Preliminary Reflections on the Department of Justice Report on the Ferguson Police Department

The theme of the month at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) the congregation I serve, is letting go.  Starting in early February, I began working with the 4th to 7th Grades to create our annual worship service.  I asked them to reflect on the theme of “letting go” and they came up with the topic of forgiveness.   It was incredible to me, the insights they had on forgiveness. We talked about when it’s easy to forgive and when it’s not. What does it mean to forgive and what it does not mean (like forgetting)? What does it take to forgive?

I have found myself thinking a great deal about forgiveness and what it means in the context of justice. I spent considerable time reading the Department of Justice Report on Ferguson, and reflecting deeply on it.  Honestly, it was worse than I had suspected. Even as a dedicated white ally, committed to believing the stories of blacks in our city who spoke of feeling preyed upon by law enforcement, I was shocked by what I had read. I found myself wondering how anyone could have been a party to such overt discrimination and oppression? I wondered if the leaders really understood what they were doing. And if they did, what did that mean?
I found myself wondering about how good people can do evil things and still believe they are good. It was easy to become judgmental reading the report. “‘Those’ people did this to our black brothers and sisters.” But in whose name? Were they really just protecting Ferguson, or were those leaders doing this in our name? It is a common thing to hear during coffee hour after worship that St. Louis is a segregated city. But rarely do we talk about our collective responsibility for that reality.  It is much easier to distance ourselves from the dynamics that created the segregation and the systemic violence that maintains it.

Following the report, many Black Lives Matters leaders reaffirmed what the report shared, that the actions of the leaders in Ferguson were not unique to Ferguson. This is happening throughout our city. Blacks are systemically harassed in the ways written about in the DOJ report, throughout St. Louis. In fact, in the annual report about traffic stops in the region of St. Louis, Chesterfield ranks particularly high as a city that practices racial profiling. So do many of the communities that our members and friends live in. These law enforcement practices, supported by our elected leaders, are also implicitly and unconsciously supported by the residents of our many municipalities.

I have come to believe that one of the ways we start is by acknowledging what we have at stake in the status quo. You have to recognize what you’re responsible for before even considering asking for forgiveness. You have to recognize that you actually need forgiveness because we have helped create what exists now. And then, we have to undo the status quo that continues to damage and destroy so many lives.

When the Ferguson shooting first happened, I was deeply uncomfortable with the slogan “Shut it Down.” I felt it went too far. After reading the Department of Justice Report, I no longer feel this is a radical statement. When systemic racism is so deeply embedded, one wonders whether simple reform could ever be sufficient. I understand more deeply why the new generation of civil rights activists have largely abandoned the politics of respectability that shaped the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, It’s been 50 years since Blood Sunday and the march for voting rights. They are tired of waiting, tired of being polite, waiting for the rest of the country to recognize and understand what is happening to them. After reading the Department of Justice report, I can understand why they are tired and impatient.
So this Sunday we will see a sweet play about forgiveness. But look deeply at the message in the story, and let’s ask ourselves, what does it really mean to ask for forgiveness? What does it ask of us? What are those we are asking to forgive us being asked to let go of?

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Journeying with Grace – A Sermon

The challenge in this religious community has always been:  what will we do with that yearning for home? Will it make us inward focused, thinking only about ourselves and what we need and want, or will our yearning for home and permanence open our hearts up to the world, seeing home in the human heart, seeing home in the spiritual discipline of hospitality, open mindedness, and a deep compassion for the suffering in the world? Like many religious communities, this congregation’s predominant inclination is to focus inwards and we have always struggled with how to put the need for home in proper perspective so we do not become simply about ourselves. The challenge for us is to internalize the abiding truth that when you have an outward focus, you are taking care of the hearth fire. An outward focus will bring inward richness and bounty.

This sermon was delivered at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) on Sunday January 25, 2014:

Today we’re talking about journeying with grace. Packing our bag, looking toward a horizon, and moving towards it. How do we do that with integrity and with grace? Two weeks ago I talked about the kind of grace that is like receiving peace in complicated times.   Today I want to talk about grace as a way of moving through the world and in our relationships with others, grace as a way of finding new life over and over again.

Twenty-two years ago, I set off on a grand adventure! I wanted to set off on my own, free and independent. I got a job in a college cafeteria in Germany. I borrowed my brother’s knapsack, borrowed money from an uncle to pay the airfare, and set off. I hoped that I would be able to eat in the cafeteria until my first paycheck. I chose not to buy a travel guide, thinking I would save money by finding my way once I got there.

I also didn’t have money for lightweight clothing so my pack was pretty heavy. This became painfully obvious when I got lost looking for a hostel in Frankfurt because I didn’t have a travel guide for directions. Gone went a pair of prized jeans, several t-shirts, an extra pair of shoes, and a bottle of moisturizer, given to the pink haired punk kids who lived outside the train station. On the second day I got food poisoning at a German Chinese Restaurant. You think American Chinese is bad? Try German Chinese! Food poisoning was a mixed blessing. I had not desire to spend my dwindling cash supply on food.

I’m surprised I got to the school. I was saved by English speaking travelers and kind ladies who mistook my odd way of speaking German for being Swedish. I was saved by having parents who answered my collect calls and an ex-boyfriend who mailed a travel guide. I was saved by the cafeteria women, who treated me like a granddaughter. I gained 20 twenty pounds in 2 months.

In other words, I didn’t do my journey alone. I became ever more embedded in a network of relationships spanning continents, cultures, languages, and generations. All I had to do was set aside my pride and ask for help. It was not at all how I had envisioned my journey into independence, but it was how I made it through.

