Lullabies for Our Children, Ourselves (sermon)

February 12, 2017

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

 

When my little ones were little, I would sing as part of our bedtime routine. One of the songs was The Ballad of Erica Levine by the late Bob Blue. I loved Erica’s sense of self, her understanding of gender roles, how she owned her body – how she understood romantic partnership as mutual and inherently egalitarian and I wanted to pass all that onto my children.

I also sang a song that later turned up in our teal hymnal:

You can be anybody you want to be,
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around,
You can choose one special one
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.

Written by then-Fred Small, now UU minister Fred Small, the official title of this song is “Everything Possible”. At the end of long days, exhausting days, tricky days, delightful days as an only parent, I sang those lyrics so achingly to them, wanting to convey the depth and breadth not only of my love, but my faith-infused, unconditional acceptance:

There are girls who grow up strong and bold
There are boys quiet and kind
Some race on ahead, some follow behind
Some go in their own way and time
Some women love women, some men love men
Some raise children, some never do
You can dream all the day never reaching the end
Of everything possible for you.

You’ve likely noticed that human expression exists along a wide array of everything possible continuums. And while this is true and natural, our human brain, with its need for meaning-making and its limitations, cuts these up into categories. We end up forgeting that how we socially construct the world is not how the natural world actually exists. From this, ensues inequity and invisibility.

Take human sexuality and gender identity. Only recently on the long arc of human history, have we integrated that sexual orientation exists along a continuum, such as that described by the seven-point Kinsey scale, with one side as exclusive homosexual attraction and the other as exclusive heterosexual attraction.

It turns out that something like this is true for gender as well: there are not just two genders, not two “opposite genders.” Remember, gender is a social and cultural signifier, where as “sex” – as in male and female – are biological markers (though, it turns out that there are more than two sexes, too).

None of this is new, nor is it a concept reserved to a single culture or region of the world. In cultures around the globe, from ancient times ‘til now, there has been the presence of individuals and communities that acknowledge, and sometimes even honor, gender identities beyond the binary system with which our society seems so enamored.

~~

Sometimes, no matter how knowledgeable or compassionate or hip we might consider ourselves, we find ourselves outside the loop. This is especially true given the acceleration of cultural change. For some of us, while we have integrated the sexual orientation continuum into our own lives, we just might not yet be so aware of the brave, not-really-new world of non-binary gender identity.   But it’s time for us as a congregation to get inside the loop.

Last week, the Membership Committee rolled out new name tags – thank you to all for your work on this project. With these new name tags we can now know each others’ names without putting small holes in our clothing each week. Praise small mercies.

With these name tags, we have been invited to make a meaningful gesture of inclusivity and justice by writing in the pronouns by which we choose to be known. Just how is this gesture of writing pronouns on a name tag an act of justice and inclusivity, you might ask?

Perhaps your mind is saying – I don’t get this gender or personal pronoun thing – isn’t it obvious what gender I am? Or perhaps your mind is saying – what’s the big deal: aren’t we all humans? Or maybe there’s a little corner of your heart in touch with an inner grammar enforcement officer who is offended by the modern use of “they” for a single person.

Notice what is arising in you. Defensiveness. Curiosity. It’s all okay. But let us follow the sage advice I heard once and try to live my life by: “It’s okay to be ignorant. It’s just not okay to stay that way.”

To help us, we are fortunate because we have OWL. No, not the nocturnal bird known for its big eyes. But OWL: Our Whole Lives, the sexuality education curriculum that we developed in partnership with the United Church of Christ (UCC). It is a science-based curriculum predicated on the belief that we are better humans when we are equipped with knowledge about all aspects of sexuality, not just reproduction, and certainly not just abstinence.

For several years, I taught OWL to 6th graders in the congregation where I raised my kids. I have also been trained in OWL for adults – yes, there is an OWL class for adults – in fact for all ages from Kindergarten through adulthood including in development a version for those in their later decades.

In addition to what I learned in those trainings, I have spent the last few years learning from my older daughter, who is transgender. Add to that listening to colleagues and friends – typically ones younger than myself — my heart has swelled in the best of ways. I will also say that my mind has sometimes been blown, always for the better, but not without some accompanying confusion and awareness of my own limitations which is always humbling and rarely pleasant.

I have learned that there are folks for whom neither male nor female describes their experience. Sometimes they feel like they are some of both, or neither. For some, rather than male or female, the term “genderqueer” or “genderfluid” feels closer to their truth.

While this might be unfamiliar to you, what is of primary importance is honoring the inherent worth and dignity of each person by following that person’s lead as to how they want to be called. Follow what their name tag says. And if the name tag isn’t filled out, we can practice not assuming the person’s gender just based on what we think they look like. It’s hard to do, and I’ll be in the trenches with you, but it’s good practice.

If the name tag says, they/their/theirs, this is a singular pronoun and recognized as such by most everyone under the age of thirty. Even the American Dialect Society, in 2015, chose the singular pronoun “they” as their Word of the Year, recognizing “its emerging use as a singular pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.”

And to continue being clear about terminology, and shifting cultural norms, gender identity is different than being or becoming transgender. You probably already know this, so I apologize if this is stating the obvious, I’ll say that transgender is when a person knows themselves to be a different gender than the body into which they were born – for instance, when a person is born into a male body and assumed by those around them to be a man, but in fact she knows herself to be a woman.

I count this community as fortunate that we have had congregants who are out as transgender because I think it makes this a richer, more vibrant place. We are fortunate to have families who listen closely to what their children are saying about their own gender, rather than making assumptions or following tradition. We have families here who are at the forefront of this cultural shift that upends the gender binary, as well as honors those who bravely, valiantly tell us that their experience of who they are doesn’t match either their external genitalia or the preconceived cultural norms around gender that are constricting.

Here is my question for us: how can we be the spiritual community they need us to be? How can we be the religious congregation we need us to be in order to live into our values and our faith that grounds itself in holy inclusivity? How can we be the religious congregation that the local community and the wider world needs us to be because there are people out there who are not loved as whole, not loved as holy, and they are counting on us?

Why should you – especially if this is outside your comfort zone — why should you do this? Why do this, if it upends your world in deeply fundamental ways?

My answer, selfishly, is because I am asking you to. Because, truly, I need you to.

Alone, I cannot create a world where, like the hymns says, “everything possible” is, in fact, possible for my child. Despite my very best efforts and the loving power of my heart, I cannot create a welcoming future for my daughter – for either one of them – to be the wholest person she knows herself to be – without help, without a whole wide community of people to bring it into being.

I need you. My child needs you. Children in this congregation need you – whether they are still growing or already adults. And your child – or grandchild, or great grand — no matter their gender identity – needs you, too.

Especially now when we speculate about what might be in store for public education in the coming years, ours must be a refuge of love and inclusivity, of honoring people for their whole selves, of providing science-based, culturally relevant responses when they come seeking information, or are filled with longing because they do not see themselves reflected in their textbooks or in media and still they refuse to conform.

It is important to remember that when we are quiet on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, even if our hearts are full of love and acceptance, our children and youth who are watching us fill in that silence with what the rest of the world is saying and think that is what we are thinking and believing.

Perhaps you remember what it was like when this congregation became a Welcoming Congregation. Even for UU congregations, it is rarely an easy process. Some folks chose to grow, learning anew, and others chose to leave, not seeing themselves in the direction the congregation was intentionally choosing – the fear often being that it would become “a gay church,” when in fact, you were trying to live into your values of being a loving, inclusive, welcoming congregation. I am so thankful that you all made that decision back in 2004.

I have been curious about this. Our Welcoming status is not particularly visible. We have a little sign just inside the entrance that most people just walk past and never notice. We do host a gay AA meeting — we can be proud of this. We do not fly a rainbow flag inside the building, or outside – even though the sign on Tices Lane would lend itself rather fabulously.

Our pews could be filled with people who, when we say our Bond of Union and get to the part that says, “his or her own,” – an important win in the days when “he” was used as the so-called universal pronoun – recognize that this is not as inclusive as it is used to be.

Our congregation could have – should have, needs to have — more people trained as OWL teachers so that we can ensure that our children and their parents know that we are fully informed. The Religious Education program is looking to have two more people receive training to be able to help with our 7-9th grade OWL class next year. If you are interested, please talk to Jillian right away. And I’m always happy to go on and on about teaching OWL: some of the most powerful – I would call them “holy” — moments I spent at my home congregation were when I was teaching OWL.

And for those of us who have the privilege of being born into the body that matches our experience of gender, we can become more comfortable, more practiced at offering our chosen personal pronouns – like I do at the bottom of all my emails, like on our name tags — as an act of compassion and solidarity with those for whom their sense of wholeness depends upon it and who should not be left on their own.

~~

This is what I know: our children are watching. Other people’s children are watching. And some of them are paying close attention as to whether we will be a source of something even bigger than welcome: a source of hope, a lifeline, a connection to sanity and wholeness.

Our children – yours and mine, whether you raised them in your home or are part of raising them in this congregation – are watching and learning about the kind of inclusive, loving future we are creating for and with them.

You can be anybody you want to be,
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around,
You can choose one special one
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.

May it be so.

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

Gratitude Flag Garden along the Mill River

Not long before I left Western Massachusetts last summer, I walked along the Mill River in an area I hadn’t visited for several years. Well, maybe even more than several, truth be told.

 

I was so lucky because I stumbled upon an installation of gratitude prayer flags. Scores of them. Hundreds of them. Hanging from laundry line tied to the trunks of trees. All the flags were varying shades of the same rust/saffron/orange hue. And each one had writing or drawing on it. Different handwriting, different styles, different messages, but all the same: expressions of gratitude.

My eyes awash with this delight, my heart filled with joy and gratitude as I read and came to understand the purpose.

