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

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick

November 24, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May we hear the roar of their praise and applause. 

May we continue to offer it to each other.

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Pivoting the Sweet Spot: The Future of The Unitarian Society

November 23, 2019

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

Theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Release. Come alive.

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

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

Come Alive. Theologian Howard Thurman said it this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am blessed to be on this journey with you.

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Pivoting the Sweet Spot: The Future of The Unitarian Society

delivered at the Rededication event at The Unitarian Society

November 23, 2019

Theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Release. Come alive.

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

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

Come Alive. Theologian Howard Thurman said it this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am blessed to be on this journey with you.

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Healing the Heart of Democracy (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick

November 10, 2019

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Nikole Hannah-Jones

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

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

Malcolm X

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writer and environmental activist, Terry Tempest Williams tells us that

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

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

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

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

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

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

An understanding that we are all in this together;

An appreciation of the value of ‘otherness’;

An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways;

A sense of personal voice and agency; and

A capacity to create community.

Parker Palmer

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[pause]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen. Blessed be.


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

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

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

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

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Race & Power: Then & Now (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

October 27, 2019

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

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

1969 was quite the year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us find ways to reconcile in love.

Let us not grow weary in the struggle.

Amen.  Blessed be.


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

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

[iii] Arc, p. 446

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

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

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This is Not a Drill: A Global Call to Strike for the Climate (sermon)

September 15, 2019

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

Reverend Karen G. Johnston

We refuse to bequeath a dying planet to future generations by failing to act now.

We act in peace, with ferocious love of these lands in our hearts.

We act on behalf of life.

Powerful words in the midst of a topic – in the midst of a REALITY – that is so heavy it is leaden beyond leaden, it is difficult to offer the proper invitation, sufficient space, for full consideration.

We refuse to bequeath a dying planet to future generations by failing to act now.

We act in peace, with ferocious love of these lands in our hearts.

We act on behalf of life.

Last month I preached of how we have shifted from climate change in the present tense to climate changed – past tense, the change already happening, damage already done and now beyond our prevention, to be sure, and beyond our fixing, but not yet – according to many – beyond our being able to minimize, not yet beyond the choice to lessen the suffering – to lessen our suffering and the suffering of others, never the first without the other.

There are so many voices, some in resonance with each other, some in contradiction – and these are just the science-based ones.  David Wallace Wells who tells us that climate nihilism is just as much a delusion as climate denial. Jonathan Franzen, in this week’s New Yorker, telling us that it’s beyond time to stop pretending. We can read Dahr Jamail’s The End of Ice and weep lavishly for all that has been lost, is being lost.

We can listen to visionary feminist fiction writers of the 1990s who knew what was in store.

Starhawk’s Fifth Sacred Thing and Octavia Butler’s Parable trilogy (with its two books).  A quarter of a century ago these wise women were listening to the Earth, to activists and healers, could perceive the path we have been on, are on. In these offerings of fiction, there is wisdom of how we might realistically move forward in a climate constricted world.

Currently, there is Jem Bendell, a British academic, who speaks of “an uneven ending of our normal modes of sustenance, security, pleasure, identity, meaning and hope.”[1] Or, in other words, collapse. His approach to this fraught topic is that a failure to normalize conversations about collapse, will cause us, and the planet, even more harm.

We refuse to bequeath a dying planet to future generations by failing to act now.

We act in peace, with ferocious love of these lands in our hearts.

