this congregation lent our institutional, ethical, and moral support to remembering this history, it was white-washed and forgotten.  This is truly work that is ours to do. And as anyone who hears me speak about it, this is a ministry that makes ME come alive; and
  • our newest ministry that we hope will become a signature annual event for the congregation, meeting a need here in the local community: a gathering that focuses on what is ours to do to bring racism to an end.  Called MLK@TUS, this January 20th will be our second time pulling this event together. We welcome your participation: helping to organize, attending, spreading the word, inviting others.

Looking inward – creating sanctuary and connecting with something greater than ourselves – and looking outward – building partnerships in our diverse community – not one without the other.  Where they intersect, combine, resonate, overlap, and create new synergies – this is the sweet spot this congregation can claim, here at the pivot, as we release the past, as we meet and make the future.

I am blessed to be on this journey with you.

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Healing the Heart of Democracy (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick

November 10, 2019

What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country still waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor?

These are the words of American lawyer, activist, and follower of the Sikh faith, Valerie Kaur.  She spoke them just after the 2016 presidential election. They have stayed in my head and heart ever since.

Valarie Kaur speaks at TEDWomen 2017 Ñ Bridges, November 1-3, 2017, Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo: Stacie McChesney / TED


The darkness of the tomb could be the climate crisis. Or the rise of right-wing nationalism throughout the world. Or corruption in our own nation. The rising river of refugees seeking safe home all over the world.  The growing violence towards trans women, especially those of color, of anti-Semitism in this country. The rise of gun violence in this land.   So many kinds of suffering, so much danger: take your pick.

All over the world, there are democratic uprisings happening – RIGHT NOW. Are these labor contractions? Chile. Lebanon with the human chain of people across the length of the whole country and protestors singing Baby Shark to an upset toddler to calm him down. Haiti. Hong Kong with crowds somewhere between one and two million people joining in protest. Ecuador. Iraq.  Iraq? Yes, even there. Are these the darkness not of the tomb, but of the womb, new possibilities about to be birthed?

Have you heard of the 1619 Project?  Headed by Nikole Hannah-Jones, it is a project of the New York Times, focusing our national attention on the commemoration of the 400years since the first enslaved Africans arrived on the shores of this continent, ushering in the second existential threat to aspirations of true democracy (the first being the violent displacement of the original residents of the continent). 

In addition to a riveting podcast series, Hannah-Jones published an article in the Times that provocatively titled, “America wasn’t a democracy until Black people made it one.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones

This is the part of the American story of democracy that squeezes the breath from me and stops me from calling us back to our roots, stops me from invoking our founding fathers, as if the problem today is that we have simply gone astray, as if slaveholding George Washington and Thomas Jefferson didn’t mean to own humans, to profit from their suffering. 

What Langston Hughes described in his poem, Let America Be America Again, that we heard earlier is what the writer Parker Palmer calls the tragic gap – “the gap that will forever separate what is from what could and should be.”

Malcolm X

Malcolm X knew personally and up close the tragic gap.  Only he called it something else: a sham.  He did not think there was any tension between the lofty ideals of this nation and how Black people (or Native Americans, for that matter) were treated because he was clear that this gap, rather than tragic, was intentional and built into the system right from the start. He saw the core corruption in American democracy as fundamental, not something that could be reformed or fixed.  And yet, he also wrote,

Sometimes, I have dared to dream … that one day, history may even say that my voice—which disturbed the white man’s smugness, and his arrogance, and his complacency—that my voice helped to save America from a grave, possibly even fatal catastrophe,” Malcolm wrote.[i]

Sounds like Malcolm was also hoping not for the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb for American democracy.

Where there is a tragic gap, there are also paradoxes, in this American democracy. The paradox that the same darkness might be that of the tomb or the womb, depending on how we bring our attentions.  The paradox (or is it irony?) that the very people enslaved and made less than human in this nation’s founding document become the agents of a truer democracy. Hannah-Jones writes,

The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.[ii]

I struggled mightily to write this sermon. I silently cursed myself for thinking that the Sunday after Election Day would be a great fit for a sermon about democracy.  I feel as if I must invoke in ALL CAPS the quote so often attributed to Winston Churchill:

In writing this sermon, I had to come face to face with my ambivalence about American democracy. In so doing, I came to understand that my intellectual ambivalence was a defense… against heartbreak – heart break at the lies I was told in school about the founding of this nation; heart break at how so deeply entrenched white supremacy was, has been, and still very much is in this land of not-all-are-free. 