Our particular culture doesn’t always give us this story. The dominant story in the western world, especially for those of us who are white, educated, and middle class, is that going it on our own is morally superior to leaning on others. Self-reliance is a sign of moral strength. This is the story I hoped to live on my adventure. I wanted to be completely independent.  I will readily admit I felt some shame, even years later, for not being able to do that.

What I wonder now, is that perhaps I wasn’t giving myself credit for how strong I was. A foolish person would have kept trying to go it alone. A wise person knows when to ask for help. Perhaps this is a stronger way of being than being stoically suffering.

The word clouds that we saw this morning, created by the visioning process that this congregation is engaging, contain a lot of meaning, too much to examine in one sermon, but I think they show us a way of living in resistance to this dominant story.  I want to focus on four words that came up over and over again in those word clouds: community, children, home, and permanence.

Many of us have come here seeking out community because deep down we have learned that we can’t do life on our own. We are being wounded over and over by trying to live into the story of the self-made person.   What we are yearning for is interdependence, which is very different. Independence is standing alone. Interdependence is standing strong within the web of life, knowing that you are held in so many ways.

The other word that came up frequently is “children”. Many of you come to church for your children, you stay for your children, and even after they go off to college, you continue to stay because this is now your community and you want this community to be strong for those who come after you. Those of us who do not have children at home come to church because we want to be in a multigenerational community.

What is it about having children woven into our community life that is so spiritually nurturing? Children show us, without apology, what interdependence really looks like.   Children have permission to need us. We know that is the deal. When there are children in our midst, we can’t just up and go live our independent adventures. We have to think about our every choice and how it will impact them.

Some churches don’t do this very well. There is a strong generational divide between kids, their parents, and everyone else. We have made a different choice. Sometimes it makes life more complicated, often it even makes life more expensive, but we welcome that as a blessing because we believe it brings us into right relationship with each other. Multigenerational community is one of our spiritual disciplines.

The other two words that came up over and over again were “home” and “permanent”. Most of us know exactly where those words come from in the context of this church. Last summer, we experienced us packing up, selling, and leaving the place that we called home for 24 years. It’s not surprising that there is an emptiness because we don’t have that physical anchor anymore. I know that many of us have had the experience of packing up homes that we have lived in for generations, perhaps the family home when a parent passes away or needs a different level of care.   We will remember how hard it is to make the decisions – what do you keep, what goes to Goodwill, what gets thrown away? Every decision seems to be about how you will honor the history that you have experienced, the love, the memories. It is exhausting.

When you’ve packed the last box, locked the door, and driven away, it can feel like a hole in your heart. An anchor that has always been there, the centering of a physical place, is no longer there. It can be very disorienting and spiritually painful to accept your new normal. How long does it take to get used to this new normal? It can take a long time. There is a reason that the prevailing wisdom about a major loss is that you should make no significant decisions for 1-2 years after the loss. You may simply not be in the right frame of mind to make strong decisions. The loss defines the decisions for you.

It would be easy to assume from the word clouds that the presence of the words “home” and “permanent” is predominantly because of what we have just been through. But I think there is more to it than that.

Two weeks ago I talked about the impact on our psyches of having a very transient society. Most of us have lived in 3 or more states. We assume that our children will live in another city when they grow up. We assume that family may not mean an every day presence in our lives. I think this takes its toll. I know it has taken its toll on me. Living far from my family.   Far from childhood friends, having to recreate a community time after time.   Every new loss brings up echoes of older ones. I suspect that the sale of our building has touched on older losses that are still working themselves out in our psyches.

In every single visioning process this church has done, even before the move, even before I became your minister, home was always way up there. It would still be up there if we had remained in our building because we live in such a highly mobile society that we are managing loss all the time. So the presence of those is words is about more than just what happened six months ago.   It’s always been there, but it is magnified right now because of the move.

The challenge in this religious community has always been what will we do with that yearning for home. Will it make us inward focused, thinking only about ourselves and what we need and want, or will our yearning for home and permanence open our hearts up to the world, seeing home in the human heart, seeing home in the spiritual discipline of hospitality, open mindedness, and a deep compassion for the suffering in the world? Like many religious communities, this congregation’s predominant inclination is to focus inwards and we have always struggled with how to put the need for home in proper perspective so we do not become simply about ourselves. The challenge for us is to internalize the abiding truth that when you have an outward focus, you are taking care of the hearth fire.  An outward focus will bring inward richness and bounty.

As many of you know, we have been holding vigils for racial justice for three months. Every Saturday we stand at the same intersection at the Chesterfield Commons. Doing this has helped us create home in Chesterfield. We are claiming our place in a very different way than Emerson Chapel ever has before, by moving out into the world rather than into a physical building.   We are practicing the spiritual discipline of standing on the side of love. And for me, at least, St. Louis feels more like home than it ever has, because I have anchored in Unitarian Universalist values for my city. Home has happened by creating our sanctuary on a busy commercial drive. Our sanctuary is our bodies, standing together in love in the wind, in the rain, in the cold, and sometimes blissfully in the sun.

We know that it is going to take several years to have a permanent home again, even to rent a space that is only ours. We are going to have to grow as a congregation, quite a lot, and the board is going to look at exactly how much we would need to grow so that we have a realistic timeline for getting there. So, we need to keep that long term goal in front of us, and at the same time, look at how we will create home and permanence right now. With who we are now, where we are now.

When I look at all the faiths in the world, I see so many different ways of creating home. A Roman Catholic has home when they pull out their rosary beads. A Baptist is home when they open up the family Bible. A Jewish person has home when they say the Sabbath prayers. A Muslim is home when they face Mecca.

