This Thing Called Surrender

Surrender happens when you let go of attachment to something that is beyond your control and you come to an acceptance of what is and can even see the beauty in it. Surrender is not easy because it involves issues of identity and power.  Most of us are terrible at surrender.  But, it can offer freedom and the ability to truly embrace life and all its possibilities.

This message was offered to Eliot Unitarian Chapel on August 16, 2020:

One of the things I have always loved about Unitarian Universalism is that we are passionate about service.  Our faith has never just been about what we believe.  In fact we proclaim that it is not enough for a church to simply proclaim what we believe about God or the universe.  It is more important that we focus on how we live and act.  This is why our theology engages a holy restlessness. We have such a profound vision of how things could be if we truly lived in right relationship that when we see the gap between what is and what should be, we want to do something to stop the suffering and harm that comes from the deep brokenness of this world,  to be there for the mending.  We have this deep conviction that we are called to tear down the hells of this world and restore the heaven of beloved community.

This theology of action and possibility is all wrapped up in our understanding of humanity, not as depraved or inherently sinful, but rather born, every one of us, with a deep glowing spark of love, the kind of love that is so powerful that it holds all of us and blesses us with the capacity to create goodness. Everything we do in Unitarian Universalism is about channeling that love.  That’s pretty powerful, and it’s one of the ways that Unitarian Universalism helps us to find new life, new energy, and hope.

But sometimes, I have found that there’s something missing in how we live this faith as action.  Sometimes we are so focused on the goal, so focused on what could be or should be and how important it is to get there that we become detached from the present moment.  This isn’t unique to Unitarian Universalism.  Our culture is a goal driven culture.  We are addicted to stats, rankings, accomplishments, and productivity.  We measure each other and ourselves constantly and relentlessly.

More and more, I wonder about how we take care of ourselves and each other when we ourselves are broken by the brokenness that we yearn to end. One of the larger stories we tell in our society is that those who are broken are morally weak, and that they did it to themselves.  Even though intellectually most of us know this isn’t true and that it’s pretty abusive many of us do have that voice in our heads saying, “Come on, pull yourself up, you should do better, be stronger, less…. broken.”

There was a time in my life when I was truly disillusioned and filled with heartbreak. What caused it is less important than the fact that it happened.  I went to church on one Sunday when things were particularly hard and the sermon was one of those biography sermons of someone who did great things and overcame incredible odds.  Many of us who have been around Unitarian Universalism have certainly heard a version of this sermon. I’ve given a sermon like this myself many times, offering someone as a model of how to live well and justly. But on that Sunday it fell far short of what my spirit needed, because the call to be strong and keep pushing forward just made me feel not good enough.

So I turned next to the closest thing we have to a Bible, which is our hymnal, and started looking for comfort.  Wouldn’t you know, most of the hymns were like that sermon.  They proclaimed hope, encouraged us to strive for victory, anchor in our power and work towards justice, which is all well and good.  I found only one hymn that gave me permission to feel lost and small:  “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child… sometimes I feel like a motherless child.  Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.  A long way from home.  A long way from home.” What is significant about this hymn is that it is one of the few in our grey hymnal from the African American tradition, from a communal history that often experiences powerlessness.  There is no fight in this song but rather a bittersweet surrender and vulnerability. Most of our hymns are written by those who are in social locations of power, who assume they have the agency to change and heal the world, with the brokenness usually at arms length, something out there that we fix rather than something in here that is tearing us apart.

I began to wonder, is Unitarian Universalism only for the strong?  Only for the moments when you are in your power?  What about those moments that invite you not into some fight but rather into a place where the most powerful thing is to surrender to what is inside you and around you.

The answer of course is that no, you don’t have to always be strong and in your center of power to be a UU.  But I do think that in our very optimistic and forward looking faith where we often focus so much on what we should be doing, we can certainly think about how we might respond with more compassion in times of weakness when we are wrapped in shadow, when we lose our faith or are brought low by those things that are so much bigger than us that we are rendered powerless.

Sometimes it’s not time to fight.  It’s time to surrender, to come into a place of  acceptance and to let it be trusting that we will be held by that greater love which knows no limits.

I want to tell you about a time when I had to learn to surrender.

Three years ago, with no warning, my eldest brother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.  My mom flew out right away, my partner and I followed closely behind, and my Dad arrived shortly after.  By the time we all arrived, the prognosis was in – no cure, he might have a year.  As is so common in the face of terrible news, we all went into doing something.  It was easier to write lists than to sit in the reality of what was happening.  It helped us feel like we had some control over something!  It was decided that we would take shifts staying with him and his wife and I was first.  My job was to drive him for his treatments, a 4 hour round trip from his farm into Edmonton Alberta.  We left as the sun rose and got home as it was setting.  Our whole lives were shaped by his medications, his treatments, his sleep schedule, and every symptom and side effect.

Now I have to tell you that where my brother lived was stunningly beautiful.  You could literally see for miles  around, not a house or road in sight, just the high prairie sky and the grasses that never stopped bending in the wind that never ceased blowing.

One morning as we were loading up to leave for Edmonton, the sun was just rising and the black sky was pierced with layers of blue and orange.  I drew in my breath and said, “Oh Martin.  You live in paradise.” And he said, “Yes. This is where I am alive.” In that moment we took a break from fighting cancer, a fight that we were going to lose anyway, and received this sunrise that would happen whether we were watching it or not.  We could be absorbed in the prairie around us, with those winds that never stopped and the sky that was so high.  We were so small compared to its majesty.

Perhaps that is why my brother insisted on spending as much time as he could outside, because before the expansiveness of the prairie, what does one shortened life mean? To be part of the prairie is to surrender any illusion of your own power before it.  It didn’t make his impending death less tragic or less painful, but it put it in perspective and gave us all some room to breathe.

So what is this thing called surrender? Surrender happens when you let go of attachment to something that is beyond your control and you come to an acceptance of what is.  You might even see the beauty in it. Surrender is not easy because it involves issues of identity and power.  Most of us are terrible at surrender.  But, it can offer freedom and the ability to truly embrace life.

For example, if have you have had the experience of wanting someone you care about to be a certain way and you keep striving for them to be the person you want them to be, surrender is when you accept that you have no power to change them.  They are who they are, and once you’ve surrendered to that, you can make choices for yourself that weren’t possible before.

I’ve heard dear ones tell me about their journeys with mental illness, how they might strive to live in what they think must be “normal” ways, and how this can really hurt – both themselves and those who love them.  Once you surrender to the power of the mental illness, you can make decisions about who you are with the mental illness rather than who you are trying to fight it.

I have come to believe that the spiritual practice of surrender is what could get us through this pandemic and through this impending election.

Regarding the pandemic, what do we have to surrender at this time? Lots of things.  The illusion only we and our closest ones are affected by our choices.  That no matter how strong you think your body is, you can’t know if you would survive COVID-19.  The possibility that even if you feel well, you might be carrying the disease and could kill someone if you infect them.  We can surrender to the times when we become overwhelmed because it’s not that we are weak or not resilient enough.  We are overwhelmed because this pandemic is messing with us!  Who among us is really strong enough to just sail through this?

I’m also thinking a lot about what the practice of surrender can offer us as we close in on the November election.  We are very anxious about this election.  Many of us are going to work exceptionally hard to get the results we are desperate for.  We are going to give money and time, some of us are going to volunteer for candidates and issues as much as we can, many of us are going to share and retweet way too many memes! Every one of us who can is going to vote by whatever means are available to us.  So we’re building up the energy we need to get through these months.  We are going to need to be very strong and advocate ceaselessly for our core values of justice, equity and compassion.

But, this is what is out of our control.  We know that outrageous hurtful things are going to be done and said by those who fear defeat. It’s going to be a mean and dirty election campaign with new lows hit on a daily level.  This is out of our control.  So is what ultimately happens between every voter and the ballot before them.  We have no power over what they choose in that moment.  We can try to bend this nation towards justice, but ultimately, there will be a time to close the check book, to put down the phone, to lay down the newspaper, and to breathe deeply and wait.

So my question for you is this.  Is there something in your life that is asking for surrender, asking for you to let go, to accept what is.  What are you afraid might happen if you do let go?  What do you hope for if you surrender to this thing that is bigger than you?

I started this message asking whether Unitarian Universalism is only for the strong. The answer is absolutely not, but I do believe that there are many spiritual paths to strength.  Sometimes pushing forward gives us the strength that is called for.  Sometimes surrender is what releases the strength that we need.  By grounding in our principles, by anchoring in that love that holds everything, we will know which path we are called to take.

Amen and blessed be.

Copyright Krista Taves 2020

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Dancing While Broken

If you’re going to dance with your whole spirit, you will learn that every one of us brings to the dance what is fully whole and what is already broken.  We dance with broken dreams, with broken bodies, with broken spirits.  Even the most accomplished dancer has been broken in some way, and they keep dancing.

This message was offered to the Eliot Unitarian Chapel community of Kirkwood MO on Sunday, July 12, 2020.  If you would like to watch the message on youtube, which includes video links of the Elijah McClain vigil which is featured in the message, click here.  Many thanks to those who gave permission for us to use their videos in this service.

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When my 3 brothers and I were in our teens, my mother decided that she would have failed to raise us properly if none of us grew up knowing how to waltz!  She enrolled us at the Rhine Danube German Club in Leamington Ontario and that is where we spent every Sunday evening. At first, it was really awkward!   The other kids had been dancing since they could walk.  Most everyone already had a partner.  Most of the kids were related.   But they were glad to have us.  My brothers got the official Rhine Danube Lederhosen.  I got the official Rhine Danube durndel and even though I was 17 and way too cool for this, I twirled in front of the mirror and felt like Snow White!

Slowly we learned, our clunky steps growing smoother, the dances more recognizable until they became like old friends.  Even though it’s been 30 years since I spent Sunday evenings on the Rhine Danube dance floor, if I hear one of our songs, I remember every step.

If you’ve ever danced the waltz or the polka, the foxtrot or the tango, the contra or the square dance, you will know that what is possible depends only in part on knowing the steps.  It’s as important to be open to what your partner offers and that your partner is open to what you offer. Even if you’re doing exactly the same steps, to the same music, if you change partners, or you change your approach to the partner you have, it’s a new dance.  This is literally our 7th Unitarian Universalist principle in motion – the interdependent web of all things.  In dance everything is connected, every bone and muscle, what’s happening in your mind and heart, and what’s going on between you and your partner.

What you also learn, if you’re going to dance with your whole spirit, is that every one of us brings to the dance what is fully whole and what is already broken.  We dance with broken dreams, with broken bodies, with broken spirits.  Even the most accomplished dancer has been broken in some way, and they keep dancing.

I want to hold close this image of dancing while broken to reflect on where we are today.

Many of us are figuring out how we keep dancing as our lives have become much smaller during this pandemic.  We are missing our people, missing the lives we had before, some of us are unemployed or underemployed, making decisions about whether or how to work to stay safe. We are missing leadership.  We are desperate for competent compassionate leaders, the kind of leaders that put our well being at the center of their reason for being.   We are also trying to keep dancing as this disease targets people of color and the elderly more than anyone else.  We are dancing while broken.

And then there’s the protests – every single day since George Floyd was murdered by 4 officers in Minneapolis.  This is a dance we have seen before here in St. Louis.  Six years ago we were the epicenter when Michael Brown was murdered.  We lived with daily protests,  supported them with our bodies, with our time, money, food, water, calls and letters and with our own Vigil, which has taken place on the Eliot Chapel steps almost every Tuesday for 6 years.

What’s becoming clear is that the truth we proclaimed back then has gained traction. Six years ago a majority dismissed the truth that our criminal justice system is racist.  Today, a majority of people believe that George Floyd should still be alive.  The issue now is less about proving that police brutality exists, and more about how to end it.  Is reform of the police, abolition of the police or defunding the police what will create justice and freedom?

Clearly the dance has changed.  The steps have changed.  What hasn’t changed is white supremacy and the systems that perpetuate it.  But, we are dancing through the brokenness of white supremacy systems with some new steps.

So let’s get back to the dance.  There are generally two different roles in couples dancing, especially if the dance has a European origin, which is the case for the waltz.  There is the one who leads and the one who follows.  Traditionally, the lead is male and the follower is female, which is totally binary and totally patriarchal, and thankfully, more often these roles are no longer assigned based on gender.   I can’t tell you how happy I was when I was able to learn how to lead.  I enjoy both roles – leaders and follower.

Another misconceptions about these roles is that the lead has all the power and the follower just follows.  If this is your understanding of how the dance works, I’m sorry to say your waltz is never going to hit the charts!  I have experienced leads who led so strongly that there was no room for me.  I just got dragged around the floor.  No fun.  No beauty.  The real responsibility of the lead is to provide the frame for the follower to shine.  A good lead will be almost invisible and their dancing looks effortless.  A great follower will be able to fill the frame that has been offered.   What this happens, it’s magical and life doesn’t feel so broken anymore.

Let’s explore today’s civil unrest using the image of creating the frame and filling it.

Two weeks ago, a violin vigil was held for Elijah McClain in Aurora Colorado.  If you don’t know the story of Elijah, last summer he was walking home from the store.  He was 23 and black.  He wore a face covering because he had anemia and often grew cold.  Someone called the police saying there was a suspicious black man in the neighborhood.  The police showed up.  They said Elijah struggled with them, but the video shows him begging them for mercy.  He died of cardiac arrest a week after a dose of ketamine was used to sedate him.  Almost a year later, the officers who responded to the call are still on duty.  But the George Floyd murder reignited the Aurora activist community and they have stepped up the pressure to find justice for Elijah.  Two weeks ago, the community was invited to a violin vigil.  Elijah McClain played his violin for the animals at the local shelter.  So many violinists came, it was unbelievable, you lost count, children and adults, with hundreds coming to listen.