Yesterday, I was scheduled to attend the annual luncheon of the local NAACP – our nation’s largest civil rights organization.  Even though this sermon was not yet done and I was fretting about it, I knew I had to attend because we are in partnership with the New Brunswick NAACP on the Lost Souls Project, and because last year they were generous to us, recognizing this congregation with their faith-based advocacy award.  So, it was important that I go.

It was an unexpected gift and a salve, for I was given a visceral reminder of the resilience of a community of people who, despite the history of deep disenfranchisement and false promises of universal liberty and true racial equality, remain deeply committed to democratic ideals of full representation through participation in the 2020 census, registering people to vote, and overall engaged citizenship.

It was while sitting there that I began to see the many layers of democracy at play in our national landscape.

Writer and environmental activist, Terry Tempest Williams tells us that

The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions: Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinion? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up, trusting our fellow citizens to join us in our determined pursuit-a living democracy? 

Here we are again, with this question of attention. Can we offer our attention, not just our opinions, she says, when it comes to building the first home of democracy in the human heart?

Unitarian Universalism makes longstanding claim on democratic processes as ethical and moral values, not political ones.  So much so that it is part of our Fifth Principle:

We…covenant to affirm and promote…the right of conscience and the use of democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.

So, there is the political layer of democracy – voting, representation, sitting on juries, and so on. Even, at least theoretically, having a healthy checks and balances system, including the three separate branches engaging with each other in respectful, healthy, transparent manners [pause]. 

Yet there is this other layer that Tempest Williams is getting at: an ethical/moral one.  Which is to say, qualities informed by democratic impulses that reside within us as individuals and as groups. Parker Palmer has identified five habits of the heart for healing democracy – qualities and capacities that We the People are responsible for cultivating.  They are

An understanding that we are all in this together;

An appreciation of the value of ‘otherness’;

An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways;

A sense of personal voice and agency; and

A capacity to create community.

Parker Palmer

Palmer believes, for a healthy political democracy, these qualities must reside within THIS human heart.  He refuses to point to those people over there – groups of which we never seem to belong to but who are always responsible for all the problems. 

Over and over, he comes back to himself, and asks the reader – asks me, asks you – to do the same. And he warns,

If American democracy fails, the ultimate cause will not be a foreign invasion or the power of big money or the greed and dishonesty of some elected officials or a military coup or the internal communist/socialist/ fascist takeover that keeps some Americans awake at night. It will happen because we—you and I—became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it and call it back to its highest form.

Palmer says we must be people who “know how to hold conflict inwardly in a manner that converts it into creativity, allowing it to pull them open to new ideas, new courses of action, and each other.”  I raise this particular way of healing the heart of democracy to your attention because I think this is the very description of what it means to live in covenant with one another, the very description of what it means to be not a creedal religion, but a covenantal one, making this quality especially relevant to us as Unitarian Universalists.

*****

We are in the midst of a national election that holds the potential of the womb and of the tomb.   Given the attacks on so many democratic institutions in the past few years, so much is on the line with the presidential election. 

At our General Assembly in June, delegates democratically adopted a Statement of Conscience, “Our Democracy Uncorrupted,” that recognizes that democracy in this nation has always been compromised (think the Constitution’s 3/5 Compromise, which counted enslaved individuals as equal to 3/5 of a white property-owning man), and that we must nevertheless continuously strive for an uncorrupt democracy.  Here we are again: paradox and tragic gap.

Restricted access to voting rights for felons and the disproportionate incarceration of Black and Brown people results in significant disenfranchisement in communities of color. It’s easy to see this as white supremacy’s continued evolution of the original disenfranchisement of people of the African diaspora. Yet, things are changing, at least in some places.  Last year, there was much attention to Florida’s restoration of the right to vote to felons; currently, Georgia is considering it.

Here in New Jersey, you cannot vote if you are serving a prison sentence, or if you have been released but are parole, or if you are probation. This means that over 100,000 residents of the Garden State cannot vote.  Half of these are Black, even though only 15% of the Jersey population is Black.  No other state in the Northeast denies voting rights to as many people living in the community as does New Jersey.[iii] I was shocked when I learned this just a few weeks ago at the UU FaithAction New Jersey Issues conference.