Among the flags, at the base of one of the trees, was a weather-resistant plastic container with pieces of cloth, cut to about the same size and shape as each other and the ones hanging, blank and ready for my expressions of gratitude.

Also there were several permanent markers so that I could write (or draw) them. And instructions, which were really more like declaration of purpose, so that I could understand what my individual gesture meant as part of this collective embodiment of gratitude and impermanence.

I can’t get this photo to sit upright…

It says, “The Gratitude Line was started in 2011, one week before Thanksgiving.  The interest was that it would be a place near the river that people from the community could share their gratitude publicly yet anonymously, a powerful gift for both the givers and the receivers…”

It is signed, “Blessings, The Keepers.”

Given all that is happening in the world, given all that happens in the heart of any given human being, I wish there was a gratitude flag garden in every community — not so common as to become invisible, but accessible to any and all longing for the chance to express both their grief and gratitude (for both are so deeply entwined).

Thank you, The Keepers.  My heart is larger and my imagination sparked by your efforts and your gift to all of us.

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be * LOVE * d (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

February 5, 2017

(written text does not match delivered sermon exactly)

Our Time For All Ages story: click here.

Our reading: click here.

We all want to be loved.

We — likely all people of conscience and faith — wish to be Love. Capital “L” Love.

In general, Unitarian Universalists aspire to embody Beloved Community.

It’s not easy. The way is not always clear.

Be Love. Be loved. Beloved. Just what does it mean – Be Love — in the midst of feeling so relentlessly be-leaguered by the onslaught of the latest news.

What does it mean in the midst of witnessing so many being be-littled? Like that five year old boy, handcuffed at the airport, separated from his mother, a security risk – a security risk?!?

Or the executive order titled ‘Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom,’ …with sweeping plans to legalize discrimination.

Does Love look like the message from the principle at Roosevelt High in Des Moines last Monday? Heck yea.

I have been wondering what that principal felt like while writing that speech? What he felt like, in the moments before he turned on the sound system, asked for their attention? I think there must have been adrenaline coursing through his body, at that threshold where fear and courage meet, and courage decides to let fear be its companion, not its captor.

I wonder what it felt like to be an immigrant student at that high school, head on desk, not listening to the PA system, because – dude, it’s always boring when they tell us what’s for lunch or what the stupid new rule is – but then, the ears prick up, the heart is alerted. He’s talking about me, and a lot of people have been talking about me, about my family, my people, my nation, and it hasn’t been good, but here – what’s this? — a message of love.

What does it look like to be Love? To make sure those who are the focus of so much vitriol, of alarming executive orders, of hate crimes, that they feel beloved? That they feel belonging?

Does it look like Victoria, Texas, where a mosque was burned to the ground last weekend?

Robert Loeb, the president of Temple Bnai Israel in the small town, [was reported to have said]: “Everyone knows everybody, I know several members of the mosque, and we felt for them. When a calamity like this happens, we have to stand together.

“We have probably 25 to 30 Jewish people in Victoria, and they probably have 100 Muslims. We got a lot of building for a small amount of Jews.”

One of the mosque’s founders, Shahid Hashmi, said: “Jewish community members walked into my home and gave me a key to the synagogue.”

To whom do we hand our keys? Our TUS’ keys? Metaphorical or real – or in our case, secret combination — access to this space we steward not just for ourselves, but in service of the vision we have for this world?

There is a call for houses of worship to become sanctuary for those who might need it – for those (my apologies for this coarse term) “low hanging fruit” easily identified by the current administration for quick deportation: the DREAMERS, initially protected by DACA but now made more vulnerable by it; those Muslim men, then aged 16-65 who were required to register with the NSEER program after 9/11 – supposedly that registry, which had not been in use for years, was dismantled before the last president left, but there is now talk that it might be used to identify people; how about those folks whose deportations were stayed before, they are now at high risk, including those individuals who the Reformed Church of Highland Park gave sanctuary to over the past decade and who have become interwoven into our shared communities – they, our friends and neighbors, are at higher risk now.

Is sanctuary what Love looks like? what Beloved Community looks like? Is there an umbrella we share with a stranger?

Organizers in the sanctuary movement speak of “sanctuary behaviors,” recognizing that while not every house of worship can physically host a person or a family, every house of worship can choose other means:

  • supporting those houses of worship that do make that bold choice of hosting;
  • offering free space for workshops on knowing one’s rights;
  • organizing rapid response teams that would shine light when ICE – the Immigration and Customs Enforcement – comes in the middle of the night (that is when they do it, friends) to pick up people for detention and deportation.

Does Love look like the thousands – thousands upon thousands – who showed up at our international airports, across the country, on such short notice, to witness, to decry the chaotic immigration executive order and travel ban, explicitly targeting people from some – not all, not the ones with whom our government has business ties – from Muslim-majority countries?

Now, I didn’t go to Newark airport. I don’t know if any of you did. Blessings upon you if you did. I’d like to hear about it.

I live –what? – only a half hour away. I could have, though it would have been a significant inconvenience given what was going on in my family, but I could have, and I didn’t.   I’m still sorting out how I feel about that choice.   I do know that I am so thankful for those who did. Newark. JFK. Philly. SFO. Dallas. Los Angeles. The list goes on…

I guess you can’t be everywhere all the time, but I think I do have to figure out when I am going to show up in that particular way. Not just for planned and scheduled marches, like happened several weeks ago, but these drop-everything-right-now calls to gather, to be a part of social witness, to resist the encroachment of authoritarianism.   More and more of them are happening because more and more of them are tragically necessary.

But here’s the thing: there is evidence that showing up turns the tide.

Researchers Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan have studied major nonviolent and violent campaigns for the removal of a government or for territorial liberation since 1900. Their conclusion? Twice as likely are nonviolent campaigns to be successful than violent ones.   Chenoweth wrote this week in The Guardian, that if 3.5% of a population engages in sustained non-violent resistance – for the long haul presence, a movement not a moment — to an authoritarian leader or government, it will topple.

Some of you showed up last Sunday evening – attending the vigil for immigrants at the Reformed Church of Highland Park. Perhaps that is one way we could choose to become a sanctuary congregation: supporting them if – but more likely when — they choose to once again take in those being targeted for unjust deportation.

Vigils. Protests. Acts of social witness like the Burma Shave Love Your Neighbor signs along our frontage. Crossing the Awkward and the uncomfortable to build relationships with those whom we do not know well, or at all, but are caught in the crosshairs of national tragedy. This. More and more, this is what these times call for.

How do we be Love? A week ago Friday, I was on a conference call with 999 other faith leaders across the land, taking part in a conversation about moral resistance. We spoke of a week of concerted actions of solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters.

You were this Love. Jillian, our Director of Religious Education, made beautiful big cards for the two mosques with whom TUS is in renewed relationship – children signed them, youth signed them, adults signed them.

One of our newer congregants – Laura – she happened to have blank cards with her. Who has blanks cards with them? Well, she did, and they were cards that had followed her, over many, many years.   She told me that she carried the cards from Kansas to California, Virginia, Japan, Italy, and then here, to New Jersey, never knowing why she kept them since it seemed clear she would never use them.

Then she saw a message from me on Saturday night, hoping folks would use coffee hour to write messages. She realized their purpose.

Out of those beautiful messages of love, of friendship, of solidarity, of comfort, we delivered them to two Muslim communities — on Friday with other faith leaders from East Brunswick and Saturday with Linda, Kathy (representatives from your board) and Troy.

So this is indeed Love, gestures meaningful and significant to our interfaith neighbors. In return for our meeting with our Muslim neighbors over on New Brunswick Ave yesterday, they gave us those flowers in the lobby. It was a delightful conversation we had, including talking about the vagaries of unpaved parking lots!

I want to say, as wonderful gestures of love as they were, they were also gestures that remain within our comfort zones. It feels good. It is easy. It does not ask much of us.

These times are calling for us to an ever fiercer love, one that will rarely be comfortable, that will mean adrenaline coursing through OUR bodies, not just the bodies of people whose stories we read about. Perhaps you have already found yourself in such a situation – the fierce love of interrupting someone harassing one of our beloved gay, or lesbian, or bi, or trans, or genderqueer friends or neighbors or strangers. The fierce awkward love of calling a friend or co-worker or family member in on something said that is racist or sexist or plain ignorant.

These times are asking of us, are requiring of us, that we not only write such cards and messages, but that we move out of the house of our own comfort (these walls) and be the deliverer of such messages – that we meet our neighbors not on our turf, but theirs. Or that we do actions not of our own making, but of their request – like perhaps showing support for the East Brunswick mosque’s expansion at the township’s planning board meeting on February 15.

We need not risk our lives (not yet, and pray not ever, though some have already made this choice), or our humanity (pray not ever).  At the very least, perhaps as a starting place, we must risk the current contours of our comfort zones.

This too – living outside our comfort zones – this is part and particle of Beloved Community, of being Love. Being Love is built on a sense of deep connection. And with deep connection – just like with authentic covenantal relationship – it’s complex. It’s not easy because there is discomfort, there is anxiety, there is a certain amount of unknown.

In building Beloved Community we may – we will – find ourselves in community with folks who do not share our politics or theologies, may not even honor our sense of who god is or is not, and yet we are called to Beloved Community, called to Be Love, nevertheless, finding intersections of our common humanity as our starting place. It’s not only possible. Our very survival is predicated upon it.

Be Longing.

Be Love.

Be Loved.

Be Love even with, or especially when, adrenaline is coursing through my veins, as it is likely a sign that I am on a path that requires courage.

We be Love in order to offer “portable sanctuary” with our presence in the world.

We be Love to save our own souls, to save our own humanity.

We choose Love, not because we are guaranteed it will win if we do, but because it is guaranteed to lose if we don’t.