The police say that there were some disturbances, that their officers were being pelted with bottles and rocks.  From the perspective of many in attendance, the gathering was peaceful and the escalation took place when the police arrived in riot gear.

Soon teargas began wafting over the crowd.  You would think that everyone would run home, but that is not what happened.  The violinists kept playing, some even standing between the police and those gathered to listen.

We have here two different frames, two different kinds of leads.  One frame is represented by the police, who have been trained by the state to see any public gathering as potentially dangerous, unstable and threatening, especially if the leaders are people of color, especially if the gathering in some way challenges established power structures, especially if the focus is black lives. They are too often like the lead who believes that they must control the dance.   This is the lead who leads through fear.  And far too often, this lead misunderstands who they are dancing with,  dangerously misunderstands the gathering they encounter, thus escalating the situation and creating more damage, more loss, more pain, more injustice.  For many who attended the vigil, it was a cruel irony that a vigil for a young man killed by the police was met with more brutality.

Then we have the violinists who represent a different kind of lead, who reads those who are following, who shifts their energy and balance to respond to what is offered, who see every dance, every song as a co-creation made by those who play and those who listen.  When they encounter brokenness, their gut reaction is to dance harder, play longer.   This lead is energized by love.

We are in a sacred struggle for who in our nation will lead and how they will lead.  When the violinists continued to play, they challenged a frame based on fear and domination.  In our reading this morning, there was a line that seems especially poignant – “I will hold open a space for you in the world and support your right to fill it with authentic vocation and purpose.  As long as your search takes, you have my loyalty.” (Author unknown)

As Unitarian Universalists, we are constantly preparing ourselves for how to lead and how to follow.  Love is our guide.  Compassion, generosity of spirit, understanding, and a fierce commitment to justice making are what we aspire to.  This is how we keep dancing,  dancing through broken dreams, broken bodies, and sometimes broken spirits.

Today I’ve used this image of the dance to reflect on our struggle for racial justice, but this image can be used in other ways.  It can help us understand the dynamics in our most intimate relationships, with our partner/s, with children, family, friends, community, neighbors, this beloved community and our nation.

So this week, undoubtedly the protests will continue.  Unfortunately, the pandemic isn’t going anywhere, and so we might as well use this restless time to do some good, to change some hearts, to change some systems, to create and sustain some justice.  I would invite each one of us to look around – look into your heart, look out into our community, our nation, look at those we love, and those we struggle to love, and look for the frames.  Who is holding the frame.  What frame are you called to hold out, and into which frame are you called to step and follow?

As we dance into the brokenness, may the spirit of life and love be with you all.

Copyright Krista Taves 2020.

 

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Love, Risk, and the Beauty of Flowers

Some flowers bloom early in the season, some late.  Some bloom gently, others bloom boldly and loudly.  No flower experiences a diminishment when another blooms.  We are like these flowers.  We are a diverse gathering of people, each of us unique, no one more important than the other, and the beauty of each person is augmented by those around it.  We need each other as these flowers need each other.  Each of you belongs here and is treasured.  Together we are a magnificent bouquet. 

This message was offered to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse WI and the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL in May 2020.  You are welcome to use with attribution to the author.

Reading: “The Greening Breath”, by Rev. Meg Barnhouse, from “Did I Say That Out Loud? Musings from a Questioning Soul.”  You can order this awesome book of readings here: https://www.uuabookstore.org/Did-I-Say-That-Out-Loud-P16735.aspx

Message

One of the things that has filled my heart during this pandemic is seeing all my people share on social media what they’ve accomplished because of the stay in place orders.  Craft projects.  Gardening. Home repairs.  Renovations.  Cooking. Organizing.  Making music.  Sometimes I’ve been one of those people.  My gardens do look great this year.  I’m making music too, finishing projects.  I’ve crocheted two shawls.  I organized the garden shed. I had no idea that I owned 3 snow shovels. Who needs 3 snow shovels in Missouri!

But sometimes, these same posts leave me feeling anxious, because for every day that I’ve accomplished a lot, there is at least 1 day, maybe 2, maybe 3 where I haven’t, and the posts of art projects and personal accomplishments leave me feeling like I’m not rising to this occasion.  Not using this pandemic time like I could.  Sometimes one hour stretches into the next, and one day stretches into the next, and it’s an accomplishment to unload the dishwasher. It’s like Rev. Barnhouse sitting in her home during the summer, escaping the heat, and having little energy for anything.

The experts, whoever they are, are telling us that this is not unusual.  Although our lives have become smaller, sometimes quieter, sometimes emptier, it’s nothing like a vacation or a Sabbath because this has been imposed upon us by the urgencies of our day.  Many of us are isolated from our support networks.  We are caring for children 24/7 and it becomes an accomplishment if they put on a clean shirt in the morning or have only one melt down a day.  We are trying to work online.  We aren’t going outside without masks.  We watch the news headlines, which are not uplifting.  We often feel angry, tired, lonely, and sad.  This is not a restful time.  Not being productive, whatever that means, is a natural human response to trauma, and this is a traumatic time.

And yet, while we hunker in our homes and venture out with caution, nature is, as always, throwing caution to the wind.  In La Crosse, the lawns are greening, the trees are budding, the daffodils and tulips are flowering.  In Quincy, the dogwoods are in full bloom.  You should see the dogwoods in Quincy!  There is nothing like it!  Here in St. Louis, the snowball bushes, the irises, the lilacs, and those pesky honeysuckle bushes are flowering and their scent perfumes everything.  While we grieve the lives we had before all this started, lives that now look remarkably free with little worry about shaking a hand or giving a hug, spring marches on.

As Unitarian Universalists, with an intentionally pluralist theology  in which we have many different ways of naming that to which we give ultimate value, nature has often provided us with a common language and common imagery to understand the cycles of life and our place in those cycles.  We find deep meaning in seeds that seemingly lay dormant through the cold winter months, germinate in darkness and push through the soil into the light.  We find hope in a sun that returns on the darkest day of the year.  We use the imagery of roots and wings and wind to describe our experience of the spirit.  The glorious colors of fall help us to see that even in endings there is always beauty. Winter is a time of sacred emptying and waiting. Spring is about hope and new life.  Summer is about the fulfillment of the promises of fall, winter and spring.

In La Crosse, summer is about being out under the sun and soaking in all the heat you can and living as richly as you can before the cold days return.  In Quincy and St. Louis, summer is about enjoying the brief cool moments each morning, respecting the heat during the day, and emerging in the evening to breath in the moist cooling air.  Just like Rev. Meg in our reading, we often look out the window, watching the blooming of the roses.

Our Unitarian Universalist rituals are connected to the natural world.  We light a flame to symbolize our living faith tradition.  Our communions are named after plants and elements.  Water communion.  Fire communion.  And the Flower communion that we celebrate today.

Briefly, this is the story of how the Flower Communion came to be.  A Unitarian minister named Norbert Capek and his wife Maya, who was just as much a minister as him but wouldn’t get the recognition because our denomination didn’t ordain women at the time, planted a Unitarian church in Prague Czechoslovakia in the 1920s.  It became the largest Unitarian church in the world, with over 3000 members. They had a strong social justice ministry to those displaced in the transition from monarchical to democratic governance.  Many of the movers and shakers in this new democracy joined the Capeks’ church as a rejection of the Catholic Church and as is often the case, when many of your members join as form of rejection and may be struggling spiritually with religious abuse, sometimes you replicate your battles inside the new institution.  Some members wanted no mention of God.  No hymns.  No prayers.  No ritual. Nothing spiritual.  Some wanted God, hymns and prayers galore.  Some wanted a new blend with a deep spiritual foundation.  Somehow the Capeks were supposed to serve all these people and it proved impossible. If they did not mention God, the theists felt deprived.  If they mentioned God, the non-theists started complaining.  The conflict grew deeper and deeper and the Capeks considered leaving.

One Sunday, as Norbert walked to church, his heart heavy, he saw the flowers in the ditch on the side of the road.  He filled his arms with them.  When the sanctuary filled with his people, he said to them, these flowers are beautiful. Some bloom early in the season, some late.  Some bloom gently, others bloom boldly and loudly.  No flower experiences a diminishment when another blooms.  We are like these flowers.  We are a diverse gathering of people, each of us unique, no one more important than the other, and the beauty of the flower is augmented by those around it.  We need each other as these flowers need each other.  Each of you belongs here and is treasured.  So take one of these flowers home with you and honor who you are and who the people of this congregation are.  Together we are a magnificent bouquet.

Once again, we have here an example in our rich history of a ritual, grounded in the rhythms and beauty of the natural world, that held us in a time of trial and helped us to find common ground.  The flower communion was born that morning and it became a piece of what held that community together.

When we gather in person for the Flower Communion, each individual brings a flower that symbolizes the essence of who we are. Together we fill a vase and create a bouquet, a symbol of the beauty and power of beloved community, and then we each take home a different flower to symbolize that we hold each other, we are each other’s keepers.  That is a core principle of our faith – that we hold each other and we are each other’s keepers.  Our differences in belief, our differences in personality, the way we name the sacred, how we love and live, these are important but they are not the ultimate. They are but a conduit to the ultimate. The ultimate is who we become together when we live out our shared values – the equity of justice, equity and compassion.

Today we are faced with some of the same challenges that Maya and Norbert faced. We all have division in our communities that we manage well sometimes and poorly at other times.  We often debate language, what can be said in our congregations and what can’t.  In these divided times, we may disagree about what is political and what is not.  And we wonder, should we even identify ourselves as liberal or progressive?

Let me offer a few comments on these questions.  Firstly, In our pluralist tradition, there is no language that is out of bounds for us.  In our two congregations, we use different language.  In Quincy, we sing hymns.  In La Crosse, we sing songs.  In Quincy, we call it worship.  In La Crosse, we call it a Sunday Service.  In Quincy, we call ourselves a church.  In La Crosse, saying the word “church” is often met by saying that no, we are not a church, we are a Fellowship.  We use different language and sometimes argue about what language is right or wrong.  I would say the answer is that no language is right or wrong.  What matters instead is the meaning behind the language and what is in the heart of the person who speaks it.  Any language bears the seeds of its own meaning in the action taken by those who speak it.   If you are living in love, if you are living in beloved community, it doesn’t matter what language you use.

Secondly, Unitarian Universalism is a profoundly political faith. You cannot have your core values be justice, equity and compassion and not be political.  To be political does not mean to be partisan. They are different.  For us to live grounded in love is political because politics is ultimately the practice of how we share power and how we take care of each other. To live in solidarity with the marginalized and with the earth means being unabashedly political.  Not everyone in our society is able to bloom.  There are human flowers that take too much soil, too much air, too much water, that crowd out the sun for the rest of the garden.  For us all to bloom means taking a stand of some kind, and that is going to be political.

And are we liberal or progressive?  Or neither? We are both and admittedly what it means to be liberal and progressive has changed because of our polarized times. There are those who will dismiss us out of hand because we identify as liberal or progressive.  So do we change how we identify ourselves to try and win over those who are dismissing us?  I will be honest and say that I have come to a place where I increasingly care less about the words we use and more about our actions.  How are we serving?  How are living our values?  How are we taking risks for our values?     What would a risk on behalf of justice, equity and compassion look like in our very different communities – Quincy and La Crosse?

Let me share a risk that each of you has taken in the service of love.

Several years ago, before I came to Quincy, you wanted to be more active in the community. What was breaking your heart is that there is a high rate of child poverty in Quincy.  One response to that poverty is to hold a back to school fair offering free health screenings and free backpacks stuffed with school supplies. You approached the organizers of the event and offered to take part, but you were met with distrust and rejection, refused the opportunity to participate because you aren’t Christian.  It would have been easy to slink back home.  But you persevered.  You built the relationships, nurtured the trust and finally were invited to become a participant.   Now it is hard to imagine the Back to School Fair without the Unitarian Universalists.

In La Crosse, you became a prominent voice in the city for the removal of the Hiawatha Statue, a culturally inappropriate wooden statue of an Indian that sits on the riverbank.  The Ho Chunk Nation has wanted it removed for a long time.  There is fierce division in the larger community about the statue, with hatred directed at the Ho Chunk every time the issue comes up.  The Ho Chunk asked for white allies who would be willing to take the heat instead, to be the ones initiating the call for its removal.  The Unitarian Universalists became one of the voices willing to deflect the heat away from the Ho Chunk and towards themselves.

These are risks you have taken for justice, equity and compassion.  What will be your next risk?

For some of us risk has become part of our every day life.  If you are a health care worker or work in an essential business, you are risking your life every day.  Some of us live in communities where there is pressure to get back to normal living.  Some of us are being mocked for wearing our masks or asking others to. In my partner’s clinic we are requiring everyone to wear a mask to enter.  We expect pushback and will have to be courageous to hold the line.   If the state opens up before you feel it’s safe to resume Sunday worship, or opens up schools before you’re ready to send your kids back, or if your employer asks you come back to work before you feel safe, what will you do?  No doubt these will be hard decisions, and some of our decisions will beak our hearts.

Norbert took a huge risk filling his arms with those flowers.  There was no guarantee that it would work, but he took the risk anyway. I think about Rev. Barnhouse’s proposition that those rose buds are pretty comfortable wound up tight and close, and that when the petals begin to spread there is fear, maybe even pain, and a desire to keep the change from happening.  Risk is not fun, it is not comfortable, it is not safe, and it is not guaranteed to get the results you hope for.  But today there is hardly a UU congregation that does not observe the Flower communion, employing its rich nature metaphors to help us recenter into our core values and to prepare ourselves to live them.