The UUA is encouraging congregations to #UUtheVote, to foment engaged citizenry, noting that

“with the increasing control of our government by corporate and special interests, voter suppression, and the alarming rise of authoritarianism, we face many challenges to ensure democracy and a just society.

That’s the darkness of the tomb. Yet the statement continued with what sounds so much like the promise of the womb:

We also have seen a rise in people’s movements led by people of color, women, and others impacted by injustice, a rise in activism, and the election of progressive candidates. This is electoral justice.”[iv]

The UUA has resource – webinars and tips for how to help foment an engaged citizenry. The opportunities are there, should we choose to bring our individual or congregational attentions. How might we harness our connections with UU FaithAction? or with the New Brunswick NAACP chapter? Or our close proximity to Pennsylvania, a swing state? How might we do what is ours to do to close the tragic gap?

[pause]

Back in 2016, Valerie Kaur included these words in her speech-prayer: 

What if all the mothers who came before us, who survived genocide and occupation, slavery and Jim Crow, racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia, political oppression and sexual assault, are standing behind us now, whispering in our ear: You are brave. What if this is our Great Contraction before we birth a new future?

May we live our lives knowing and acting on the belief that democracy is not something we have, but something we must do.

May tend to the legacy and wounds of this nation’s corrupt and racist origins, persisting at the painful work that will bring about a democracy that is truly inclusive, reparative, and life-giving.

May our hearts know the “alchemy that can turn suffering into community, … tension into an opening toward the common good.”

May we live our lives knowing that progress is “never permanent, will always be threatened and must be redoubled, restated, and reimagined if it is to survive.”  

May we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinion, all in service of healing the heart of democracy.

May we do all that we can, in the life given us, to lessen the tragic gap, that others and our descendants might know more compassion, more inclusion, more justice, more life.

Amen. Blessed be.


[i] https://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/02/02/malcolm-x-was-right-about-america

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html

[iii] https://www.njisj.org/1844nomorereport2017

[iv] https://www.uua.org/liberty/electionreform

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Race & Power: Then & Now (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

October 27, 2019

Fisticuffs.[i] Violent shoving. Spitting in the face. Name calling.

In June, I preached on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, what is commonly understood as the start of the gay or queer liberation movement. But the aggressive behavior I just described, while it did happen in June of 1969, was not in front of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.  It took place at General Assembly – yes, our General Assembly, the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists across the country and the globe – in Boston.

1969 was quite the year.

As I said last week, “Our whole existence as Unitarians, or Universalists, or Unitarian Universalists, we have been engaged in controversies related to race and power.”  Today we are going to explore what happened a half century ago and how echoes, some subtle, some incredibly loud, are reverberating today.

Before I go further, I want to affirm that Unitarian Universalism is, and always has been, a multi-racial, multi-cultural movement. There are people of many races and ethnicities who are Unitarian Universalists, including who are members of this congregation.  Yet, we cannot hide from the reality that we are predominantly white, not only in membership and attendance, but also in cultural comforts and leadership. We have aspirations to be more multi-cultural than we are. We have a gap that we cannot easily explain. It causes pain, and sometimes harm, to the people of color who are us. So, while I tell a story today that is largely Black and white, I want to explicitly recognize, that it is not our only race story.

In 1966, Reverend Steven Frichtman, a white minister at First U in Los Angeles, preached these words upon observing the emergence of Black Power on the civil rights landscape:

 “The future will be hard, stormy, and unpredictable. Our own hearts will often have to change, our subconscious minds must be cleansed. Our own value system must be shaken up. And we must not run away from it because we grow weary in the struggle.”

The United States was responding in one way or another with the emergence of Black Power, whether they knew it or not. Black people were demanding that they get their fair share, that Black is Beautiful. It raised defensiveness and fear for those who were not ready, who felt threatened, or who felt that too much was being asked too quickly. The parallel with our own time, and the emergence of the Black Lives Matters movement, is undeniable.