We act on behalf of life.

~~~

Jem is just one in the multi-voice environmental movement that is Extinction Rebellion. Called XR for short, its hourglass symbol on the back of my robe today, it is a global movement formed less than a year ago in the United Kingdom. Non-violent, artistically creative, and intentionally disruptive, Extinction Rebellion gives shape to the rebellious instinct against the existential threat that we call climate crisis. 

Extinction Rebellion’s primary demands are fundamentally intersectional. They recognize that we cannot end dominion over nature without attending to all forms of dominion, of cultural oppression. The struggle for climate justice is “the struggle for racial, gender, sexual, and economic equality.”[1]

Thanks to XR, the UK declared carbon neutrality by 2050 — and XR continues to push for even sooner, for truly, 2050 is far too late. XR presses for municipalities all over the world – nearly a thousand so far – to declare climate emergencies.  Just a week or two ago, they pressured the New York Times to recognize the hypocrisy of so-called objectively reporting on climate change and sponsoring a major conference of the oil industry conference. Due to XR’s, and others’ actions, they scrapped their sponsorship!   

Three months ago, XR published a handbook called, This Is Not a Drill, from which this sermon takes its title. In it, there is a mini-primer on Donut Economics by “Renegade Economist” Kate Raworth, advocating for an economy that makes us thrive, whether or not it grows, rather than the kind we currently have, which is an economy that grows, whether or not it makes us thrive. One chapter is a deeply disturbing window into how the ultra-rich are preparing for collapse (FYI: it does not include you and me).  There is a recipe for how to hold successful non-violent, civilly-disobedient actions, including how to feed people.  And it includes XR’s declaration of emergency, which ends with these three lines:

We refuse to bequeath a dying planet to future generations by failing to act now.

We act in peace, with ferocious love of these lands in our hearts.

We act on behalf of life.

XR is intentionally non-partisan. And though some faith leaders are associated with it, it is not a faith-based movement. Even so, I wonder if you hear, like my nephew did, the echoes of the ancient text of Deuteronomy from Hebrew Scriptures:

“Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

What I find resonant — theologically, spiritually — with XR is part of our Universalist heritage: there is no individual salvation. All salvation is universal.  All liberation is collective.  And thusly must we bring it about.

Extinction Rebellion’s message and methods are dramatic because the reality we are facing is existential. Last October’s IPCC report informed the world we had less than 12 years to…to what? Not to prevent climate change – it’s too late for that.  Eleven years to make changes now so that we might create a path to net zero CO2 emissions by mid-century,[2] which is one goal in averting total disaster. That eleven-year forecast is conservative. So conservative, that it does not serve us in fully understanding the emergency in our midst: time and time again, the timelines put out by the IPCC have shown themselves to be wild under-estimates.

~~~

This is perhaps why Extinction Rebellion, and other climate movements have gone global so rapidly, resonating so deeply, captivating the imaginations of so many, including people who had never considered themselves activists. XR has emerged as part of the same Zeitgeist as the Sunrise Movement in this country. And as the climate strike movement that has blossomed out of the actions of now 16-year-old Swedish Greta Thunberg (you might remember her from our Earth Day service called, “I Want You to Panic”).  Last fall, Greta stopped attending school on Fridays, choosing instead to sit outside her nation’s parliament building to demand that the government respond in a way that is proportionate to the emergency at hand.  This year, she has taken a leave of absence to focus on the climate crisis. She traveled to the U.S. on a solar-powered ship, not wanting to fly, given the carbon footprint.  She is here to do many things, including attend to the United Nations climate talks beginning a week from tomorrow.

Days before that meeting is the global strike for the climate on September 20. THIS FRIDAY. Initiated by youth climate activists, the call is for ALL to participate – and it is just five days away.   The global climate strike is supported by many organizations world-wide, including the Unitarian Universalist Association, including the Board of this congregation. 

Including the Central Jersey Climate Coalition, a group begun by students, faculty, and staff at Rutgers, responding to the call to strike.  We are blessed that some of these pragmatic, diligent, insistent organizers are here with us this morning.  They’ll have some time after my sermon to speak invite you to take part in the rally.  I’m hoping that they will stay for at least some of coffee hour to share with you more of their passion on this topic.  

The call to strike is wide – whatever level of participation your circumstance allows (and maybe stretching beyond your comfort zone).  Perhaps you can still put in for a day off from work this Friday.  If you own a business, you shut it down for the day (I know of at least one TUS congregant who is considering this – pretty impressive, if you ask me). Or if you can leave work early, you could join one of the 10 rallies statewide. 

If you are in this area, you can go to the rally at Rutgers at 2:30, with a march to Representative Frank Pallone’s office, demanding that he call hearings on the Green New Deal, since he is the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.   