I introduced this message by talking about our expectations of using this time to achieve a series of accomplishments, how some of us are finding it difficult to stay focused, and how this is normal during a time of trauma.    We are needing to redefine what an accomplishment looks like in altered circumstances and give ourselves a lot of room and lot of understanding.  How we approach risk is the same.  Risk is not measured by accomplishments.  Risk is not measured by success.  Risk is measured by truthful living of our values.  Are we loving each other?  Are we anchoring in compassion for ourselves and each other?

Today we are unable to have our Flower Communion in person, so I want you to imagine our respective sanctuaries.  In La Crosse we set up a large table on the floor in front of the chancel with its two flaming chalices, with at least 3 vases to accommodate all the flowers.  In Quincy we have a large crystal cut vase gifted to the church by Lynn Mercurio and her mother Libby Haggard, whose parents came from Czechoslovakia. The vase is a family heirloom made in Prague.  In both congregations our musicians are called Carol, so our respective Carols start to play as you file forward with your flower. The bouquets grow.  It is so beautiful, not only to see the flowers but to see our people.  Then we take a different flower home with us and through the week reflect on how we create beloved community for each other.

Today our Flower Communion takes place virtually, through the photos that many of you sent holding your flowers or standing by your flowers.   Let us see each other, be thankful for each other and the beloved communities that we have taken risks for, that we have created, sustained and nurtured for each other  through perseverance, through gratitude, and through love.

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Anchoring the Divine in the Natural World

Unitarian Universalism’s historic embrace of theologies and philosophies that supported and amplified the lived realities of being on this earth is a legacy we can draw on to remain in a place of openness and generosity with each other and with the earth.  In responding to both the COVID-19 pandemic and rapidly accelerated climate change, one of the most powerful strategies we have is for as many of us as possible to decenter ourselves, to get off the pedestal that has convinced too many of us that humanity is the ultimate point of creation.  We must get out of the way.  This is so counter-intuitive.  We want to do something, make our mark, exert our influence, be the heroes of the moment.   

This message was offered to the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL, The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse WI, and Eliot Unitarian Chapel, Kirkwood MO in April 2020.  May be used with credit given to the author.

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Wisdom Story  Love the Weeds, an Iranian Folktale, from Earth Tales by Margaret Read Macdonald.

Reading:   “We Are Nature” by Walt Whitman

We are Nature, long have we been absent, but now we return,

We become plants, trunks, foliage, roots, bark,

We are embedded in the ground, we are rocks,

We are oaks, we grow in the openings side by side,

We browse, we are two among the wild herds, spontaneous as any,

We are two fishes swimming in the sea together,

We are what locust blossoms are, we drop scent around lanes mornings and evenings,

We are also the coarse smut of beasts, vegetables, minerals,

We are two predatory hawks, we soar above and look down,

We are two resplendent suns, we it is who balance ourselves orbic and stellar, we are as two comets,

We prowl fang’d and four-footed in the woods, we spring on prey,

We are two clouds forenoons and afternoons driving overhead,

We are seas mingling, we are two of those cheerful waves rolling over each other and interwetting each other,

We are what the atmosphere is, transparent, receptive, pevious, impervious,

We are snow, rain, cold, darkness, we are each product and influence of the globe,

We have circled and circled till we have arrived home again, we too,

We have voided all but freedom and all but our own joy.

– Walt Whitman

Message:

Weeds became part of my life at a young age.  In our family, once you turned 9 you were old enough to work on the farm.  Every summer morning until the plants had grown thick enough to shield the soil from the sun, my mother, my brother and I entered the fields with our newly sharpened hoes and worked our way up and down the rows as the younger boys played in the shade at the edges of the field. Ragweed.  Elephant ear.  Thistle. Crabgrass.  Burs.  Sow thistles. The weeds fell through our dogged persistence.

Today, I get nostalgic remembering this time.  My family is scattered across time zones and we meet every few years so it’s easy to romanticize the work we did together.  Actually it wasn’t romantic at all.  The days were long, my mind often struggled to find new things to think about as we worked, and my body ached at night.

I remember one day the ground was so hard and the weeds so thick, and I thought, “Why are we doing this? These weeds are so strong!  The crops we plant are weak. Why aren’t we growing things that are already strong?”

The answer to this question, of course, is that there’s no market for ragweed.  Of course we had to grow the things that we did. But the bigger balcony view answer is that we were breaking our backs for plants that were weak. We were fighting against what was natural for the soil, what actually belonged there.

We were also fighting weeds that had simply become stronger because they survived the chemicals used to kill them.  What we often call “weeds” are nature’s way of responding to deficiencies in the soil that is out of balance because of poor crop rotation, monoagriculture and synthetic fertilizers. All the weeds we were fighting were there for a reason. They were responding to human choices made over generations.

Farmers who transition from conventional to organic will say that weeds show them where the soil is in its process of restoration.  The first years are awful.  The withdrawal of fertilizers and herbicides leads to weedy infestations that are almost impossible to manage.  You’ll be tempted to give up because your fields look hideous.  But, if you can be patient, stand tall while other farmers smirk at your weedy fields, you will get restored organic soil.

My 9 year old self was already starting to wonder about how we find this balance, already thinking about what it means to restore things. When did you start to wonder about that balance? When did you start to question the primary of the market over the cycle of the seasons?  When did you start wondering how we got to think we are so important that we come first in all things?

Many of us are thinking a lot about this.  Climatologists have been issuing dire warnings that we are running out of time. CO2 emissions have reached a level from which there is no point of return.  We are beyond restoration and into harm reduction, trying to slow down what is happening.

There are some parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and this reality of climate harm reduction. We know that social distancing is about slowing down infection rates while the scientists and medical professionals struggle to catch up.   What we need are the right weeds!  We need more people who are immune, which happens in only one way right now– you get the disease and recover. We need to know how long you are immune.  We need a vaccine. We also desperately need an effective treatment.  So while many of us are staying in place, there is a whirlwind of activity to increase the rate of testing, develop a vaccine and find a treatment.

What would it be like if we achieved this same collective sense of urgency for the climate emergency?  I know that some of us have this sense of urgency.  But others are just starting to catch on.  When there is a political will and a public that supports action, we are seeing that things happen.   That’s why we are going to get through this pandemic. We are like farmers watching a conventional field transition to organic. The weeds are exploding and it would be so tempting to go back to life as normal. But if we want restoration, we have to be patient with the weedy fields.  We have to be open to whatever is asked of us.

In truth, it is the openness that is the most important thing because the climatologists, the scientists, the public health officials, the policy writers, the number crunchers –they have to know that we are on their side and we will stay there while its messy. It means we can’t travel for a while. We can’t go in to work, can’t go into the grocery store without a mask, can’t sit by a loved one who is in the hospital, which is heartbreaking.  We’re not going to reopen our businesses until we’re allowed.  We can’t meet in person for worship even though we are missing each other terribly and it just isn’t the same online.  There is so much loss and anxiety and we trying to find ways to manage it so that we don’t do something stupid and make it worse.

The same messiness, loss and anxiety will need to be embraced if we are to prevent the worst effects of climate change, especially for those who have the least ability to protect themselves from it.

We’ve seen what happens when you can’t manage the anxiety. This week, protests erupted all over the country demanding an end to social distancing, saying it’s a violation of liberty. It’s possible that these protests, with many refusing to wear masks or maintain 6 feet of separation, will actually prolong the pandemic. I’ve found myself incredibly judgmental of these protesters, in a way that almost ruined a whole day.  But we also know that none of us is immune to twisting up information that is inconvenient because it raises our anxiety.  It’s highly likely that each of us has given in to infectious anxiety at some time and we have caused harm when we did.

So rather than just delighting in self-righteous judgment, which can be quite delicious for a short while but ultimately leaves us nowhere, the question is how we maintain a spiritual openness and generosity, the kind that we started out with when we began this social distancing.  In our liberal religious tradition, openness and generosity are spiritual strengths that help us to trust in a restoration that’s happening even if we aren’t personally able to see that the soil is regenerating right under our feet.

Did you know that our Unitarian foremothers and forefathers had the same questions? In the late 1700s and 1800s, when Unitarianism broke through in Britain and North America, there was a battle going on for the question of truth itself.  Where did truth come from?  How did you discern what was true?  These questions were energized by the crises of their day, and one crisis was what you did with inconvenient information.

The inconvenient information of their day was the growing body of knowledge, revealed through scientific research, that was contrary to what was written in Scripture, which the majority of people in every class and station in the Western World considered to be 100% true.   But then Galileo discovered that the Earth rotated around the Sun.  Next came the discovery that the earth wasn’t flat.  Then archeologists found artifacts that didn’t jive with the Bible.  Carbon dating revealed that the world was a lot older than anyone had imagined.  These discoveries caused a crisis of faith.

Some responded by trying to shut it all down, not so different from the anxious response we saw in protests this week. But others wanted a new approach.  They were determined to blend their faith and all this inconvenient information.  This turned into a fierce contest between revealed theology and natural theology.

Revealed theology is what many of us grew up with, the idea that God is a transcendent power that breaks into history and shapes what is right and true.  The Bible is considered by many as one of those breaks into history.  The Trinitarian Jesus is another.  The idea that God can reach into human life and shape what happens here, that is revealed theology.

Natural theology proposed that God created everything and then stepped aside and let it go. God was like a clock maker.  God built the clock, wound it up, and let it start ticking.  Those who became the first Unitarians in Britain and the United States were drawn to this natural theology.  They said that if you wanted to understand God, you needed to understand creation.  Revelation didn’t happen through a breaking in.  It happened as you discovered the laws of the universe that had been set into place at the beginning of time.  Scientists were now our theologians, discovering ultimate truth.

This was really quite a shift in thinking.  Natural theology created a path for those who didn’t want to choose between faith and knowledge.  They wanted a unity of spirit and mind.  This is when we see a widespread use of nature metaphors to understand humanity, like the poem that we read by Walt Whitman this morning.   We began to see ourselves in the cycles of nature as opposed to outside of them.  If you look in our grey hymnal, “Singing the Living Tradition,” there are many old hymns where the lyrics have been rewritten with a natural theology.  Our opening hymn, Lo the Earth Awakes Again, is a great example of how this theology permeated our thinking.

But Natural Theology could only go so far because it assumed an unchanging universe, an unchanging God and a clear moment when creation was formed.  When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species, which showed that life is always evolving, it blew Natural Theology out of the water. The idea that creation was governed by a set of unchanging laws came apart.  This is when Humanism entered Unitarianism.  We began to question if nature revealed God or if it just revealed itself.  And what were we learning about ourselves?  That we weren’t the center.  We weren’t the supreme purpose of creation.  This creation wasn’t made for us and we can’t control it because how can we control something that formed us and is still forming us now?

So what does all this have to do with COVID-19 and CO2 emissions in 2020?   Our historic embrace of theologies and philosophies that supported and amplified the lived realities of being on this earth is a legacy that we can draw on to remain in a place of openness and generosity with each other and with the earth.  In both cases, the pandemic and climate change, one of the most powerful strategies we have is for as many of us as possible to decenter ourselves, to get off the pedestal that has convinced too many of us that humanity is the ultimate point of creation.  We must get out of the way so that the weeds can do their work.  This is so counter-intuitive.  We want to do something, make our mark, exert our influence, be the heroes of the moment.

Maybe you’ve heard what’s been happening to CO2 emissions while we’ve been hunkering down.  The air is cleaner.   In Venice Italy, the water is almost clear because there’s almost no boat traffic and wildlife is reclaiming the canals. Perhaps you saw the video circulating this week of a huge jelly fish swimming through the canals.  So beautiful.   In Llandudo Wales, wild goats have moved into town because the streets are so empty.   This is what happens when we get out of the way.  The regeneration begins.

I have no doubt that as the virus diminishes, however that happens and whenever that happens, we will be back in our cars, the canals of Venice will fill with boats, the streets will be full and most of us will happily reconnect with loved ones that we are missing dearly.   But I hope that we don’t waste this experience, that it becomes a moment to shift priorities in ways that many of us have yearned for.   That this is a moment for us to learn how think differently, live smaller even as our hearts grow larger.

It’s been a long time since I went out into the fields with my family to fight the weeds.  Since then, my parents did in fact transition from conventional to organic on part of their farm.  They watched their beloved fields fill with weeds and then reaped the benefits of their patience with almost 25 years of organic harvests.  The soil has returned to its own rhythms.

My prayer for all of us is that we also join these rhythms.  May the rhythms of this time stay with us, regenerate and restore us and this earth that we love so much.

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Passover and Easter Respond to the Coronavirus

We know where the resurrection is happening. It’s happening when every first responder, health care provider and essential worker starts their next shift.  It’s happening at 7 every evening in large cities when people open the windows and stand on their balconies and cheer them!  It happening when our leaders work around the clock using every resource to protect and support us.  It’s happening as the scientists pull out all the stops to find a treatment and a vaccine.  It’s happening when people risk their jobs to tell the truth.  It’s happening when our teachers painstakingly create lesson plans and parents try to teach them.  It’s happening when we train our kids to cough into their elbows and to wash their hands properly.  It’s happening when we wear our masks and gloves and when we choose to stay home even though we may be lonely or overwhelmed. 

This message was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse and the Unitarian Church of Quincy on Sunday, April 12, 2020.  Please attribute any use to Rev. Krista Taves.

Wisdom Story – Jennifer and Josiah.  Written by Krista Taves.

Josiah and Jennifer had been friends such a long time that they couldn’t remember not living next to each other.  They did everything together.  They walked to school together.  They jumped on Josiah’s trampoline.  They swung side by side on Jennifer’s swing set, pointing their toes to the sky.  The only thing they didn’t do together was when Josiah went to Temple on Saturday and Jennifer went to church on Sunday.  Josiah’s family was Jewish.  Jennifer’s family was Christian.