What is home for Unitarian Universalists? Our home is in our spiritual disciplines of interdependence, compassion, justice, equality, and reverence.

You know what one of my favorite times of the week has become? Sunday from 9- 10 a.m. because that’s when we create our sacred space. We move chairs, hang curtains, wire the sound, and roll in the pulpit and chalice. We make the coffee and set up the greeter table. Everyone is working together to create our sacred place. What we are doing is Unitarian Universalist theology in action.   We are incarnating interdependence. We all need each other, coming together, with our various skills and understandings, to create the vehicle for our community to connect and deepen. And when the chalice is extinguished at the end of worship, its transformative power goes into our hearts. We put all the material trappings of church away in Room 135, and the true center of our faith goes out into the world incarnated in us who have been strengthened and renewed in coming together.

If this is not an act of journeying with grace, then I don’t know what is. Sometimes my heart feels so big I don’t know how I will be able to hold it all, because of what I see us creating together, because of how I see us living our Unitarian Universalism. We often say that Unitarian Universalism is about thinking outside the box, standing against the grain, being creative and open minded, ready for new ideas and new ways of being. We aren’t just talking about that anymore, we are living it.

In this way, we are journeying with grace, remaining open and kind, thankful and generous, anchored in the present and looking to the future. Wherever we land years from now, right now, we have landed here, and we have the opportunity to find home right now. And we will find new life, over and over again.

May the spirit be with you and yours. Amen and blessed be.

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What’s Grace Got to Do With It?

It’s time to rehabilitate grace. You don’t have to believe in God or original sin to experience grace. You can be a humanist, you can be an atheist, you can be someone who doubts everything you hear, and grace is still there for us. It can have a place in our thinking, it can have a place in our living and our loving. Grace provides a pathway out of guilt, fear and shame, and a path into new life and healing.

This sermon was delivered to the good people of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) on January 11th.  A sermon it is meant to be heard rather than read, and that influences the style of its writing.

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I am wondering this morning what grace means at the end of a week that saw 17 people gunned down by religious extremists in France and the bombing of an NAACP office in Colorado. That’s two hate crimes this week, two acts of terror.

I find myself looking for grace, wanting some assurance that under all this chaos, under the violence and the fear, under the grief and anger, under the distrust, there is something bigger than this, something that can’t be shaken even by the most horrendous things that happen in the world and in our own lives. I’m looking for something that is stronger and more beautiful and more resilient than the things that create such damage. I’m looking for grace.

This month our worship theme is grace. The grace we receive, the grace we offer, the grace that happens. What is grace?   Where does it come from?   What does it mean?

If you were raised Christian, and I was, many of us received an understanding of grace that we grew uncomfortable with. This understanding of grace is couched in the theology of original sin and it goes something like this:

Way back when the world was created, we humans were created pure and unblemished, placed in the Garden of Eden. However, Adam and Eve could not resist the temptations of the serpent and bit into that apple. Their whole perspective changed and for the first time they felt fear and shame. God figured this out pretty quickly and banished them from the Garden of Eden. Their punishment was that human life would now mean suffering. All of humanity was now stained with that original sin of Adam and Eve and our life would be hard because of it. But, God never stopped wanting us to have more than that. He sent his son Jesus to come and be with us and teach us a new way to live.   God then decided to put all the sin of the world on his son and let him be killed. Our sins were killed with him. This would save us from that original sin of Adam and Eve and give us new life. God’s grace is that we are saved not by our own actions but rather by his generosity. Grace is something we have been given, something that we do not deserve and could not earn.

Many of us turned away from this understanding of grace because we just couldn’t buy into the assumption that to be human should mean to suffer, or that every human carried an original sin. It seemed only to create guilt and fear and shame. It was hard for us to imagine that humanity is beyond redemption, or that a tiny baby could be born with sin.

The sad thing is, that the way we many of us learned to look at grace actually kept us from it. I don’t think that you can get to grace through shame and fear and guilt. These feelings blind us and they imprison us. They put up a wall between us and the grace that is always there for us.

I think it’s time to rehabilitate grace. You don’t have to believe in God or original sin to experience grace. You can be a humanist, you can be an atheist, you can be someone who doubts everything you hear, and grace is still there for us. It can have a place in our thinking, it can have a place in our living and our loving. Grace provides a pathway out of guilt and fear and shame and into new life and healing.

Our children’s story this morning, The Great Ibex, gives us a different paradigm for grace. When the Ibex leaps over that chasm and sees the king thrown off his horse, there is no sense that the king is in this predicament because he deserves it, that some kind of divine justice has happened. Instead, the Ibex’s heart softens. A man is suffering and will surely die if he does not turn around. Grace happens because the Ibex sees the king’s humanity and is moved by it.

It doesn’t stop there. Grace continues because the King is also changed. What I find most interesting is the King’s first response when he sees the Ibex. “I’m a beast!” he says, echoing the kind of shame and guilt that many of us were taught to express in the face of grace. The Ibex doesn’t go for it.  He invites the King onto his back and gets him out of danger.

There are two things about this story that I want to hold up here.

First, when King asks him what he can do in return, the Ibex says, “Stop killing for sport. Don’t use our lives for your amusement.”  The Ibex asked the King to change his life because of the grace he had experienced.

Second, notice that the Ibex didn’t ask the king for anything before he saved him. He could have used the king’s life as a bargaining chip. “I’ll save you if you do this for me.” He didn’t use the king’s disadvantage for his own well being. I doubt that the Ibex would have asked for anything if the King had not offered. He simply would have saved the King because it was the right thing to do. He saved the King with no demands, and only asked the King for what we wanted after the king offered.