Until a decade or so ago, this era had been known as the Black Empowerment Controversy. You heard what Reverend Sinkford suggests it be called more accurately: the White Power Controversy.  It has a certain ring of authenticity to it.  In the end, I think what has most stuck is the politic “Empowerment Controversy.”  Even without the nomenclature, race still vibrates throughout this part of our history.

In summarizing this history my primary, but not only, source was, Revisiting the Empowerment Controversy: Black Power and Unitarian Universalism, written by Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed.  Here is an incomplete timeline:

  • UUs proudly take part in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s, including two who would become civil rights martyrs in 1963: Reverend James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, both white. We also have congregations that attempt to use our polity to assert their right to stay segregationist.
  • Black Power arrives on the scene, nationally and within Unitarian Universalism.
  • In October, 1967, the UUA holds a conference to develop a response to Black Power. Out of this emerges the Black Affairs Council. Unexpected by the white male leaders of the UUA, BAC insists in choosing its own leaders and articulates a philosophy much in line with Black Power.
  • A group with an integrationist philosophy, called Black and White Action, alos forms.  From the beginning, the philosophy of these two groups are in conflict, and competition.
  • In the spring of 1968 there are riots across the nation after the assassination of Dr. King – a man who told us that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
  • BAC demanded that the UUA fund them for $250,000 a year for four years – a million dollars that in our time would be like $7 million. BAC would have complete control over the money.
  • At General Assembly that year, a vote overwhelmingly approved the formal establishment of BAC and full funding.
  • The 1969 General Assembly was in Boston. The division between BAC and BAWA had grown deeper. BAC council members walked out of General Assembly. Rev. Jack Mendelsohn, a white minister, called for others to join them in solidarity.  Four hundred white people joined the walk out (about one fifth of the voting delegates).  This was when one of Jack’s colleagues spit in his face.
  • Delegates voted to continue the funding for BAC, but not for BAWA.  The vote was very close, nearly 50/50.  This did not bode well and marks the beginning of the end.
  • After GA, the new UUA president discovered that the Association was nearly bankrupt. This had not been made public. Looking to the survival of the Association, President Robert West cut funding in many areas, including to BAC.
  • This was not received well by members of BAC or their allies. It was seen as yet another betrayal by white leaders and a faith movement that continually placed African Americans’ needs last. BAC disaffiliated from the UUA.
  • At General Assembly in 1970, delegates ended all funding to BAC.  BAC eventually disbanded.
  • A significant number of Black Unitarian Universalists, as well as white ones, to left Unitarian Universalism[ii].  Most did not return.

In the fifty years since, there have been numerous reflections from different perspectives on what happened and why. Mark Morrison-Reed has written extensively on this topic. He notes that the passage of time was necessary to allow what had become metal hot had to cool for it to take shape that we might be able to recognize and make use of.  Morrison-Reed’s conclusion in his latest book, which came in 2018, surprised me.  Here are his words:

Theorizing about the role that paternalism and patriarchy played during this era is a more speculative endeavor than chronicling what happened, but the effort leads to the most cogent explanation for why the empowerment tragedy played out as it did. Patriarchy turns to violence to depose the leader when it must, because patriarchy is about the exercise of power. In this case, it was also transracial and manifested in both the generational conflict within the UUA and in BAC/BUUC’s overthrow of the African American old guard.

Morrison-Reed, an African American man, concludes that it was racialized patriarchical power grabs at the heart of the division and rupture. While we lost a higher percentage of Black UUs, we lost members of both races. Both BAC and BAWA had Black and white supporters. Morrison-Reed drilled down deeply in this book, so it’s a compelling supposition.  