Then, everything changed.  Jennifer’s parents sat her down one day in March and told her there was a new disease called COVID-19.  Jennifer would no longer be going to school until it was safe to be with other people. Josiah’s parents told him the same thing, and also that he and Jennifer couldn’t play together anymore.   Not until it was safe.

Jennifer wanted to know if COVID-19 killed everyone who got it.  Her parents told her that for most people it was like getting a cold or flu, but some people, especially older people, could become very sick and have to go to the hospital. Because it was hard to know who would get better and who wouldn’t, we had to stay home to keep from spreading the disease.  It was called “social distancing.”  If we didn’t get close to each other, we would be less likely to get it and pass it on to someone else.

Josiah wanted to know how you got COVID-19.  His parents told him that if someone coughed or sneezed you could get it from them.  If someone had the COVID germ on their hands and touched something and then you touched the same thing, and then touched your face, you could get it too.  They taught Josiah how to wash his hands properly and they practiced not touching their faces.  They bought masks and gloves so that if they had to go to the grocery store they could be safer.  Jennifer’s parents showed her how to sneeze into her elbow instead of her hand.

At first, the social distancing was fun.  It was like a snow day.  Both Josiah and Jennifer played a lot of video games, ate a lot of cookies, and watched a lot of cartoons.   They wore pajamas all day long!  But soon, it got boring.  They missed school.  They missed their friends. They really missed each other!

One day Josiah’s parents let him jump on the trampoline and Jennifer’s parents let her swing and they teased each other across the fence that separated their two yards. It was fun!  But it wasn’t the same.

Then it turned into April and both Josiah and Jennifer had more questions.

Jennifer asked what they were going to do about Easter.  Usually on Palm Sunday, they had palm leaves at church and they sang because this was the day that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Then on Thursday and Friday they felt sad because Jesus was arrested and killed.  On Easter Sunday they were happy again, they looked for their baskets of chocolate in the backyard, they dressed in bright clothes to go to church, sing happy songs, and celebrated that Jesus had risen from the dead.  Then they had a big meal with their extended family, and of course, more chocolate!

Josiah wanted to know what they were going to do about Passover.  Usually they had a Seder. Josiah’s whole family got together, everyone bringing something for the meal.  They told the story of how the Israelites were led out of slavery in Egypt by Moses.  They named all the nasty plagues that God cast over the Egyptians to convince them to free the Israelites, and they especially recognized the last one, when an Angel of Death passed over the land, sparing the Israelites.  They set an empty seat for the prophet Elijah, they sang the old songs, prayed, and then the afikomen, a special cracker made of matzo, or unleavened bread, was hidden and all the children hunted for it.

That night, Josiah’s and Jennifer’s parents talked to each other over the back fence, standing more than 6 feet apart, of course.  They made a plan. Josiah’s parents would hide the afikomen in their backyard and Jennifer’s parents would hide her Easter basket in their backyard, and Jennifer and Josiah could look for them at the same time.

It was a lot of fun.  Jennifer found her basket pretty quickly but it took Josiah much longer and everyone cheered him on until he found the afikomen.  Jennifer’s parents sang “Lo the Earth Awakes Again” and Josiah’s family sang “Dayenu.”

Then Jennifer’s mother said,  “This Easter, we remember that Jesus was killed by selfish people because he spoke the truth, he believed in peace, and he wanted the best for all people.  It is very sad that he died, and it is a joy that he rose from the dead and left an empty tomb.  It meant the selfishness and cruelty didn’t win.  Love won.  Our hope this Easter is that we all stay safe.  The empty tomb is a promise for us when so many are sick.  We serve the empty tomb when we speak the truth, believe in peace, and love each other.  Then death has no power over us.”

Josiah’s father said, “This Passover, we remember Moses’ brave and clear leadership. We remember the families who listened carefully to his words, who protected themselves from the Angel of Death by staying in their homes. It was a frightening time.  Sometimes they just wanted to go outside and live like normal. But they were more hungry for freedom. They stayed in their homes, they ate, they sang, waiting for the time to step outside and walk back into life and to their freedom.

“We know it is hard for us all to do this now.  Sometimes we are afraid, sometimes we are tired, sometimes we feel angry and hopeless, and sometimes we can’t find the words for how we feel. But if we keep the spirit of Easter and Passover with us, then we know that we are not alone.  We are taking care of each other.  We are safe, and we will be alright.”

Together, both families smiled at each other, waved, and went back into their houses.

Reading.  “Love Will Empty Our Churches This Easter” Rev. Jake Morrill. http://thesaltcollective.org/love-will-empty-our-churches-this-easter/?fbclid=IwAR0VGnBRGaFUCveThIiXkYSGtBSYKJ2P8JCaNHdxMEVfj3i6Q1CwqR52Opo

Message

One of the most memorable photos of this week was that of Wisconsonites lining up to vote in the primary election last Tuesday. With Governor Tony Evers blocked in his attempt to get the primary delayed to June and the closing of many polling stations because of a lack of workers, the few polling stations that opened were swamped.

The lineups proved several things to me:

1) People have taken the requirement of social distancing to heart. Almost everyone who came to vote was masked, some were gloved, everyone was standing 6 feet apart, which meant the lines stretched down the streets and around the corners.

2) People took this election seriously and many were willing to take the risk in order to cast their ballot.  People stood in line for hours.  We don’t yet have the final results of the voter turnout, but it is possible that with the increased requests for absentee ballots and the determination of many others to vote in person, Wisconsin may match the turnout for the 2016 primaries. This is a significant accomplishment.  It tells us that we remain hungry for democracy, we remain hungry to have our voice heard, hungry to have a say in who leads us, and so we voted despite the complications of this time, perhaps because of the complications of this time.

And I find myself reflecting on this accomplishment in light of the religious holidays that we’re honoring today.

Passover began on Wednesday night and will continue until Thursday evening.  Passover is a time to remember the story of how the Israelites were freed from slavery under the Egyptians.  From a purely historical perspective, we don’t know if this grand story of leaving in one night and wandering in the desert for 40 years is true.  We can’t even reach any certainty over whether the Israelites ever lived in Egypt.  But that’s really not the point.  The point is that this story has energized the Jewish people for over 3000 years and it has been a focal point for Christians for 2000 years.  In this story, a selfish and evil king called Pharaoh has enslaved the Jewish people. Moses is called by God to lead his people into freedom.  He turns up at Pharaoh’s court, day after day, and calls down a rain of plagues with each one getting worse, and demands that Pharaoh free the Jews.  Pharaoh refuses, until the last one.  That last night, Moses instructs the Jewish people to place the blood of a lamb over their door and to stay in for the night. That night, the Angel of Death took the life of the eldest sons in every Egyptian household and spared the sons of the Jewish families.

There are some obvious ways to draw connections to what we are experiencing now with the Passover story as it has been handed down over centuries.  There is a plague in our land and we are confining ourselves into our homes as much as possible.  Instead of smearing lamb’s blood over our doors, we are wearing masks and gloves, washing our hands and sanitizing everything we touch to avoid this plague and to lessen its harm.  We are hoping that this angel of death passes over our houses.

But there are other ways that the Passover metaphor is stretched.  It would a mistake to say that COVID-19 is actually the angel of death.  In the Passover Story the angel exacts a punishment upon the Egyptians for enslaving a whole people.  The angel is a strategy to achieve justice. The weak are taught how to protect themselves and the powerful are left vulnerable, with each powerful family losing the most precious thing that can be lost in a patriarchal society – the eldest son.

COVID-19 is not a punishment.  There is no moral stain on those who contract it.  It’s not creating justice by where it lands.   In fact it is just the opposite.  Often it is exposing injustice.

What we are now seeing more clearly is that where COVID-19 lands is often shaped by the injustices that are built into our society, into our economy and into our health care system. It’s exposing the weaknesses in our leaders and our political systems. COVID-19 is only partially wreaking havoc because of it’s own power.  Much of the damage we are experiencing is because our larger systems and our leaders have failed to protect us.

We’ve learned this week that African American communities are most vulnerable to the disease.  Here in the St. Louis Region, we have this map that is updated each day which breaks down the confirmed cases by zip code with the darker colored zip codes having more cases and the lighter colored ones less.  The dark blue zip codes are predominantly African American and the lighter blue zip codes are predominantly White.  Because our economy is structured through the legacy of white supremacy, African Americans experience the highest levels of poverty and among the lowest rates of health insurance.  The reality of poverty means you have less power to protect yourself and your family. The health care you need is more often out of reach.  Why can an entire NBA team get tested just like that and tests are being rationed for everyone else?  This is not acceptable.

There is one anomaly.  The richest whitest areas in our region are also experiencing outbreaks.  They are travel related because those populations have a higher rate of international and air travel, business trips, ski trips to Colorado or the Alps, and March breaks spent on the beaches in Florida or the Bahamas.  White privilege and the wealth that sometimes comes with it has exposed some whites to the virus, and poverty has exposed more African Americans to the virus.  For those with eyes to see, COVID-19 has brought into relief the unequal distribution of power and wealth.

I know that when many of you put on your face masks and lined up to vote on Tuesday, or when you slipped your absentee ballot into that envelop and put in the mail, this was on your mind.  You were intent on casting your vote for those who might have the courage and the vision to either mitigate, lessen or end the harm of our unjust systems – health care, the economy, the justice system, education, the environment.  When you cast your vote, you were channeling the spirit of Passover because that is exactly what Passover is about.  Moses and the Israelites used every tool at their disposal to usher a path into freedom. For many Jewish families, observing Passover is about much more than remembering a mythic passage to freedom. It is about recommitting to freedom in the here and how, seeing with open eyes the ways that people are enslaved now and dismantling those systems.

Let’s move on to Easter.  Here, the Egyptians are replaced with the Romans.  Pharaoh is replaced with King Herod and Pontius Pilate. Once again, it’s a pretty grim scene for the Jewish people, but instead of being slaves in a foreign land they are an occupied people in their own land.  In the Christian Tradition, Holy Week started last Sunday, the day that Jesus supposedly rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  His journey ended at the Temple where he turned over the money tables and freed the sacrificial animals, an act of protest against those who exploited the poor when they came to worship.  It was his most brazen act of protest in his three years of ministry.  Then he went into hiding in the upper room of one of his supporters where he stayed for several days with his disciplines.

Let’s think about this act of hiding in light of our own social distancing.

Jesus hid for several reasons.  He knew he was a wanted man.  He had been pushing the envelop for 3 years and knew at some point it would catch up with him. He hid for his own safety and the safety of his followers, just as we are retreating into our homes for safety.  But his danger and our danger are somewhat different.  His danger came from a cruel system. Our danger comes from a disease.  But in both cases, our retreat is in response to a threat.

In both cases, the danger is not only about what is out there, but what is also within.  We aren’t just retreating into our homes because COVID-19 is out there. The majority of those who contract the disease display no symptoms. Some of us are infected and we don’t know it. Our bodies may be a site of danger.  Some of us do have COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone who has it, and we are self-isolating.  I’m not sure that many of us have experienced seeing ourselves as dangerous, our bodies as dangerous.  I find that to be a very unsettling thing to reflect on.  I’ll find myself looking at my own hands, or feeling my chest rise and fall, becoming nervous with even a slight cough or a little soreness in my throat.  We are containing our own bodies so that this disease does not undermine the collective body of our society, especially those who are most vulnerable.

Part of why Jesus and his disciples retreated to that upper room is because they were stressed as a body of followers and friends. This ministry was exhausting.  It was heartbreaking.  It was dangerous.  There was tension in this body of people who had become a chosen family. Judas kept leaving and being gone for hours at a time.  Where was he going?  Who was he meeting?  What was he bringing back into the family? During the Last Supper, which some scholars believe was actually a Passover Seder and is the foundation for today’s Christian communion, Judas left one last time. He led the authorities to the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus was arrested. The body of the community was fractured.  What broke the body is that one of their own brought it all done.  It wasn’t the Romans or the Temple Priests.  The betrayal happened inside the body, within the circle of trust. And by Friday, the body of their beloved teacher had been buried and the stone had been rolled across the entrance of his tomb.

We have also experienced this breach of trust. When the leaders in the highest offices delayed preparations for this pandemic, when it was and is still minimized and denied, when we are fed misinformation, when we are called to fill our sanctuaries on Sunday, invited to identify the virus as a foreign invasion connected to a particular race or nation, it is as if Judas has slipped away from the Last Supper and led the authorities to the Garden where Jesus is praying.  While there is no doubt that this virus was going to claim many lives among us, the level of loss could have been mitigated.  There could have been enough protective equipment, there could have been enough ventilators and tests, states wouldn’t be competing with each other for these precious supplies.  The media wouldn’t have to deconstruct every misleading press conference knowing that a failure to do so will cost more lives.

And yet, the point of Easter is not the crucifixion, it’s not the betrayal, it’s not the broken fractured family.  The point of Easter is the empty tomb.  When the women disciples came out of hiding they found the stone rolled away from the tomb and Jesus’ body gone.  An angel stood inside and told them that Jesus was no longer there. He had risen and was among them.

What Easter tells us is that love always wins. The betrayals, the deaths, the lies, the brokenness, the corruption, the power plays – none of this is powerful enough to have the last say.  We know where the resurrection is happening. It’s happening when every first responder and health care provider starts their next shift.  It’s happening at 7 every evening in large cities when people open the windows and stand on their balconies and cheer them!  It happening when our leaders work around the clock using every resource to protect and support us.  It’s happening as the scientists pull out all the stops to find a treatment and a vaccine.  It’s happening when people risk their jobs to tell the truth.  It’s happening when our teachers painstakingly create lesson plans and parents try to teach them!  It’s happening when we train our kids to cough into their elbows and to wash their hands properly.  It’s happening when we wear our masks and gloves and when we choose to stay home even though we may be lonely or overwhelmed.