#nobannowall

#resistance

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rapid Response Call – January 27, 2017

Today, along with 999 other faith leaders (there would have been more, but the conference call capacity tapped out even before the call began), I spent an hour on listening to the leaders of the Groundswell movement, the Moral Resistance Movement, the Revolutionary Love movement, the Shoulder to Shoulder movement: Valarie Kaur, a Sikh woman, mother of a two-year-old, and resistance leader; Rev. Dr. William Barber, of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina and author of The Third Reconstruction; and Catherine Orsborn, community organizer against Islamophobia, sharing their vision of how we might respond to these times.

It was a powerful call, knowing that I was in the company of so many not only longing to be a part of something bigger, but willing to be. It was a powerful call, taking in the wise and grounded information and instructions from these skillful religious leaders in interfaith relationship with each other and the rest of us.

Valerie Kaur

Here is what I heard Ms. Kaur say:

  1. Call your elected officials. Every day.
  2. Exercise your voice in all your spheres of influence: work, family, play, spiritual life.
  3. If you have 650 words in you, write them down and get them out: in an op-ed in your local paper, in a blog.
  4. Take part in this weekend’s actions of solidarity with immigrant and particularly Muslim communities.

The day after the election, Ms. Kaur wrote one of the most powerful invocations from that haunting day. Here it is, in part:

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?

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?

Remember the wisdom of the midwife: “Breathe,” she says. Then: “Push.”

Now it is time to breathe. But soon it will be time to push; soon it will be time to fight — for those we love — Muslim father, Sikh son, trans daughter, indigenous brother, immigrant sister, white worker, the poor and forgotten, and the ones who cast their vote out of resentment and fear.

Rev. Dr. William Barber

Reverend Barber, powerful orator, compelling political tactician, and clear-sighted prophet, reminded us that “we’re not in the worst time, we’re just in OUR time.” He reminded us that things have been worse in this country – slavery and lynching; indigenous genocide; female disenfranchisement – and that we are wise to remember this and let it inform and inspire us. He reminded us that underneath the impetus for civil disobedience is the clear-sighted moral obedience.

Rev. Barber directed us to do these things:

  1. Go to the Repairers of the Breach web site and learn what it offers – videos, readings – it should take 4-6 hours and remember: this is not just about Trump, but was happening long before he became candidate and won.
  2. Sign up here if you are willing to be trained to use your body in your acts of resistance.
  3. Pay attention for upcoming announcements about tactics and dates.

Do not let this be just a moment. Be a part of making it a movement. All successful movements must have a methodology.

Catherine Orsborn

Thirdly, this is what I heard from Catherine Orsborn:

  1. There is a call for all houses of worship, as an act of solidarity with Muslims, who have been specifically targeted by the current administration’s executive orders and rhetoric, to focus on amplifying the voices of Muslims at their religious services this weekend.
  2. In this week coming, send a note of encouragement to a local Islamic Center – even flowers, or offer to draw chalk message of love, welcome, and protection.
  3. This coming Friday, attend prayers at a local mosque or community center. It’s best if you call ahead of time to let them know of your plans and if you are not already in relationship, to begin that important journey. We are in this together and it is well past time we know each other.

Here is the link to the Rapid Response Guide for People of Faith & Moral Conscience.  There’s alot in this document –powerful stuff.  Perhaps good to sit with others to reflect upon it and better integrate it.  This comes to us from the  which seems to be doing some kick-ass organizing and inspiring!

There is much to do. More than one person can do. More than one thousand people can do. This is so very true and feels at times like a heavy load.

From my own faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism, I offer these words of inspiration and comfort from Everett Edward Hale:

I am only one, but I am one.

I cannot do everything, but I can do something.

And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.

These are our times. They belong to no one else. So with humility, intentionality around rest and laughter, persistence and insistence, let us be the ones who rise up, building not only resistance, but resilience along the way.

#nobannowall

#ourcitiesstandtall

#revolutionarylove

#moralresistance

Posted in Fascism, Hope, Interfaith, Justice, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

You Are the Sixth: The Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion (sermon)

The Unitarian Society

East Brunswick, New Jersey

January 22, 2017

 Last May, when I sat with many of you at the Women’s luncheon to interrogate – I mean interview – the ministerial candidate to decide whether to call her – call me — I had the joy to listen to and then answer your questions and to ask you some. It was a sweet, if mildly nerve-wracking, time.

One of the more tricky questions came from Mary Dalton. She asked how I felt about hope. I still remember the sigh in my body before I attempted to answer that simple, not-simple question.

Hope. Optimism. As you heard in the Time For All Ages story, this is one of the five smooth stones of liberal religion, offered here as one-line summaries by Rev. Galen Guengerich, minister at All Souls in New York:

  • Revelation isn’t a once-and-done message from on high; we continue to new learn new truths every day.
  • Human relationships should be mutual and not coercive.
  • Our highest moral obligation is to build just and loving human communities.
  • Good things will happen only if we use our agency as human beings to make them happen.
  • The resources we [need are] available to make meaningful change in our world.

In order to make JLA’s writings more relevant to more Unitarian Universalists, some ministers have distilled each of these five smooth stones into shorter – sometimes even one-word – signifiers. There is no one universally agreed-upon list; in fact, the multitude of lists shows some consensus and a lot of creativity, as well as how a single concept can be interpreted many different ways.

In the Time For All Ages story, I offered up action words, adapted from a religious educator, Karen Fisk, in Amherst, Massachusetts (with her permission). They were:

Learn.

Love.

Give.

Work.

Hope.

Here I offer up not action words, but my own pithy statements of their essential nature:

  • First Smooth Stone: Living Tradition.
  • Second Smooth Stone: Consent. Often spoken of as Voluntary Association.
  • Third Smooth Stone: Justice. There is the much consensus on this one.
  • Forth Smooth Stone: Agency: Good things don’t just happen, people make them happen.  But I also think the phrase, “Have Courage” belongs here too.
  • Fifth Smooth Stone: here are JLA’s words for this stone: “[L]iberalism holds that the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.”

In that last one, you hear JLA’s use of the phrase, “ultimate optimism.” My pithy statement for the fifth smooth stone is Trust, though most choose the single word, “Hope.”

~~~

How do you feel about hope? Is it available to you? Does it come easy, a part of your easy-going temperament? Do you have to nudge yourself to feel it? Does it elude you, not just on a day here or a day there, but far more often than makes living easy?

It is a thought? An emotion? A corporeal feeling? An aspiration?

Is it possible? Is it more or less possible today than yesterday? Than last year? Than you imagine in the years to come?

After yesterday’s marches – across the nation and across the world – as I was marching with apparently 1.2 million of my closest friends in Washington, DC – hope seems a bit more within my grasp.

I have heard said over and over, by mentors and colleagues, that ministers – even over the span of decades – preach only one sermon in their lifetime. They preach it a multitude of ways, a variety of iterations, devising an assortment of ways to enter into the heart of what they are preaching.

(Or at least one hopes that there is a multiplicity, else it gets pretty boring pretty quickly.)

I think Hope might be my sermon.

~~~

The five smooth stones is not the only thing that James Luther Adams – JLA – contributed to our modern engagement with Unitarian Universalism. He spent two decades teaching at Meadville Lombard, one of our two remaining UU seminaries – and then went on to teach ethics at Harvard Divinity School, also for a long time. From all that I read and hear, truly he was beloved by his students and colleagues.

He spent time studying with German theologians, who were the height of progressive theology, during the first third of the twentieth century. In so doing, he spent time in Germany as the Nazis were coming to power, first in 1927, and again in the 1930s, including before and after Hitler came to power. He studied with those who created the Confessing Church, in opposition to the Nazis and in opposition to the Christian Church which had fallen in lock step with national socialist movement.

His notions of optimism, as well as his insistence on voluntary associations, as well as the power of each of our, and our collective, agency in the world, come out of the fires of his first-hand experience with fascism. Before heading to yesterday’s march on our National Mall, a place I hold quite dear from my four years of residing there, I read JLA’s essay, “The Evolution of My Social Concern.” In it, he describes attending in 1927 – six years after Hitler became the head of his movement and six years before he became head of state – a Nazi parade of thousands in Nuremburg.

I knew I was going to a different kind of large gathering of people than the one he described here. But I also knew that I –that we – are living in a time that holds too many echoes to that era, too many similarities in the rise of a national leader using ethnic and racial scapegoats to further his, and his cronies’, hold on power – all through legitimate means.

While in conversation with one of those theologians who were opposing Hitler, Adams found himself asking the following question, ‘If Fascism should arise in the States, what in your past performance would constitute a pattern or framework of resistance?’ “ His response to his own question:

I could give only a feeble answer […]. My principal political activities had been the reading of the newspaper and voting. I had preached sermons on the depression or in defense of strikers. Occasionally, I uttered protest against censorship in Boston, but I had no adequate conception of citizenship participation.

Pretty devastating assessment of his own life. I have been wondering about how my own life would fare.

In his further reflections upon his time in Germany, Adams reports

Repeatedly I heard anti-Nazis say, If only 1,000 of us in the late twenties had combined in heroic resistance, we could have stopped Hitler. I noticed the stubborn resistance of the Jehovah’s Witness. I observed also the lack of religious pluralism in a country that had no significant Nonconformist movement in the churches. Gradually I came to the conviction that a decisive institution of the viable democratic society is the voluntary association as a medium for the assumption of civic responsibility.

Here we see where the second smooth stone emerges – how precious and costly his experience that brought to him the commitment to voluntary association not for its own sake, not as entertainment or good company, but a necessity in the face of authoritarian tendencies and realities. Perhaps here we also see the forth stone: we are not to wait for god, or other people, to do good, but to do it with our own hands, made stronger with the second stone at our side: in community.