There is so much grace in this story: the Ibex, who turned around and offers the King life-saving help with nothing asked in return; and, the King, who accepts the gift. We can use this story as a way to anchor grace in every part of our lives and to save ourselves from some of the ways we are taught to look at each other.

I was reading an article some time ago about changing trends in the ways we understand our relationships with other people. This author, and I wish I could remember her name, remarked that it seemed to her that people determine each other’s worth by how it helps us advance our own agenda. This isn’t new. People have been doing this forever, but she has seen a marked change, in that this is becoming the primary way we have started viewing each other and measuring each other’s worth, by how it benefits us personally. This is a modus operandi not only in our business lives, but increasingly in our personal lives.

I see this happening for us at this time for two reasons. There are probably more, but two come to mind.

Firstly, we see in American society the kind of fragmentation of community and family in a way never seen before.   Most of us live far from our families and many of us have uprooted many times, leaving behind friendships and community. When I was young, I had this feeling that life was infinite, that if I moved on, or someone moved on, there would always be someone to replace them. I don’t feel that way anymore. You cannot simply replace people. There is always something lost that you cannot simply find in a new person. I think that in our highly mobile society there is always some part of ourselves that is grieving, either because we have left or someone has left us. One of the normal responses to that continuous loss is to protect ourselves by holding back from each other’s humanity. That makes it much easier to see people only in terms of what they can offer us.

Another reason is because corporate values have gained the status of religious values in modern American society. The corporate world has gain such hegemonic power that we begin to see all of life through a corporate lens. All of you know that in the corporate world your sole value to the organization you work for is how you benefit that organization. It’s what you do not who you are. That makes sense when there is a bottom line! We all know that all those glossy mission statements and personnel initiatives are really about improving your performance for the well being of the corporation you work for. And that’s o.k. The problem is that by giving that value system such power, almost sacred power, we are carrying those assumptions into our private lives and seeing each other the same way we are seen in our work lives.

My concern is that this represents a decline in the experience of life itself. When you see a person only as a tool for your own path, and when you are seen as a tool by others, the result is a gradual dehumanization.   Instead of seeing the beauty and complexity of human life, we see a myriad of competing agendas whose value is measured only by whether it advances our agenda or stands in the way of it.

We assume everyone has an agenda. When that happens, life becomes a series of power struggles.   There is always reason to distrust. There is always reason to be afraid and cautious, to worry about what lies around the next bend in the road. Everything becomes competitive. I have no problem with competitiveness when it helps us to excel. I am a highly competitive person myself. I also know that there are times when we cross the line and competitiveness no longer becomes about being our best self, but about a ceaseless jockeying for position and power.

When you think about it, what happened in Paris this week and what happened in Colorado are extreme versions of this same dynamic – where people are dehumanized, seen only as chess pieces in a game.   These acts of terror were designed to steal life for the purposes of a larger agenda.

It’s very tempting when something horrible like this happens to demonize those who commit these horrendous acts, to make them as unlike us as possible. I see it a bit differently.   These acts of terror are at the extreme end of a continuum that has changed all of us, where we value people primarily by how they benefit us. Most of us would not consciously take this constant jockeying for power to the place where it includes intentional loss of life. But, I would say we lose our lives in all kinds of ways beyond physical death when we live this way. Seeing others primarily as chess pieces in our own game is a kind of death, for us and for them.   It’s also true that some of the deep systems that shape our world – economic systems, political systems, religious systems, environmental systems – systems that we participate in, are like a massive chess game that ends up in loss of life and loss of hope and possibility.

How can you receive grace when you’re always wondering what the person offering it really wants? How can you offer grace when you’re already planning how it will benefit you?

True grace is when we set aside our agendas, when we let go of the ceaseless search for more power and be in another’s presence, open to the fullness of their spirit and how we might be changed by it. In my opinion, the most effective resistance to acts of terror is to refuse to continue the terror in the way we treat others. Acts of terror are meant to make us respond to life with fear. When we respond to acts of terror with fear-based decisions, the terrorist has won. We have finished the job for them.

Grace happens when we set aside fear and when we set aside the game that values people only for what they can do for us. It’s not an easy thing to do. We are trained to be afraid, trained to distrust. Can you imagine what it took for the Ibex to stop running? He knew he was safe. He had outrun the King and his horse. Why not just keep going?

Imagine this. Imagine that the Ibex kept running and that the King somehow managed to get out of the forest. The King might have gone home frustrated at his unsuccessful hunt, and probably come back out again as soon as his health permitted. The Ibex could very well have found himself once again the object of the king’s pursuit, and maybe this time he wouldn’t have made it. He might have fallen to the cycle of the hunt. Because the Ibex turned around and faced the person who was his enemy, the cycle was broken. The hunt stopped. The Ibex and the King saw each other’s mutual value and broke the pattern.

This is grace.

Theologian Paul Tillich writes that,  “Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. …. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness. If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience, we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed.”

Grace breaks the pattern of dehumanization that we are part of.   Each of us is the Ibex, running from an enemy. Each of us is also the King, chasing the object of our desires. Grace happens when we stop running and when we stop chasing. Imagine what life would be like if the hunt stopped?