And the resurrection happened on Tuesday in Wisconsin when voters cast their ballot and poll workers showed up to serve despite the cynical attempt to use the pandemic to suppress the vote.  I am not criticizing those who stayed home that day. But I do want to hold up that we should never underestimate our hunger for freedom, never underestimate our unceasing yearning to mend, heal and restore.  We are hardwired to love each other, hardwired to live in a spirit of reverence for our deep interconnectedness.  That is how the resurrection happens every day.

So we will carry on.  We will keep living.  We will keep loving.  We will wake up each morning hoping for the continued safety and health of those we love. May your Passover and Easter be filled with old and new ways to be together, and may you and yours be blessed with hope, compassion, and peace.

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The Path of Forgiveness

When forgiveness has been offered or received, we get to start again.  It doesn’t mean that we forget what happened. It doesn’t mean that the harm is erased. It doesn’t mean that we run off into the sunset for a happily ever after future.   But it does mean that we surrender the right to get even.   We surrender the right to believe that we are superior to another person.  If we are  being forgiven, we surrender the burden of believing that we are inferior to the one we have hurt.   We can welcome a new identity and a new future that is not chained to the harm that was done and not chained to the past. 

This message was offered to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse WI and the Unitarian Church of Quincy on March 22, 2020.

Wisdom Story.  What if nobody forgave?  We read this story in our service.  Here is a great dramatization of the story in this youtube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2udquT9ny4&t=41s

Message

We have been talking about forgiveness all month.  What it looks like.  What it feels like.  Why it’s so important.  Why it’s good for us.  We’ve talked about what forgiveness is not and how we get to a place of being ready to forgive.  How to forgive when the other person won’t go there with you. How we forgive ourselves.  How forgiveness is a life long process.  We have also spoken of the cost of being unable or unwilling to forgive.

Several years ago, Bishop Desmond Tutu, the late Episcopal Bishop of South Africa, and his daughter Mpho Tutu, published a book called The Book of Forgiving. You may recognize their names.  Desmond Tutu became an international figure in the years leading up to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, and his daughter has followed in his footsteps.  I would highly recommend their book if you are wanting to engage the process of forgiveness more intentionally in your life. I would offer a caution that there are many stories in the book that are very unsettling.  They speak of their experience living under apartheid in South Africa, with many stories of brutal violence and death.  If that would be too triggering for you, please approach the book with care.

What is really significant about this father and daughter is that they helped develop the Truth and Reconciliation Process in South Africa after the end of apartheid. If you are unfamiliar with this history, here’s a brief recap:

From 1948 to the early 1990s, South Africa practiced apartheid. This meant only whites could vote in elections, work as professionals, attend quality schools, and serve in government.  If you were black or brown, you had very few civil rights.  You were limited in where you could work, live, go to school, and even who you could marry.  You had no say in your government or the laws that regulated your life.  The system was kept in place through systemic and brutal violence.  During the 1980s, the resistance to apartheid grew and many countries placed sanctions on South Africa to end apartheid.  When it finally came down, the realization of the freedom that had been worked for so systemically over the years was threatened by the real possibility of civil war.  Whites were terrified that revenge was coming their way, and black anger, which had understandably grown and simmered for more than 40 years, was at a boiling point. If the fears, hatreds and resentments of the last 40 years set the direction for the future, everything they worked for would be sabotaged.

In order to prevent massive bloodshed, the new government, created by those who had been oppressed, those who had been in the prisons, those who had agitated and organized, this government chose restorative justice over punishment as a way to address the horrors they had lived through.  They created the Truth and Reconciliation Process.  They offered amnesty to anyone who had committed human rights violations and war crimes on behalf of the Apartheid government, but only if they fully confessed what they had done, with no excuses. This amnesty was offered to law enforcement, the secret service, government officials and elected leaders.  The proceedings would be aired nationally and internationally.  Before the world and those they had hurt, they would need to fully confess the harm they had done, listen to those they had harmed share how this had impacted them, say that they were sorry, and authentically ask for forgiveness.

To describe this as a grueling experience would be an understatement.  The horrors of apartheid were brought into full view by those who had been part of its engine, who had to speak of their crimes before the victims and the families of their victims.  The pain of those who listened and responded was difficult to witness.  The stories kept coming, the hurt kept being named, the apologies piled up.   But the container of the truth and reconciliation process and the highly skilled and compassionate people who managed it were successful in not only preventing all out war, but in setting the stage for a new way forward for their very divided and wounded nation.

For many of us who watched this, we knew that we would never be the same.  This experience created in us not only a great respect for the new leaders in South Africa, but also invited us into a time of introspection about the power and the process of forgiveness in our own lives.  While few of us wanted to compare our personal unforgiven harms to the horrors spoken aloud in South Africa, Bishop Tutu himself suggested that we do just that.  He did not see using the lesson of their process as a minimization of what had happened to his country. He and his daughter Mpho fully believed that the truth and reconciliation process was a model that should be used by all of us because every single person struggles with forgiveness.  Every one of us has those we need to forgive, and every one of us has the need to be forgiven.  No one is pure perpetrator and pure victim.  When we are ready to be humbled by this truth, we are ready for the healing and freedom that can come with forgiveness.  This, they believed, was South Africa’s gift to the world.  Please, they said, use it again and again.

This is the process of forgiveness that they offered.  It has four steps.

The first is to tell the story of what happened.

The second is to name the harm that has been done.

The third is to grant forgiveness.

And the fourth is to renew or release the relationship through which the harm took place.

As a way to deepen into an understanding of what this four step process could mean for us, let’s unpack our wisdom story using these four steps.

In this seemingly simple children’s story, the harm that has been done has taken place over generations. It may have started with one incident between two people. In the case of the young woman who first met with the wise man, her grandparent and someone else’s grandparent had never forgiven each other for happened when they competed for the position of mayor.  The resentment from that harm was passed on to their children, and their grandchildren, and the resentment became a badge of honor.  They were held onto as pieces of identity.   The generational resentment continued the harm by separating whole families from each other, and being proud about it.  But the weight grew so heavy that they couldn’t even look up at the sky, couldn’t look into each other’s faces.   They were losing a sense of each other’s humanity and their own humanity.

This is the burden we carry with our unforgiven harms.  At first they may feel like a badge of honor, or even a birthright, but over time they become a burden, separating us not only from our loved ones but from ourselves.  The result is isolation, sadness and a loss of perspective.

In our wisdom story, the first step, telling the story of the harm, took place when the wise man asked the young woman why everyone was so sad.   One can imagine that as she told him the story of the grudges and how proudly they held them, it helped her to see them in a new way, no longer as a point of honor but as a burden.  Telling the story changed her self understanding and her understanding of the community.  This created in her the first step of readiness to let go.

The second step is naming the harm.  Sometimes we have the presence of mind to name the harm ourselves.  We can say to ourselves, “This is the story of what happened and this is how it has harmed me.”  But it’s also not unusual that naming the harm comes from others who are witnesses to the repercussions of what has happened. Sometimes we are so immersed in the minutia of our lives that it takes someone else to see the bigger picture. In our story, the wise man named the harm by sharing his observations.  He said to the young woman, “You all look so unhappy.  You look tired from your burdens.”  He named the harm that was being done by this generational transfer of resentment.   His naming of the harm changed her.  Once again, she saw her life in a new way and she felt a stirring in herself for freedom. When he offered her community the opportunity to set aside their burdens and to stand straight again, she was ready to make it happen.  She ran to the mayor and said, “Bring everyone together.  We get to be free!”

Then came the actual act of forgiveness.  It’s pretty simple in our story.  They are given their lines and they say them until everyone has spoken to each other. It happens pretty quickly.  No one is either the perpetrator or the victim. Everyone takes responsibility for the harm that has happened, and everyone shares in the act of forgiveness.   We know that in reality it’s not often that simple.  We know that forgiveness doesn’t always happen this easily.  But what is clear is that the burden had become so great that there was a communal desperation for release.  When a path to freedom was offered, they were ready to receive it. They were ready to see the sky, ready to stand up straight, ready to look into each other’s eyes, ready to live again.

The final step is renewing or releasing the relationship from the burden of the harm.  When the story has been told, when the harm has been named, when forgiveness has been offered or received, then you get to start again.  It doesn’t mean that we forget what happened. It doesn’t mean that the harm is erased. It doesn’t mean that we run off into the sunset for a happily ever after future.   But it does mean that you “surrender the right to get even (quote from Lewis Smedes).”  You surrender the right to believe that you are superior to another person.  If you are the one being forgiven, you surrender the burden of believing that you are inferior to the one you have hurt.  In our story, the town actually changes its name from Grudgeville to Joyville.  They get a new identity and a new future that is not chained to the harm and not chained to the past.

A few things to remember:

  1. There is no rule for how many times you need to tell the story.  Some of us need to tell our stories for years.  There are so many layers to process that telling the story only once could not possibly be enough.
  2. Sometimes we shift in our understanding of what harm was done.  If the harm is too raw, getting too close to naming it before we are ready can set us back. Don’t pressure yourself to get close to the naming of the harm if you don’t have the support to hold you when it gets hard.  There were lots of supports in the Truth and Reconciliation process.  There were skilled people holding the space and people ready to support everyone who participated.  They weren’t doing this alone and you don’t have do it alone either.
  3. Prepare to experience shifts in how you name the harm.  Sometimes as we reflect, as we tell the story one more time, we start to see our part in the harm that was done.  If we are clinging very tightly to a victim identity, we won’t be able to see our part, if we had one.  If we are terrified that who we are will crumple if we admit a wrong, we won’t be able to acknowledge the harm we’ve done and we will keep being imprisoned by fear. As we tell our stories over and over, we may come to have a more layered understanding of what happened and if we caused any harm.  This will help us resist the urge to dehumanize ourselves and the one who hurt us.  As Unitarian Universalists is means that we are living a whole lot of our principles, including that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, that we try to live in a spirit of justice, equity and compassion, that we engage in the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. 

If we are committed to engage in telling the story and naming the harm, by the time we get to the place of expressing forgiveness, our hearts are already changed and our spirits are primed for release. Saying the words “I’m sorry,” or saying “I forgive you,” is a confirmation of what has already happened.

That’s what happens through the process of forgiveness.  It releases us from the burden and the power of the harm.  We get to see the sky again.  We get to look into each other’s faces again.  We get to notice our life in new ways and make different choices. We are restored to ourselves and made new.

It’s been almost 30 years since Apartheid ended in South Africa, almost 30 years since those unforgettable Truth and Reconciliation proceedings were broadcast around the world. It would be fair to say that the country is still working to disengage from its past. There are stories that still need to be shared and the harm is still very evident.  Injustice still exists and that there is still much work to be done.  But, they started the process of reconciliation and peace. They told the stories, they named the harm, and they asked for and offered forgiveness.  They committed themselves to releasing and renewing relationships that gave families the chance to find peace, that gave communities a way to rebuild, and that gave the country a chance to start again. It meant that freedom was actually an option.

This is what forgiveness offers us as well.  We all deserve this freedom.  We all deserve lives of peace and wholeness where we can be restored to ourselves and to each other.

May it be so.

 

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Courage for the Big Forgivenesses

All of us carry tender things, painful things. There are things that we will be forgiving our whole lives.  If we have the courage to claim the space we need, these lifelong journeys become bittersweet and rich.  Our love for ourselves enlarges our hearts and there is more love for others.  We become more patient and understanding, kinder, less judgmental, more able to navigate the nuances of life, and ultimately more forgiving in all that we do and say.  Therein lies our freedom and our peace.

This message was delivered to the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL and the Unitarian  Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse WI in March 2020.  You are welcome to use this message provided the author, Rev. Krista Taves, is credited.  

Wisdom Story 

“Mussa and Najib” https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/children/tales/session5/123298.shtml

Message

Back in 2006, a terrible event occurred.  It was a mass shooting, which tragically is not unusual in our country, but this one caught the attention of the nation in a different way.  Perhaps you remember it.  It was the West Nickel Mines Amish School shooting in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  An armed man entered the school, separated the boys from the girls, and shot the girls before turning the gun on himself.  The media were on the scene almost the same time as the first responders and coverage of the event hit the national news.    But what made this tragedy unique is what happened after the shooting.

Within hours, the grandfather of the widow of the attacker went to the home of two of the girls who had been killed.  The grieving father and grieving grandfather sat down at the kitchen table and the father of the girls offered his forgiveness.   Members of the Amish community also went to the widow, offered their condolences, and said that they had forgiven her husband.  They invited her and her children to the funerals of their children.  The invitation was accepted.  They came.  The next day, members of the Amish community attended the funeral of the attacker.

It didn’t stop there.  Leaders of the Amish community were concerned that the school, now a site of violence, had become a sightseeing destination.  It was showered with flowers and stuffed animals.  The Amish community did not want this.  The place their children died would not become an idol of the tragedy. Their spirits weren’t at the school. Their souls were with the God they believed in.  They demolished the school.

When asked by the media how they could engage all this so quickly, the answer was simple.  “We forgive,” they said, “because we are people of faith.  This is what God has instructed us to do, and we ask you to do the same.”

The media fawned over the community.  The subject of forgiveness was on everyone’s lips, with great admiration expressed for the courage and the resilience.

When I reflect on my own reaction, I shared some of that admiration. I was inspired by the depth of their faith, even though it is different from mine.  I was humbled by their courage. I was moved by their inner clarity.

But I also had some concerns.  I wondered,  were they forgiving this man because they really felt forgiveness in their hearts or because they believed it was what they had to do? If the forgiveness came from obligation rather than from the heart, was it really forgiveness?