And here I want to offer you a little story that speaks to some of our smooth stones, not from last century, but from this past Thursday. It comes to us from the Rev. Dawn Cooley, who took part in an organized visit of constituents going to Senator Mitch McConnell’s in Louisville to share their experience of what losing the Affordable Care Act meant to them.

It was quite an experience. One woman told me how she had been feeling depressed and how this action helped her regain a sense of her power. Everyone had stories about how important the ACA is in their lives.

I’ve never done anything quite like this before – I’m more used to confronting power in a crowd, not in power’s office. But it was a whole lot easier than I thought and I know we made a difference today – maybe not in McConnell’s opinion, but in the lives of those of us participating, and the security guards we talked to, and the poor guy who listened to all our stories and diligently wrote them down.   Totally worth it.                  (Facebook, 1/18/17, used with permission)

And here I want to share my own experience from yesterday’s march in Washington, DC, where my daughter and I ended up spending the day with a ragtag group of UU young adults from NYC, Baltimore, and Cleveland who had not known each other before. In the throng and crush of the friendly, cooperative crowd that involved more “waddling” than marching, we became a temporary congregation, an impermanent sangha, complete with dancing to Madonna’s Express Yourself and singing from the teal hymnal, by heart, “Woyaya,” when we were trying to get through the press of the crowd

We are going / heaven knows where we are going / but we know within. / And we will get there / heaven knows how we will get there / but we know we will.

We held hands not to get lost from each other as we squeezed our way through the tightly-knit crowd; we held each others’ load when it got too heavy, we offered toilet paper when we had extra. These young people gave away buttons of peace when strangers – who looked very different from them, across differences of race and religion — expressed appreciation and passed on coveted posters when another stranger seemed to long for it more than the current possessor. These young people made me proud to be a Unitarian Universalist today. It made me realize that we do these actions not only to achieve some goal, but to embody the world we dream about now.

It seems that these five smooth stones – the ones that helped little David slay the giant Goliath and allow the scrappy Israelite army to win against the Philistines; the ones that we have come to understand as a major theological underpinning of Unitarian Universalism, in particular, and liberal religion, in general – are good company in our spiritual pockets, alongside our seven principles, about which I preached last week. Our responsive reading today weave these together – the five smooth stones, the seven principles, worthy company for us on this intentional journey as Unitarian Universalists.

These five smooth stones need updating for our times. Some have tried to come up with their own five smooth stones. One colleague – inspired by our Universalist side — has suggested that love is missing and would be her first smooth stone. Another colleague has suggested that all five smooth stones together are what make up love. Personally, I don’t want to be bound by the artificial limit of five.

I think we need a sixth stone. I think that right now, that sixth stone is probably rough, likely unpolished. That sixth stone does exist already, though not fully formed, not fully transformed.

That sixth stone is you.

That sixth stone is me.

That sixth stone is we.

Maybe today’s chalice lighting — the declaration of conscience drafted jointly by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee just a few days ago — has something to do with that sixth stone: affirming our unyielding commitment to protect the interdependent web of all existence, to resist the turning back of advances in access to health care and reproductive rights, a pledge to embody compassion and justice in human relations.

I’m not sure what the sixth stone is — but I believe with my whole heart, it is ours to name and to become and to embody together.

May it be so. Blessed be.

REFERENCES

Adams, James Luther. “The Evolution of My Social Concern.”

The text is also found in Voluntary Associations: Socio-cultural Analyses and Theological Interpretation by James Luther Adams

http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/movesus/workshop7/conversion-experience

Landrum, Cynthia. http://revcyn.blogspot.com/2011/05/five-smooth-stones.html

Lorenzen, Tony. https://sunflowerchalice.com/2011/05/09/five-smooth-stones/

Van der Weele, Jim.

http://communitychurchuu.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&catid=24:sermons&id=196:the-five-smooth-stones-of-liberal-religion

 

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Getting Free Together: The Ministry of Joshua Young Still Preaches Today (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick

January 15, 2017

(this is an abreviated form of the sermon that received the 2016 Unitarian Universalist History Convocation prize)

 

Imagine the most notorious train cargo of its time.

The body of a man executed for treason.

Imagine half the populace is simmering with vengeance and the other half – or perhaps not even that many – grieving the loss of a hero, whose passion for a righteous heaven on earth had enflamed their own.

And now, he had failed in his tragic, violent mission to free the slaves.

Imagine decoy boxes that look like coffins but don’t contain the body.

Imagine careful attention to routes, even in the North, for even there this man has enemies. Imagine making the slow journey from Charlestown, Virginia to North Elba, New York – in the uppermost corner of the Eastern part of the state, nearly to Canada.

Now imagine that you are an admirer of this man who sought to free the slaves by any means possible as you, too, had done within your own realm.

Imagine you are in Burlington, Vermont, and the train has just passed to the south of you. You     just     might   be    able to attend the funeral of this martyr if you leave NOW.

Imagine with you a fierce friend and a long horse ride.

Imagine a stormy night, that Lake Champlain is between you and your destination, not to mention a ferryman who refuses you passage because of the purpose of your ride.

Imagine you are the Reverend Joshua Young.

~~~~

Unitarians and Universalists have a mixed historical record on the abolition of slavery. We moderns have a tendency to claim our affiliation with those of our religious abolitionist ancestors and keep in the dusty corners those who advocated only gradualism, or who kept silent and profited from the cotton economy just as much as plantation owners in the South.

Among those who supported the swift elimination of the institution of slavery, there were fringe elements. The ultimate embodiment of this was John Brown – not a Unitarian, but materially supported and lauded by many in our ranks, including Thoreau and a group of wealthy Unitarian men called the “Secret Six.”

John Brown is by all accounts a controversial figure – even now, 157 years after his raid on Harpers Ferry. People have strong feelings about what he did – not only in Harpers Ferry, but also about earlier, in Kansas, when he and his followers, fighting against the establishment of slavery in Kansas, he led raids that killed, then denied the extent of his role in it. Brown’s attempt to foment a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry is considered by many, at best, misguided, and at worst, cold-blooded murder. It does not help that the first person to die in this ill-fated effort was a free Black man named Heyward Shepherd.

This sermon is not intended to persuade you one way or another about Brown but to shed light on the man who buried him with honor and dignity, providing pastoral solace to his grieving family.

Reverend Joshua Young’s small part in the John Brown narrative is not widely known. He’s not on Wikipedia and our own online Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography does not (yet) have an entry – though that will be remedied this summer during part of my study leave. No entry for his story can (yet) be found on Wikipedia.

His name is not in the go-to book on the topic of those Unitarians who financially supported John Brown’s quixotic mission (Renehan’s Secret Six). His story can be found in historical records about the Underground Railroad, in primary texts pieced together from the late 19th century, and in the troves of lay historians connected with two of the congregations he served, three of whom I thank: Elizabeth Curtiss in Burlington, Melinda Green and Steve Burne in Groton, Massachusetts.

~~~

The basic facts of his life are these. Born in 1823. Graduated from what we now call Harvard Divinity School in 1848 and a year later, married Mary Plympton. He took his first pastorate in Boston, where he and Mary were co-conductors on the Underground Railroad. In 1852, Reverend Young was called to minister in Burlington, Vermont. The Youngs continued their activity as Underground Railroad conductors, though there were others in the area who were more directly involved. Burlington had become an important location on the path to freedom as it became essential to move once-enslaved African Americans up to Canada, since the North was no longer safe.

This was proved by the rendition of many African Americans who had escaped the South and had come to the North, including Anthony Burns. Anthony Burns was an escaped slave from Virginia who had been living in Boston since March, 1854. Complying with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the authorities in Boston arrested Burns on May 24. Two days later, members of Tremont Temple (a Black church in downtown Boston), members of that Boston Vigilance Committee, involving several Unitarian ministers, and a crowd that swelled to 2,000 unsuccessfully attempted to free Burns from jail. In the melee, a deputy was stabbed and killed. The courts decided that Burns should be returned to his “rightful” slaveholder. On June 2, with 50,000 people lining the streets (hopefully in disgust), Burns was led in shackles to the ship that returned him to captivity.

It just so happened that Young, and nearly every other Unitarian minister in the region, was in Boston for professional meetings and witnessed this unjust act of rendition. Records show that many Unitarian ministers went back to their congregations and alerted them to what had just transpired.

With his long travels back to Burlington, Young was not preaching that first Sunday; his fiery sermon came the following week, preaching that the Fugitive Slave Law was        “wicked and infamous – a dark deed of sin – an act of treachery”      and that disobedience to this human-made law was obedience to God. He preached,

“I have come back to fulfill a vow I then and there laid upon my soul, to plead the cause of the slave – the cause of human rights and liberty, with renewed zeal; to give whatever of talent God has bestowed on me, and whatever of influence I am permitted to exert, to the agitation and discussion of this evil, wrong, crime against man, sin against God – American Slavery.”

[side note] I will let you know – in case you do not know, just to close at least one loop within this larger story — that Anthony Burns’ freedom was purchased by the Twelfth Baptist Church of Boston, a different Black church, for $1300 and within a year, he was back in Boston. It leaves one wondering what role, if any, those Unitarians, so concerned about his return to captivity, played in later, less-public efforts to assure his freedom.

But let me return to Joshua Young as we fast forward five years to 1859…

That Young ended up officiating at the funeral of John Brown contains both elements of fate and serendipity. Like much of the nation, Young’s attention was drawn to the violent drama that took place at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in the middle of October, when John Brown and his band of raiders attempted to foment a slave revolt to bring to an end American slavery. Many of Brown’s co-conspirators, including two of his sons, were killed in the unsuccessful attack.

Those captured alive, including Brown, were brought to trial and sentenced to death. Once Brown was executed, his body was transported to the small community of North Elba, New York, where the Brown family had a farm.