What hunt needs to stop in your own life? One of the things that drew me into Unitarian Universalism, perhaps it drew you as well, is that I saw in this faith tradition a way out of some of the cycles in my life that kept me from accepting grace. I was hunter and hunted and I was so tired. I wanted to journey with people who lived a different way. Our whole approach to life is to release to grace, to trust that when you withdraw from that power struggle, life isn’t going to crash in. Instead we are free, liberated. This is how we channel the human spirit. This is how we manifest the holy.

This week, I would invite you to spend some time reflecting on where in your life you struggle the most. What you running from?   What are you pursuing? What would happen if you stopped running? What would happen if you stopped the pursuit? Is it possible that grace is waiting for you?

May the spirit of life, the spirit that frees and liberates, be with you and yours. Amen and blessed be.

copyright of Rev. Krista Taves.

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Moving forward as White Moderates

This Sunday, in honor of Martin Luther King Day, we at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel, located in West St. Louis County, will return to our focus on racial justice in our city. Three members of our congregation who either live or work in North County will be sharing their personal experiences of life during the last several months. Tim Martin grew up in North County and has served as a firefighter in that area for 20 years. Kelly Waymire lived in Florissant and her next- door neighbor and friend is Tom Jackson, Police Chief of the Ferguson Police Department.   Megan Demsky and her husband live in the home David’s grandparents own in Ferguson, blocks from the marches that have taken place since August. I chose to ask Kelly and Tim in particular because their understanding of events differs in significant ways from mine. I wanted their voices to have a place in our congregational life. That is what a religious democracy looks like.

We have all changed since August. At the time the shooting of Michael Brown occurred and the community surged into the streets, I would have been extremely uncomfortable using the phrase “police brutality.” It seemed so strident, divisive, inflammatory and extreme. Then through the fall I began to see real evidence of police brutality at the protests. Still, I would not use the phrase. I thought to myself that really, only black people should use that word. It’s their truth, not mine. I have come to the feeling that it is a cop out. Those of us with eyes to see know that police brutality exists and has deeply shaped the black experience. If we wish to be true allies for racial justice, we have to take our black brothers’ and sisters’ word for it. We have to believe them and we have to share that we believe them. I, for one, believe them.

At the same time, I know many police and their families have paid a steep price this fall. Some live in fear of their lives. Kelly Waymire will testify to that in her sharing. In my opinion, there is no room for demonization of the police in this struggle. We do not create justice by creating enemies. We do not create accountability by threatening more lives. There is enough death happening already.

I know that many acts of violence have been committed in these last months, state-sanctioned violence and violence from civilians, and that the type of violence each uses is different. State-sanctioned violence tends to be focused on the bodies of the protesters – beatings, tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, incarceration. The violence used by some civilians tends to focus on property damage – trashing cars, burning buildings, smashing windows, theft.

There is also something important to take into consideration that is very rarely spoken of. Some of the property damage has come from white protesters who often self-identify as anarchists, and yet it is the black protesters as a whole who are often blamed for it in the media and put in jail for it.

We know that 99% of the protesters are committed to non-violent resistance and have spent tremendous time, effort and money training in the non-violent resistance used by Martin Luther King and Ghandi, and then translating those methods into a response to today’s realities. If you want to learn more about non-violent resistance watch the movie “Selma” and read about the history of the labor movement. Every tool that the resistance is using was refined in union activism that raised the standard of living for ordinary Americans for more than 60 years and lead to many labor laws that protect us today.   These same tools of change and liberation are being used by The Movement today.

This fall, I was exposed to a piece of writing by Martin Luther King that not many whites pay much attention to. It has made a deep impression on me and has influenced some of my decision making this year. It comes from King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and was read during an interfaith service I attended with Vice-President of the Board Jake Lyonfields in October:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

Whenever I wonder what to do next, I go back to this and it gives me the courage to keep on. I don’t want African Americans in the country to keep paying the price because I’m afraid and resistant. Whenever I get tired or afraid, especially afraid of the reaction of other white people, I think about that. What is happening in our city is not a simple story. On one level nothing has changed. Many of us go to work, send our kids to school, shop for our groceries, live our lives. One another level, everything has changed. My hope is that we resist the impulse to return to the status quo. I hope that we have the courage and vision to stay in the complexity and to show up for the long haul.

Some of that complexity will happen this Sunday. I do hope you will join us this Sunday and listen to our people speak. I admire them for their courage and their focus, their willingness to share what is in their hearts. Let us open our hearts to their stories. Let us be willing to be challenged by them.

Yours in faith and love,

Rev. Krista.

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“Whose Are You?” Hanukkah Reflections

When you look in the mirror in the morning, whose bones do you see? Whose blood runs in your veins? Who are those people, stretching back in time, beyond memory? Where did you come from? Whose are you? (Rev. Victoria Safford)

This sermon was delivered to the good people of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) on Sunday December 21, 2014.

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Today’s sermon is about how you know who your people are. Who do you belong to and what does that ask of you? I want to start with a reading from one of our esteemed ministers, Rev. Victoria Safford:

“Whose are you?

Who carries you in their heart, thinks of you, whether you think of them or not?

Whose are you?

Who are your people, the ones who make a force field you can almost touch?

Whose are you?

Who is within your circle of concern?

Whose are you?

To whom are you responsible, accountable? Whose care is yours to provide?

Whose are you?

When you look in the mirror in the morning, whose bones do you see? Whose blood runs in your veins? Who are those people, stretching back in time, beyond memory? Where did you come from?

Whose are you?

When you walk out of your room, out of your house, into the sunlight of the day, to whom in this wide world do you belong? Where is your allegiance, by whom are you called?

Whose are you?

At the end of the day, through the longest night, in the valley of the shadow of death

and despair, who holds your going out and coming in, your waking and your sleeping?