I also wondered, what about the people who weren’t ready to forgive yet? I thought about the tremendous valuing of obedience in the Amish community, and the pressure to conform. What would have happened if one of the parents said, “I can’t do this!   I’m not going to the shooters’ funeral.  I don’t want his family at my child’s graveside.  It’s too soon!  Forgiveness will have to come later.”  I don’t know if anyone said this.  Probably not, but I’m sure that something like this was happening in someone’s heart.

Like many who followed the story as it unfolded, I started to look inside myself.  Maybe you did too. I thought about the the tender places where I was still angry, still resentful and not anywhere close to forgiveness, hadn’t even considered forgiveness. Was I weaker because I held on?   Was I too proud?  Did I lack the courage?

What I want to explore this morning is when and how we get to forgiveness and how we move through our hurt and pain.  I’m proposing that forgiveness is rarely a one-time thing, especially for the big hurts. Forgiveness is a process, often a cycle rather than a linear progression.  We often forgive in bits and pieces throughout our lives, and sometimes the big forgivenesses happen, but it takes time to settle in.  You can’t be pressured into forgiveness.  It can be as spiritually dangerous to forgive too soon as to never forgive at all.

I also have real questions about forgiveness that is done as an obligation.  These obligated forgivenesses can do real harm and get in the way of arriving at a true place of freedom and peace where you have really, from the depths of your heart, offered forgiveness or received it.

My purpose in saying this is not to disrespect the Amish community and the choices they made.  But in Unitarian Universalism, we are given the space to question everything.  Questioning is a sacred process and it’s ok to question even the choices of a people who are committed to peace in all things.

So as a way to enter into these questions, I want to offer another story about another tragedy and the different responses that emerged.  This one was in  2015.  I’m sorry to say it’s another mass shooting.  I wish there weren’t any, but there are, and because they always, in some way, involve a collective social response, they reveal a lot about us.

In Charleston, South Carolina, 9 African Americans were shot while attending Bible study.  The Amish shooting exposed misogyny, this one exposed racism.  As the Amish did, the church leaders and family members immediately expressed their forgiveness.  I attended a vigil at a Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis the next day.  The entire theme of the service was forgiveness, with the message that holding onto hatred and anger will only hurt you. It does not honor those who lost their lives.   The minister told the gathering that withholding forgiveness means you don’t trust in God’s power.  Do you really think that your anger will undo injustice?  Only love can do that.  I was moved by this message.  There was a lot of truth in what he said.

But there were other voices in the African American community expressing frustration at the expectation that they would keep forgiving acts of racial violence.  Where was it getting them? The Washington Post published an article by Stacy Patton called “Black America Should Stop Forgiving White Racists.”

“Forgiveness,” she wrote, “has become a requirement for those enduring the realities of black death in America. Black families are expected to grieve as a public spectacle, to offer comfort, redemption, and a pathway to a new day….. Historically, black churches have nurtured the politics of forgiveness so that black people can anticipate divine justice and liberation in the next life. … But Christian or non-Christian, black people are not allowed to express unbridled grief or rage, even under the most horrific circumstances….”

Patton argued that required forgiveness prevents justice.  “If we really believe that black lives matter, we won’t devalue our reality and cheapen our forgiveness by giving it away so quickly and easily. Black people should learn to embrace our full range of human emotions, vocalize our rage, demand to be heard, and expect accountability.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/06/22/black-america-should-stop-forgiving-white-racists/)

So what do we make of this? From a political perspective, it is important to acknowledge that some people are expected to forgive more than others.  Often those with less social power are expected to forgive a lot  more.  Those with more social power are not.  It is the nature of systemic power imbalances that those with less power have more to lose by not forgiving and those with more power have less to lose.

Last week, for instance, when Elizabeth Warren, the last viable female Democratic candidate left standing, dropped out of the presidential race, many women expressed bitterness that once again a super competent brilliant woman lost to the men.  Resentment and anger dripped off many a facebook post.  But many of us experienced those around us saying, “We don’t have time for this.  Let it go!  We have an election to win.  Keep your eye on the prize.”

The women pushed back.

“Don’t you pressure me!  We are living with lifetimes of being passed over for men.  We are not going to muzzle our grief or silence our rage.  We’ll get where we need to.  We know what’s at stake, but we’re doing it on our terms, not yours.”

It is incredibly important when we have been hurt, to be clear in ourselves that the pain we are experiencing is our truth.  When we have been hurt, it is a violation of our core selves that cuts deep.  To lessen this somehow, to set it aside, to rationalize it away or to minimize it, continues the violation.  If we are pressured to forgive when we are still too hurt, it frustrates any chance of real forgiveness and peace, because then you’re suppressing what’s inside.  It can prolong the pain and deepen the wound.

Let’s think back to our Wisdom Story. Nagib and Mussah have a fight and Nagib slaps Mussah.  Mussah doesn’t retaliate, which is good. Instead, he withdraws and goes and writes in the sand, “Today my best friend slapped me.”  What’s going on here?  There no sugar coating of what happened.  No gaslighting.  No minimizing.  He offers a clear statement that harm has been done.  Then Nagib sees what has been written.  They sit together in the desert.  The wind slowly blows the sand away and the words disappear.   It doesn’t say how long it took, but you can imagine that it didn’t happen in a few minutes.  They had to sit there and look at those words, letting them sink in.

My guess is that each was thinking and feeling deeply.  Each man was amassing his courage. Mussah was finding courage to stay with the friend who had broken his trust.  Nagib was building courage to face up to what he had done.  Finally, as the sun was setting, Nagib said he was sorry and Mussah accepted the apology.  I doubt that true forgiveness could have happened in the moment after the slap. It took time.

We have to give ourselves the time to really claim what has happened to us and to sift through the layers and evaluate what the pain is about and to understand its true impact.

To give an example, I used to be a faithful attender of Al Anon, which is a 12 step program for friends and family of alcoholics.  We would often talk about all the ways that our addicts had hurt us.  There was so much pain in the room and a yearning for our addict to understand how they had hurt us and understand that they needed our forgiveness.  But the teaching of Al Anon was that part of our pain came from our own enabling tendencies.  We were addicted to the addict and especially the addict’s understanding and approval, and often used manipulative behavior to try and get it.  Without minimizing the very hurtful behavior of the addict, we were asked to look with open eyes at how were we hurting ourselves and our loved ones with our addiction to control and our need for approval.  Looking at our own motivations helped to untangle the web of victimhood that we had created.

Only when you are clear about your own part can you understand why the actions of another have hurt you so badly.  Then what you need to forgive them for and what you need forgiveness for become clearer.  If you rushed into forgiveness, all that growth can’t happen.

This process takes a lot of courage.  All relationships are complex.  All relationships are vulnerable.  Our intentions are complex and often hidden to us.  It takes courage to step down from the pedestals we put ourselves on. It takes courage to look at our own motivations.  It takes courage to speak the truth about how we have been affected by our own choices and the choices of others.  It takes as much courage to say, “I’m not ready to forgive yet.  I need time,” as it does to say, “I forgive you.”

About a year after the West Nickel Mine School Shooting, Pastor John L. Ruth, a Mennonite minister, visited the community to see how everyone was doing.  As a minister, he was able to talk to some of the women, which had not happened originally, as in this very traditional community only men had spoken with the press.  Pastor Ruth asked these women if they had truly forgiven the shooter.  The answers he received offered some of the nuance that I think many of us were yearning for as the story originally unfolded.

The women supported the initial offerings of forgiveness.  They believed in reconciliation and peace.  And yet, once their children had been buried and the cameras went away, they had to get down to the work of living into the loss. Never questioning that their children were safe and with the God they believed in, they entered into a life of recommitting to forgiveness every day.  Some days it came.  Some days it did not.

And so it is with us.  All of us carry tender things, painful things. There are things that we will be forgiving our whole lives.  If we have the courage to claim the space we need, these lifelong journeys become bittersweet and rich.  Our love for ourselves enlarges our hearts and there is more love for others.  We become more patient and understanding, kinder, less judgmental, more able to navigate the nuances of life, and ultimately more forgiving in all that we do and say.  Therein lies our freedom and our peace.

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Choosing Generosity When Scarcity Beckons

What kind of risky generosity is calling for us at this time? The kind of generosity that makes us bigger people, stronger people, more loving people, more patient people, more determined people even as we become more vulnerable people.  The kind of generosity that maybe even asks us to risk what we understand as security, so that in the face of our fear that everything could be lost, we will still hold out an open hand?

This message was delivered to the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse WI in February 2020.

Reading –   On Generosity by Walter Brueggemann

[Spirit of Life and Love]   On our own, we conclude:
there is not enough to go around
we are going to run short
of money
of love
of grades
of publications…
of beer
of members
of years
of life
we should seize the day
seize our goods
seize our neighbors goods
because there is not enough to go around
and in the midst of our perceived deficit
you come
you come giving bread in the wilderness
you come giving children at the 11th hour
you come giving homes to exiles
you come giving futures to the shutdown
…you come – …
and we watch while
the blind receive their sight
the lame walk
the lepers are cleansed
the deaf hear
the dead are raised
the poor dance and sing
we watch
and we take food we did not grow and
life we did not invent and
future that is gift and gift and gift and
families and neighbors who sustain us
when we did not deserve it.
It dawns on us – late rather than soon-
that you “give food in due season
you open your hand
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.”
By your giving, break our cycles of imagined scarcity
override our presumed deficits
quiet our anxieties of lack
transform our perceptual field to see
the abundance………mercy upon mercy—blessing upon blessing.
Sink your generosity deep into our lives
that your muchness may expose our false lack
that endlessly receiving we may endlessly give
so that the world may be made …new,
without greedy lack, but only wonder,
without coercive need but only love,
without destructive greed but only praise
without aggression and invasiveness….
all things …new…..
all around us, toward us and by us
…Finish your creation, in wonder, love and praise. Amen.

Message

This past week, knowing I was going to talk about generosity with you, I spent some time surfing GofundMe, a website that is heavily used because it provides a clear way for people to be generous with each other.  Gofundme is available to anyone who wants to raise money for good causes.  You identify how much money you need and you write your pitch.  If your pitch resonates with enough people, you will often reach your goal.  GofundMe is used by many non-profits to raise money for specific projects. This week, for instance, there were multiple fundraisers responding to the Coronavirus epidemic. One was for medical supplies for Wuhan, China.  As of yesterday, $650,000 of the $1 million goal had been raised.

Most of the fundraisers at Gofundme aren’t for nonprofit projects. They are started by individuals to help raise money for memorials and medical costs. The top two fundraisers this week were for families who lost someone in the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant.  Over $600 000 has been raised for two families.

The presumption of Gofundme, and why it is so successful, is that most people want to be generous.  The desire we have to give and by our giving make a difference is so deep in us. We want to be generous people, we want to believe that we are generous, and we want to be seen by others as generous. Gofundme gives us a clear way to do that.  You can experience your small contribution being part of something bigger.  We can feel like we are helping people half way around the world or just around the corner.

There are great things happening because of Gofundme, but there is a problem with it.  The generosity is rarely accompanied by any kind of real time relationship.  You read a pitch, it touches your heart, you plug in a credit card number, and the exchange is over.  So while Gofundme is great for creating moments of generosity, I don’t know how successful it is at creating a sustained culture of generosity that generates lasting change.  When the primary use of a platform is to raise money for medical costs, one has to wonder why it’s so much easier give to a specific individual when we could work together to collectively eradicate medical debt for everyone and make health care universally accessible!  Then we wouldn’t need something like Gofundme.   Families wouldn’t be depending on the generosity of strangers to survive an illness.

The tragedies that unfold on Gofundme, that beg for our attention, are often created because we live in a society that is addicted to a scarcity mentality mindset, which is a deep set belief that there is only so much to go around.  If we’re too generous, there won’t be enough for us.  Our medical crisis is a creation of a scarcity mentality.

Today I want to talk about how we choose generosity when this scarcity mentality is all around us.  We are constantly being fed the message that there isn’t enough, that we have to cling tightly to what we have or we will lose it and have nothing.  We definitely see the power of this mentality in our political system. But in all truth, this mentality isn’t just in those who differ politically, it is in all of us, just in different degrees and manifesting in different ways.

It certainly lives in me.  I grew up in a farming family and we almost went into foreclosure during the early 1980s when interest rates skyrocketed.  I started suffering from insomnia at 12 years old, imagining losing our home and our farm.  Long after I’d left home, I would check in with my Dad every fall during the harvest to make sure that they were going to pay down enough of the operating loan to stay in business.  Even now, almost 40 years later, if I’m ever surprised by a cost, when a bill comes in that I wasn’t expecting, or the credit card statement seems a bit higher than I thought it would be, I have to catch myself.  The same fear that invaded my 12 year old self comes right back.  My sleep suffers.  I have visions of losing my home.  When I get into a scarcity mentality panic, I have put off buying things I need because I have to feel like I have some control, and the way to gain control is by not spending any money, even on groceries, sometimes for days.

If any of you have grown up with economic insecurity, even if you’ve managed to create a new life for yourself as an adult and you don’t have worry about where grocery money is coming from, how many years has it taken for you to recover from this hyper vigilance and reactivity?

But what I’ve learned is that when I fall into my scarcity mentality, it creates more scarcity.  My scarcity mentality often takes the form of distrust, a temporarily hardened heart, and a veneer of fear that separates me from my loved ones and keeps me from seeing clearly.  There is a cost to my scarcity mentality. If left unchecked it hurts me and it hurts people close to me.  It has taken a lot of intentional and patient work as an adult to recognize the signs of my scarcity mentality and to find a way to resist the urge to circle the wagons. I can make better choices when it appears.  I can choose love over fear.  I can choose to buy groceries.