Joshua Young – racing against time, traveling through a dark and stormy night – arrived four hours before the funeral’s appointed time to find himself the only clergy among those assembled. Abolitionist Wendell Phillips enlisted Reverend Young on the spot to conduct the funeral (Phillips did the eulogy). Young offered a prayer and benediction under the shadow of the large boulder that to this day, marks the gravesite.

Word of the funeral spread quickly, including to Burlington, because a newspaper published a transcript of Young’s words, including those spoken directly to the widow to assuage her grief. Reverend Young quoted 2nd Timothy chapter 4, saying that Brown had “fought the good fight,” elevating the mad abolitionist to martyr equal to Biblical Paul.

This did not play well back home.

Numerous prominent families in his congregation took great umbrage. Six left immediately. Others left at a slower pace. Others, according to Young’s numerous memoir-like accounts, practiced social ostracism against him and his wife. Young felt he had no choice but to resign.

Some forty years later, Young wrote a stinging assessment of the reception he received from the congregation he had served for nearly a decade, noting that he made no apology for his sympathy with a “felon” nor bringing solace to that felon’s family in distress. Here are his words from his letter of resignation in Burlington, just a few years after burying Brown:

I rejoice that no graver charge is made against me than that I have pushed the principles of general justice and benevolence too far, further than cautious policy would warrant and further than the feelings of some would go along with me. In every accident which may happen through life, in pain and sorrow, in depression, in distress, I will call to mind this accusation and be comforted.

Generally described as a gentle pastor, in this particular regard, Young was firm and unrepentant for his role in the John Brown funeral until his dying days.

Young went on to serve other Unitarian churches, all in Massachusetts: one in Hingham, one in Fall River, and then finally, in December, 1875, he arrived at what would be his final pastorate: the then sleepy little town of Groton, which I served as an Intern Minister until June of last year.

Towards the end of his long tenure serving in Groton, Joshua Young had another opportunity to say words of honor, solace, and witness in North Elba. Forty years after Brown was buried beneath that giant boulder, in 1899, the bodies of raiders at Harpers Ferry were located and disinterred. The locations of the unmarked graves of these men had been either lost or kept secret to protect them from vandals. The bodies were transported north and buried with respect next to Brown.