Who, what, holds you in the hollow of its hand?

Whose are you?”

I imagine that one of the reasons today’s children’s story, “A Chanukah Noel” by Sharon Jennings was published is because so many Jewish parents have experienced their children begging to be part of Christmas. In the Western world, Christmas is huge! There are so many traditions – food, music, Christmas trees, lights, and of course, Santa Claus and presents! Christmas has a strong allure.

Can you imagine a child seeing that and not wanting to be a part of it? Like Colette’s parents, many Jewish parents search their hearts when their children come to them, and they decide to say no to Christmas because of what it would mean to say yes. Given the complicated relationship between Judaism and Christianity, with the historical dominance of Christianity and the long history of Jewish oppression, allowing Christmas a place in their children’s lives would be crossing a line. It would be betraying who they are.

But I imagine it would be very difficult, especially if, like Collette, your children are in a school where they are a minority and all the other kids are in full Christmas mode. For most children, acceptance by their friends is one of the most important things. Being different in any way is hard. I can imagine that as a parent, knowing that setting this boundary makes life harder for your child, at least in the short term, would be hard. But in the long run, it could also help them to understand who they and who their people are.

One of the reasons that the Jewish Celebration of Hanukkah was raised up as a prominent Jewish holiday in the last century was to help parents deal with this dilemma. After a while, just saying no to Christmas wasn’t enough. There had to be a creative way to respond to the very real needs of their children and remain faithful to Judaism and the Jewish people at the same time. Over time, this minor Jewish holiday has organically evolved into a significant tradition. It’s really the perfect holiday to respond to the all-encompassing power of Christmas because the story behind the holiday is about surviving as a people. Hanukkah offers a precious opportunity to teach Jewish children who they are.

According to the story, some 2500 years ago the nation of Israel was occupied by the Assyrian Greek Empire and the empire did not look favorably upon the Jewish religion and culture.   They saw it as a threat to their ability to rule the land. They shut down temples, and they banned the practice of Judaism and the speaking of their language.

A small band of Israelites, the Maccabees, finally had enough. They started a war of resistance to throw out the Greeks and with the help of some of the neighboring countries, who also wanted the Greeks out, they really made some progress!

In one battle, they regained control of a Jewish temple that the Greeks had ransacked. When they entered the temple they were heartbroken to see that the temple had been ransacked. Most heartbreaking of all, the temple lamp, which should burn without ceasing, was extinguished. To see that lamp dark and empty was a powerful symbol of what they feared most – the end of their people. Lighting it would mean that Judaism could be saved from extinction. So they lit the temple flame and began to make new oil, even knowing that it would take eight days for the new oil to be ready, even knowing that the flame would probably die out before that oil was ready.

The miracle is that it didn’t. The flame stayed lit for 8 days until the new oil was ready. This signified that their faith could survive any assault and that their people would persevere through any struggle.

In the 20th century, this minor celebration was given a new importance as a way to help Jewish children celebrate their Jewish identity during the Christmas season. There are special songs and special prayers. There are special foods and games. There is the central symbol of Hanukkah, the menorah, with its eight candles and a ninth from which to light the rest. And… there is a small present for every child, every night, for the eight nights of Hanukkah! Top that Christmas!

But the truth is, Jewish parents wanted their children to be able to look in the mirror and see whose bones shaped their faces, and whose blood ran in their veins, and whose people, stretching back in time, beyond memory, they came from.

Hanukkah has become especially important in the United States for another reason. Although there isn’t a dangerous empire trying to kill their language and their history, there is always the allure of assimilation. Fewer and fewer Jewish children actively practice Judaism when they grow up and intermarriage is more and more common.   There are real fears that in the west, Judaism is in serious decline. It is a prominent subject that is talked about all the time. The question that is asked over and over is, “How do we keep our children?”

One of the ways that you can learn a lot about any culture or any religion or any family is to find out what people worry about for their children.   Many Americans are learning, for instance, that in the African American community the question many parents ask themselves everyday, is, “How do I keep my children safe?” In the Hispanic community, many parents ask themselves, “Will my children ever be truly accepted as part of this country?” These questions tell us about the truth of their lives. They tell us something about their identity as a people.

There is a commonality between the identity of these three peoples – Jewish, Hispanic, Black – and that is of a people who have suffered and their identity is kindled in the shared experience of suffering.   But the challenge for many American Jewish children is that the suffering is a memory, stories that are told to them by their elders, whereas for many Black and Hispanic children, the suffering is now. It tells them, often painfully, whom they belong to. For a people under that kind of pressure, knowing whom you belong to is often literally about knowing where it is safe so that you can survive physically and spiritually.

I wonder about those of us whose identity is not kindled in the experience of shared suffering. How do we know who we belong to? Is it harder for us to know who our people are and to feel that truth in our bones?

One of the results of this congregation’s decision to sell its building six months ago is that many of us are wondering whose we are. When you live in the same place for more than two decades, it becomes woven into your bones and it feels like it must be part of the blood in your veins. Where does this church live now? Whose are we? We are finding a new way to be a people.

This church will probably own its own building again someday, but it’s going to take a while. I find myself wondering how we can be a people in this moment, in this time.  I’m reminded of the story of the Israelites, after they left the slavery of Egypt and wandered the desert for 40 years. As long as they focused on what they didn’t have, they stumbled. When they embraced their desert life, they found who they were as a people. They became stronger and stronger and stronger. They echoed the Hanukkah story that would become part of their tradition a thousand years later. They lit in themselves the temple flame and found new life.