Every one of us has this same dynamic going on inside us, even if you never had to worry about the basics of life.  Perhaps you grew up with a scarcity mentality about love, time, or attention, a scarcity mentality about how much approval, acceptance or patience you could expect from others.   There are these dueling impulses inside all of us between wanting to be secure in life, wanting to be generous, wanting to be the one who is there when a need arises, and wanting to hold on to what we have, to protect what we come to understand as security.  That understanding of security is different for each one of us.

Did you know that when both Unitarianism and Universalism emerged in this country in the late 18th century they were, in their own way, challenging the scarcity mentalities that were most prevalent in their time?

Early Unitarianism challenged a scarcity mentality about the human condition rooted in the Christian doctrine of Original Sin.  It questioned the assumption of human depravity, that the essence of the human condition is sinfulness.  Unitarianism proposed that we were created for godliness.  The capacity for right living was built right into our souls and spirits by God.  The religious quest was to free this potential in ourselves.  In essence, for the early Unitarians, freeing ourselves from a scarcity mentality about our own nature was holy work and a way of meeting the sacred.

For the early Universalists, they challenged a scarcity mentality about God. No longer was God a judging parent who condemned some and saved others, who was stingy with forgiveness and generous with damnation.  They said no. God was generous, kind, infinitely forgiving and so powerful that there was no sin that could escape God’s redemptive love.

Today, Unitarian Universalism doesn’t look much like it did in the 18th century.  We are now a post-Christian pluralist religion.  But still, we have much to learn from our ancestors.  I think it’s important to understand the risks they took for proclaiming what they believed.  Both Unitarians and Universalists were seen as extremely dangerous.  There were doomsday predictions about what would happen if their theologies gained any traction.  The fear was that if you took away the belief in human depravity and if you dismissed the necessity of God’s judgment, then literally all hell would break loose.  Without fear, humans would be even worse than they already were.  A scarcity mentality was necessary to keep us in line.

I don’t think we have to look far to see how this belief in the necessity of scarcity still has power today.  This scarcity mentality keeps too many people sick, too many people poor, and too many people in prison and detention centers. It energizes the continued segregation of people of color, it energizes hate groups, it turns our allies into enemies, and it negates any semblance of a commitment to truth and integrity, which was all too apparent this week.  We know how much power there is in this scarcity mentality and we know how much courage it takes to challenge it.  We see the cost of this scarcity mentality – the lives lost, the medical bankruptcies, overfull detention centers at the border, the rolling back of environmental protections, the endless wars in the Middle East, and more.  There are still those who declare that if we leave behind a scarcity mentality, it will be our ruin.  Many of us are feeling discouraged about whether we as a nation can resist the allure of this scarcity narrative and choose instead generosity for each other and for this country.

What our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors did was gutsy. For their daring to choose a generous humanity and a generous God they were mocked and ridiculed, pushed out of their churches, and declared heretics.  Some lost their families, their jobs, the respect of their communities and their colleagues.  Their choice of generosity over scarcity was a risk.  What it tells us is that this risk taking is in the DNA of our liberal religious tradition.  If we aren’t taking risks in our generosity, we aren’t being faithful.

Retired Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Burton Carley says that the very purpose of our gathering …as a religious community is first and foremost to creategenerous lives. [He writes]: “The purpose of our [congregations] is not to give you the formula or secret to receive the generosity you believe you deserve from on high, but to create generous lives. The adventure of faith for us is not to have a strategic plan for obtaining blessings, but how to live a life that blesses others.”

I think one of the reasons I struggle with crowdsourcing platforms like GoFundMe is because it’s risk free generosity where little is at stake. There is little danger of losing anything.  You pick the funds that feel most comfortable for you.  You give and you go back to your life.   I’m not against momentary generosity, feel good generosity, or generosity that happens within our comfort zones. It’s a good place to start.   But if generosity is never a risk, is it generous? Does it make us more resilient? Does it make us more loving?

I’m wondering what kind of risky generosity is calling for us at this time? The kind of generosity that makes us bigger people, stronger people, more loving people, more patient people, more determined people even as we become more vulnerable people.  The kind of generosity that maybe even asks us to risk what we understand as security, so that in the face of our fear that everything could be lost, we will still go out and buy groceries.

Let’s ask ourselves the same questions about about this community. What kind of generosity within and among us, the people of this congregation, and what outward generosity to the larger community would make this a stronger congregation, a more loving congregation, a more vulnerable and dynamic congregation?  The kind of generosity that stands out, that asks us to risk what we collectively understand as security, so that when faced with the fear of losing it all, we will hold out an even more open hand?

This past week I asked some of my friends to share with me when they had taken a risk in being generous and I found it really insightful.  Here were some of their responses:

  • I risked my job.
  • I risked going into debt.
  • I risked looking like an ass.
  • I risked my anonymity.
  • I risked a friendship.
  • I risked my privacy, telling my story when it could hurt me but help another.

So this week I would invite us to try something.  I want you to notice every time you are tempted into scarcity thinking.  You will know you’re close to it by noticing when you are feeling anxious, irritable or afraid.   You’re more likely to fall into scarcity thinking when you’re tired and when you’re with people or in situations where you are struggling to trust.  What would it look like to choose generosity in that time and place?  What relationships may you be asked to lean into?  I’m not asking us to make yourself vulnerable in a truly unsafe situation, but I am asking us to consider what it would look like to stretch and test what we have assumed that our fear and anxiety means.  Is it time to choose a different response, to choose love over fear?

Let’s close with the words of Walter Brueggeman:

By your giving, break our cycles of imagined scarcity
override our presumed deficits
quiet our anxieties of lack
transform our perceptual field to see
the abundance………mercy upon mercy—blessing upon blessing.

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How to Answer Yes to Truth

Most of us want to believe we would be the kid in the crowd who shouts that the Emperor has no clothes!   We all want to be the good guy, but if we want to be that person we have to prepare and strengthen ourselves, so that our minds can open, our hearts can warm, and our arms can embrace the truth. We will be secure enough in our identity that when we are faced with truths that are inconvenient, we will be more likely to say yes.

This service was offered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse in March 2019.

Wisdom Story The Emperor Has No Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson.

Reading: T’hillah by Rev. Mark L. Belletini

Barukh atah, Emeth!

Blest are you, o Truth.
Like the fabled Moses,
I too can never claim to have seen you
“face to face.”
Too often, I’ve hung my own face on you
and pretended that I know something I do not.
Indeed, my most honest heart confesses
that at most,
I have only caught the briefest glimpse of you
at the very edge of my eye,
and only when I get out of my own way,
my own rush, my own fury.

I sense your cool shadow on me
when I grow hot from the tears
I’ve been holding back,
or when I notice the sadness or whimsy
hiding in the silent eyes of those around me.

I sense your closeness when I gaze
at a star suddenly unveiled by a toreador cloud,
or catch at an early yellowness
in the leaves of the oak.

It’s then I feel a brush of wings nearby,
and realize that I am only a small part of it all.
Then I know that I am not the
great high power of the world,
but only a puff of breath hidden amid the
mighty blasts of the great whirlwind
called the universe.
Like a lacewing barely floating
on the tip of a small blade of green grass is my life
from beginning to end, a short footnote to
a vast essay of stars and space unbounded,
an essay neither signed nor finally symbolic.
And yet this truth, your truth,
is no sadness, but a joy,
no lack but a blessing,
like the sight of a child at play,
totally absorbed in the moment, and glad.
Blest are you, O Truth, who plays in this silence
like a child in the waves of an infinite sea.
Barukh atah, Emeth.

Source: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/poetry/thillah

 Message

In 1660, the Arians, who built the first organized Unitarian movement in Europe, invited the Roman Catholic leadership of Poland to a conference to prove that their differences were small enough to be of no consequence. Now, in case you think I’m talking about white supremacists, I’m not. Arians, spelled A-R-I-A-N not A-R-Y-A-N, named themselves after Arius, the 4th century Libyan scholar who argued for a non-Trinitarian Christianity at the Council of Nicea. He lost the battle, but his teachings lived underground for centuries.

Arianism came to Poland in the 1550s, especially in Krakow, among the Catholic Humanists. It was in this group that anti-Trinitarianism, the belief that the doctrine of Father Son and Holy Ghost was wrong, found a home. They were not alone in asking new questions and finding the room to ask them. The right combination of open-minded Kings and nobles meant that Poland had become more tolerant. In 1573, the Polish National Assembly passed the Warsaw Confederation, the first European act granting religious freedom. Arians came out of the woodwork, from all over Europe, and even founded their own town, Rakow, which became a center of Arian schools, libraries, churches and publishing houses.

In 1576, Faustus Socinus arrived from Italy. He was a fantastic theologian, writer, and debater. His Arian theology provided a grounding for the new Arian movement. In fact, many Arians soon called themselves Socinians. His theology denied the doctrine of original sin, which said that humans are born in a state of sin, and the doctrine of atonement, which said that Jesus died for that state of sin. Socinianism was pacifist; you could not take any human life. You were also not to pursue wealth, rather accumulating only what you needed. Jesus was a man without a divine nature. The Holy Spirit was not God, but a divine spirit working on people’s hearts. God was simply God, and you achieved eternal life through knowing God in acts of kindness, humility, generosity and prayer.

Socinianism grew until Socinus died in 1604, but even before he died the winds of intolerance starting blowing again. They’d actually never left. There was a deep uneasiness with a whole town being Anti-Trinitarian, even among other Radical Protestant groups who found refuge because of the Warsaw Confederation. Catholics and Protestants argued its protections were never meant for Arians. In 1611 Iwan Tyszkiewicz was executed because he would not swear an oath to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Arian homes and churches were often ransacked. Arian graves were disturbed. In 1638, the Polish Senate ordered the destruction of Rakow, and especially its schools and printing presses. Rakow’s people fled to Kisielin, Ukraine, another Arian center, but the Catholic Church was not far behind. They did the same thing in Kisielin– closed the schools, burned the churches, and destroyed the presses.

In 1658, Poland decreed that all Arians had to renounce their faith. Those who refused had 3 years to leave Poland, or they would be executed.

You would think that this would be the time for the Arians to start considering their options, like where they were going to go, but when you look back at this 100-year movement, they consistently had one answer. Whenever they faced intolerance, they proposed a conference. They would go to those who judged them – Calvinist, Anabaptists, other Protestants, Catholics – and say, “Hey, there’s been a misunderstanding. Let’s get together and talk. You get to tell us the Scriptural basis of your doctrines and we’ll tell you ours. Maybe we can find some common truth!” They would do this after an execution, after a school burning, after mobs tore up their town, when their graves were desecrated, or when they got beat up on the street. “Let’s get together and talk,” someone would say. There was this deep trust and hope that when people heard the truth of what they said minds would open and hearts would change.

That is how the Socinians found themselves at the table with Catholic leaders in 1660. The decree to renounce their faith had been issued, and this was their last stand. According to Unitarian Universalist historian, Charles Howe, it was a momentous event. The grandson of Socinus defended Socinianism with everything he had, and there are reports that he did soften the hearts of many who heard him. But do you think anyone changed their minds? Not one. The decree stood.

Hundreds of Socinians renounced their faith. Those who refused scattered across Europe, seeking tolerance – Transylvania, East Prussia, Germany, Holland. Arianism in Poland was dead.

Now, why am I telling you this depressing story in a message about truth? The Socinians consistently held onto their belief that the truth would literally set them free. The truth is that the deck was stacked against them. They had no political power and less economic power, but they would go into these conversations convinced that if they just made their case well enough, if they chose the right scriptures and the best turns of phrase, the people who persecuted them would say, “Oh my goodness! We were so wrong! OK, we’ll stop burning you at the stake and smashing your presses! You were right all along!”

How often does that happen?   How often have you had the experience of meeting with someone, or with a group that was fundamentally opposed to something you believe in, and when you presented your case everyone just changed their mind?

Today, I want to focus on how hard it is to change our assumptions, to change our minds, and think in new ways. Last week, I talked about how truth is the most powerful thing in our theology besides love, and how we as Unitarian Universalists, the descendants of the Polish Socinians and Arians, still proclaim that the truth sets us free. When we meet the truth and are able to open our hearts and minds we will be transformed by this truth, our actions will change, and we can bring healing to our hurting world.

This is what the Polish Socinians were trying to do with that conference. Now that time it didn’t work, so my question is, what were they not able to see? Not that I would ever blame them for what happened to them, but I’m wondering why they had this tunnel vision in terms of what options they had. If you consider the intersections of identity, politics, class, education, ethnicity, and the shifts that were going on in wealth generation in the mid-1600s, there was a lot at play that went far beyond the simple assertion that Jesus was not God that kept the decision makers around that conference table from considering anything that was said.

Let’s think about our children’s story, a story that many of us grew up with, The Emperor’s New Clothes. What kept all those people from believing what they saw or saying the truth that was right in front of them?! The clothes rack was empty! The Emperor was almost naked, and not he or any of his attendants said a thing. They kept on playing along, even doubting their own eyes!

What was at stake? Reputations. Relationships. Identities. Histories.   Power. Influence. Maybe even the giving and receiving of love itself. Everyone who extolled the beauty of the invisible clothing was protecting something they considered precious.

Every one of us, in every minute of our lives, is making choices about what we believe to be true. We could be sitting around a work table trying to make a decision, explaining a boundary we’ve set for our kids, struggling to get through a disagreement with a loved one, reading the morning paper, or weighing choices at the grocery store. It would be nice to think that we always make decisions from a place of strength and intellectual certainty, but we know that’s not true. However, sometimes we choose what’s easiest, what brings the most immediate satisfaction, what seems to be the least harmful option, what will protect our job, what will protect a relationship, or what will get our kids to bed on time so we have a bit of peace and quiet. We just make our choices and hope that the roof doesn’t fall in!

There’s a lot at stake in how we sift through the raw material of our lives and land on what we settle as the truth.