Five years later, in 1904, Reverend Joshua Young died.

~~~

As Unitarian Universalists, our faith comes from six sources, the second of which is, “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Words and deeds from over 160 years ago are aptly termed, “prophetic” when they still speak to us, they still preach to us. In 1854, Young preached these words:

To plead the cause of the slave is to plead our own cause, to vindicate your claim and mine to the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (emphasis added)

This is not condescension. This is not Christian charity, though Young understood his abolitionist stance as writ by God and an enactment of his faith.

This is what modern Unitarian Universalists call “collective liberation,” a notion expressed in countless liberation movements over the centuries, uttered, enacted, and embodied right now by those on the cutting edge of continued efforts toward racial justice and liberation from all forms of cultural oppressions.

It is, when it comes right down to it, our seventh principle: respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Or as Dr. King said it much more eloquently:

“All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

The deeds of Reverend Joshua Young, and their consequences, still speak to us, both to inspire, but also to act as warning. That Young’s ministry in Burlington was brought to a close, likely because of his perceived improper – extreme — stance directly related to racial justice in his time, speaks to us now in how our congregations across the nation support or censor or publicly chastise ministers in our faith movement – and other religious leaders – for speaking out in support of #BlackLivesMatter, for risking the perception of being anti-police, when, in fact, such prophetic witness is anti-police brutality. Or when ministers preach the social gospel – bringing ethics and morality to the pulpit – while some express concern about too political of a ministry.

Of course, the struggle for racial justice dwells not in history alone, but is alive right now. For those of us who wonder what we might have done during the civil rights era, we need not wonder about the past, but reflect upon our own actions now, in this time.

It is about our nation now, how systemic racism is breaking hearts metaphorically and bodies, literally.

It is about police brutality that is visited disproportionately on people of color.

It is about the school-to-prison pipeline – “the New Jim Crow” that too many African American people, especially young men, but also young women, experience in our country.

On a much lesser scale, it is the increasing numbers of #BlackLivesMatter signs, hanging from houses of worship, hanging from approximately 147 Unitarian Universalist congregations – many of which have been defaced, vandalized, stolen.

It is how white supremacy does not look like what it looked like in the middle of the 19th century, but it is still very much alive and thriving and requires our urgent and persistent attention, not just showing up for the big public events or the hanging of banners, but for the long-haul that involves relationship building and behind-the-scenes engagement.

Reverend Joshua Young shared his prophetic vision, calling his white congregation to see their own freedom bound up with the yet-to-be freedom of African American slaves:

To plead the cause of the slave is to plead our own cause.

He spoke using the idioms and the social reality of his time. So, with humility in my heart, and not nearly so eloquently, let me update his prophetic words to our modern circumstance:

We affirm that all lives matter through our declaration that Black Lives Matter, knowing as we do, all liberation is bound up together.

May we ever work to get free together. Amen.

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Seven Principles in Parable & True Story (sermon)

Part I

Outside of walking around with a lit chalice all the time, (or wearing one around your neck or as a pin on your lapel, which many of us do) the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism are the easiest way to identify Unitarian Universalism. This can be convenient, particularly to those whose parochial views of religion require a creed, particularly if you are to believe my colleague, the UU minister and Zen priest, James Ford,

Only the religions of the so-called west have any sort of creed as a test for membership, Christians and Muslims foremost of these, and actually its barely so for Jews. But no other world religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, or Taoism has anything more than vaguely looking like a creed. And even those only came into being in response to Christian missionaries who thought they were critical to a religion being a religion.

But it can also be complicated, because we can start treating the principles not as guides, but as if they are beliefs, when they are much more aspirations, much more about our values and guides for living into them as an association of congregations and as covenanted members with each other.

A little history on our principles: In 1960, as the Unitarians and the Universalists, each a Christian denomination that many considered heretical, joined together and in so doing, developed an original statement of purposes. In the process of crafting it, the debate was so heated it nearly derailed the merger. Over time – about a quarter century, it became clear that the original statement was no longer sufficient. In 1984, a new set of now-called principles was drafted and adopted and much to the amazement of many – since we are not a people who easily agree on much – has been steadily in place since then. You can find them at the front of our hymnbook, or on today’s order of service.

I have heard from many of you that you do not know the principles – you don’t know what each of them is, you can’t name more than one, and you aren’t really sure how they figure into our shared life together. While understandable, since we don’t offer a UU adult education class where this would be covered, it does seem important to ameliorate the situation.

The following is not a adult religious education class, where you might attempt to memorize each of them and expect a quiz at the end.  Instead this is a worship experience, where we raise up that which is worthy. Here is this combination of imperfect parables and true stories that you might engage fully: mind, yes, but also spirit and heart and perhaps even body.

So let us begin…

(if not otherwise noted, the story comes from Margaret Silf’s One Hundred Wisdom Stories From Around the World)

1st Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person

The Stranger’s Gift   (retelling of a traditional story)

There was once a village that had fallen on very hard times. The villagers had once been very happy, and their community had been famous for its hospitality and friendliness, and the warmth with which it welcomed strangers.

But something had gone wrong in the village. People had begun to bicker with one another. Quarrels broke out for no apparent reason. Rivalry sprang up where once there had been friendship and trust. The chief of the village was very sad about this. He knew that the people would never be happy like this, but he could do nothing to restore the old times of harmony and peace. Strangers no longer wanted to vist the village. The people stopped caring for it. The village was falling into ruin.

But it happened that one day, a stranger came by. He approached the village like one with a mission, as though he already knew who he would find there. And very soon, he met the village chief. He recognized the sad expression in his eyes, and the two were soon engaged in a serious conversation.

The village chief told the stranger about his feelings of despair, and his fears that soon the village would disintegrate. The stranger told the village chief that eh might know of a way to redeem the lost village and restore it to a real community again.

‘Please tell me the secret,’ the village chief begged the stranger.

‘The secret is very simple,’ the stranger said by way of reply. ‘ The fact is, one of the villagers is actually the Messiah.’

The village chief could hardly believe what he was hearing, yet the stranger had an air of authority about him that was irrefutable.

The stranger left, but the village chief couldn’t resist telling his closest friend what the stranger had told him. Soon the rumor ran through the village like wildfire. ‘One of us is the Messiah! Can you believe – somewhere, hidden among our number, the Messiah is living!’

Now, deep down, the villagers were a godly folk who wanted things to be right in their community. The thought that the Messiah himself might be living among them, incognito, made them see things very differently. Could it be the baker? they wondered. Or the old lady who breeds the chickens and sells the eggs? Perhaps it was old Granny Riley, whom the children were in the habit of taunting because of her scarred old face. The speculation went on and on.

But the funny thing was that after the stranger’s visit, things were never the same again. People began to treat each other with reverence. They lived like peope who had a common purpose, and who were seeking for something very precious together, never quite knowing whether the treasure was actually right in front of them.

Before long, visitors began to come to the village just to be part of the happy, holy atmosphere that prevailed there. The stranger never came back. He didn’t need to.

2nd Principle: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations

Dear Strangers at the Whole Foods, written by Deborah Greene:

(trigger warning: suicide)

Dear Strangers,

I remember you. 10 months ago, when my cell phone rang with news of my father’s suicide, you were walking into Whole Foods, prepared to go about your food shopping, just as I had done only minutes before.

But I had already abandoned my cart full of groceries and I stood in the entryway of the store. My brother was on the other end of the line. He was telling me my father was dead, that he had taken his own life early that morning and through his own sobs, I remember my brother kept saying, “I’m sorry Deborah,  I’m so sorry.” I can’t imagine how it must have felt for him to make that call.

And as we hung up the phone, I started to cry and scream as my whole body trembled. This just couldn’t be true. It couldn’t be happening. Only moments before I was filling my cart with groceries, going about my errands on a normal Monday morning. Only moments before my life felt intact. Overwhelmed with emotions, I fell to the floor, my knees buckling under the weight of what I had just learned. And you kind strangers, you were there.

You could have kept on walking, ignoring my cries, but you didn’t. You could have simply stopped and stared at my primal display of pain, but you didn’t. No, instead you surrounded me as I yelled through my sobs, “My father killed himself. He killed himself. He’s dead.” And the question that has plagued me since that moment came to my lips in a scream: “Why?” I must have asked it over and over and over again. I remember in that haze of emotions, one of you asked for my phone and asked who you should call. What was my password? You needed my husband’s name as you searched through my contacts. I remember I could hear your words as you tried to reach my husband for me, leaving an urgent message for him to call me. I recall hearing you discuss among yourselves who would drive me home in my car and who would follow that person to bring them back to the store. You didn’t even know one another, but it didn’t seem to matter. You encountered me, a stranger, in the worst moment of my life and you coalesced around me with common purpose — to help. I remember one of you asking if you could pray for me and for my father. I must have said yes, and now when I recall that Christian prayer being offered up to Jesus for my Jewish father and me, it still both brings tears to my eyes and makes me smile.

In my fog, I told you that I had a friend, Pam, who worked at Whole Foods and one of you went in search of her. Thankfully, she was there that morning and you brought her to me. I remember the relief I felt at seeing her face, familiar and warm. She took me to the back, comforting and caring for me until my husband could get to me. And I even recall as I sat with her, one of you sent back a gift card to Whole Foods; though you didn’t know me, you wanted to offer a little something to let me know that you would be thinking of me and holding me and my family in your thoughts and prayers. That gift card helped to feed my family, when the idea of cooking was so far beyond my emotional reach.

I never saw you after that. But I know this to be true: If it were not for all of you, I might have simply gotten in the car and tried to drive myself home. I wasn’t thinking straight, if I was thinking at all. If it were not for you, I don’t know what I would’ve done in those first raw moments of overwhelming shock, anguish and grief. But I thank God every day I didn’t have to find out. Your kindness, your compassion, your willingness to help a stranger in need have stayed with me until this day. And no matter how many times my mind takes me back to that horrible life altering moment, it is not all darkness. Because you reached out to help, you offered a ray of light in the bleakest moment I’ve ever endured. You may not remember it. You may not remember me. But I will never, ever forget you. And though you may never know it, I give thanks for your presence and humanity each and every day.

 

3rd Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations

The Golden Ball

There was once a little boy who lived in a cottage with his parents. He often used to play out on the hills, and when it began to grow dark, he would go home.

One evening as he was just returning home, the little boy lingered for a while at the door. Far away, across the valley, he saw a beautiful golden ball. He was spellbound. What could it be, and who might own something to beautiful? That day, he made up his mind that he must make the journey to the other side of the valley to find his treasure.

And so it happened that one morning he packed his little rucksack with some sandwiches and an apple, and set off to make the journey to the other side of the valley. It took him all day. He had never been so far before, and it took him a lot longer than he had thought it would. By the time he arrived, it was late afternoon, and he was feeling very tired, and hungry. Eventually, every close to the place he had hoped to find the golden ball, he came upon a little cottage, with smoke curling up out of the chimney, and roses climbing around the doorway. But there was no sign of the golden ball. Shyly, he knocked at the door.

The family from the other side of the valley were very happy to see him – though a little bit surprised, if the truth were told. ‘You must be hungry!’ the mother exclaimed. ‘You are very welcome to eat with us.’

‘Where do you come from,’ the children asked excitedly, and the boy pointed across the valley, to his own little home on the hill, now cloaked in darkness.

‘It’s far too late for you to make the long journey home again tonight,’ said the other mother. ‘We’ll make you up a bed in the corner.’

And so the little boy from across the valley spent the night with his new friends, and as the evening shadow grew longer, they all sat around the kitchen fire, while he told them about the golden ball that he had seen so often from his own home, and asked them where he might find it.

‘We’ve never seen a golden ball like that over here,’ they told him, puzzled. ‘But tomorrow morning, when the sun is rising, we’ll show you our treasure.’

The little boy could hardly wait until the morning. When dawn arrived, the children took him to their doorway, and pointed out their treasure. ‘Look over there,’ they said, pointing straight at his own home on the opposite hillside. ‘Can you see our golden ball?’ And sure enough, there was a little golden ball to be seen, shining back from his own bedroom window. ‘One day, we will go to the other side of the valley, and find our golden ball,’ his new friends told him. The little boy smiled.

 