I know it’s going to take a while to settle into our new reality, but my hope is that we are becoming a new kind of people, unified by the mission of our liberal religious faith tradition, which is that this world can be transformed by the values of equality, justice, unity, compassion, and forgiveness, that we together are agents for peacemaking in our world. If we can see this time as not just an in-between time, meant to be left as quickly as possible, but as the best place we can be, rich with possibility, that is how we light the temple flame.

I find myself thinking of Collette and her parents and the beautifully creative way that they responded to her deep need by offering Christmas to another family while keeping in place the boundaries for who they were as a people. Collette’s family actually recreated the Hanukkah story. This time the temple was an impoverished French family. They lit the temple flame by generously sharing Christmas with them. When the French family invited them in, a flame that could have burned only 1 night, now burned for 8. For that one evening, and who knows, maybe beyond, these two families became friends, the kind of friends that sustain one through good times and bad. That’s the miracle of Hanukkah.

When you go home today, I’m going to ask you to try something. Find a candle, any candle, it could be a real candle or a virtual candle on your phone and sit with it someplace that is a place of peace for you. Light that candle and focus on the question, “Whose are you?”

“Who carries you in their heart, thinks of you, whether you think of them or not?

Who are the ones who make a force field you can almost touch?

Whose blood runs in your veins? To whom in this wide world do you belong? Where is your allegiance, by whom are you called?

Whose are you?”

As you live into these answers, a flame that you may fear will burn only 1 night will miraculously burn 8, and you will be living the Hanukkah story of perseverance and hope.

For those of you who celebrate Hanukkah, may this be a beautiful time for you, with family, friends, held by a rich history and faith. For all of us, may the spirit of life be with you and yours. Amen and blessed be.

This sermon may be shared and reproduced provided credit is given to Rev. Krista Taves.  Sermons are a shared experience, part of the ongoing dialogue between minister and congregation.  They are meant to be heard rather than read, and that influences the style in which they are written and presented here.

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Finding Inner Peace in a Complicated World

Inner peace is not something that we attain despite the challenges and anxieties of our lives. Inner peace isn’t just about finding serenity. It is something that we find with and through the challenges of our lives. It’s when we center down into the very things that seem to be in the way of experiencing inner peace, and emerge from that centering down with a clearer sense of conviction and connection and confidence.

This sermon was delivered to the good people of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel (www.emersonuuchapel.org) on Sunday December 7, 2014.

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Once upon a time, there was a king who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists tried their hand, and hundreds of pictures of peace lined the king’s distinguished throne room. One by one, the king looked at all the pictures.

There were only two he really liked.

One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror for the peaceful towering mountains all around it. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought that it was a perfect picture of peace!

The other picture had mountains, too, but these were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky, from which rain fell and in which lightning played. Down the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all, and everyone who saw it wondered what the artist could possibly be thinking.

But when the king looked closely, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush a mother bird had built her nest. There, in the midst of the rush of angry water, the grey thundering raining skies, and the wind rushing the rugged and bare mountain, sat a mother bird on her nest of eggs, in perfect peace.

What the king understood is that peace is not something that depends on a serene environment, with the perfect combination of factors, where nothing distracts or threatens or surprises. Peace can happen anywhere, at any time, and in any heart that truly commits to it.

When I think about those two pictures, I can think of a few moments where my life felt like a picture perfect lake, with a perfect sky and perfect clouds and perfect mountains. I’ve had some moments like that, like the last time that my three brothers and I were in the same room together. It was just so beautiful I could have cried if I let myself. Or that time at a concert where the music moved me and I felt lifted above the confusion of the world and my own conflicted heart. I had such a clear sense of perfect inner peace and I wished it would never end. You’ve probably had these kinds of moments too. But they don’t happen every day. They may happen only a few moments in your life.   What about the rest of our lives?

It seems to me that life is more often like the second picture.   There is usually something going on that seems to make life difficult and anxious. Maybe it’s pressure at work. Demands from family. Demands at school. Stress about money. Illness. Applying for college. Maybe a loved one has really let you down and you don’t know what to do. Maybe you’re the one who did the letting down and you don’t know what to do.   Then there’s the really big stuff. Like what’s happening in our city around racial tension, and the impact that is having on many of our relationships and the way we feel about each other and our city and our nation.   There’s a lot of emotional and political heat in our city right now. Every one of us is being pushed and challenged in the way we see ourselves, each other, and our world. That’s a stressful place to be. Living with that kind of pressure takes its toll on all of us.

One of the things you often hear people say is that things are faster now than they used to be. and that life is harder and more frantic. I’ve said it myself, and I wonder if many of us use this to justify why our lives seem plagued by anxiety and pressure, that it’s different now than it used to be. We have more of it.

But then, I look at the scriptures and I look at folk tales, like this story of the king, and it seems to me that in every time and every place, anxiety and pressure exist, and every people has struggled with how to meet the demands of their day while fully appreciating that day and being in a place of centeredness and peace. The practice of meditation wasn’t created in the last 25 years. It was created thousands of years ago. We aren’t unique and our yearnings didn’t just happen in this lifetime. They have always been there.

I think about that bird in our story, sitting in a small bush that grew out of a crack in the rock. Somehow, in all the tension around her, she still had the resolve to lay her eggs and to sit there, patiently waiting, to birth new life, in that harsh environment. So much could have distracted and discouraged her.   She could have said, “This is a lousy place to build a nest. I’m going to wait for that perfect lake with the perfect mountains and the perfect blue sky. That’s where I’m going to make my nest and have my family.”