In 2011, Psychological Science published a study about how people responded to evidence that was different from what they wanted to be true. They brought together a group of people who were preparing to start families, and all of them believed that it was better to keep your kids home until kindergarten than send them to daycare. Half of the group knew that they would need to send their kids to daycare because they would have to go back to work. The other half would be able to take care of their kids at home. Each group was then presented with evidence that it is better to send your kid to daycare than to keep them at home. What do you think happened? Those who knew they were going to have to go back to work welcomed the new evidence and most changed their minds. Those who were planning to keep their kids home challenged the evidence and remained as certain as ever.

What motivated the different responses? Each group wanted to believe that they were making the best choice for their children. They wanted to see themselves as morally and ethically solid, and they accepted or discounted the evidence to stay in that place. (1)

You could make a similar case to what is happening with vaccinations. We have a growing measles epidemic and there’s a push for parents to vaccinate their kids; that it is the moral thing to do. This push is supported by overwhelming evidence that vaccinations are safe and effective, yet the anti-vaxxers are not budging. It doesn’t matter how many studies are released. To be anti-vcxx is an identity. It’s a many layered worldview. I have no doubt that, to someone who is deeply within that worldview, to question their stance on vaccinations could feel like being compromised beyond redemption. So the scientific evidence is rejected over and over, but there are consequences. Parents with immune-compromised children or infants younger than 6 months are keeping their kids home if they can out of fear that they’ll come in contact with unvaccinated kids who are sick.

I have no doubt that most of us want to believe that we would be the kid in the crowd who shouts that the Emperor has no clothes!   Right? We all want to be the good guy. However, if we want to be that person we have prepare ourselves, strengthen ourselves, so that our minds can open, our hearts can warm, our arms can embrace, and we will be secure enough in our identity that when we are faced with truths that are inconvenient, we will be more likely to say yes.

If you go back 350 years ago, to our Polish Arian and Socinian ancestors, and the theological positions developed by Faustus Socinus, there’s actually some nuggets of wisdom that can help us do this.

In his ethical theology, to be a good person was to be kind, humble, generous, and prayerful.

To be kind is to stay in a place of love. When you are faced with inconvenient truths remember, you are not alone. Everyone around you at some time has the same experience. If you can stay in a place of love for yourself and for whoever may be bearing this inconvenient truth, then you are less likely to feel shame that what you thought was true might not be. You are more likely to forgive yourself for the anxiety that is inevitable when in front of a truth you don’t want to believe.

To be humble is to decenter yourself. You are not the center of the universe. You are not the final arbiter of what is true. Your perceptions are tinted, just like everyone else, so we need each other to find truth. We can’t do it alone.

To be generous is to have enough room in your heart that giving up something becomes an opportunity. At first it may feel like a loss. You may need to grieve for a while, but think of the freedom when you let that thing go and allow something truer to take its place. To be generous is to trust in the abundance of life, and that to lose a truth is not to lose life.

Lastly, to be prayerful. I know some of us are uncomfortable with the word, but prayer is but one form of spiritual centering where we try to align ourselves with the cycles of life and the mysteries of our universe. If we can be assured that we are held and loved in that interdependent mystery of life, then inconvenient truths are no longer dangerous. We will be alright.

Truth when met with kindness, humility, generosity, and spiritual centering, is a powerful thing. The truth does set us free, and when we meet the truth and are able to open our hearts and minds to it, we will be stronger, wiser, more resilient and move loving. We can be transformed along with all that we love.

Sources:

Charles Howe. “For Faith and Freedom: A Short History of Unitarianism in Europe.” Unitarian Universalist Association: 1997.

Art Markman.  “You end up believing what you want to believe.” Psychology Today:  June 1, 2011. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/ulterior-motives/201107/you-end-believing-what-you-want-believe

This sermon is the intellectual property of Rev. Krista Taves.  You may use this material provided credit is given.  

Many thanks to Betsy Westlund in La Crosse who edited this message for publishing. 

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Nothing is Settled. Everything Matters.

We are called to be beacons of hope and compassion. We have been formed for times like this.   We are called to anchor deep in the bedrock of compassion, a radical equality, fairness, pluralism, human dignity, a reverence for the natural world, and the interdependent web of all existence that holds us all, whose strands are more powerful than any Supreme Court Justice and any Administration. Everything that we do – inside and outside this congregation – is about making these convictions real, because they’re not just ideals – they are what saves life and creates life.

This message was offered to the Unitarian Church of Quincy and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse in October 2018.

Wisdom Story

There was once a rich and powerful king who had a large and very unusual ruby that was beyond price. This jewel was the basis of his renown, wealth, and power. Each day he would look at it with great pride, turning it around and around to see how the sunlight sparkled through it. But one day, he was horrified to see that the ruby had upon it a scratch. How did this happen? And what could he do to get rid of that scratch?

He called each of his palace jewelers to come and examine the scratch and see what could be done to get rid of it. They all told him that nothing could be done without damaging the ruby even more.

The king was very upset and he offered a huge reward to any jeweler who could repair his ruby. Several jewelers came and tried, but all of them said the same thing. Nothing could be done.

Some days later, one of the king’s servants said she had heard of an old retired jeweler who lived in the country who was said to be very experienced in working with damaged gems. So he was sent for, and a few days later he arrived – a little, bent old man, dressed pretty shabbily. The king’s advisers looked at him and told the king he was wasting his time.   But the king insisted that the old man be shown the damaged ruby.

The old man looked at it for a long time and he said, “I cannot repair your ruby, but if you wish, I can make it more beautiful.” The king was desperate to have something done, so he agreed. The old jeweler set to work, cutting and polishing. Days later, he came back. Upon the king’s precious ruby he had carved the most delicate rose, its stem being formed by the scratch.   (Folk tale. Author unknown.)

Video. Beyonce’s Formation. (This video was not shown in the service but recommended for home viewing the week prior) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDZJPJV__bQ

Message

Our theme this month is formation – how we are formed, composed, built, strengthened, nourished, guided.   Every one of us is like that ruby, priceless and beautiful, but with that inevitable scratch, and we’re always making choices about what we do with the hard things that happen to us. How do we, in spite of the many scratches, become good people and stay good people? It can be so hard not to give in to hatred, fear, resentment and vindictiveness when faced with so much pain and injustice. So how do we recover our hope, recenter in our convictions, and continue the struggle?

In preparation for our service today, I suggested watching Beyonce’s video, Formation, which was released in 2016, because I think it has a lot to say to us in this time.

If you don’t know much about Beyonce, she is an incredible singer, dancer, and composer. She’s been on the American pop music scene for more than 20 years, and she’s only 37. Born in 1981, she’s from Houston Texas, and it became pretty clear when she was a child that she had a gift. With her father as her manager, her first breakthrough on the national scene came as a member of Destiny’s Child, a girl group dancing and singing songs about teenage love and boys and heartbreak. They kept churning out the music until they were the most successful girl group ever. Then in her mid 20s, Beyonce went solo, and really started to develop her unique voice. Already famous, already financially secure, she kept singing songs about love, but now she was singing about men instead of boys. Her fame grew, but there was also criticism that she had erased her blackness to be successful. She was the safe black female singer with safe meaningless lyrics. And it worked, her critics said.

But about 10 years ago, she started being a lot less safe. She wanted to break out of that mold where singers and dancers are women and musicians are men. She wanted girls to see strong female musicians. So she let go of her band. Ten were chosen from the 10,000 women who applied. And then there were her dancers. She shifted away from the industry standard of super skinny dancers, all the same height, same hair, copy cat images of each other. Her new dancers have all kinds of body shapes and heights and styles.

Beyonce’s music has taken on a political edge where she brings her politics, her black identity, her feminism, her history, and the scratches on the ruby. The song that really made this shift was Formation. It was released in 2016, the day before Superbowl New Orleans, and she was center stage in the Halftime Show. Formation is informed by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the reality of being a woman of color in the United States.

The video starts not with her voice, but with Messy Mya, a well-known New Orleans rapper who predicted that he would die too young. And he did. He was gunned down leaving his fiancée’s baby shower, and his murderer has never faced justice. Those who love him blame the New Orleans police for that. So at the beginning of the video, there’s his voice, “What happened in New Orleans?” he asks, and there’s Beyonce, kneeling on top of a police car that is going under water in the flooded city.

This is an in-your-face song of resistance, rebellion, and dignity. In a culture that values whiteness, she proclaims that she will love her daughter’s black hair and wide nose. In a culture that sees only black or white, she claims her black, Creole, and Native American roots. She is a creation of the south, with a mother from Louisiana and a father from Alabama. They raised her in Texas, and she will always have hot sauce in her bag. There are scenes of a magnificent New Orleans home, where she and her ladies pose in crisp suffragette white dresses, fancy hats, and parasols, typical of high fashion in the south around the time of the Civil War, but now they are no longer cleaning the houses, they own them.

What Beyonce draws together, frame by frame, are all the things that have formed her as a black woman.   She is unapologetic about the fact that she’s wanted power and wealth and found a way to get it. “I see it, I want it,” she sings. “I dream it. I work it. I grind ‘til I own it.” And then she names what it takes as a black woman to claim what’s hers. “I twirl on them haters. Albino alligators.” And then she turns back to who she’s really speaking to. “I might be a black Bill Gates in the making,” she croons. “You might be a black Bill Gates in the making.”

And there’s this line that she sings over and over, “I slay.” The phrase “to slay” emerged from within gay drag culture, and it means “I’m awesome.” It was a way for people to claim dignity, worth, and achievement in a society that would rather they didn’t exist. The phrase has become heavily in used in young black circles. So when Beyonce makes “I slay” the dominant phrase of the song, she is using lingo developed in one oppressed community to claim power in her own. She’s slaying it.

And then she calls all her ladies into formation, and together they dance. They are dancing for their lives at the bottom of an emptied pool in a community center. Now here is where some understanding of history is important. There were a lot more public pools in the US before desegregration. But after desegregation, a lot of whites wouldn’t go to public pools anymore. This is when the private pool industry took off and a whole lot of white people put pools in their back yards. When whites stopped going to public pools, somehow the tax money wasn’t there anymore to keep them up and many pools were closed. So by filling the bottom of a empty community pool with their strong bodies, dancing and singing “I slay,” Beyonce and her Ladies make a statement.

The video is filled with images of New Orleans life – parades, church services, people on the streets, in front of their homes. At the end of the video, we see a young African American boy, dancing. We see the spray-painted words “Stop Shooting Us” and he’s dancing in front of a line of police officers in riot gear. Beyonce keeps saying, ‘Ok Ladies, let’s get in formation. I slay” as the boy dances. Suddenly the police officers put their hands in the air, as if surrendering.   The video ends with the New Orleans cop car also surrendering to the water, and Beyonce with it, sacrificing her black body to bring down the structures of systemic racism and injustice.

The day after the video went live, Beyonce, her Ladies, and her 10-piece band showed up in Black Panther costumes and performed a child-appropriate version of Formation during the Super Bowl half time show, in the Superdome where thousands of New Orleaneans, mostly black, sought shelter during Hurricane Katrina and were then stranded with no food and water, no medical care, no bathrooms, and with police officers who aggressively contained them rather than take care of them. In a Superdome that had been quickly rebuilt while bureaucracy and land grabs prevented many people from returning to their homes, in this symbolic place, Beyonce, her Ladies, and her band, slayed.

Today the Black Panthers are often portrayed as terrorists, but in truth, the Black Panthers emerged as a response to police brutality. Because California had open carry laws at the time, young black men armed themselves and hung out in groups on the streets. If a police officer showed up, they would simply stand and watch while the police did their work to ensure that any police brutality was witnessed. Not surprisingly, police brutality declined. That is, until the Black Panthers were deemed a terrorist group and the full might of the federal government was brought in to take them down.

So what does this video have to do with what we’re going through now? What’s happening today in our political systems, and what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and racial profiling and police brutality, are grounded in the same system of white supremacy, the painful scratch on the ruby that is this nation. They are painful manifestations of the intersection of patriarchy, racism and authoritarianism which is part of this nation’s formation story.

What stays with me is that there is no attempt to soften her message, to make it safe, nice, there are no apologies. She and her ladies have channeled their anger and pain and transformed it into a power that is taken rather than asked for.

There are millions of us in this nation wondering how we are going to take back our power. We need to be strong. We need to slay. We need to be in formation.

On a personal level, each of us can claim our story. There are scratches on our rubies, and the circumstances of those scratches are often hard experiences we have tried to forget or minimize. And yet they have formed us, both in the thing itself and what we are doing with it. Each of us finds our own unique way of moving through. And some of us have been able to carve the rose and some of us are still figuring it out.

And while we’re on these individual journeys, we can figure out how to be in formation.

This congregation is a formation.   We are individuals who have come together into covenant because we know that we are stronger together than apart. And our shared mission is to fill with love and compassion what has been emptied with hatred and fear, just like Beyonce and her Ladies filled an empty pool with music and dancing. We do this in two ways:

1) We can offer refuge to those who are tired, fearful, and demoralized. We should be able to bring our true selves here and find comfort and hope in the bonds of beloved community. This is not a place where you should be expected to bear a stiff upper lip in order to be deemed enough. This is place where we can claim our anger and regain our strength, and carve a rose around the scratch.

2) We are called to be a beacon of hope and compassion. We have been formed for times like this.   We are called to anchor deep in the bedrock of compassion, a radical equality, fairness, pluralism, human dignity, a reverence for the natural world, and the interdependent web of all existence that holds us all, whose strands are more powerful than any Supreme Court Justice and any Administration. Everything that we do – inside and outside this congregation – is about making these convictions real, because they’re not just ideals – they are what saves life and creates life.   They form life.

So let’s get in formation, and let’s slay.

Amen and blessed be.

This message is the intellectual property of Rev. Krista Taves. This material can be used provided that credit is given.

 

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