4th Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning

What is Life? (a retelling of a Swedish legend)

One lovely summer’s day, around noon, there was a deep stillness over all the forest. The birds had tucked their heads under their wings, and everything was at rest.

Then a bullfinch popped his head up and asked, ‘What is life?’ Everyone was struck by this profound question.

A rose was just emerging from her bud, and was opening up one shy petal after another, rejoicing in the newly discovered sunlight. ‘Life is Becoming,’ she said.

The butterfly was less philosophical. He flew blithely from one flower to another, snacking everywhere on the delicious nectar. ‘Life is pure pleasure and sunshine,’ he announced.

Down on the ground, an ant was laboring under the weight of a piece of straw ten times his size. He said, ‘Life is nothing but toil and sweat and strain.’

There might have been quite an argument about the meaning of life, had not a fine rain begun to fall, and the rain spoke, ‘Life consists of tears, nothing but tears.’

High above the forest, an eagle swooped, making majestic curves in the sky. ‘Life,’ spoke the eagle, ‘is a constant striving upwards.’

Night fell and soon a man came staggering home from a party. ‘Life,’ he complained, ‘is a constant search for happiness, and a string of disappointments.’

After the long, dark night, at last dawn came, rising pink on the eastern skyline. ‘Just as I, the dawn, am the start of the new day, so life is the beginning of eternity.’

 

5th Principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

The Weight of a Snowflake Parable

“Tell me the weight of a snowflake,” a sparrow asked a wild dove.

“Nothing more than nothing,” was the answer.

“In that case I must tell a marvelous story,” the sparrow said. “I sat on a branch of a fir tree, close to its trunk, when it began to snow, not heavily, not a giant blizzard, no, just like in a dream, without any violence. Since I didn’t have anything better to do, I counted the snowflakes settling on the twigs and needles of my branch. Their number was exactly 3,741,952. When the next snowflake dropped onto the branch – nothing more than nothing, as you say – the branch broke off.”

Having said that, the sparrow flew away. The dove thought about the story for a while and finally said to herself:

“Perhaps there is only one voice lacking for peace to come in our world.”

 

6th Principle: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

Based on a true story reported by James N. McCutcheon

A story is told about an incident that happened during the thirties in New York, on one of the coldest days of the year. The world was in the grip of the Great Depression, and all over the city, the poor were close to starvation.

It happened that the judge was sitting on the bench that day, hearing a complaint against a woman who was charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She pleaded that her daughter was sick, and her grandchildren were starving, because their father had abandoned the family. But the shopkeeper, whose loaf had been stolen, refused to drop the charge. He insisted that an example be made of the poor old woman, as a deterrent to others.

The judge sighed. He was most reluctant to pass judgment on the woman, yet he had no alternative. ‘I’m sorry,’ he turned to her. ‘But I can’t make any exceptions. The law is the law. I sentence you to a fine of ten dollars, and if you can’t pay I must send you to a jail for ten days.’

The woman was heartbroken, but even as he was passing the sentence, the judge was reaching into his pocket for the money to pay off the ten-dollar fine. He took off his hat, tossed the ten-dollar bill into it, and then addressed the crow: ‘I am also going to impose a fine of fifty cents on every person here present in this courtroom for living in a town where a person has to steal bread to save her grandchildren from starvation. Please collect the fines, Mr. Bailiff, in this hat, and pass them across to the defendant.’

And so the accused went home that day from the court with forty-seven dollars and fifty cents – fifty cents of which was paid by the shame-faced grocery store keeper who had brought the charge against her. And as she left the courtroom, the gather of petty criminals and New York policemen gave the judge a standing ovation.

 

 

7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

 Soccer Ball Lost in Japan Tsunami Surfaces in Alaska

by Kate Springer, published in TIME magazine in 2012

While roaming the beach on Alaska’s barren, largely uninhabited Middleton Island, radar station technician David Baxter noticed a soccer ball floating off the shore. But it wasn’t until he fished it out that Baxter realized how far the ball had traveled: some 3,000 miles, from its home in Japan, where a disastrous tsunami killed 19,000 people and poured the belongings of thousands of others into the ocean more than a year ago.

According to the Associated Press, Baxter’s Japanese wife, Yumi, was able to make out a name and translate a message inscribed on its surface. And soon enough, Yumi was on the phone with 16-year-old Misaki Murakami from the wave-ravaged Japanese town of Rikuzentakata, the International Business Times reports. “It was a big surprise. I’ve never imagined that my ball has reached Alaska,” Murakami told the Japanese broadcaster NHK Media. “I’ve lost everything in the tsunami so I’m delighted.”

The ball had been a going-away gift to Murakami when he transferred elementary schools in 2005. The Baxters plan to travel to Japan next month and return the soccer ball in person. They may be returning another treasure as well: a few weeks after finding the soccer ball, Baxter came across a volleyball with a similar inscription, belonging to 19-year-old Shiori Sato from Japan’s Iwate area.

Over the past year cleanup crews in the Pacific Northwest have been picking up plenty of debris washed ashore from the tsunami, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the soccer ball is the first piece that can be returned to its owner.

 

Part II

In his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer names habits of the heart that he posits are necessary for the health of democracy and our nation as we want to know it. One of these habits of the heart he calls, “Holding Tensions in Life-Giving Ways.”

This is how I feel about our Seven Principles – though we could take each on its own, we are better off – richer, wiser, deeper — when we engage the whole, recognizing each principle as part of a larger, interdependent whole. Just look at numbers one and seven – one tells us that each individual is of utmost importance and the seventh tells us that the collective, the connection, is of utmost importance.

If we were to just hold up the importance of the individual, we would (as many UU congregations have an unfortunate legacy of doing) inadvertently buy into and support the nefarious individualism in our culture that undermines healthy community. If we were to just hold up the primacy of the interdependent web of all existence – well, that one’s harder for me to find the downside of, though I know that an extreme version of community over the individual (which I do not believe is interdependence) means full conformity which leads to perversion of the beauty of natural diversity.

Or as James Ford says,

We need both principles to fully ground our message, the dynamic of the one and the many. That older call of individual liberty was a deep and true insight. But it is missing something. With the seventh principle as a calling to the very wisdom of our hearts of how and why the individual is precious, that we are completely woven out of each other and the cosmos itself in a living song of intimacy is where we find our completeness.

 Within some of the individual principles, a similar tension exists: such as in the forth principle where our search is both free and responsible. Seriously? I mean, which is it? I get to freely search for how I understand meaning or must I do it responsibly, which generally means I must take others into consideration and not be free to always do as I please?

Or in the third, where my spiritual growth includes making room for others spiritual growth – what if their spiritual growth affirms a god I know not to exist? Or vice versa?

Or what happens when efforts to seek justice seem at odds with efforts to be compassionate, which we have seen over and over in liberal reaction to the presidential election and to Trump voters?

There are many ways to envision the relationship of the seven principles with each other. One and seven as bookends. One and seven as two sides of the same spiritual coin (Ford). As the animated circle on the front of your order of service designed by Ian Riddell and Kimberly Debus. An arched stone doorway, our first principle with its focus on the individual as the left pillar, and our focus on community as the right pillar, with the other five as the heart of the search which holds them in living-giving tension.

Ultimately it does not much matter how you envision them except that you envision them as relevant to your life, providing not a set of beliefs so much as spiritual nourishment and a source of aspiration for living out your life of integrity, for living out our covenanted collective life with one another and the wider world.

May we honor these principles – and each other – and the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Designed by Ian Riddell and Kimberly Debus

 

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Walking City Sidewalks as Acts of Democracy

Not all that long ago I was reading (= listening while driving) to Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy. In it he offered up a solution to the loss of mutual connection that undermines the democratic essence of our nation. It is not, by the way, convincing the electoral college to vote their conscience.

Parker Palmer, captured from fteleaders on Flickr

Palmer wrote Healing the Heart of Democracy starting in 2004; it was published in 2010. And though much of what he observed and feared continues to come true, he was not speaking specifically to our current darkening days of democracy.

His solution is not direct, but it is deep.   On the face of it, it does not seem particularly political; in fact, it is deeply political, as in “the political is personal” school of encountering the world. In that liminal place where politics and spirituality meet.

His suggestion: walk on sidewalks.

Not any sidewalk. Definitely not the sidewalks in Suburbia. He means quite specifically urban sidewalks. Do this in order “to learn the dance of public life.” Do this in order to learn what it takes to dance “the dance of public life.”

There surburbanization of America has many critiques. Too many to enumerate here. Plus, it would be dry and boring. Suffice it to say the suburbanization of America has contributed mightily to the demise of America as it was once known: folks knowing each other and growing a mutual sense of skin in the game for our collective survival. (At least, that’s how the myth goes, and I think it was true in pockets, though often those pockets could not extend this sensibility beyond their own pocket.)

Personally, I feel a new and visceral understanding of this critique. I recently moved to an intensely suburban area: Central New Jersey. This, after having lived in an intentionally community-focused area for the past two decades. These past few months, I have been swimming in culture shock, observing with curiosity and navigating my new home with tinges of old-home-sickness.

Parker may not have been the first to propose this solution or to make these observations. He is, however, the first from whom I have heard it: suburban sidewalks are spacious and relatively uncrowded. There is no need to accommodate the shared public space with others, or at least not on any consistent basis.   Perhaps here and there one must step to one side or the other to allow a jogger by or to let a stroller continue on its way. But generally, one sets one’s own pace; one is the master of one’s own sidewalk domain.

Not true of urban sidewalks. The pace is constant flux. This is due not only to street intersections, but to the need to adapt to those around, choosing deference, resistance, or assertion as one dances with the many others who are fluidly claiming their momentary space on that slab of concrete. Movie images of this phenomena reflect a single collective organism, shifting and moving, typically forward, even if that forward is at least four different directions, (if not more).

Palmer suggests that the advent of Suburbia and its sidewalks is part of the wider erosion of our democratic foundation in this country. He suggests walking on urban sidewalks serves democracy well. He encourages us to take it up, as a civic practice, as if a spiritual practice, providing us the opportunity to practice negotiating our “life in the company of strangers.”

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

 

 

I am reminded of a quote in Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost. It is a about getting lost – not in the woods, not in the wilderness, not on the tundra but purposefully, deliciously, in a city. It comes from Walter Benjamin:

“Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.”

Since I now live within striking distance of New York City – an hour’s train ride away – “the greatest city in the world,” according to the Broadway musical, Hamilton, perhaps it is time for me spend some time walking the sidewalks there.

New York has never been a city that has called gently to me. MYC more like taunts and daunts me. It is where, after having left the home of my growing up over three decades ago, I feel most keenly that I am a girl from rural Oregon.

Yet, since I moved here, work has brought me into the City every other month. And as I write these musings, I am sitting at a bar in the Theatre District, a smooth Bourbon at hand, waiting for friends before we go see an off-Broadway play. The walk to this place from Penn Station was crisp – it is mid-December and the wind was whipping around – and I could have chosen the subway.

Instead, inspired by Palmer’s observations, I walked. Fifteen blocks of joining the dance – the democratic dance – of pressing forward, deferring to both metal-deathtraps-on-wheels and humans whose pace – either in its aggression or its not-moving – required agile adaptation.

Perhaps this once-rural girl, now living in suburbia, will seek out more opportunities to practice these small, evocative acts of democracy.  Perhaps I will lose myself and find some new pathways to deeper democracy.  And such a simple, mundane act may turn out to be one of both resilience and resistance.

 

 

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In the Thrall of Fallen Angels: Implicit Bias and A Hard Path Through (sermon)

The Unitarian Society

East Brunswick NJ

December 4, 2016

 

I am a story. So are you. So is everyone. So say the opening words from our Time For All Ages story this morning.268111-_uy400_ss400_

I am, in fact, like you and like everyone, many stories.

Here is one of my many stories. On my first day of social work school – an intensive program of 11 weeks in the summer to complete two semesters’ worth of work, then an eight-month full-time internship in different parts of the country (I did mine in Washington DC and Suburban Virginia) – three summers, two internships, and a masters thesis on grandparents raising their grandchildren.

On the first day I saw a fellow student, a white woman. She was wearing a necklace– a leather choker around her neck and on it were small white conch shells. It was a handsome piece of jewelry, the kind I associate with Africa and with those people I have met who are African American and proud of their heritage.