If she had tried that, she would still be looking because no life can be that perfect and that serene, not if you want to be engaged and connected with other human beings and with the world and even with yourself, not if you want to love and be loved, and not if you want to grow as a person.

Instead, she stayed where she was. She made her home in an imperfect place, even, one could say, a harsh place. She found a little tiny corner behind the rushing water, that seemed, in the moment, to be safe enough to dream of a future. Then she did the bravest thing of all, she entrusted the life of her children to that imperfect place. She literally put all her eggs in one basket.

Now I hope you know that I’m not just literally talking about when it’s best to have kids, although if that’s the message you need to hear this morning, more power to you!

This is a metaphor for our lives.

The bird in her nest symbolizes what is possible for each of us when we realize that inner peace is not about what surrounds us. It’s about what we do with what surrounds us. It’s about what we do with it in our hearts, in our minds, and then in our actions.

Inner peace is not something that we attain despite the challenges and anxieties of our lives. Inner peace isn’t just about finding serenity. It is something that we find with and through the challenges of our lives. It’s when we center down into the very things that seem to be in the way of experiencing inner peace, and emerge from that centering down with a clearer sense of conviction and connection and confidence.

I want to read you a poem by Howard Thurman, called “How Good To Center Down”:

“How good it is to center down

To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!

The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic;

Our spirits resound with clashings, with noisy silences,

While something deep within hungers and thirsts for the still moments and the resting lull.

With full intensity we seek, ere the quiet passes, a fresh sense of order in our living;

A direction, a strong sure purpose that will structure our confusion and bring meaning in our chaos.

We look at ourselves in this waiting moment – the kinds of people we are.

The questions persist: what are we doing with our lives? – what are the motives that order our days?

What is the end of our doings? Where are we trying to go?

Where do we put the emphasis and where are our values focused?

For what end do we make sacrifices? Where is my treasure and what do I love most in life?

What do I hate most in life and to what am I true?

Over and over the questions beat in upon the waiting moment.

As we listen, floating up through all the jangling echoes of our turbulence, there is a sound of another kind –

A deeper note which only the stillness of the heart makes clear.

It moves directly to the core of our being. Our questions are answered,

Our spirits refreshed, and we move back into the traffic of our daily round.

With the peace of the Eternal in our step.

How good it is to center down!”

Thurman’s understanding of inner peace locates it in the middle of our real lives, in our busy minds, in the clashings of our spirit. Inner peace is not an escape from the pressures of our days. Inner peace happens by centering down in them, listening to our inner voice, and asking what all this is saying to the core of our being.

In Unitarian Universalism, there is a very special understanding of the voice within. It has four layers to it.

The first layer is truly our unique private inner personal voice that belongs only to us and responds to the particularities of our life.

The second layer of our inner voice is part of the larger communal human voice of generations where we hear the echo of every human emotion and yearning, and we are its bearers for the time that we are on earth. When we listen to this inner voice, we are connecting to the entirety of human existence, from ancient times to now.

The third layer of our inner voice is a pathway from the entire natural world, yearning to live into the complete fullness of our being. Our inner voice is one manifestation of that same energy that is in the seed that must sprout when it hits the earth, in the water that must flow from its source, in the salmon that will swim against the current to spawn, and in the flower that will bloom magnificently until it’s time has come. Listening to our inner voice is listening to the whole magnificence of creation.

And the fourth layer of our inner voice is the holy, or the mystical union, or the God of your understanding. In Unitarian Universalism we often say that there is a spark of the divine in each of us. When you listen to your inner voice, not the voice that is connected to pride or ego or the momentary meeting of desire, when you strip those away, you center down into the voice of God itself speaking through you.

Those are the four layers of your inner voice – the self, humanity, all of creation, and the mystical union of all things. This is why, in our faith tradition, we pay so much attention to that deep listening. So much of our religious education for our children is about helping them to learn to listen to their inner voice, to cultivate a deep sense of reverence for what they hear, and then to take responsibility to think about what they hear and what it asks of them.

Every challenge and anxiety we face, every imperfectness in our lives, is an opportunity to center down and listen to the inner voice and participate in the ongoing revelation of truth and meaning and wisdom.   It is like sitting on a nest of eggs promising a future amidst the grey sky, the rain, and the barren mountain.

This week, in the midst of all those things that ask for your time and energy, find some time to center down. It could be during your morning commute, or that quiet five minutes before you wake up the kids, over a last hot cup of tea before you go to bed, or between the meetings and commitments that fill your days. Listen for the inner voice and it will connect you to all history and all time and all being.

May the spirit of the ages be with you and yours, amen and blessed be.

Ideally, a sermon is meant to be heard rather than read, which will account for the style of its writing.  This sermon may be reproduced and shared provided credit is give to Rev. Krista Taves.

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It’s time for a new hymnal

kristataves:

I would second this. Thank you!

Originally posted on A Free Faith:

A facebook conversation got me thinking: it’s time.

It’s been more than two decades since our last hymnal update, and though Singing the Living Tradition is generally well-liked and in wide use among UU congregations, it’s time.

Twenty years ago, few if any UU congregations were projecting hymn lyrics. Twenty years ago, the Internet was still a new-fangled thing for most people. Twenty years ago, tablet computers weren’t even a dream.

And now? The most recent hymnal from the Presbyterian church is not only available in the traditional paper format, but also comes in online (fully indexed, with recorded versions of hymns!), projection-ready, and e-book formats. What I wouldn’t give for all three of those right now. Retrofitting our old hymnal to be able to do these is nearly impossible, I’m told; it would mean renegotiating many rights agreements, for one thing, which makes it difficult enough we might as…

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