Here’s what I know: If we continue with our business as usual, fed by our own versions of denial and wishful thinking – that is what our elected officials will do too.

On Friday, I will not be here (none of our church staff will be; as an employer, on the church side we are honoring the strike). Our emails will be silent as well.  (Of course, if you have a pastoral emergency, still call or text me!)  In the afternoon, I will be at the Rutgers rally.  I’m hoping to see some of you there, too.  Or you can start at the other local rally at the Reformed Church in Highland Park at 3pm. Both rallies are coordinated and will join together on our way to Representative Pallone’s office.

In the morning on Friday, the President of our Unitarian Universalist Association, Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray, is speaking at Community Church in New York City, as is the new Activist-in-Chief of 350.org – May Boeve. I’ve been wondering about whether I can squeeze that into what will be a busy, busy day. If any of you want to make a congregational trip of it, please let me know.

~~~

Before we hear from some Rutgers students, I want to bring your attention to the ClimateSpirit gathering happening this evening.  Its goal is to create over time a pocket of deep community through connecting, singing, sharing, and eating, providing a resilient space to process climate grief, in order to make room in your psyche, soul, or spirit to do whatever it is that is yours to do. I’m thankful to TUS member Stephanie Sasso, who will be leading the singing. It’s open to ages high school and older. It starts at 5:30. Each of you is invited.  All of you are welcome.  As are your friends, your neighbors, the wider community. Word of it has gone far and wide.  I can’t tell if we will have five people or fifty.

~~~

It is not easy to make room in our psyches, in our heartminds, for the reality of climate chaos, no matter the scale. If we did — if we do –it means that it is not just other people who must stop “business as usual.”  It is we who must do this.  And must do it now, for time is ever so short.

Let us, in whatever ways possible, rise up to the call, not only of this strike, but of this larger moment.  Let us raise up our personal sense of connection and our communal sense of hope. 

Let us refuse to bequeath a dying planet to future generations by failing to act now.

Let us act in peace, with ferocious love of these lands in our hearts.

Let us affirm: we act on behalf of life.

Amen.  And may it be so.

I’d like to welcome Rutgers folks from the Central Jersey Climate Coalition to come forward and share a few words with the congregation.  While they are speaking, baskets of climate strike buttons are being passed around.  Please take one – two if you will give the other away – to show your support for this global effort.


[1] Yamin, Farhana. This Is Not a Drill.


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

[2] https://insideclimatenews.org/news/27082019/12-years-climate-change-explained-ipcc-science-solutions

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Each a Part of the Beautiful Whole (sermon)

Water Ingathering 2019

September 8, 2019

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

All of us need all of us to make it.

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

All of us need all of us to make it.

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

What makes you you, makes us us.

Each of us, a part of the Beautiful Whole.

All of us need all of us to make it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of us need all of us to make it.

~~

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

I made this!

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


~~~

Terry Tempest Williams wrote,

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

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

May we all.

All of us need all of us to make it.

Amen. Blessed be.

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Lucky Pocket & Love Match

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, it’s your turn.

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

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

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Doom & Bloom: Reflections on Climate Grief

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

August 11, 2019

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

We have moved past climate change…

…to climate changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are those who do speak of collapse:

“an uneven ending

of our normal modes

of sustenance, security, pleasure, identity,

meaning and hope,”[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep Adaptation offers four guiding principles:

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

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

Then the other side of the cultivating resilience coin:

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

Third is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There will likely be tears.  And definitely laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.  Amen.  Blessed be.

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

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On Not Waiting to Be the Hummingbird (redux)

The Life and Death of Lee Hawkins

First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque

July 14, 2019

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

“As we live, so we die.”

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

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

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

Lee Hawkins

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

This is not lost on me:

Given that I have a tumor

That – I am told – will someday kill me

I have also the advantage

That I must reflect now –

While I am alive –

On the meaning of my life

And how I want to leave it.

I might have died quickly.

This is harder, perhaps,

But exquisitely richer:

I get to grieve for my own self.

How tender and not-to-be-missed

Is this?

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

Amen.  Blessed be. 

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