To this day I still remember my reaction: what is a white girl doing wearing that?!? Apparently, I have an issue with judgment.  Inside my mind, a story began to be told about this white-girl-wannabe who went around misappropriating Black culture. I knew already that I did not like her.

As we began to attend our classes, it turned out that she and I had all but one of our classes together, including our practice class, which involved intensive reflection and engagement with each other. As we introduced ourselves to each other, she told her story. She was bi-racial – her mother was African American and her father was German and she had grown up in Germany, which caught my attention from own time of living there.

In that moment, something happened in my brain that had nothing to do with conscious me: this woman – her name is Mareka – became, in a split second, Black. Over time and many conversations, I acquired a more nuanced understanding of her racial identity and she has remained, ever since, as much more in line with who she understands herself to be, a person of color and bi-racial. And, as the universe would have it, we became best friends for that very intense period in our lives.

Even now, I find it curious that at one time I saw her so clearly as white, with no shadow of a doubt, and then, as if with the flick of a switch, I saw her as a person of color and cannot, for the life of me, see how I ever saw her as white. It’s so clear to me that when it comes to race, my brain is operating in a way that my conscious mind has no control over.

~~

I know you did not miss all the blogs, tweets or newspaper articles and commentaries, when the analysis of the voting is done, it’s white people who voted this new reality into being.

White men and white women.

Informally (I won’t use the word, “uneducated;” it’s far too condescending) white people and formally educated white people.

Though implicit bias is a human experience – it does not matter what your social location, whether your identity is one that reflects cultural privilege or cultural marginalization — as a faith community that is predominantly white, sometimes overwhelmingly white, we must pay attention to how implicit bias can play out in dangerous, violent ways.

Today’s reading tells us that fear feeds our acting negatively on implicit bias. Given that we have an incoming president and administration that uses as daily currency explicit hate and greases the tracks of society with fear and manipulation, it is important that we pay attention to how implicit bias may be impacting us in ways we do not know. Our awareness and acknowledgement of it is a first step to establishing the hard path through.

Now, we’ve all been schooled in stereotypes.

We have learned that they are bad, bad, bad.

And we are not to use them.

Or try not to use them.

Which typically results in our pretending they hold no sway over us.

Which leads us to underestimate how much sway they actually have in our lives.

Many of us were taught the being colorblind was the right and honorable thing. We came to feel it in our bones as true when, in fact, it was mere habit. And a bad habit at that.

We were taught seeing color/race is bad, because it can lead to terrible things happening. Simulated experiments have shown non-Black people more likely to shoot Black suspects. Certainly the news reports of Black and Brown men and women being shot disproportionately reflects this terrible reality, too.

So what if it’s not bad to see color, but is, in fact, unavoidable. Unavoidable to see differences of all ilk? Age, weight, ethnicities of varying sorts. What if it is unavoidable to not only see difference, but to attribute a preference, typically one that falls along the lines of cultural oppression: preferring the younger person, more easily associating good with white and bad with Black? Holding a slight or moderate and significant preference for non-Arab/Muslim sounding names?

The science and theory behind implicit bias – what I have called in the title of this sermon being in thrall of our fallen angels, or as the quote on the order of service suggests, in thrall of our primitive brain – is deeper and more comprehensive than the notion of stereotypes. While many theorize about implicit bias, it’s the research of Dr. Anthony Greenwald and his colleagues that is the go-to in this field. They have created scientifically-driven tests – over five million people have taken them, you can too, they are free on the internet – to be able to gauge one’s own implicit bias on a long list of factors.

This is how I spent part of my study leave last week, taking implicit bias tests.  Three of them. One based on age – which I thought I would “ace” since I’m married to someone a whole generation older and most of my close friends are at least a decade older than I am and always have been. Yeah: nope. One on Black and white. One on non-Arab and Arab or Muslim-sounding names.

There is no “acing” this test, as if one answer is better than another. The will to take the test is “acing” it: am I willing to face my own shadows, willing to see what the primitive part of my brain has within it, that its power might lessen by my own awareness and by my attending to how these biases play out not only in my mind, by in my actions?

As Australian Muslim community organizer, Yassmin Abel Magied, says “Bias is not an accusation. Rather its something that must be identified, acknowledged, and mitigated against.”

I am telling you this because today’s story by Julius Lester is true and good and one we all like to tell over and over to our children and ourselves: we’re all the same under our skin. This is developmentally appropriate for children of a certain age, for our young ones, but we – youth and adults – need to develop a more sophisticated understanding that holds the paradox of socially constructed race: yes, we are all the same under our skin and yes, we are difference because of the social construction of race and we all exist in a world where there are systems of oppression that benefit some of us and deprive others.

If you are curious or confounded or have questions about this topic, I encourage you to mark your calendars and attend the three-part film series, showing here, called Race: The Power of an Illusion. Each film is about an hour long and there will be a facilitated conversation after each one – thank you Kathy and Reg, our facilitators. Though most powerful if you view all three, and in community with reflection time, if you cannot attend all three, please come to the ones you can attend.

485594534_1280x960-1The creators of the implicit bias test suggest that currently, “there is not enough research to say for sure that implicit biases can be reduced, let alone eliminated.” They recommend against most packaged “diversity trainings” unless they are explicitly using evidence-based methods of reducing implicit biases. They encourage a focus on strategies that deny implicit biases the chance to operate, such as blind auditions and well-designed “structured” decision processes.

But this is not the only word on the subject. There is emerging research – small studies that show promise, but need replication, that there are ways to influence the implicit bias that dwells within us, within our primitive brains.

hhdcover2Quaker sage, Parker Palmer, has some ideas about this, though they are not evidence-based. In his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, (which is on the book group’s schedule for May and was also part of my study leave), he notes that “learning how to hold life’s tension in the responsive heart instead of the reactive primitive brain is key” to our cultural and democratic survival. He says

When the primitive brain takes charge we are in thrall to the fallen angels and the outcome is altogether predictable: we contribute to the dynamic of violence that constantly threatens life itself.

Palmer gets more specific but I think you’re going to have to join the book club to find out.

There is some evidence that pairing your acknowledgement of a bias while saturating yourself with real, disconfirming examples that lean away from the bias can reduce the bias, or at least your acting on it. Add to that, developing authentic relationships across difference has shown to also impact behaviors, and possibly bias. We see this in the shifting in America of attitudes towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, and even trans folks – with these people coming out, and families “discovering” that they know someone, has meant one of the biggest and quickest changes America has seen in its civil rights movements. This is part of why I spent the first half of my theological education at a seminary that was thirty percent Muslim. To learn more about this approach, there is an engaging TED talk by Verna Myers that addresses these steps.

But I want to tell you about what meditation, what mindfulness, with its roots in Buddhism, has to offer. The person known as the Buddha named three truths already known in his time: that life is suffering, that suffering has a cause, and that the cause of suffering can cease. Then he named a fourth, revolutionary truth: there is a path that can cease the suffering. He called it the eight-fold path.

52220_156763151133888_568583633_oI want to suggest to you that science is beginning to tell us that there is a path – a hard path, a path that requires discipline – out of the suffering of implicit bias. Whether talking about the more general mindfulness, or a more specific meditation practice like the Loving Kindness Meditation, there are some studies – not many, yet – that show this practice reduces automatic processing which is one of the feeders of prejudicial behavior. In simpler words: if we can slow down and watch our mind at work, we might be able to stop our racist, reactive behavior.

Recently, in 2014, there was a little (and I do mean little), yet promising, controlled study that found that mindfulness can lessen implicit bias. It involved listening to a ten-minute recording that focused increased their body awareness with the encouragement to do so “without restriction, resistance, or judgment.” Nothing about stereotypes or guilt or shame, just attention to the body and its processes with a generous and open, nonjudgmental heart.

Now, listening one-time to a recording is not going to have lasting effects. This study is saying that the spiritual practice of mindfulness can make a difference. Important here is the word, “practice.” Practice. Over and over. Every day, or at least nearly so. Bringing attention and bringing intention.   It sounds simple, and in some respects, it is, but it is oh-so-hard. It is a hard path.

Here is another of my stories. One of which I am not at all proud.  In fact, quite the opposite.  There are times my brain thinks sh*t that I cannot believe I believe. In fact, if you were to ask me, I would say that I don’t believe it. But I hear my brain sometimes and it has a potty mouth. Mostly I notice it when I am driving, when I am displeased with how other drivers are driving. So it is not fear, but anger, that brings this about. Not only do I have a potty mouth in the form of curse words that I say out loud, but in the form of other things that I dare not utter. They are ugly and too often they are racist or sexist or something-ist.

And this is where my meditation practice has led me: to not turn away from these ugly thoughts the mind is thinking, but to turn toward them. Turning away gives them power; turning towards them lessens their influence. In turning towards them, and doing so with curiosity, not shame, not judgment, and by the very fact that such a mindful stance requires that I slow down, I have discovered something.

I have discovered that there is something before the ugly thought. There is the reaction to being cut off when making a left turn, or having a parking spot taken just as I am about to pull into it. There is the reaction of frustration, of impatience, of anger and it is pure. Then there is a briefest of pauses, barely noticeable by my clumsy human mind. And then enters the ugly thought, like an overlay, like a second thought, like something learned. And thought I don’t like the words that form in my head, the harsh images they evoke, I notice that they are not core of my reaction, they are something secondary, something added, something learned.

This gives me a sense of hope that I am not they and they are not me and that I might be able to exercise some ability to reduce their influence on me and my behaviors. This gives me a sense of hope that I might not have to be in thrall of my primitive brain or my fallen angels. None of us do.

May we learn to quite the noise of implicit bias so that we can truly hear our own story and each others’. May we find the courage and the perseverance to listen to the angels of our better nature. Amen. Blessed be.

in-the-thrall-of-fallen-angels_-implicit-bias-and-a-way-through

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Defying the Nazis: The Sharps War: Introduction to Community Screening

The Unitarian Society

East Brunswick, NJ

December 3, 2016

Let me begin in gratitude: for the universe, that conspired with fate, providence, and chaos that you might be part of this good company we are creating together tonight.

Gratitude for all who collaborated to make this event possible:

  • our co-sponsors, Temple B’nai Tikvah, whose Rabbi, Robert Wolkoff, is here;
  • Interfaith RISE coalition, sponsored by the Reformed Church of Highland Park. After the film you will hear from Carrie Dirks-Amadeo and Sylvia Hove, active members of this comprehensive organization serving refugees and immigrants in Central New Jersey.

Gratitude for our honored guests, members of the Islamic Center of East Brunswick, with whom we renew our long-standing relationship.

Gratitude for the many folks of this Unitarian Universalist congregation who worked to bring this event to fruition.

My name is Karen G. Johnston and I have the honor to serve this congregation as minister and to welcome you all here this evening.

I have a confession: at first, I was a mildly frustrated that we scheduled this screening a whole two-and-a-half months after the première on PBS. Sometimes, I can be impatient. It’s something I am working on.

I should have had faith; I should have trusted. For given our current national and world circumstances, it turns out that December 3 is exactly the right date, exactly the right chance, for us to gather, for us to get to know one another, and to conspire with one another to resist the hate rising in the land.

Towards that end, I invite you right now to turn to someone physically close whom you do not know and introduce yourself. If you are able to be so bold, offer your hand. Bolder still, look into the eyes of this person who was, until a few moments ago, a stranger, and is now, your neighbor, perhaps soon to be a friend, and in the eyes of the Universe, has always been your fellow kin.

On my own, I don’t have many strategies for how we are going to get through the dangerous times that are descending upon us. However, in conversation and connection with others, I have come across a few.

One is acting boldly on the deep necessity to know one another, to show up for one another, to rely on one another, to weave tighter the common fabric that has become so frayed.

Make no mistake: when your hands touched those of a stranger just now, it was an act of hope and an act of resistance. A small gesture, bridging an invisible divide, practice for the bigger gestures and bigger acts that will be asked of us, that are already being asked of us now.

[sadly, I left this part out when I actually gave this introduction, but I include it here because it’s such a powerful poem]

Let this modern translation (by Daniel Ladinsky) of words from the 14th century Persian poet Hafiz ring in your heart throughout our whole evening together:

[A Great Need]

Out

Of a great need

We are holding hands

And climbing.

Not loving is a letting go.

Listen,

The terrain around here

Is

Far too

Dangerous

For

That.

 

May we be so bold.

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