While Morrison-Reed names patriarchy as the culprit, this does not let white people off the hook or mean that racism did not play a critical role. It was a complex and deeply destructive combination of race and gender oppression that wreaked havoc, not one or the other.  A havoc that brought lasting loss to our faith movement, loss of cherished members from congregations, and even the splitting of lifelong friendships and marriages.

~~~

There are cycles in our faith movement’s engagement with race, racism, and white supremacy culture. After the controversies of the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a decade or so where we did all kinds of social justice work, as long as it was not explicitly racial justice work. Some might call it avoidance. Some might call it healing. Probably it was a bit of both.

Echoes of the Empowerment Controversy remain with us today. An awareness of the origins of these echoes helps us to build the Beloved Community to which we aspire and about which we dream.

Paula Cole Jones, who works for the UUA and has a decade and a half of experience working with congregations, observed over and over that a person can believe they are a “good UU’ without ever thinking about or dealing with racism or other oppressions at a systems level. This struck her, a Black woman, as wrong. She led the process of creating an 8th Principle to correct this. Together with Bruce Pollack Johnson, a white member of a UU congregation in Philadelphia, they drafted in 2013 what is now known as the 8th Principle, which has been adopted by about a dozen UU congregations and has been recommended to the wider Association for adoption.  It reads

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

In 2017, we saw the emergence of Black Lives of UU (BLUU), a Black-led UU organization that is in covenant with the UUA, helping to create Black leadership and healthy spaces for anyone from the Africa diaspora, as well as supporting other people of color, to find and make their place within Unitarian Universalism, instead of having to leave, instead of having to endure frequent microaggressions that come from well-intended typically white ignorance.  Because that is a thing that we UU congregations do fairly well, I’m sad to confirm.

In 2018, the UUA promised BLUU to raise $5.3 million to fund their work, including committing a sizeable portion of its endowment, and inviting other UU organizations, including congregations, to commit as well.  Along with nearly 700 other UU congregations, our congregation took part in the Promise and the Practice. We met the goal of contributing $10 per member to BLUU. Many people, myself included, feel that this our way of making good on a fifty-year-old promise by paying a long-standing debt.

We know that we are not done with race, racism, or white supremacy culture – out there or here, in our midst. America is not post-racial and neither are we. As it has always been, it still seems that General Assembly acts as a thermometer for showing us how hot the issue of race is in any particular year.[iii] This past year’s General Assembly was no exception.

In 2017, the Commission on Institutional Change was established to get to the root to what ails us racially.  You heard an excerpt of their most recent report as one of our readings this morning. At this past year’s GA, the Commission conducted a survey. About one quarter of GA registrants responded.  60% ranked as 10 (the highest score) that the most important work for the future of our faith is anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multi-cultural work.  An additional 30% ranked it with an 8 or 9.[iv]

On the other hand, the efforts to make space for voices of those with marginalized identities encountered the harshest backlash to date at this General Assembly, the wake of which continues to cause damage.

Last month, the Commission on Institutional Change reflected on General Assembly, asking some truly compelling questions that fit well with our theme of belonging this month. The Commission asks, “Can we recognize that there are legitimate and differing interpretation of our past and present? Can we reconcile our differences in love?”[v]

Whether we apply these questions within Unitarian Universalism, or to the transformations taking place in our larger culture, we must wrestle with what it is to be a predominantly white community in a society that is increasingly “browning,” — something that I personally welcome, but recognize causes me to have to learn new ways of being, to face uncomfortable truths, and to let go of certain expectations I was taught to have because of my white racial identity. 

I think this is harder for those of us who have sat more solidly in traditional positions of power.  I am thinking here of straight white males of Baby Boom generation — some of whom sit in this very room, and for whom I have genuine affection; one of whom I share a home and a life with.

The backlash that our nation experienced in response to the civil rights movement, in response to Black Power, has not gone away.  In fact, in recent years, it has intensified. In addition to backlash from more conservative quarters, there is also unmanaged fragilities, both mild and extreme kinds, from all directions: conservative, center, liberal, and progressive. 

We are not immune, though we like to hold ourselves apart from it. Indeed, we are in the midst of it. If we do not engage in thoughtful, intentional self-examination, it may very well, if we allow it, pull us apart.

Let us join with Reverend Sinkford, who says at the top of your order of service, that most days, he believes there is growing traction to point us toward hope.

Let us live into our aspirations of a deep and true belonging for all who are on the journey to Beloved Community.

Let us find ways to recognize legitimate and differing interpretations of our past and of our present. And may we work for a future together.

Let us find ways to reconcile in love.

Let us not grow weary in the struggle.

Amen.  Blessed be.


[i] Morrison-Reed, Mark. Revisiting the Empowerment Controversy

[ii] Takahashi-Morris, Roush, & Spencer. The Arc of the Universe is Long, p. 11

[iii] Arc, p. 446

[iv] UUWorld https://www.uuworld.org/articles/coic-survey-preview

[v] https://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/commission-institutional-change/blog/deepening-spiritually-reflecting

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